Newsletter – March 2015
Should you consider blade servers?
Mid-sized organisations can be the poor cousins of the business IT world. They often need more than the budget technology that small businesses use, but can’t afford the high-end enterprise solutions that could help them grow or become more efficient.
That has certainly been the case with blade servers, which traditionally have only populated large data centres. However, with the likes of Cisco and Dell now selling more affordable models, mid-sized businesses can enjoy the high-density computing power and efficiency they offer.
What is a blade server?
Blades are similar to rack-mount servers. They’re designed to be neatly stacked in purpose-built racks to save space and make it easier for technicians to work on them. However, blades take this approach further – each server is pared back to the essentials and shares common resources such as a power supply and cooling fans with other systems in the enclosure.
This configuration means you can fit a lot of computing power in a small space. Blades are also designed to be efficient to manage, typically offering a centralised interface for configuring all your servers.
Traditionally, each blade was used for a different task – a file server, application server and email server, for example – which could be wasteful as some systems lay idle at times while others worked hard. However, blades now typically support virtualisation, so you can pool the computing resources of multiple servers for maximum efficiency.
Are blades right for your business?
One downside to blades is their proprietary technology, so you have to buy all the servers, enclosures and ancillary gear from the one vendor. They also often require technicians with specialised expertise in that vendor’s blade technology.
Blades can be expensive, although new models like Cisco’s UCS Mini are more affordable. UCS stands for Unified Computing System, Cisco’s architecture that allows servers, storage and networking to be bundled into a single solution. Cisco claims the total cost of ownership of a small-scale UCS Mini setup is 40% less than a comparable rack-mount system. The Mini is also much more space-efficient, at around half the width of a regular blade server.
Spoilt for choice
Of course, you need to do your own costing and you may find that if space isn’t a problem, a rack-mount setup is the best solution for your organisation. If you don’t need multiple servers, a regular small-business server might be fine. And then there’s the other alternative – the cloud. It might be perfectly feasible to remove an on-site file server and use infrastructure as a service (IaaS) instead, or replace an email server with software as a service (SaaS).
The key point is the affordability of some new blade servers means that more businesses have more choices – and mid-sized organisations no longer have to be poor cousins.
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Cloud or on-site: Where should you be hosting your data?
Over the past 10 years, an increasing number of businesses have abandoned their physical IT systems and migrated to the cloud. Amazon Web Services, VMware, Microsoft Azure – it’s impossible not to have heard of the larger cloud providers, if not the thousands of smaller cloud services available. However, many companies continue to use traditional file servers.
Let’s get physical
File servers have been around for longer than desktop computers and their basic function has remained more or less the same. Traditional servers allow you to keep all your files in one location over which you have exclusive control. You may have read the stories of electronic surveillance by hackers and even overseas authorities. With an on-site server you don’t have any of the data sovereignty, privacy or compliance concerns that you might have with cloud services hosted in other jurisdictions. In addition, you can customise the server to fit your business’s unique needs.
Do traditional servers still serve a purpose?
There are three major disadvantages to traditional file servers and they are largely responsible for driving businesses to the cloud. First, file servers can be vulnerable to physical threats such as fires, floods and other natural disasters. Colocation – where your server is moved to a dedicated data centre – can reduce, but not entirely eliminate, the risk of irretrievable data loss. Second, file servers tend to be more costly to replace or upgrade compared to equivalent cloud services. Finally, you must pay for your server 24/7, even if its maximum capacity is only required during infrequent peak periods.
Entering the virtual world
Cloud-based solutions promise improved sharing capabilities and affordable performance –though this often comes at the price of reduced control for IT personnel. On the other hand, cloud storage frees your team from having to worry about ageing IT infrastructure, costly maintenance, and the need to constantly acquire new resources. Importantly, many cloud solutions offer scalability – the ability to quickly add resources like disk space when required. As a result, you pay only for the resources that you use day-to-day. This means cloud solutions tend to be more affordable in the long term.
Every silver lining has a cloud
As cloud providers have attracted new businesses, they have been increasingly targeted by malicious cyber-criminals. In most cases, this has led cloud providers to become meticulous when implementing security measures. However, large-scale attacks have been known to cause service outages and, in some rare cases, data theft. Some IT professionals may also be put off by the unfamiliar processes that underpin cloud solutions – a case of ‘better the development platform you know’. Finally, the benefits of the cloud can only be enjoyed by those with a fast and reliable internet connection – and for some smaller or remote businesses, this is not a given.
Where to from here?
Ultimately, the best solution for your business will depend on its unique needs and objectives. An on-site file server might be the best and cost-effective solution for your needs. Or you might decide to move to the cloud. If so, just remember that not all clouds are the same – and in particular there’s a difference between ‘hosted’ and ‘cloud’. For example, if a hosted storage service doesn’t allow you to quickly add disk space, that’s not cloud. A true cloud service will scale as your business grows.
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Should you upgrade or stay with Windows 7?
With Windows 7 more than five years old and the release of Windows 10 scheduled for later in 2015, should you be preparing to upgrade the operating system (OS) on your business systems?
Despite Windows 8 being released more than two years ago, Windows 7 is still the dominant desktop OS. More than 55 per cent of computers browsing the web use the older OS, compared to less than 14 per cent that run Windows 8 or 8.1, according to Net Applications.
That’s perhaps not surprising given Windows 8’s lukewarm reception, with many users arguing the new interface made it more suited to tablets than conventional laptops and PCs. And if Windows 7 is still working well for your business systems, why should you upgrade?
The end of mainstream support
However, ‘mainstream support’ for Windows 7 ended on 13 January 2015 – should that concern businesses?
The answer lies in Microsoft’s Windows support policy. Put simply, the company provides two support phases:
1. Mainstream support, during which Microsoft provides regular feature and security updates, and significant upgrades called ‘service packs’
2. ‘Extended support’, when Microsoft winds back its support and development, providing only essential security updates.
When extended support expires, the product reaches ‘end of support’ – which means no more security updates. This is important because highly complex operating systems need to be continually ‘patched’ as new vulnerabilities come to light. For example, Windows XP reached end of support in April 2014, so if you’re still using this OS, your computer may be highly vulnerable to security breaches.
Fortunately, Microsoft allows a generous amount of time before an OS reaches end of support, and it publishes a timeline to help businesses plan their upgrades – see the Windows lifecycle fact sheet.
Five years to go
The good news is that extended support for Windows 7 (with Service Pack 1) expires in January 2020, so there’s no need to rush an upgrade.
However, if your computers are ageing, slowing down or becoming less reliable, the Windows 10 release might be an opportune time to upgrade. Deploying a new OS will require training and some disruption to your business, but upgrading both the hardware and OS at the same time will at least minimise any productivity loss.
In return, Windows 10 offers a number of productivity enhancements. In particular, it has a vastly improved interface that automatically adapts to the device it runs on, offering a traditional Windows 7-style desktop for PCs and laptops, or a touch-friendly, Windows 8-style interface for tablets.
Want to know more?
Need advice on new IT projects, please feel free to contact us for IT services and support in Melbourne.