SQL Server 2012 – Best New Features for Small Business

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I recently read through Introducing Microsoft SQL Server 2012, the book published by Microsoft Press. It’s a rather large book, and going through it I saw a lot of terrific features for medium and large enterprises, especially from a Business Intelligence point of view. However, I also pinpointed some features that I feel will be very useful for small businesses, so I wanted to give them a bit of explanation here. This is not going to be a series, just a single blog entry.

Multisubnet Failover Cluster

SQL Server 2012 features much better failover options than SQL Server 2008. My favourite, Multisubnet Failover Cluster, simply wasn’t possible in SQL Server 2008 because a failover server had to be on the same subnet. In SQL Server 2012, failover servers can be on different subnets. That means no VPN or VLAN is required between servers in different locations or network segments, which also frees up the possibility of putting your SQL failover server in a remote datacentre, whether it’s a colocation, virtual private server, dedicated server, or even a cloud server.

Support for Windows Server Core

SQL Server 2008 had to be deployed on a full-blown Windows Server instance. That’s no longer the case. SQL Server 2012 can be deployed on Windows Server core 2008 or 2012. This frees up additional resources for SQL Server, reduces the attack surface of Windows Server (therefore providing better security), and also reduces the number of patches that need to be deployed to the server overall. It’s a big win, but be sure to look at all of the things that are not supported when deploying on Windows Server Core. The list isn’t that bad, but you should be aware of the limitations.

Database Recovery Advisor

Backing up and/or restoring a database is now a much more visual experience in SQL Server 2012, and in a good way. The Database Recovery Advisor now gives you a visual representation of what point in time you would like to take a backup from (assuming transaction logs are available), and the same interface is provided for restoring backups. So now you can easily take a snapshot of a specific point in time, and restore back to that same point. Having a great deal of experience with this procedure, I assure you it’s a massive improvement over the current method.

Audit Supported on All Versions

SQL Server 2008 introduced the Server Audit Specification, and Database Audit Specification objects. These specifications were used widely for auditing and compliance requirements, but many users were not satisfied because these features were only available in premium versions of SQL Server. Many users had to rever to using SQL Trace instead, which brought about challenges. The Server Audit Specification and Database Audit Specification objects are now included in all versions of SQL Server 2012, and SQL Trace will likely be retired in the next version of SQL Server.

Contained Database Authentication

SQL Server 2012 now brings the ability to create users authenticated for only a single database, and transferring the database to another server also brings the user setup with it. That means greater portability for databases (important when moving a database to a more powerful/its own server), easier configuration of failover clusters, and just easier administration overall.

Those are the insights I wanted to share with you regarding SQL Server 2012 in a small business. Any other enhancements have been made around Business Intelligence capabilities which, while very interesting, aren’t critical for the day-to-day operations of a small business. Plus, if you’re doing homegrown BI, chances are you either specialize in such functions, or you’re not a small business after all.

Windows Server 2012 In Your Small Business – Part 8

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Windows Server 2012, as always, is available in a few different flavours. The names have changed a bit from Server 2008 R2, but overall the effect is the same. Your small business will want to focus on evaluating Windows Server 2012 Essentials. Why? For a few simple reasons:

  • It’s a full-fledged version of Windows Server 2012.
  • Essentials can perform complete system backups, and bare-metal restores, of the server itself.
  • Essentials can perform complete system backups of client workstations.
  • Microsoft Online Backup, its own cloud storage service, can be used to protect data.
  • Essentials centrally manages and configures the new File History feature of Windows 8 clients. This helps users recover accidently deleted or overwritten files without IT support.
  • It can monitor the health of Windows 7, Windows 8, and even Mac OS X 10.5+ clients, notifying of any issues related to backups, low disk space, and others.
  • As nice as Exchange Server can be, you’re no longer tied to it. You no longer need to feel as though you have to leverage the investment made into Exchange, because it’s no longer included. Head for the cloud!

