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Storage Spaces – Big Storage Options for the SMB

Samurai SeriesIf it wasn’t obvious enough, I love learning about new tech, and when I  get really excited when I find a new feature in an operating system that benefits the SMB. Storage Spaces delights me! (Yes, I know I need to get out more). At the most basic level, Storage Spaces in Server 2012 allows us to connect drives to a server and provision storage on the fly. And why would this be exciting, you may ask? Think about your file server and what happens when you run low on disk space. Typically you would add another drive, but this would require shutting down the system, installing the drive, provisioning the drive, and in some cases it may also require reconfiguring your applications to take advantage of the additional storage. Now what if you were able to simply add a drive to your server, and with a few clicks of the mouse, add the storage and help protect your data? For the small SMB, this may be all that is needed to quickly provision more storage, but what if you were larger and were thinking a SAN was needed to provide resiliency as well as the storage? For most SMBs a SAN is out of budget, and this is where Storage Spaces comes in. Using Windows Server 2012, your operating system can provide SAN-like capability using commodity hard drives. Using trays of JBODs (just a bunch of disks) at a fraction of the cost of a SAN, we can easily add and provision storage as needed. Plus, we can take advantage of the built-in resiliency options, ensuring your data is protected.

To create a storage space, add block-based storage, then group the disks (SSDs or spindles) into storage pools. From there, virtualize the space into volumes and assign it as necessary. For example, let’s say we have 4 500 GB drives, we could create a storage pool using disks 1 and 2, creating a pool that was 1 TB in size. Then carve this TB up into various size virtual disks, apply a storage layout (Simple, Mirror, or Parity), choose our provision type (fixed or thin) and finally, create a volume. (It sounds like a lot of work, but really, it’s only 8 clicks or so.) If more storage is needed, simply add another disk and assign the space to either an existing storage pool, or create a new one.

This is just the tip of the Storage Spaces iceberg, using block based storage you can build cluster shared volumes, further providing SAN-like features at an SMB price point. If you would like to see a demo of Storage Spaces or would like to learn more, I’ll be doing a webinar on May 6 at 2 pm EST. Click here for details.

SBS: We’ll Miss You, But it’s Time to Move on

SBS quietly left us on December 31st 2013. We will remember SBS as a hard-working, dedicated piece of technology in the small business environment.

As a Microsoft partner, I LOVED SBS. As with most partners, initially I wasn’t thrilled with losing SBS, but after working with the options offered with Windows Server 2012 R2, I have come to appreciate the opportunities that arose when the SBS “windows” closed.

As a recap, SBS provided Exchange for email, and SharePoint for document management. Typically everything was installed on one server. Now with Server 2012, Exchange and SharePoint are not included. Microsoft has provided other alternatives to the software, such as Office 365, Exchange On-Premise, or hosted Exchange.

All three are great solutions and it’s just a matter of finding the right solution for your small business or your small business client. Let’s look at each option here.

1. Office 365 – If you read my blog you know I am a big fan of Office 365. For a small business who is already using some type of hosted email, moving to Office 365 is a no-brainer. They get awesome email, plus Lync and SharePoint for a similar cost to what they are already paying. Essentials can be configured to connect to Office 365, and you can easily add both local and Office 365 email accounts, via a single pane of glass. To see how easy it is to connect the two services see article:

2. Exchange On-Premise – Some companies will insist on continuing to host email internally, and for these clients we can easily add an Exchange Server to the infrasture. Essentials will easily tie into this server and you will be able to manage both servers and accounts from a single pane of glass. I will do a post on how to connect these two options in the future. Personally, I’m not an Exchange expert and it would be a good experience for me to play with the new version of Exchange.

3. Hosted Exchange – If your client does not want to use Office 365, or manage an On-Premise Exchange server, a hosted Exchange service is also supported.

There is no stopping the steady progression to the cloud, and for the small business, Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials can provide all the big business tools at an affordable cost. While SBS focused on keeping everything on-site, Essentials seamlessly allows the small business to take advantage of cloud technologies; if an On-Premise Exchange server is required, we can easily manage this server just as easily.

As we start the New Year, let’s make a resolution to embrace Server Essentials and not grieve SBS. SBS would have wanted us to move on and continue to serve our small business clients with the best of the technologies.

