A Tale of Two Servers
Building a Small Business Network
by Mickey Applebaum of Innovative Network Consultants, Inc.

So, here you are—working for a small business on the verge of putting in its first network server. Maybe you’ve been sharing files and printers between workstations for a while, but need larger storage capability or better file management and security. Or maybe you’re trying to connect Macintosh and Windows PCs to a common printer and file server. Or perhaps you’re interested in managing joint Internet access and email.

Whatever the reason, you’re facing a decision that your company is going to live with for quite a while. And the conflicting messages about what server is really the best for a small business only make this choice harder. Even your local consultants may be at odds, telling you to pick this one or that one.

This article will present the two most common server platforms for small business installations (Microsoft’s Windows 2000 Small Business Server, and Novell’s NetWare Small Business Suite), then talk about the tangible reasons that make one a better choice than the other. Neither of these two options is going away in the foreseeable future, so avoid making your decision based on rumor and conjecture about the position either Microsoft or Novell is in. Both of these companies are sound and on solid footing.

Preliminary Considerations

First, though, you must make some hardware decisions based on your modem needs. For example, let’s say that you don’t want or need dedicated Internet access, but you do have a need for users to browse the Web on an occasional basis. Or you have a need to access services via a dedicated connection, such as connecting to a financial services provider. Putting a modem in each user's PC and setting them up with a separate phone line, though, could be very expensive.

If you put your modems at the server and allow users access to them on a shared basis, however, you can avoid this problem. All you have to do is determine the maximum number of concurrent modem users you expect to have, then provide that number of phone lines and modems at the server. So, for example, in an office with ten users, two of whom need to use a modem at any given time, instead of putting in ten modems and phone lines (one for each user) you would put in two modems and phone lines at the server.

Similarly, shared faxing allows multiple users to access a common resource at a lower cost. In addition, this process saves money by letting users send faxes directly from their PC applications without having to print them first, then wait by the fax machine to send them manually. It also lets you track outbound faxes by attaching a call-tracking system to the shared phone line (in which case users would need to enter an account code after the outbound phone number to send their fax).

Moreover, with a shared fax service you can receive your faxes electronically at the server, then print only the faxes you need and delete the rest--so you won’t waste paper or toner on "junk" faxes. A further benefit of receiving your faxes electronically is that you can save and store important faxes for later retrieval or reference.

When this capability is combined with shared email, you can even configure your system to deliver faxes directly to their intended recipient in his or her mailbox. To do this you will need specialized hardware and phone lines, so it may not be something you would do in a small office.

The Choices: Microsoft and Novell

But now to the main event—Microsoft versus Novell, or specifically the Windows 2000 Small Business Server versus the NetWare Small Business Suite. The first thing you need to know is that in terms of functionality, both of these packages provide the same services. Microsoft does so with entirely proprietary products, while Novell uses its own products in combination with some from other manufacturers:

Service Microsoft product Novell product
File and print server service for up to 50 concurrent users Microsoft Windows 2000 Server Novell NetWare
Internet access service Microsoft Internet Security and Acceleration (Proxy) Server Novell BorderManager
Shared fax/modem service Microsoft Communication Service Tobit FaxWare
Email Microsoft Exchange Server Novell GroupWise
Web server Microsoft Internet Information Server (IIS) Novonyx Netscape Enterprise Server & IBM WebSphere
Database management Microsoft SQL Server Oracle 8 & Pervasive Btrieve

But if each package performs the same functions and allows the same number of maximum users, why choose one over the other? If you have a network that will never grow beyond ten users, the simple fact is that it won’t make any difference. Since most businesses that small don’t have the onsite resources to maintain a network on a daily basis, you probably outsource most of your support, either through a service contract or on a time-and-materials basis with a local service provider.

In this case, a major factor you should consider is which package your reseller, consultant, or service provider feels most comfortable with. You don’t want to be caught without local support when you need help, so you should identify in advance what support resources you have available locally, then work with them in determining what you will install.

Especially if your network will be large enough to require onsite support, the next task is to determine what services you are going to use and how responsible you want to be for maintaining them. After making this decision, you then need to look at the differences in the services and what you need to do to support each.

