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Case Study 1 - Three Men and a Little Server

This case study is a little different from the normal deployments I do, because it is a very small installation - only three users. However it is a very high net worth deployment, and has shown to be very successful.

Background

Three people run a company providing professional services to much larger companies. All three live out in the countryside with their families.
The company doesn't have a central office, each spend most of their time with clients, or at home in a study type area.
At the time I was asked to assist, they were using a hosted Exchange solution and files were being stored all over the place. It was becoming a nightmare to manage.

The also wanted to do something about the speed.
Being in the countryside, broadband speed is an issue. None of the three homes has a speed fast enough to run a server. With young families, there was also the concern of other demands on the computer and broadband connection. This introduces problems with dealing with network security and generally trying to split the business computer work from leisure.

I was asked to come up with some kind of solution that would give them a decent speed where ever they are, and also protect their and the client data.

The Solution

The solution I proposed, and implemented in late 2010 was very simple, but highly effective.

Hardware: This was a single Dell PowerEdge server, Eight disks, 30gb of RAM - with space for more.

Software: On to the bare metal I installed VMWARE vSphere 4.1
Then in to the virtual platform I installed six virtual machines:

VM 1: A Linux based firewall called pfSense. This protected the other machines.
VM 2: SBS 2008 Premium. Exchange 2007, commercial SSL certificate, all features enabled and turned on.
VM 3: Windows 2008. SQL Server. This also had BES Express and a monitoring tool for the VMWARE platform from Veeam.

VM 4 - 6: Windows 7 Professional. All three were identical, with Office, Adobe Acrobat Reader, AV and other tools installed.

Each of the workstation installations also had Dropbox installed.

The server was installed in to a data centre, where the data centre was able to provide backup storage for the server. Backup was provided by Backup Assist.

In Operation

The key to this implementation was the Terminal Services gateway feature of Windows 2008 and the RWW feature of SBS 2008.

What this allowed each staff member to do was connect to their virtual desktop in the data centre, from any machine and work. If they had to stop what they were doing, they could just disconnect, and come back to it.
This meant that working on the train, or in a client site was perfectly possible. Each of them had a laptop with 3g cards, wireless etc, so could get access back to the server easily. If the connection dropped for any reason, reconnecting would pick up from where they started.

Dropbox was used to allow files to be moved between the virtual workstations in the data centre and their personal computer. This could be to work on a file locally, copy it to a USB stick, because it contained video or for printing. It was found that the printers at home didn't like RDP very much, so printing was disabled.

The Blackberry devices gave access to email, and crucially the little known feature that allows access to the file system.

Benefits of This Solution

The server was in a secure location, not dependant on one place, with power or broadband issues. Email was quick, and filtering done in the data centre.
No more emailing files to each other, they could be just copied to a network share. This made collaboration much easier.
As all data was stored in the data centre, if the laptop was stolen, was damaged or simply failed, the loss would be small and it would be easy to get up and running again.

At home, if someone was relegated to a child's computer because they were using Daddy's computer for "homework", then the impact was negligible, as all the computer required was the RDP client. The home broadband speed was fine for this kind of work. No concerns with data security while the children are on the computer, as it was all in the data centre.

This also means that the home and roaming computers can be anything, they don't have to worry about compatibility with the "office" . It just needs to be something recent that has an RDP client.

RDP clients are common, one staff member is using it with an Apple iPad. Other tablets are being investigated, and I wouldn't be surprised if a Blackberry Playbook was used when those are released.

Terminal Services

We did consider using a full terminal server, but this was discounted for a number of reasons, the main one being cost of licencing it. However should the company grow, a terminal server can be quickly added to the deployment with little fuss.

Conclusion

A compact single server installation has proven to be very cost effective and given these users performance and security that they are very happy with.

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