SBS offers solutions for small business networks

Part of the challenge in small-business networking comes from Value Added Providers (VAPs) and internal systems administrators adapting Fortune 1000 IT solutions to small-business budgets. Nowhere is this more evident than with solutions centered about Microsoft BackOffice Small Business Server (SBS). In the 20 months since SBS began shipping, it has revolutionized the small business networking landscape and is beginning to level the playing field between a 5-employee firm and a 5000-employee firm. To help you decide whether an SBS solution is right for your organization, I looked at how three organizations, a municipal government, a travel agency, and a mortgage brokerage, are using SBS.

Despite the different lines of business, these organizations have a lot in common. Each is too small to cost-justify staffing a full-time IT position, let alone an IT department. So each organization looked for a solution that a VAP could deploy, and the organization could maintain internally with occasional guidance from an SBS-savvy consultant.

Each organization also needed to watch its budget. Deploying an SBS-centric solution requires walking a fine line on product recommendations. Fortune 1000 IT organizations are accustomed to installing top-of-the-line server farms with 4-way SMP capabilities and mammoth redundant drive arrays. At the other extreme, most small-business owners are just starting to learn about the benefits of companywide PC and LAN standards and total cost of ownership (TCO). The three organizations that I profiled grappled with these concerns and ended up somewhere in the middle of the price/performance/reliability curve.

Town of Spring Hill, Tennessee
The first organization I profiled isn't a small business but a small township in Tennessee that faces many of the same problems (e.g., streamlining communication and protecting sensitive data and other resources) as a for-profit company. The 1990s brought explosive growth to Spring Hill. In the few years since General Motors' Saturn Corporation chose Spring Hill as its US headquarters, the town's population soared from around 1000 people to more than 6000 today. Like any small business, Spring Hill needed a cost-effective way to manage the large increase in workload stemming from a six-fold population increase in just a decade.

Before implementing SBS 4.0 in 1998, Spring Hill's municipal government had a mix of standalone 486-based PCs, a line of UNIX-based business application for local governments, and a Windows 95 peer-to-peer network in the police department. The town ran an ad in the Nashville newspaper to find an independent consultant, not related to any vendor, to evaluate its needs and provide a solution. Assistant City Recorder April Goad hired Jeff Cate of PC Serv, a small business VAP in Franklin, Tennessee, for the project.

Goad explained, "Our goal was to link our entire city together: water, sewer, police, fire, and finance. We wanted some common ground with things such as a shared drive and email. We also wanted to give everyone in the town government the same set of tools and access to information. Before we got the new system, some PCs had Excel. Others didn't. Now everyone has the same applications. We upgraded everyone to new 233Mhz Pentium II PCs with 64MB RAM, 17" monitors, Office 97 Professional, and Windows NT Workstation 4.0."

Spring Hill hasn't had to upgrade any of the individual server applications. The only server software upgrade Cate added was SBS Service Pack 1 (SP1), which upgrades the server from SBS 4.0 to 4.0a.

Because the police department files and payroll records were on the same server that city hall used, security became an important consideration for Spring Hill. Files were previously password protected, but the town has been centrally administering security as a domain since implementing SBS 4.0 with NT Server 4.0. However, when Cate added another NT Server 4.0 system to the SBS network, he had to configure the new NT Server 4.0 system as a standalone server, when he would've preferred to assign it the role of a BDC.

Cate ran into another challenge with the police department squad room, where more than 10 people had to use one NT workstation. Each officer needed a secure logon for checking email. Although generally a straightforward setup, it took Cate several discussions with Microsoft to understand how to use the SBS console to make the secure logon happen under the SBS context.

Spring Hill has also reaped huge benefits with the SBS fax service and Outlook and Exchange Server 5.0 email. "We no longer need to type, print, make copies, and distribute the copies of a memo to another department," said Goad. "We just select the document and email it. On the receiving side, they can just look at the document on screen now. There's no need to make copies of everything anymore. It cuts down on paper and speeds things along. I've also really enjoyed being able to send faxes over the SBS network."

Cate also added some telephony functionality to the Outlook inbox. Although his firm doesn't install PBX systems, Cate helped Spring Hill select a phone system vendor and solution with the idea of being able to eventually integrate the phone and email systems. Spring Hill selected the Tadiran PBX system, which came bundled with ActiveVoice's ViewMail. According to Cate, ViewMail for Outlook provides a connection to the voice mail server so that voice mail messages show up in the user's inbox. Users can look at the caller ID information in the sender column. When a user double-clicks the voice mail message, the message pops up VCR-type controls and begins playing the message through the PC speakers.

Spring Hill's assistant chief of police is helping Cate design the town's Web site. Although not live yet, the municipal Web site (http://www.springhilltn.org) will give the public greater access to information on topics such as zoning, annexation, and local events. Town employees on the SBS network have Internet access through Proxy Server 1.0 and a dial-on-demand ISDN 128Kbps connection. At Goad's direction, Cate configured Proxy Server for user access security and detailed logging so that administrators could monitor Web browsing to ensure appropriate use of the town's resources.