Internet Access

The Microsoft and Novell network packages each provide the ability to make a shared connection to the Internet through a modem, ISDN terminal adapter, DSL, or frame relay connection. Each also provides a way to provide a private network connection to the Internet through the use of network address translation.

Additionally, each package provides the means to filter access in and out of your network—so you can control what websites your users can view, or if they are allowed to surf the Internet at all. Each also provides access logs so you can track where and when your users go on the Web, and for how long.

The Internet Security and Acceleration service included in Microsoft’s Windows 2000 Small Business Server, however, requires you to install a proxy client on each workstation that will have access to the Internet, or to configure each application on the workstation that will make use of the proxy service. As a result, you may have to devote a significant amount of time to setting up each machine to be compatible with the network.

In comparison, Novell’s BorderManager provides a transparent network address translation service, so the only thing that needs to be configured on the workstations is the network protocol. No additional software needs to be installed.


Email is one of the most common reasons for setting up a small-business network. It provides a means for you to be in constant, immediate contact with your customers and vendors, as well as to share critical information among your employees. It also lets you market your products and services globally, and share data with anyone regardless of where that other person is.

Novell’s Netware package uses the single interface of the NetWare Easy Administration Tool (NEAT) for all management functions, including creating users and their GroupWise mailboxes. Microsoft, again, has a somewhat more complicated process, with one interface for creating user accounts and a separate Exchange manager for creating their mailboxes. Virtually all other services between the two are the same.

It’s impossible, though, to discuss email without talking about virus attacks. Most of the email viruses unleashed today are designed to take advantage of security flaws in Microsoft’s Outlook and Outlook Express email clients. Although there are ways of configuring these programs to prevent the most common attacks, doing so removes many useful features and functions. So, for some businesses, security may be the bottom line in choosing between GroupWise and Exchange/Outlook.

One other difference between the Novell and Microsoft packages has to do with email delivery when you do not have a dedicated Internet access service (such as a DSL or frame relay connection). The GroupWise mail server has a built-in capability allowing you to use a modem in the server for this purpose. The Exchange server, however, requires a third-party Internet manager for full functionality when using an intermittent dialup connection.

Web Server

As with Internet access and email, the functionality of the Microsoft and Novell small-business packages with regard to setting up your own website is virtually equal. The advantage of Microsoft’s Internet Information Server (IIS) is that many of the available publishing tools, including FrontPage, are designed to specifically work with it. To use these tools with the Netscape Enterprise Server provided by Novell, you would need to configure them to provide simple HTML pages. Both web servers support Java and other server-side programming languages, but only Microsoft’s IIS supports Active Server Pages (ASP).

Of course, this ability to run ASP is also something of a disadvantage because of its greater vulnerability to viruses. Two recent high-profile viruses (NIMDA and Code Red) use an ASP feature to copy themselves over the Internet to a server running IIS, then spread back out to other sites by modifying Web pages on the server. As with email, therefore, security may be the most significant concern separating the Novell and Microsoft products.

Database Management

With regard to the database management services provided by Novell and Microsoft, the question isn't whether Oracle is better for you than SQL Server, but rather whether this is of any concern to you at all.

In most cases where a small business is running some kind of database, it will be using Microsoft’s Access or Paradox, or some other client-based program. The only time a database server becomes an issue is when you are looking at purchasing a program that specifically requires one. And in these instances, you should plan your other purchases around that product.

For example, if you are planning to buy a financial service database program that requires you to run SQL Server, you probably will want to implement Microsoft’s Small Business Server on your network. Similarly, if the program you are considering runs on Oracle's database engine, Novell’s Small Business Suite will be a better choice for your network.

Many database programs, however, require a dedicated server—so you would need one server for the database and another server for everything else. In this case, the database of choice has no impact on what you use for your file/print/email server.

Conclusion and Links

I hope this overview of the major small business packages has been helpful. As you decide on your first server, remember the importance of choosing a product your local support folks are familiar with. Beyond that, your level of commitment to your network will most likely be the determining factor in which server you want to implement. In almost all cases, the Novell NetWare Small Business Suite will require less time and management for the same services than a Microsoft Windows 2000 Small Business Server.

Mickey Applebaum of Innovative Network Consultants, Inc.

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