Small is beautiful

Am I alone in finding many of the claims made for products in the small business marketplace fantastic beyond all belief? Every time I see a figure written down for the suggested maximum number of users for some small business system, I get a fit of the giggles: 250 users the blurb says for Microsoft SBS. Dip into the sliders to start configuring Internet Information Server and you’ll find a liberal sprinkling of references to “10,000 users or more”, while at the same time the marketplace seems to have established its own metrics that completely ignore what the system specs say on the side of the box.

Small is beautiful

Almost all of you who spotted my omission a month or two back – when I referred disparagingly to SBS without explicitly mentioning which version I was talking about – were only too quick to point out exactly how far you can go with this small business server in its current incarnation. In fact, to try to turn my faux pas into an opportunity, even Microsoft agrees it has a problem in getting people to understand what’s in and out of SBS, because it’s put up a page devoted to attempting to correct various misapprehensions at

Read this page and then do the maths again: here, in what seems to be an eminently practical and honest piece of work, the anonymous MicroAuthor defines a sensible limit for SBS as 75 users and continues to say that even then you’d better have two processors and as much RAM as you can cram into the box. For the record, you can have many servers in a domain headed up by an SBS machine, and various correspondents drew my attention to the wide range of extended architectures you can achieve by having an SBS spider sitting at the centre of your web. At which point, of course, it ceases to be recognisably a small business system, and the idea of running a large business around a core operating system designed to centralise as much as possible onto one server isn’t a risk I’d want to underwrite.

The problem is that Gates’ Law is creeping up on us all: he said everyone over-estimates the impact of any new technology in the short term and under-estimates its impact in the longer term. SBS could be a perfect case in point, because the rise in server hardware performance has lately turned out to be so astronomical that even Intel’s wild predictions for the future of server virtualisation could turn out to be on the conservative side.

For quite a long time it was a real challenge to build a box of server hardware tagged as “small business suitable” that could actually support the kind of load a fully employed small business server OS represents, but that’s all changed this year. Any decent dual-core server with a sensible SAS or SATA disk array is easily capable of the job, while an enterprise-quality system can bat the whole job into a completely new world with half a terabyte of disk, 75GB for Exchange data (of which around 40GB is for messages unless you love to live dangerously) and even room for some SQL in the mix.

However, any of you who survived the nightmares induced by buying into all the hype over earlier releases of SBS may understandably want to see some proof of this concept before you will, in the words of the proverb, cease to be twice shy.

Alright, but all wrong

I have to tell this story carefully, since it’s part of a current project. I had cause to look at a client’s server collection, which it actually had some reason to be proud of: a room full of svelte, humming black boxes equipped with several terabytes of disks scattered neatly among the machines so that none was too big or too small, running a cleanly licensed suite of Windows Server 2003, not short of RAM and certainly not too old or underendowed with processors. All that seemed to need fixing was that a few of these machines didn’t yet have Gigabit Ethernet. Never mind, said Cassidy, let’s open the cases, take a look at their motherboards, buy the right 64-bit Ethernet cards to match the motherboard speed and that’s the job done.

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