XP: Tell 2 Friends, and So On, and So On

ripI am surprised at how many people still don’t realize Windows XP is going to die….and soon. It had a good run but now it’s time to let it pass quietly into the night. In 6 months, or 26 weeks, or 183 days from now, XP will no longer be supported. That isn’t a lot of time. Spring will be here before we know it, and XP will be gone.

The latest stats show that 50 million PCs still run XP. We need to do a better job of educating users about this issue. During one of my classes last week, 2 of the 9 students had no idea XP was retiring and they’re running small businesses. Why do so few people not realize they need to move off of XP, and worse, how many may not realize it until it’s too late?

So what do we do?

1. Tell everyone! Anytime I have a class or seminar I mention the impending fate of XP.

2. Ask everyone you know to share this. Right after I mention XP (see step 1), I then ask this group to spread the word to anyone they know. You remember the Faberge Shampoo commercial, they tell 2 friends, and so on, and so on, and so on! We need that type of viral promotion for XP’s upcoming demise.

3. Blog, write, tweet, post, etc. Use whatever social network you can to get this information out there.

4. Share whatever blog, tweet, post, etc. from those who have done step 3 to spread the message even further.

5. Much like Faberge Shampoo, lather, rinse, and repeat!

As IT professionals, it is our responsibility to ensure the systems our clients are using are current and up-to-date. If you are still running XP, check out my XP Upgrade Checklist to help you and/or your IT support move your systems forward sooner than later.

Typical SBS 2003 Upgrade Scenario

As SBS 2003 life is ending, or in some cases, has already ended, we need to start moving businesses off this workhorse. Today’s visit is a classic example of the scenario where we have the perfect opportunity to move the technology in the small business forward.

In this example, the office has 5 10-year-old desktop systems running XP and an SBS 2003 server also about 10 years old. It’s a basic setup, nothing fancy, but the client knows he needs to move forward. He also has some requirements for the solution.

1. He must be able to access the office remotely. He likes to travel and feels that you shouldn’t be physically tied to an office. And honestly, with today’s technologies, there is no reason to be.

2. He needs everything to be automated. This includes all backups. He doesn’t want to have to look after the technology, he wants to build his business.

3. He wants to make the changes in 3 steps. He would like to replace the SBS server, and 2 of the 5 desktops, then replace 2 of the others in a few months. The fifth system will not be replaced because it runs a proprietary piece of hardware that will cost too much to replace to be compatible with Win7/8. In April, when XP finally retires (yippee!), he’ll pull this system off the network and it will be a standalone unit. He has decided he’ll do manual backups using the tried and true sneakernet.

4. Exchange must not be used. He will continue to use his email hosting service. This is fine by me, but personally, I would rather have a root canal then deal with Exchange. At least with a root canal you can take something for the pain.

This is the perfect time to replace the SBS 2003 server with Windows Server 2012 Essentials, and the XP desktops to Windows 8.1. This new implementation is the ideal solution for him because:

1. It meets his requirements for remote access including his work desktop.

2. Windows Server 2012 Essentials will backup all the client computers to the server and we can then backup the server to an external NAS he already has. Off-site or cloud backups will have to be discussed.

3. We can easily implement this project in steps. This keeps the disruption to the office to a minimum and it’s easier on the budget.

4. Windows Server 2012 Essentials does not have the Exchange component as his SBS server did, but we could integrate with Office 365, a hosted Exchange account, or even Exchange server on premise (providing there’ll be pain relief). Using Windows Server 2012 Essentials does not restrict us to one option, and if his email needs change, we can easily accommodate the requirements.

These types of projects are very rewarding, because I know I can make the technology work for the client and now they can work on their business.

Back to the Books

Study NotesI recently had lunch with my favorite Microsoft Evangelist, and as we munched our way through our salads, he put a major bee in my bonnet. Not quite a bee, but more like a bat. We started discussing Microsoft System Center, HyperV, and other big company technologies that I haven’t used in years. As you all know, I focus on the small business tech for a living. He started me thinking about what is new in big business, and I got curious and started poking around the Microsoft certification website. After reviewing my Microsoft transcripts, I was pleasantly surprised to realize my current certifications easily allow me to upgrade to the new MCSE Private Cloud certification. After all, there are only 3 Microsoft exams for me to complete. I love studying and learning, and this is just the push I need to upgrade my skill sets. Now some of you may be asking why I am pursuing “big business” technologies instead of small business ones. The answer is simple: small business tech is just big business tech scaled down. Small business IT professionals still need to understand current technologies and how to implement them. Eventually, these big business technologies make their way down to small business, usually in a smaller-scale version. The trick with small biz is to implement, factor in company growth, and stay within budget.

