Saturday, December 15, 2007

Computing In Small Business

In this article, we'll examine a few options for running your Small Business, pitting Microsoft's offerings against the alternatives.

Part of any business today is computing, and computing is an incremental cost, especially in a growing company. Lay out the money for the hardware, the printers, the office suite, the technician to take care of it all, the network, the server, and so on. In the Microsoft scenario, the costs get pretty high, and keep growing as your company grows.

What if you could just install everything once and have it work? What if adding software to your entire network (whether it's just three employees or three hundred) only took moments? Well, I'm going to look at some options where you can do this, and show you how much you can save.

For all scenarios, I'm going to allow for only five users in a very small office, just getting started, and rig them up with an office suite (word processor, spreadsheet, database, etc.), Internet access (browser and email) and shared access to files on a server. Then we're going to make the jump to 10 employees, and then 20, and see how the numbers scale. The comparison will jump up to 76 users, the point at which you have to get new licensing for a Microsoft Windows Small Business Server 2003. For contrast, I'll show scenarios with a server and desktop (or "fat") clients and a server and "thin" clients (where the bulk of the software runs on the server, not the client). In all cases, I'll keep the alternatives separate from the proprietary options, for simplicity. You can run a mixed environment, but this article is about maximized savings and utility.

A) The Usual -- Microsoft Server, Microsoft Clients

Here we have a very simple setup. You run out, you buy five computers, use the operating system already on them (typically Microsoft Windows Vista Business Edition), pre-loaded Microsoft Office 2007 (which will need to be activated after 60 days) on each and make up a few users on a Microsoft Windows Small Business Server 2003. Set up shares on each one and you're networking. Oh, and you'll want a switch for that, just to make sure everyone can get good throughput and have your computers operating at maximum efficiency and allow for future growth (and everyone wants to be on the 'Net at the same time, too, right?). Of course, you're probably going to want to print, too, so a mid duty networked laser printer should do the trick. If you're office is prewired, all you need is the patch cables to get up and running; if you're not prewired, save yourself future headaches and get it professionally done! This will be our basic configuration up and running, which assumes Internet access is connected directly to the network through a firewall of some sort.

B) A Little Different -- Windows Terminal Server

Being a bit more foresighted, you can realize the benefits of centralized computing by throwing some cash into a well-stocked server, toss Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Terminal Services on it, and attach Thin Clients, instead of getting into the PC upgrade cycle. No hard drives to worry about, no individual software to worry about your users playing around with, more security, and less possibility of theft. Initial outlay may be more, but you're off to the races, all clients installed with the same software in one move. Much easier to maintain and control!

C) The Path Less Taken -- Linux Terminal Server

You saw this coming, of course, right? Here we take the same basic approach as with the Microsoft Windows Server 2003 Terminal Services and substitute a Linux Terminal Server and Free/Libre Open Source Software (F/LOSS). Same essential configuration, same hardware, less cost for the software, and easier to maintain. I have to mention at this point, I've not included the prices of setting anything up. If you have to pay to get a PC set up in your office, you also have to pay to get a Thin Client set up; the cost would be marginally less for the Thin Client (it's basically a drop and connect affair), but not significantly different so it won't really matter. Where the savings in Thin Clients really shines is in the replacement cycle: replace a PC every 3 to 5 years, a Thin Client only when it dies. Also, keep in mind that a Thin Client is almost useless to most thieves.

D) Off The Beaten Path -- Linux Server, Linux Desktop

Here, in place of the Windows server and clients, we've substituted Linux-based solutions. This can be a bit tricky, because if you don't find the right vendor, you'll be paying for Microsoft Windows on your computers, then replacing that with your chosen variety of Linux. Dell provides a couple of decent machines with Linux preinstalled (Ubuntu), as do Walmart (gOS, Linspire) and smaller companies like Zareason. (Of course, in Canada, Dell and Walmart are not currently options.)

Using Linux on the Server and the Desktop isn't very complicated, but it does require a bit of know-how to get things right. The same can be said of setting up a Microsoft Windows environment. The primary difference is that Microsoft Certified Software Engineers are abundant while Linux Professional Institute Certified technicians are a bit more scarce. Luckily, finding such help is as easy as browsing through your local Yellow Pages. More computer support companies support Linux than ever.