Internet access and email proved challenging for Cate. Unable to locate an SBS-compatible ISP in the Nashville area from the SBS ISP referral server, Cate had a local ISP register the domain name and deliver all the email to one POP3 mailbox. Then with the Exemplar POP to Exchange Connector, Spring Hill was able to download all Internet email and pass it off to the Exchange 5.0 server.

For virus protection, Cate chose Computer Associates Inoculan AntiVirus Suite for SBS. "Although the antivirus product works well, we found Inoculan to be one of the hardest products imaginable to install," said Cate. "It took us about 16 hours to install and configure it."

Remote access is also available for Spring Hill employees. Standalone PCs at the sewer plant, road building office, and fire department are configured for RAS dial-in to the SBS server over analog modems. Cate said that this bandwidth has been more than adequate for light email and Web browsing at these one-room offices. In addition, workers can access the water department's telemetry system via remote control software to control and monitor the Spring Hill water tank and pump levels.

How has SBS affected the Town of Spring Hill? Goad spoke of how the town's new SBS network makes everything less time consuming. "It helps you get more accomplished during the workday. Email and faxing have become huge timesavers; so has network backup capabilities. Now we just change tapes once a day. We're also trained on Excel, and this has almost completely replaced pencil and paper."

For the tape backup solution, Cate installed a Seagate Hornet NS8 Travan SCSI-2 tape drive and used WinAT to configure the schedule service to do a full backup each night using NTBackup with a five-tape rotation. Cate also added a public domain utility called Blat that automatically emails Spring Hill's nightly backup log to his firm.

Although you might think these types of network services would be cost-effective only in an office with dozens of employees, the town of Spring Hill and SBS disprove this theory. With Cate's assistance, Spring Hill implemented a comprehensive SBS solution with Proxy Server, Fax Server, Exchange Server, NT Server, and RAS on a small scale for the town's 17 desktops and two laptops.

International Travel
Located in nearby Nashville, Tennessee, International Travel is not your typical local travel agency. International Travel specializes in handling end-to-end itineraries for high school marching bands traveling to major events such as the Fiesta Bowl. Eight travel agents must handle the logistics of moving thousands of students plus luggage, equipment, and uniforms across the state and across the country. Through innovative use of a database-driven Web site, International Travel now handles these large projects with ease.

General Manager Fred Waymack, a veteran high school band director with an MS in Music Education and no formal IT training, has changed the way high school bands book travel arrangements by creating a Web site that displays real-time travel itineraries. Before installing SBS 4.0 in 1998, International Travel had one NT Server 4.0 system and a $1200 per month phone bill for inbound 800 service. After making travel information available on its new Web site, the company's 800 service telephone bill has plummeted to $300 per month. "People didn't need to call us as often because all the data was available on the Web," explained Waymack. "But we still like to hear from them. Email helps make more efficient use of time. The first 5 minutes of any telephone conversation are inefficient. About 90 percent of our communications today are by email. For example, in December I received 976 emails and sent 1147. Can you conceptualize making 2000 phone calls?"

International Travel uses nearly every SBS application. The databases were built in Microsoft Access 97, but administrators are currently testing them for migration to SQL Server 7.0 under SBS 4.5. The databases tie to Internet Information Server (IIS) 4.0 through Active Server Pages (ASP) and custom SQL code. The company secures outbound Internet access through Proxy Server 1.0, and manages internal and external email through Outlook 98 and Exchange Server 5.0. International Travel plans to implement the free SBS 4.5 version upgrade to bring its Proxy Server software up to version 2.0 and its Exchange Server software up to version 5.5. "When this is all combined on our Web site, we can move over 4000 high school kids from all over the United States to the Fiesta Bowl," said Waymack. "Our SBS dynamic Web site solution is the best way to communicate with moms and dads regarding flight schedule changes and hotels."

During the busy November/December 1998 season, the International Travel Web site (http://www.itbna.com) received about 3000 hits per day on its internally hosted Web server. The Web server was originally connected to the company's ISP through dual channel ISDN; however, volume requirements have mandated a rapid move to a burstable fractional T1 line. Waymack also likes the fact that the entire solution is from Microsoft and feels confident about the products' compatibility. "We kept it all under one house. Why rock the boat?"

Because International Travel keeps a lot of sensitive and personal information on file for each band member, security is important. Like the other organizations I profiled for this article, International Travel could not afford a full-time staff member to manage its SBS network. So Waymack turned to Lamar Esbenshade of Executive Information Services in Hermitage, Tennessee, for assistance with configuring the company's Web server, database, and firewall. Esbenshade explained how International Travel's entire internal network, as with all SBS networks, is on a private, undelegated IP class. The private network is not participating in the Internet. Although the Web server has a public IP address with a second Ethernet card, International Travel keeps all sensitive material behind the firewall with Proxy Server. The primary internal server is SBS 4.0, and the secondary server is running NT Server 4.0 with SP4 and IIS 4.0.

Esbenshade built the Web site using Microsoft FrontPage 98 for layout and Adobe Photoshop 5.0 for the graphics design. Esbenshade did have to make several custom changes to tweak the HTML code that FrontPage generated.

