Considering new servers or new server software? Two new offerings from Microsoft might be worth a look. Windows Small Business Server 2008 is intended for companies with up to 75 computer users. It’s especially useful for small companies that have little or no in-house IT expertise, especially if they’re installing their first server, as a step up from simply using networked personal computers.

One of the biggest benefits of Small Business Server 2008 is that it integrates many of the functions a small business needs: Microsoft Exchange, SharePoint, and support for mobile devices that let users sync calendars and contacts. It’ll even help you buy a domain name for your business, and correctly route your website and email from your domain.

“It’s integrated,” says Rick Gines, server solutions architect with LANDesk, which provides IT management and security software. “If you’re Joe’s Bakery and you’re opening a small shop, you’ve got everything you need in one box, and you don’t need to be a technical expert.”

In fact, “The server kind of becomes an IT person for you,” says Steven VanRoekel, senior director, Windows Server Solution Group at Microsoft. For instance, since security and data protection are top priorities for many small businesses (especially ones that are adding a server because they’ve experienced data loss), Small Business Server 2008 deploys automatic patches and updates to all Windows users on the network, and automatically backs up of the server to a USB drive or other device several times a day.

One caveat for small companies looking to upgrade to Windows Small Business Server 2008 is that some of its integrated features it comes with, including Exchange 2007, require 64 bit processors, Gines notes. “Upgrading might require new hardware for some companies.”

Designed by admins

For businesses with between 75 and 300 computer users, Microsoft recommends Windows Essential Business Server 2008. Though it offers many of the same features as Small Business Server 2008, “The difference is that we do assume you have an in-house IT person,” VanRoekel says.

In fact, he worked with a group of them to help design the product. “The mid-size market has unique needs,” he explains. “IT professionals in this size company tend to be very constrained for resources. They wind up supporting everything in the organization that has a plug, including clearing paper jams in printers and supporting home computers for employees working at home.”

So when VanRoekel set out to create Essential Business Server 2008, he began by assembling a 25-member advisory board, made up of administrators from mid-size businesses. “I invited them to design their dream product, and they helped write job descriptions for the development team,” he says. “The mandate from them was to save them time,” he says, and he reports that customers say Essential Business Server cuts their server administration time by 50 percent.

The open source option

There is an alternative to Windows on servers: Linux. The open source operating system has so far failed to significantly penetrate the desktop market, but its share of server revenues keeps growing, reaching 13.4 percent worldwide in the second quarter of 2008, according to a recent IDC report. (Since Linux is widely available for free, revenue share may not reflect all the servers running Linux.)

Linux is probably a poor choice for a company (such as the imaginary Joe’s Bakery) that wants to manage its IT infrastructure with little attention or in-house expertise, because it lacks the ease and one-stop shopping qualities of Windows Business Server. On the other hand, running a server on Linux (which doesn’t preclude using Windows on desktops) can offer some serious advantages. For one thing, there’s licensing cost: Linux, being open source, has none, though most companies still do pay for support.

But no licensing fees mean it doesn’t cost your company to grow, as it would with Microsoft, which requires a license for every user or computer. “We find that customers want to scale smoothly, without additional license purchases,” says Douglas O'Flaherty, senior product marketing manager for Red Hat, a Linux provider whose Red Hat Enterprise Linux is used by businesses large and small.

And no license fees can also make it easier to keep things up and running, Gines says. “Redundancy can be a big question,” he says. “If I have a nine-to-five business, where it doesn’t matter if the server goes down at night or on the weekend, it might not be a problem. But when things need to stay up and running, with Linux, I can load the operating system on multiple servers.” That gives you the flexibility to switch to a backup server in case your main server encounters a problem.

Ultimately, the choice to go with Linux over Windows probably depends on how comfortable your IT staff is with Linux, and also on which applications matter most to your company, according to Urvish Vashi, general manager of dedicated hosting at The Planet, a server and Web hosting company that serves the small business market.

Whereas Microsoft provides one piece of software to meet each business need, Linux users can typically choose from a variety of open source options, he says. “They have both the burden and the flexibility of finding out which applications are right for them,” he says. In general, he adds, companies that focus most on e-mail and calendaring applications, such as Exchange, are more likely to prefer Windows, while companies that consider their websites and Web applications most important might be likelier to opt for Linux.

And then there’s a third option: no server at all. “A lot of companies are using Web-hosted solutions for things like e-mail and collaboration that were traditionally hosted on servers,” he says. “Then they don’t have to worry about the platform. That’s probably the fastest-growing trend.”