In my work as an IT professional, I’ve often met small business owners that feel they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to meeting the IT needs of their business. What many IT vendors and service providers frequently don’t grasp is that small businesses are a unique category of customer, and the products and solutions they try to see them are often not in the customer’s best interest.
This was brought home again to me recently when I talked with IT professional Matthew Mills, who often works with small businesses to provision and support the IT services they need to run their businesses. Matthew Mills is president of two technology consulting firms in East Tennessee and does IT support, hardware design and fabrication, and software development. He also tells me he is the one responsible for taking out the office trash, a role that I often fill myself both here at work and also at home (grin).
Brushing off the cloud
Matthew and I both agree that while many smaller businesses have adopted the cloud as their primary or even sole IT service platform, some of them have hesitated to follow this approach for several different reasons. “As an independent consultant,” Matthew says, “I am constantly dealing with clients moving toward the cloud. I see advantages to the cloud model (guaranteed backups, someone else sets everything up, easy monthly payments), but these all assume that the cloud provider does what they promise. And if they don’t, one little business (my client) will have little recourse.”
That’s a good point. Cloud services companies are generally behemoths who focus on seeking out large enterprise customers they can lock into long-term revenue-driven subscriptions for their service offerings. And while large customers have leverage due to the size of their contracts, one little small business isn’t going to interest them very much except insofar as the cloud company can service hundreds of such customers instead of just a handful.
I asked Matthew what other concerns his small business clients had expressed about buying into the “cloud is best” mantra that’s echoing everywhere these days. He responded that he also has "clients that value the privacy of their data, and don’t want it open to covert examination, legal or otherwise." And with all the high-profile privacy breaches reported lately by cloud companies and their biggest customers, a small business is probably right to be careful in depending solely on the cloud for their IT needs.
One might think that the only alternative a small business has to running the IT side of their business in the cloud is to set up and run their own server on-premises. Matthew’s company does this for many of his clients, but he’s also discovered an alternative — a third way — that small businesses can have their IT needs met and which doesn’t involve either subscribing to cloud services or deploying a server under their boss’s desk.
“I can, and do, offer Microsoft server solutions,” Matthew says, “though I will no longer install Exchange. But recently I had two small clients come to me to replace aging servers running SBS (but not SQL or Exchange). One office was five users; the other 14.” I recalled how popular Microsoft Small Business Server (SBS) was in the first decade of this millennium. It was later rebranded several times over its lifetime with its latest incarnation called Windows Server Essentials. But recently in January 2020 the popular 2011 edition of SBS finally reached end-of-life, and this precipitated many small businesses into seeking a replacement for SBS/WSE as Matthew describes below.
“A basic Dell server with RAID 5,” Matthew explains, “with a decent Xeon processor, 32GB RAM, backup software, backup target hardware, and Microsoft licenses plus a few odds and ends was going to run about $6K (my cost). Add labor, profit, and taxes and the final bill for the client was over $10K. For both of these clients, this was a no-go. I could cut the server to one SATA drive and 16 GB RAM, but I’d give up the client before shooting myself in the foot over the long haul.”
Behold the network appliance!
The solution Matthew found for these clients met their needs at an affordable cost. He says, “I have long been a fan of network appliances for small offices. Years ago, I sold and supported a device from Net Integration Services (NITIX) out of Canada, which was later bought, bloated, and then dumped by IBM. The basic unit ran Linux but was completely managed via a browser. It had directory services, DHCP, DNS, backup, a firewall, and an email server. It was everything that most small offices needed and was very secure. But with its demise under IBM, I could find nothing that was a suitable replacement. I really wanted to like ClearOS from HPE, but the lack of a good backup solution soured me,” Matthew says.
“But Synology NAS came through,” he continued. “A couple of years ago Synology added Synology Directory Server to their DiskStation Manager (DSM) installs. This is basically a SAMBA service but it is very polished. Throw in DHCP and DNS servers, some basic profile management, solid backups (local and to the cloud), and remote file access and/or VPN and I have a viable replacement for a Windows Server 2019 Essentials. Both of my installations used four bay devices with SSDs. In the larger install, I am even running a Linux VM to keep my Ubiquiti controller local.”
And what was the result? “Thus far, both clients seem quite happy,” Matthew says. “The best part? My hardware costs (all software is included) are under $2K and the setup time is about half that of a Windows server. In most cases, the client gets a full server that Windows clients think is an AD controller for about $5K. About the only thing the Synology does not offer for the small office is antivirus, so I placed one of them on VIPRE in the cloud. And I can manage everything from a tablet or even a phone.
“There is no way the Synology replaces a Windows server for larger offices (20+ people) or SQL server setups. Its email server isn’t bad, but it most companies have long since gone to hosted solutions. But a small insurance or real estate office with three to 15 users who need common file storage, remote file access, and good local security are a great fit.”
The Encyclopedia Britannica says the “Third way, in politics, a proposed alternative between two hitherto dominant models, namely left-wing and right-wing political groups.” I won’t hazard a guess as to whether the cloud or servers are right- or left-wing phenomena. But surprisingly, network appliances may be a third way of doing IT for small businesses.
Are network appliances the third way?
Hardware/software vendors and cloud service providers take note and tremble. Because a lot of smaller businesses — and there are a whole galaxy of them out there — are going to need to cut costs during the next few years because of the evolving COVID-19 situation, and network appliances may be one solution.