Friends often ask me to recommend the best solution for small businesses with 10 or fewer employees. Because most small businesses don't have any IT staff, they rely on IT consultants or technical friends to maintain their systems. I'm going to put on my consultant hat and describe the system configuration—using current popular small-business applications—that I would recommend for a typical small business.

First, I would start with a server loaded with Microsoft Small Business Server (SBS) Standard Edition. This bundle includes Windows Server 2003, Microsoft Exchange Server 2003, a full license of Microsoft Office Outlook 2003 for each user, and the appropriate server hardware to run these applications.

With SBS, you get full email and calendaring functionality, file and print services, a backup server, a fax server, and a Web-based desktop that lets you remotely access your email and files through a standard browser. At the time of this writing, the estimated street price for the server hardware bundled with SBS is under $1000.

Frankly, the functionality of SBS 2003 caused me to do a 180-degree turnaround on my recommended solution. Older versions of SBS require a lengthy setup process on hefty server hardware. Although Microsoft always offered SBS at a good price, many Value Added Resellers (VARs) avoid SBS because a handful of customer support calls can suck all the profit from the SBS deal. So, rather than suggest an older SBS version, which would offer a problematic solution at best, I was going to recommend a simple file and print solution that uses a Windows Storage Server 2003­based Network Attached Storage (NAS) device. But after seeing the functionality of SBS 2003—as well as the price, the remote administration, and the remote desktop features—I've decided to recommend SBS. Consider that a 120GB Windows Storage Server NAS device costs about $850 and gives you only file and print services. For $150 more, SBS gives you Exchange Server and Outlook as well as file and print services.

Most typical small businesses will also want to buy Microsoft Office Standard Edition, which will cost an additional $300 per seat with Open License Agreement pricing. Perhaps Microsoft will come up with an Office license for SBS customers, who already own an Outlook license and shouldn't have to pay for that software again.

Next, I would recommend Intuit's QuickBooks Pro Edition 2003 5-User Value Pack, which would give to the small business basic accounting functionality and provide a wide array of industry-specific add-on capabilities. Eighty percent of small businesses use QuickBooks, and most CPAs who support small businesses highly recommend it. As I wrote this, Amazon.com was selling a five-user edition of QuickBooks Pro 2003 for $500. This package would let several internal users as well as an outside accountant access the company financials.

I would then set up my small-business client with Internet domain IDs and get a basic ISP package that provides Web hosting for about $10 a month. After you have the domain, you can plug that information into the SBS setup so that Exchange and Outlook are configured with the correct email addresses.

For networking, I recommend a high-speed Internet connection. Many telecommunications companies have T1- based packages for small businesses that include local, long-distance, and high-speed Internet access for a monthly flat rate. For example, Cbeyond.com Communications offers a five-line local phone system, with 3000 long-distance minutes and Internet access, for $535 per month. This package would give small businesses plenty of speed for Internet surfing and for other WAN purposes. In addition, they can easily manage their telecommunications expenses with a fixed rate. I would then set up a wireless router to connect desktop PCs and laptops because most clients will have an equal number of laptops and desktops and most users like to move around the office.

For backup, I would use the built-in backup functionality in Windows 2003, which implements Volume Shadow Copy Service (VSS) snapshots. With this approach, all the users' data will be backed up to the server, which would have periodic snapshot backups. Then, I would add a tape drive to back up the data for offsite storage.

For remote access, SBS includes Outlook Web Access (OWA) and Remote Web Workplace. SBS essentially provides a Web-based representation of the user's desktop. Because SBS includes Terminal Services and Remote Desktop, a consultant can configure and maintain the SBS system remotely as well as take over a user's desktop to walk the user through problems without visiting the client office. This level of remote support capability is the key to making SBS systems financially viable for both small businesses and the companies that support them.

For the icing on the cake, I would set up key employees with phone and PDA combination devices that would synchronize with Outlook and give users access to their email while on the road. The bottom line is that SBS gives you quite a bit of functionality for a reasonable price. The next time a small business owner asks you for some free computer advice, you can tell him about SBS.