Monthly Archives: August 2015

Why Windows Server 2012 Essential is Essential for small business

As a IT company, we supply mainly to small businesses with 1 to 20 employees.  Our preferred solution for companies of this size was Windows Small Business Server which provided everything a small business needed, with scope for up to 75 users all via a single piece of server hardware.

Great server solution at a reasonable price, but on-premises email can be a pain, especially with limited connection speed (mainly due to BT not providing fibre to cabinets which predominately host businesses) and the fact that many people think email is a filing system (it’s not…honest).

Microsoft to their credit looked at the way small businesses actually want to work and changed their small business solutions to cater for small businesses that actually wanted a hybrid solution of on-premises and cloud based services so literally they could work anywhere.  Let me introduce Windows Server 2012 Essentials R2 which is aimed at businesses of up to 25 users.

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Windows Server 2012 R2 is the latest incarnation of Microsoft’s server software, boasting the metro look and feel of Windows 8 (Don’t worry, it’s not nearly as awful!) to provide a simple, easy to use server package that is just as powerful as Microsoft’s earlier iterations. With innate integration to the also simple to use Office 365 package Microsoft are truly bridging the gap between end user and IT Professional as well as providing a smoother learning curve for those entering the IT industry.

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The Essentials Dashboard is your launching pad for everything you will want and need from Windows Server 2012 R2, its simple and straightforward design will make even technophobes appear to be IT Gurus, from here you can add new users, add server shares, manage permissions and check your backups, as well as a whole host of other tasks, to show just how simple Windows Server 2012 R2 can be we will go through the three step task of creating a new user and assigning shares to them.

While on the dashboard home page select ‘Add user accounts’ you will then be presented with the below screen, from here it is as simple as filling out the new users name and account name and desired password. Under the level of access drop box you can choose whether the user will be a normal user or an administrator capable of accessing the Windows Server 2012 R2 dashboard.midlands-it-support-2012-3

Once you have filled out the users details click next, you can then decide the users level of access to the shares that have been set up on the server, you can choose from Read/Write which will allow them to edit and add files, Read only which will allow them just to open and read files or No access which will make the folder hidden from the user.midlands-it-support-2012-4

On the next screen you will be able to decide whether the user has access to VPN and whether they can access certain resources from the web and for administrators whether they can access the Server Dashboard from the web, when you click Create account the user will be created, this simple three step process takes about a minute to complete and is simple and easy to understand.midlands-it-support-2012-5

In addition to this, if you want to add a new device to your network you can simply type http://YourServerName/connect into the address bar, sign in using an administrator account and the device will be added to the network, a process that used to be a short ordeal is now as easy as logging on in the morning.

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Back on the dashboard, if you click on the Users tab you can see and manage all of your users, from deactivating or deleting their accounts, changing passwords or changing the access levels that users have to shares, VPN or web access.

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Next on the Dashboards tabs is Devices, on this screen you can see all the computers, laptops and tablets connected to your server, from here you can remote onto the devices and control them from the server, set up specific backups and remove them from the server.

midlands-it-support-2012-8 Next on our tour of the dashboard is the Storage tab. This tab allows you to view the different shares that have been set up on the server, change the levels of permissions for users and of course add new shares, adding new shares is just as easy as adding new users. You can also view the individual hard drives connected to the server.

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midlands-it-support-2012-10 Back on the home screen we are going to look at the Health Monitoring of Windows Server 2012 R2, your server will constantly monitor its own health and provide feedback to let you know if there are any issues you may need to take a look at, when clicking on a warning or error you will be presented with ways that may fix the presented issue, sometimes these can be done automatically, other times there will be a guide to help you, other times it will link you to the relevant web page for the error code. These tools help to ensure your server is running optimally and efficiently.
midlands-it-support-2012-11One of the greatest aspects of Windows Server 2012 R2 is its ability to integrate itself with Office 365 for email and single sign on, by clicking Services on the home page you can choose the Microsoft Office 365 integration wizard which will help you through the incredibly simple integration system for Office 365.

