Should I upgrade my peer-to-peer business network to a server system?
June 14, 2014 11:23 AM   Subscribe

I own a small business with 11 employees, about 13 computers and a half dozen or more other devices. We currently run a peer to peer network and all the machines are on Windows 7. Is it time I bit the bullet and upgraded to a server based system?

Is there a point where we will run into serious trouble if I delay this move any further? We are growing. I do have a good remote IT guy who could install and administer the system.

I've actually only ever worked in peer to peer environments, so I don't have a good sense of what the server environment will feel like.

I have a silent (ish) outside investor who asked me this question about the possible upgrade: "What problem are you trying to solve?" I had a hard time answering.
posted by bowline to Computers & Internet (12 answers total)
I am also curious what problem you're trying to solve.

What are the "peers" doing now? Storing files, managing printers, etc? What specifically would your server be doing or responsible for?
posted by RustyBrooks at 11:27 AM on June 14, 2014

I guess the problem might be at some point we have 25 devices on the network and the whole thing comes to a crashing halt somehow. I have a sense that there is a practical limit to the size of a Win 7 network, but I'm not sure what that is.

We will be trying out having one of the customer service team work from home soon. We have GoToMyPC now for remote access but I was thinking there might be some advantages in using Windows for this.

We're a large format sign and graphics company. Half of the staff works in checking and creating large format files, then running them out to several large format printers. The other half of the staff work with customers. They occasionally work the files as well.

We have all our file history stored on a variety of drives, totalling about 6TB.
posted by bowline at 11:36 AM on June 14, 2014

If you add a server, then you'll have 26 devices on the network. I don't see how that would help.

I am guessing that your printers are probably network enabled and anyone can send jobs to them directly.

I don't think you're anywhere near the maximum size of a win 7 network. Your performance problems may be improved by upgrading your network hardware. Wired is more efficient than wireless and all other things being equal a faster network device improves throughput. 1 GB/s wired lan hardware is relatively cheap these days, I don't remember if 10 GB/s has come down in price for home or small commercial use yet.

Having a centrally stored file repository might be useful - but only if there are a lot of files that people are accessing all the time that need to be in a central location. You don't really need a "server" for this, though, there are some simple network attached storage (NAS) appliances that you just put hard drives into and plug into your router. Sometimes you can just plug a big USB drive into some network routers directly.

Basically I haven't heard you say anything yet that sounds like "I need a server" to me
posted by RustyBrooks at 11:43 AM on June 14, 2014

We have all our file history stored on a variety of drives, totalling about 6TB.

I'm not entirely sure what you mean by it, but this is the thing that seems potentially problematic to me. Like, are you going to have a situation at some point where it's like "Hey, where is client X's original high-res image for their banner from last year? They want 10 more copies this year." "Oh, that's on Tom's drive... which... crashed in February oh crap." Or if you mean, for instance, the invoices and billing paperwork are spread out, and you couldn't readily find them for a tax audit or something.

I don't know if this merits fully switching to a client/server system, but maybe at least sign up for dropbox or box and make an $IMPORTANT_THINGS folder with a bunch of subfolders for client originals, financial papers, etc. Then you could set up a NAS box in the closet that syncs your archive. That may well be centralized enough without really changing your workflow much.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 12:39 PM on June 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

How do you handle backups? One big issue for you may be the overhead in having to backup the work files spread out across 25 different machines. Having one centralized place where all the important work files go, and is backed up regularly (nightly) will be an advantage come the time when someone's hard drive fails. NAS devices are a good fit for this type of problem.
posted by axiom at 12:40 PM on June 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

We have all our file history stored on a variety of drives, totalling about 6TB.

That is what you are trying to solve. A server, when properly configured offers redundancy. Multiple RAID Drives, back up, UPS, and regulated access to files. You can improve your workflow by checking documents out/in, you can assure that ALL files are available all the time.

A server is NOT just another computer. It should be configured to offer some, if not all of the features mentioned above.
posted by Gungho at 2:37 PM on June 14, 2014

The initial cost upfront will be substantial, but the savings down the road would be worth it, IMO.

For example, you can push updates to all machines instantly - recover one machine instantly if it's hit with something like Cryptolocker - you can also manage all user passwords, and enforce a password change policy from a centralized location. You could also have your IT person create a file share for the company. When someone leaves, this is also useful as all the relevant company data is centralized. You would also have the ability to allow certain people access to certain files with Access Control Lists.

You don't necessarily have to create thin clients with a Windows server machine. You could allow the desktop machines to exist as they are, but allow them to be managed much more effectively.

"What problem are you trying to solve?"

Basically you are trying to solve something called "configuration management."
posted by four panels at 3:06 PM on June 14, 2014

You need to list your problems and objectives. You always must have a good backup system. Eventually you may get software that requires a server, but until then I don't see any reason to complicate your life and expense with a server. Upgrading your network to GB switches will help things go faster.

Gotomypc is fine for remote access. I use Windows Remote Desktop that comes standard on Windows 7 Pro. With remote desktop you'll have to configure your router to redirect ports. If users have their own PC (not shared with other users) remote access works better than going through a server.
posted by nogero at 5:28 PM on June 14, 2014

When contemplating servers and backups, please consider what will happen if you get robbed or your office burns down. The backups must be offsite.
posted by ryanrs at 7:33 PM on June 14, 2014

So much. Offsite backup is very important. And RAID is not a backup. Nor is a dropbox, IMHO. If you delete a file on a RAID/dropbox, it will be gone. A backup should allow you to get the file back. And of course, once you have your backup in place, make sure you actually do a restore from time to time. Many folks have never tested this and then when crunch time comes . . . OOPS.
posted by nostrada at 10:28 PM on June 14, 2014

four panels' answer is right on, beyond centralized storage (how much time is spent wondering where something is) which can be backed up offsite much easier than a handful of USB drives, you get centralized management of network policy. Need to switch everyone's proxy config? Don't waste time going to two dozen machines. Need to remove access from all machines for someone who is no longer there? Need to add access to all machines for a new employee? Need to install updates? Need to automatically version files in case some PEBKAC hits? Need to add a new printer to all profiles on all workstations? Need roaming profiles so anyone can use any workstation?

Basically, any change you're making now, you're making it twelve times over. Would you like to make it once and push it out? Figure out how much time you spend doing these things (do you do these things? should you start?).
posted by Brian Puccio at 7:30 AM on June 15, 2014

Thanks for the replies. I should say for the record that we are very well backed up -- offsite drives for archives and nightly Carbonite for current work -- and that the various USB drives are organized and mapped in such a way as to make it very easy to find and access old work.

For us I think the improvements in IT management may be worth it -- will have to do some math and some thinking.
posted by bowline at 6:29 PM on June 15, 2014

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