All this for up to 25 users, and 50 devices. Fully recognizing that employees now use multiple devices at work, the device count is higher than the employee count. Smart move.

Now, I say all this, over the past few weeks, with most of you knowing full well I’m a big open source guy. And I still am. But when dealing with smaller businesses, few are willing to entertain the idea of completely ditching Windows. So even if they employ a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) strategy and let power users bring their own Ubuntu Linux laptops, or Apple iMacs, the vast majority of businesses are still running Windows in the server room/wiring closet.

And that, dear friends, concludes my series on leveraging Windows Server 2012 in your small business. I truly hope you found it informative and worthy of the time you spent reading each entry. If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment or send me an email through the Contact page.

Windows Server 2012 In Your Small Business – Part 7

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Many smaller companies operate globally, with small offices dotted around the world. There may be a small “head office” that houses the CEO and a few key people, but with small offices of two or three people in various different cities, it can be hard to keep things centralized. Even large restaurant chains run into the same problems. Windows Server 2012 has enhanced some existing features to make life easier for these types or organizations.

BranchCache

BranchCache isn’t new. It was introduced in Windows Server 2008 R2 and Windows 7. What BranchCache provided was a way to cache content from file and web servers at a branch office, dramatically reducing traffic across the WAN, and also reducing the amount of time it took for users at branch offices to access that content/data.

In Windows Server 2012 and Windows 8, the quicker/easier theme continues. Branch offices no longer require a GPO at each branch, deduplication has been introduced to reduce storage usage and bandwidth, and you can now preload content to a cache server before its requested by a user. Add it all up, and you get a useful feature that’s now easier to deploy, and works even better than it used to at reducing the cost to serve your branch office.

Branch Office Direct Printing

Branch Office Direct Printing is a new feature. It allows print jobs from your branch office to be sent directly to a local printer instead of having to be sent to a print server, first. This is a massive improvement to a problem I’ve seen for ages in centralized printing environments! Time and time again I’ve seen companies with a central print server at their head office, and people printing multi-megabyte files wait upwards of 10 minutes just to get things going.

Why? Only to see their print job finally show up at the printer 3m away from them? It makes no sense!

This will be a boon to any small business currently experiencing WAN slowdowns due to large print jobs. There are, thankfully, free (as in beer) WAN optimization virtual appliances available, but if you can reduce the need for any such solution, or put it off and focus on more important things for awhile, Branch Office Direct Printing will pay off.

That’s all the information I wanted to share today! We have one more entry left in the series, so please check back in a few days for the wrap-up!

Windows Server 2012 In Your Small Business – Part 6

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In Windows Server 2012, the Server Manager has been redesigned to make it easier to manage multiple remote servers from a single admin console. Thankfully Windows Server 2012 servers are configured to allow for remote management by default, requiring less configuration upfront to make it work.

There is a new dashboard that provides you with very “glanceable” information, including alerts to issues that require your attention. The dashboard updates every 10 minutes, so don’t be alarmed if a user brings up an issue before the dashboard provides you with the corresponding alert.

It’s now easier to deploy roles and features to remote servers using the Add Roles And Features Wizard, as this wizard lets you select a server from your server pool, or even an offline VM, as the destination server.

Overall, the look and feel is more user friendly, while still retaining all of the power that system administrators expect. In fact, SysAdmins have greater power and flexibility now, paired with easier server, and Active Directory administration. Microsoft’s really taken the refinement approach to Server Manager.

That’s all the information I want to share about this topic. I know this was a short one, but next time we’ll be covering BranchCache and Branch Office Direct Printing. That entry will actually be focused on distributed organizations, and anyone reading this from a branch office perspective. Keep checking back for the final two instalments on how Windows Server 2012 can benefit your small business.