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midlands-it-support-2012-13midlands-it-support-2012-14To integrate all you need to do is sign in with an administrator account on your Office 365 subscription and the wizard will automatically pull across any relevant information and link it to your server, you can then link the accounts of your Office 365 users to your Windows Server 2012 R2 users. Linking the users will allow you to have Single Sign-On (SSO) access to your server account and your Office 365 account within minutes.

Windows Server 2012 R2 is not all about its Dashboard, there are other improved features, such as the ability to error check disks that are in use.
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We can tell that Windows Server 2012 R2 was based on the Windows 8 metro theme by simply looking at the start menu, which takes on the form of the full screen tiled start menu that Windows 8 has been slated for. There is however the option to Right Click the start button and get a number of useful options from anywhere on screen.

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Choosing the Administrative tools from the start menu will bring up a screen that should look familiar to any seasoned Server Admin, while Windows Server 2012 R2 does boast a simplified user interface and tools, there are still tools that Admins will feel comfortable with and provide that very specific level of control that Admins like.

midlands-it-support-2012-18The server dashboard which should also be familiar has received a facelift and a lick of paint, although it is functionally no different to previous iterations of the Manager while also providing access to the above tools straight from the Server Manager.

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Windows Server 2012 R2 has received many upgrades both aesthetically and technically as well as simplifying its use for users and administrators. Despite this it is still a powerful tool to manage your network and is the flagship for Microsoft’s server software, for good reason too.

Windows 10 is it worth upgrading?

 

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What is Windows 10?

Windows 10 is the latest release of Microsoft’s popular operating system. For most people it will be a free upgrade on their current Windows 7 or 8 machine. This begs multiple questions such as, what are the new features? How does it feel? Major differences? Does it work for business? And most importantly is it worth it?

I we have installed Windows 10 on several machines now, and most have gone according to plan, although Samsung Laptops using Phoenix BIOS do not upgrade at all due its inability to perform a reboot during installation, otherwise the upgrades went smoothly. All applications we’ve tested are also working.

New Features

After the disappointment that was Windows 8, Microsoft seems to have upped their game and released an OS with what people actually wanted. First of all we have the return for the start button. As a business user, this is possibly the most important feature of the new Operating System, as there should be no requirement to retrain the workforce. For the most part it is very similar to Windows 7, so for most operations it has a very familiar look and feel, just with tiles should you have been unfortunate enough to have Windows 8. There are some options to customise the look of things if you dislike it, but they were available in Windows 7.

For starters, the Start Button now utilises both Left and Right Mouse Buttons. Left is for that familiar Windows Start Menu, and Right is for the Windows 8.1 administrative menu. As an Administrator, this saves a few clicks, so gets a thumbs up from us. You also have the Search Bar incorporated into the Task Bar now, so finding emails, documents or performing a web search can be performed without even having to open a program.

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The next new feature is the “settings” window. This is a new version of the control panel which has similar but different options. Some things can only be configured through settings and some only through control panel. For example windows update has now been removed from control panel and is in the update and security options in settings. The weird part about this is that some settings options take you to control panel anyway. Personally I would rather have one menu with all the configuration options rather than two that try to do the same thing. However the fact that both are available for use allows for all options to be explored.

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Another new feature is the voice command feature known as Cortana. Cortana allows you to speak to your computer rather than click or type to get it to perform actions. This could be to surf the web or open and close files or programs. We’ve had a play with it on a laptop without a microphone and find it difficult to use. Open Microsoft Word results in a web search for Microsoft Works. A microphone and spending a while “training” the program will iron out the issues though. We also found that unless we’re in the US, we have to download the language packs and a couple of other bits to make it work. From a user perspective this feature isn’t something that would get me to buy the product. It’s not brilliant on the Windows Phone and it’s more of a gimmick than additional functionality as every action can be performed through simple clicking and typing. Voice recognition software is also known to be buggy and not very reliable so using this in an office may lead to lots of frustration and angry shouting. We also found that if you didn’t tell it to stop listening a whole world of web pages opened up from background noise it tried to decipher into a request.

