The cheat sheet for small-business networks

Your technology choices may determine the fate of your business. For best results, follow this 14-step program

It's a great time to set up a small business. The Web gives even the littlest operation enormous reach, while vendors now sell small-business technology that delivers unbelievable bang for the buck.

At the same time, to get the most from all this new tech, you need more technology smarts than ever before. Many small businesses just starting out can't afford a full-time IT person, instead relying on consultants and a full-timer pulling double-duty. Therein lies peril, especially in the initial phases when technology choices may have all kinds of downstream implications. When things go wrong (and oh Lord, they do), those early decisions may make the difference between quick recovery and a devastating blow to your business. Here's a quick guide to making careful investments up front.

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1. Virtualize

In nearly all SMBs, server virtualization can handle nearly all server resources. If you find that you need the full horsepower of a modern dual-CPU quad-core server for a single task, you're either doing something wrong, or you're not an SMB, regardless of the number of employees. The choice of hypervisor is dependent on budget, but if at all possible, stay away from OS-based virtualization like VMware Server and Hyper-V. Spend the money for a solid solution and forgo the high-end features. It'll be worth it in the long run.

2. Buy only the Microsoft products you actually need

If the business is small enough, Microsoft Small Business Server might just do the trick, but if you intend on growing in any relevant capacity, it won't last for long. If it's too confining, buy licenses for two Domain Controllers (they're virtual, after all) and an Exchange license. If you can, buy licenses for an older version of Microsoft Office -- it's probably more than you need anyway. Alternatively, OpenOffice might be just the ticket.

3. Invest in a software PBX and SIP trunks

Whether open source or commercial, Asterisk-based PBXes can save plenty of money. SIP or IAX-based phones are cheap and feature-rich, and the PBX itself can be run as a VM, depending on the hypervisor in use. If you forgo landlines and get a SIP trunk, you don't have to pay $50 per month or more for each business line, and you don't have to worry about outgoing line use. Fax-to-e-mail gateways are functional, and if you need a physical fax machine, they can be adapted to use analog adapters. Don't try a VM PBX with landlines, however -- get a physical server to run the PBX and use ATA linecards.

4. Storage is cheap

No matter what a salesman tells you, storage is cheap. You don't need Fibre Channel, and you probably don't even need iSCSI. Most SMB-aimed storage devices like the Synology DS509+ pack more than enough features, reliability, capacity, and horsepower into a small, cheap box than you'll use for a while. You shouldn't throw all your eggs in the cheapest basket, but you don't need a $25,000 storage unit, either.

5. Buy the best reasonable backup solution you can

No, you don't need the dual-drive robot, but you do need a solid, high-capacity tape drive and a bunch of tapes. SMBs tend to live or die based on the availability of data, and if you're operating with a small or non-existent IT department, these tapes can be the only thing between a functioning company and oblivion. I'd advocate disk-to-disk backups here, except that SMBs should be taking tapes to an offsite location (home) weekly, or even daily. If you're particularly diligent, buy a few 1TB external USB drives and run monthly backups to those, too.

6. Two servers: That's all

Naturally, this can vary with the size of the company, but if you work with fewer than 100 people and are using a modern hypervisor, two dual-CPU quad-core servers with enough RAM and storage will be all that's required to run your whole server infrastructure. If you add a physical server to handle backups, it can be an entry-level box that can run the tape drive.

7. You probably don't need Cisco

You do need network switches and firewalls, but you don't have to buy Cisco. I've been running Dell PowerConnect switches in production for four straight years in some networks without a problem. They cost roughly 25 percent of the equivalent Cisco product, and they do what they need to do. As for firewalls, stay away from consumer-grade devices, but again, you don't need anything terribly expensive. You can get a decent SMB-class firewall with VPN tunnel termination for a few hundred dollars these days.

8. Desktops are cheap

A basic business desktop system with maybe a Core 2 Duo processor and 1GB or 2GB of RAM is probably more than sufficient for most users. Dell sells a Vostro system for $419 with 2GB of RAM and an 18.5-inch LCD panel. Barring hardware problems, that level of system is likely to last you many years in the future.

9. Operating systems aren't

Careful when buying that Vostro, though. By default, it comes with Vista Home Edition. You'll need the Business Edition, which adds 25 percent to the price -- bringing it to $518 for that whole system. Unfortunately, there's no much you can do about this, except...

10. Wait for Windows 7

There's no sense in buying anything with Vista right now. Wait for Windows 7 to become a pre-installed option and go from there. October 22 is the official release date.

11. Don't get a T1

Unless there's absolutely no other option, don't bother with a T1. Business-class cable or DSL will suffice, and they offer much more bandwidth for a much cheaper monthly cost.

12. Host your Web site somewhere else

Don't even think about trying to host your Web site at your location. Your Web presence needs to operate even when you don't, so pay the few dollars a month to a reputable hosting provider and let them handle the redundant bandwidth, power, and server needs.

13. Don't confuse users with employees

Unless an employee is spending the majority of their day in front of a computer, they're not a user -- they're an employee. When sizing hardware and software, calculate your requirements based on the number of people that will actually be served, not the number on the payroll.

14. Hire a competent consulting firm

Don't hire Bob the Computer Guy to set this stuff up. Find a consulting firm that typically works with larger companies. If there's no full-time IT person, all this gear will need to run without much supervision for as long as possible -- and that can happen only if it's set up right the first time. You'll probably be charged more per hour, but the returns will generally be worth it.

Naturally, every business has nooks and crannies that the above rules can't fill, but by and large, a business in a single location with fewer than 100 users can get by just fine with these simple rules. There's a fine line between being cost-conscious and putting your business at risk with shoddy hardware and software, but dealing with those issues is part and parcel of operating a small business. Some parts of IT can stretch pretty far without breaking, while others are not to be trifled with. Knowing which you're dealing with is the key to doing it right.