Up and running

Amazingly, I and Alex got SBS 08 and Exchange 07 up and running yesterday. We are both absolutely delighted about it – and once we’d got around the stuff that was stumping us, which was mostly to do with the arcane Windows networking stuff, it Just Worked.

So I can now sync Outlook with my own Exchange server and I can access my email, calendars and contacts via the web.

There are a couple of wrinkles. First, I need a web server certificate, which I’m going to investigate tomorrow. At the moment my phone won’t sync with the Exchange server because of the absence of that certificate, and you can’t tell it to ignore the lack of it as you can with web browsers.

Second, the networking stuff is a pain in the arse. SBS 08 wants to manage DHCP; however, it doesn’t seem to do it very well and despite its bleatings, I have handed that responsibility back to my router.

When SBS was managing DHCP, the Mac kept dropping the internet connection; nor could it see my NAS drive. Neither the Mac nor the Vista box could see the Airport Express. None of that is acceptable. I’m sure there’s a way round it and I will see if I can track down someone who can help me with that, but for the time being, the networking is being handled again by the router.

Third, we didn’t think SBS’s notifications were very intuitive. There was a certain amount of headscratching as we tried to work out why we couldn’t connect the client Vista machine to the network. We managed it in the end, but one of my reservations about SBS is that it wants to manage too much: I just want an Exchange server up and running. Perhaps I’ve got the wrong Microsoft product as I’m not managing a small office and therefore don’t need a server managing everything for me. I hope to be talking to Mr SBS at Microsoft this week ahead of writing my piece.

What I want is this: a functioning Exchange server. Tick, I’ve got that and I’m very happy about that. I also want a functioning home network, however, and that wasn’t very satisfactory. I think that’s because I’m a bit out of my depth with Windows networking, which is not what you’d call clear and easy to manage. Plus my network is mixed, with a Vista box, a Mac, an Airport Express and a NAS drive. At the moment, that’s a bit borked; I’ve got some fiddling to do with it.

One of Alex’s observations is that the wizards in SBS don’t make it easy to poke around under the hood and see what they’re actually doing. So trying to make it easy can also make it hard: wizards are great when they work, but when they don’t, you’re stuffed.

For example, one of the wizards sets up the router. It reported that it couldn’t open the ports it needed – even after we’d manually opened them (for the record, I’ve got a new router, the Linksys WAG160N, which is very configurable and tweakable).

Other wizards, though, do the job well. If your domain is parked with one of the three registrars SBS can manage, it does all the DNS changes for you, creating the necessary MX records for the Exchange server etc. That was great: suddenly automagically my Outlook Web Access was there for me to log into.

The conclusion is that you can, if you’re confident and knowledgeable, do this yourself. The question, though, is – is it worth it? The answer is “probably not” if you’re a sole trader. It’s expensive: you need new hardware for SBS 08 as it’s a 64-bit OS, so you can’t just buy an old box at a car boot sale as you could if you wanted to run an older version of SBS or a Linux server. As I’ve noted before, it wants 4GB of Ram, a 60GB partition (though it occupies less than that once up and running); and it bleats like a sheep if you don’t have a backup drive attached (note: it won’t back up to a NAS) so you’ve got to add a second hard drive to your server. Backup of course is essential, you’d be mad not to have that second drive, but it does add to the cost.

And there’s the cost of the software: it’s going to be around £600 in the UK with five users. Never mind the time you’ll spend getting it up and running and maintaining it. So unless you’re running a small business on an absolute shoestring, you’re better off handing it over to professionals, I think.

Having said that, there is a warm geeky glow of satisfaction, even though I haven’t entirely succeeded – yet. I’m mostly there and I’ve achieved what I wanted, which was to do my own email hosting and to prove to myself that I could do it.

I’ll be writing a piece about this for the forthcoming Guardian Enterprise supplement. You can read the first one here; there’s a piece about SBS 08 here.

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