Ubuntu 12.10 – First Impressions

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I finally got the chance to try the latest release of my favourite desktop Linux distribution – Ubuntu 12.10. And wow, have things ever improved on the installation front! This was easily the simplest Linux installation I’ve ever been through. I launched VMware Player, created a new virtual machine, and powered up the new Ubuntu VM. Beyond VMware Player’s “Easy Install” service asking me for a username and password, I didn’t have to do a single thing. It launched, copied the files, installed them, downloaded some extra language packs, and then did some clean-up near the end of the install.

The VM then restarted, installed the VMware Tools component, and I was off to the races. A very simple, clean install process that provided me with a highlight of new/improved features (à la Microsoft Windows), and then I was off to the races!

I logged in, and my initial impressions are very positive, overall. I quite like Ubuntu’s default colour scheme and Unity user interface, especially when you see their vision for using Ubuntu on TVs. The pre-installed software is basically all you need to get started. Out of the box you get Firefox, LibreOffice (Writer, Calc & Presentation), Ubuntu One (cloud services), a link to Amazon (???), and the Ubuntu One Music store. The Ubuntu Software Center is readily available as well from the app launcher, and has morphed from an old school package manager into an app store, similar to Google Play. The Software Center even includes categories like Books & Magazines (all about free and open source software, of course!), and Science & Engineering.

The biggest change for most people (non-Mac OS X users at least) is Dash. Dash is an integrated search funtion, allowing you to search both your local computer and the web at the same time. A similar feature is built into Google Now (Android 4.1+), and the now-retired Google Desktop software for Windows. But Ubuntu’s implementation is, again, very clean and far more usable. Unfortunately it doesn’t look like it’ll run normal queries (i.e. “derek silva”) on the web, which seems a bit like an oversight since the homepage in Firefox is set to a Ubuntu-branded Google.com. But a search for “prometheus” yielded a tonne of results including digital copies of the film, music, etc. Plus it will return any media you already have stored locally that matches the search. You can also filter by media type, whether it’s an application, file spreadsheet/presentation/document), music, photo, or video.

Ultimately I live a very web-based computing lifestyle. I use Gmail for email, Google Drive for most quick document creation (especially if I want to share it), I use the only Google Play store to find and install new apps for my phone and tablet, and read news online as well. Save for Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop, and Winamp, I rarely use any desktop software. And while there still isn’t a true alternative for much of the advanced functionality available in Office or Photoshop, there is alternatives that are perfectly good for the average user. It still boggles my mind when “normal” people tell me they’ve purchased Office or Photoshop. I ask them if they’re using certain advanced features, and typically they haven’t even heard of those features. So why did they purchase the software? Because it’s all they know, or they heard someone else talk about it. While Microsoft and Adobe certainly have all rights to build and sell that software, the average consumer would do well to take 5 minutes to do a bit of
research into free alternatives, or simply jumping off of Windows or Mac OS X entirely.

Backing up a bit, my mostly web-based computing means I have access to everything I need with a modern web browser. I launched Firefox and was pleased to see version 16 was installed and ready to go. I was a bit surprised that a Java applet wouldn’t load immediately, and was even more surprised to see that not a lick of Java appeared to be installed. Not a big deal that can be quickly addressed via the Software Center, which is far easier than visiting Java.com, and following Oracle’s instructions.

Overall, I’m seeing less and less reason for many consumers (and even corporate employees) to have Windows on their home machines. I know that switching to a different OS and ecosystem may seem like a drastic thing to do in order to save money, but when you factor in all of the costs you outlay to buy a new PC, why wouldn’t you consider it? A free OS (with support available), plenty of free software (paid software also available), an app store that makes obtaining said software very simple, and really no more need to visit the command line. I know Linux got a bad rep early on for not being user friendly, but that’s exactly the problem Ubuntu is attempting to solve. And I think they’ve gone a long way in doing that, making the OS just as easy to use as Windows or Mac OS. Recent controvery around including links to Amazon aside (you have to make money on free software somehow, without relying on the average end user buying support), Canonical is making big strides.