I have set an ambitious goal for myself to attain the MCSE Private Cloud certification. I would like to have it completed by Canadian Thanksgiving, about 3 months from now. How am I going to do this? I will dedicate 2-3 hours each evening to study. Luckily, I work for myself, so I can schedule around my clients’ needs. I did the MCSE 2003 (7 exams) in 18 months, while working full time and having two day care-aged children.

It’s been sometime since I wrote an exam, at least 4 years.  I love hitting the books, and learning something new and I am very excited to put the gray matter into action again.  The new skills I learn from upgrading my certifications will help my small business clients now and in the future.

PS I hope to add MCITP for Office 365 by Christmas.

Categories: Education, New Tech

XP – What’s The Rush?

As the end of 2012 approaches, I can’t help but wonder how many companies will be in panic mode this time next year.  You see, XP will no longer be supported as of April 8, 2014.  Right now, that sounds like an eternity, but that year and a bit will fly by faster than you think.  Although Microsoft puts out a great roadmap for XP migration (click here), I find that it’s geared for large businesses, not the small (under 20 users) businesses I deal with.  I also believe that small businesses see no reason to upgrade XP because they are unaware of its expiration date.  To help ease the transition between now and XPs final days, here are some steps to help prepare you:

1. Budget

Replacing several systems and applications can be expensive.  To avoid “sticker shock,” it is advisable that you budget for your migration in advance.  Keep in mind, the average desktop system is $600-$1000, depending on hardware.  Other factors to consider in your budget are IT resource costs and software.

2. Asset Management

Are you aware of what you currently have in-house?  Before considering moving off of XP, you will need to ensure that your current hardware will support Windows 7/8.  From my experience, most of the systems running XP will need to be replaced (stay tuned for a post on reusing your old tech).  Servers and server operating systems/applications should also be included in this inventory.  To avoid any speed bumps in your desktop deployment, make sure your servers are up-to-date and/or compatible.

3. Deployment and Migration

There is no in-place upgrade from XP to the newer operating systems.  This means all the data will need to be migrated manually to a new system, or replaced on an upgraded system.  Depending on the amount of data and files, and the age of the hardware, this could take several hours per system.

4. Scheduling a Qualified IT Professional

Let’s face it: companies are going to leave the XP migration until the last possible moment.  The problem with this is that because it will have been left so late, there may not be enough time to successfully transition to a new environment.  Even if you do have enough time to do this, the rates may be higher than 6 months before.  To avoid inflated prices, schedule a qualified IT Professional in advance.

5. Replacing or updating older applications

All of the applications currently in use on your XP systems will have to be validated for the new operating system.  If an application is now longer supported or available an alternative will have to be found and tested.  If replacing the application is not an option, then rewriting the code may be the answer and this will take time.

6. Testing

To ensure your systems will be compatible with the new applications and environment, it is highly recommended that you test everything before you move forward.  To do this properly, replicate your hardware and software requirements as closely as possible during your testing phase.

7. Cleaning up

Now that you have replaced all of your older systems, you can’t just throw them away.  Before donating or if necessary pitching your old equipment, the systems need to be wiped of any data to prevent anyone from recovering your company data.  This process can takes several hours per system but it is highly recommended and advised.

8. User Training

The gap between XP and Windows 7/8 is very significant.  To ensure the transition is successful, users may need to be taught how to use the new operating system and applications.  Click here for my Windows 8 “user” experience.

I hope this convinces you to look at your current systems and start planning to move from XP to a newer, more secure operating system.  If you have any questions about how to move forward contact your qualified IT Professional and they can help you develop a roadmap that will help you and your team transition from old to new technology.

These guidelines are based on a typical deployment for a small business that is transitioning from XP to Windows 7/8.  Please talk to your qualified IT Pro for a customized and successful shift from old tech to new tech.

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