Portions of the Web site content are password protected over a Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) connection. Esbenshade explained that "IIS runs on a box that issues ODBC queries to an Access database on a second box. The IIS machine lets anonymous users access ASPs, which then query the database after the user is authenticated at the site level. The anonymous queries did not require any custom code beyond standard ASP queries."

Waymack feels strongly about the need for small businesses to leverage technology. "A lot of bigger companies have a whole IT department. We're doing a tremendous amount of business with a staff of eight. But you have to train your staff. I never thought we'd be doing the business we're doing with such a small staff."

Harvard Mortgage
Harvard Mortgage in Littleton, Colorado, also has been able to grow its business through creative use of SBS networking. Mortgage brokers need to attract and qualify the proper customers. They also need to stay on top of the avalanche of paper that comes into the office. Harvard Mortgage has been able to solve these problems by creating a Web site that accepts online mortgage applications and by using inbound fax capabilities to prioritize, route, and store the substantial inbound fax volume. Harvard Mortgage hired VAP Larry Burton of Solution Partners Group in Denver, Colorado, to install and support its SBS network.

Amy Moore, Harvard Mortgage's director of marketing, said, "Before SBS was installed, we just walked disks from one PC to another. In a little over a year, we've become very dependent on the local server and secure Internet access. Before, we had no security to speak of. Now everyone internally has their own password for NT Server, we have Proxy Server 1.0 to protect us from incoming Internet traffic, and we use file auditing and account lockout policies."

The centerpiece of Harvard Mortgage's online strategy is the ability to capture loan applications through its Web site (http://www.coloradomortgageloan.com). The data from the Web site matches the file format and fields that Harvard Mortgage needs for Genesis 2000, its vertical loan-processing software. This setup lets Harvard Mortgage save time by directly importing the encrypted Web-based mortgage applications into its internal loan-processing system. Moore regularly updates the Web site with interest rates and news articles and has been surprised with the surge in business. "We can handle a lot more work with the same amount of people in the office. The borrowers who apply for loans at our Web site also tend to be more educated, have higher incomes, and buy more expensive homes. This is what we call 'A' paper. These are great borrowers to have."

Harvard Mortgage's SBS network can also manage a large volume of incoming faxes. Moore pointed out how being able to fax from any PC on the network has saved a lot of time--no more standing in line at the fax machine. However, the inbound faxing is where the SBS fax service has had the most impact at Harvard Mortgage. The receptionist opens all incoming faxes and routes them to the appropriate shared folder on NT Server 4.0, to a loan officer via Outlook 98, or in many cases to the wastebasket in Outlook 98. According to Burton, Harvard Mortgage puts extreme stress on the SBS fax service. "On an average Monday, or when loan rates get very aggressive, the SBS fax service at Harvard Mortgage will see more than 200 incoming faxes a day."

Burton had to jump through quite a few hoops to get the fax service functioning in what he describes as a special custom blend. The inbound fax volume seemed to overwhelm the capacity of the SBS fax server. After 3 months of calls to Microsoft, Burton says the fax server is stable most of the time. However, many of the implemented fax service-related files are specials from Microsoft.

As with Spring Hill and International Travel, Harvard Mortgage now depends on Exchange Server and Outlook for internal and external communication. "Email has been the saving grace around here, said Moore. Even our president now relies on it heavily. It helps us communicate with our borrowers during the application process."

Burton had to upgrade Exchange Server 5.0 (included with SBS 4.0) to Exchange Server 5.5 to add the SMTP functionality required for Harvard Mortgage's existing ISP relationship. Harvard Mortgage also uses secure, shared Web-browsing access on a daily basis to pull credit reports.

Burton configured the SBS system to be multihomed so that Harvard Mortgage can use Proxy Server and a dual-channel ISDN router connection to a local ISP. Because of requirements from the loan processing software and credit reporting vendors, Burton has had to setup some nonconventional packet-filtering policies on Proxy Server. "Genesis and Factual Data let users at Harvard Mortgage connect to the respective third-party company Web server. However, this is done on ports that are less than typical. It's almost akin to VPN but not quite. We're actually connecting to an FTP server, but these two vendors' FTP servers don't run on standard port numbers. In addition, several of these third-party vendors also had problems supporting our use of Proxy Server 1.0's winsock proxy. In one situation, the vendor had to provide several modified winsock-related files for its product to work correctly with the Proxy services on the SBS system. SBS 4.5's upgrade to Proxy Server 2.0 will be a welcome addition to Harvard Mortgage."

The Bottom Line
Each small organization needs to evaluate and customize an SBS solution that meets its specific needs. However, by looking at the town of Spring Hill, International Travel, and Harvard Mortgage, we've seen how you can use the NT Server, IIS, Proxy Server, Exchange Server, and Fax Server components in SBS to solve various small-business problems. The solutions included protecting sensitive data, dynamically distributing real-time query results via web browsers, eliminating the tedium of paper-based faxes and memos, reducing unnecessary phone calls, and prequalifying prospective customers.