With Scenario A, let's say your company is doing well and grows by five users. Well, as far as the Server goes, you're covered: Microsoft Windows Small Business Server 2003 can serve up to 75 clients. Add five more desktop units, outfit them with the same software as the ones you have and you're rolling. The real expense here is the time to install all the identical software as other computers on your network. The cost and availability of the software you run on your other machines will also be an issue; if the new units are bought a significant time after the original units, you may no longer be able to purchase the original software (which could lead to an entire office upgrade scenario).

Scenario B is dramatically different. Grab a few more Thin Clients, purchase the licenses you need for connecting to the Server and productivity software and presto! Network upgraded in record time. Pretty good savings over going the Server/Client route, eh?

Enter Linux -- Scenario C. Using the Linux-based terminal server, you pay nothing for licensing and the additional software needed to get those new users online. Total cost is for the Thin Clients only. Same speed of deployment as Scenario B, same ease of management, no licenses to keep track of or purchase.

Scenario D is a bit of a cross between A and C. Now you're working with free software and a free operating system. You still have to load up your Desktop with everything everyone else has, but doing so is usually with a simple tool that can automate the whole process. As for the Server, there is no license-based limit to how many clients you can run from a single server, so keep growing as much as you like until you feel your Server needs that extra RAM, CPU or Hard Drive space to keep pace.

The Numbers Game

The numbers will always change, and I want to keep this article as relevant into the future as it is today, so lets use units, not dollars, for comparing the work involved in the above.

  • Deploying a Thin Client is the easiest function, so we'll give it a unit of 1
  • Deploying a Windows Desktop is about four times longer than a Thin Client, so it gets a unit of 4
  • Deploying a Linux Desktop isn't as easy as a Thin Client, but not as difficult as Windows, so we'll give it a unit of 3
  • Deploying a Server, whether Linux or Windows, is tricky business and has to be done right, no matter how you slice it; no unit will be assigned for this function, but we'll give a unit of 1 to license tracking (yes, that's only a knock against Windows, and it's in increments of 20 after the first 5 clients)
  • Deploying Software is relative in all cases as well, but if we use proprietary software, there are licenses to track, so that will cost 1 unit per instance

Here's a table to outline the basic costs (details on configurations follow):

Scenario A
Windows Server & Desktop
Scenario B
Windows Terminal Server
Scenario C
Linux Terminal Server
Scenario D
Linux Server & Desktop
5 Users
26 units
11 units
5 units
15 units
10 Users
51 units
22 units
10 units
30 units
20 Users
101 units
42 units
20 units
60 units
76 Users
382 units
157 units
76 units
228 units

Obviously, I'd have to recommend going with a Linux Terminal Server for all your business needs. It scales well, costs less (effort and cash) and with all the cash you save you can definitely afford to train everyone. Linux Server and Desktop is a pretty good contender as well, being almost as effective as Windows Terminal Server. Ultimately, your needs will dictate exactly what you need your computing environment to look like. With a little effort put into it, though, alternative solutions can be found and implemented with minimal cost.


chris jenks said...

The only problem I see with your outline, is never stating what the imaginary company does.

If your staff / business has to interface with clients on a regular basis. Then you have to take into account cross compatibility. As sad as it is to say (and I do use open office) Open Office doesn't go back and forth well enough with MS Office. You also have to remember to save as a doc file. Otherwise if you do send an ODT file (like Sun did to my company recently), next to no one will know how to open it.

I'm the first to say to move to a full linux shop, but I also know that at this time, it's still not quite an option. It's getting closer, but still not there. While you can say, look at how much you will save, you have to take into account that you will not be completely self contained.

Webmaster said...

I think I've said this before, if not here elsewhere, but the only way change can happen is through education. If small businesses -- regardless of what they produce or do -- make the switch to a more open alternative than Microsoft, they can free up a lot of their financial capital. I think that's pretty critical for a small business, and if they are unaware of this option, they can't take advantage of it.

Yes, it's not an easy go switching wholesale away from Microsoft. There is training and some "growing pains" involved. But ultimately, regardless of the function performed by the small business, there is a non-proprietary alternative available to work with.

There are many success stories throughout the world where governments, private companies and even projects like OLPC have seen the advantage of using open source and are benefiting from it. Small businesses are really no different, and if great numbers were to shift to this way of thinking, a wave of change would come over the computing landscape.

As far as OpenOffice not interfacing well enough with Microsoft Office goes, nothing interfaces well enough with Microsoft Office, not even older versions of Microsoft Office. Documents are better sent to outside companies in something immutable like PDF anyway.