Edge is Microsoft’s new browser that is available with windows 10. It comes with a new modern design and is said to support Chrome and Firefox extensions in later versions. It also comes with new features such as Web Note which allows you to make custom notes on a web page, highlight important information, or draw simple diagrams. We tested it on some Small Business Server Remote Web Workplace (both 2008 and 2011) and found the functionality was so much better than either IE 10 or IE 11. It’s quick too, so Edge gets a thumbs up too especially when compared to IE 11 which we were having to run in compatibility mode for quite a few website who had decided that they wouldn’t upgrade to support something that was going to die anyway.

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Overall windows 10 looks good, has a great feel to it and seems to run smoothly with no problems.

Why is Windows 10 free?

Well it’s not entirely free. For users on Vista or XP, there will be retail versions coming out so you can upgrade. Prices are expected to be around £80 for Home and £125 for Professional. Not sure why anyone would upgrade hardware that is at least 6 years old and virtually worthless when economics would say to buy new hardware with the Operating System included.

Now you may be asking why Microsoft are not charging for the software and will be making a huge loss by making zero revenue by giving it away. Well that’s not entirely the case. The upgrade to Windows 10 offer is free for the 1st year it is out and only for Windows 7 / 8 Home or Professional installations. Business customers with Windows 7 / 8 / 8.1 Enterprise versions are not entitled to an upgrade, neither are Windows 7 / 8 / 8.1 Volume license customers unless they have Software Assurance. This means that if you have Windows 7 or 8 Home or Professional version and don’t upgrade before 28th July 2016, it won’t be free (although that is to be seen).

The main reasons why Microsoft are giving it away are quite simple and, it’s all down to economics. Microsoft aim to have around 1 billion Windows 10 devices within 2 – 3 years. That means 1 billion devices which have accounts on the Windows Store App. If you want to buy something, generally it will be purchased via the App Store. Developers will pay to have their Apps included, after all there is a market place which has 1 billion devices as potential customers. Microsoft will also take a cut of every purchase.

It will also mean that your PC, Laptop, Smartphone, XBOX One and Tablet can all run on Windows 10, and you can synchronise content between them. We’ve tested it on a Windows Phone and a Windows 10 Laptop and the Sync for Music via One Drive / Groove Music / Xbox Music / Nokia Music App works very well. Microsoft will have a music app where you can buy music from, plus games for your Xbox or PC too. They are creating their own marketplace, and will have 1 billion customers.

It seems that most companies are changing their revenue stream away from outright purchase to subscription revenue, and Microsoft are no different, especially given the success they have made of Office 365 which had 80 million subscribers for Exchange Online back in February and continues to attract additional customers on a daily basis. This is just the next progression in their plan, and it looks like a pretty good plan.

Does Windows 10 work for business?

The main reason Windows 8 failed was because for some unknown reason, Microsoft moved away from what they were good at, i.e. producing an operating systems for desktop PC’s and laptops, and tried to grab a piece of the Smartphone market that was dominated by Apple and Android devices. Whoever conceived the idea that people wanted their PC to look like their phone was clearly on a different planet to business users.

Windows has proven to be popular because the difference between Windows 3.11 and Windows 7 in terms of use isn’t that great. To open a program, you train someone to click on the start button, find the program in “Programs” and left click to open it. To close you click on the cross at the top right. It’s worked for 20 years, so bringing out something that doesn’t even have a start button, or menu’s was never going to work if a company has to retrain it workforce on how to use the system. Even switching a machine off became an issue because you had to go to the top right hand corner to get a menu, click power before the menu disappeared and then hopefully get to shut it down. That was of course if you got to use it without Windows telling you that upgrades were being installed and you’d have to reboot…now.

However, it appears that Microsoft are not too big not to listen to their customers, and Windows 10 will work for Business. Companies like Dell, HP and Lenovo suffered sales drops when Windows 8 came out and they tried to force it on customers, so on the business side, the big boys gave you an option to buy Windows 7 PC’s but with a Windows 8 license, so you could upgrade if they ever fixed it.

With the return to the Start Button, the desktop and a few additional items, Windows 10 will be very popular with business. It’s not something we will recommend to our customers for the next 3 to 6 months as we like to wait for the first wave of service packs and hackers to have a good go at breaking it before we roll something out. However, I believe Microsoft have launched an OS for the next 5 years at least, and we’ll start a rolling program to upgrade our client base while it’s still free. This is of course if they update server software to work with it properly too (which may be some time yet).

There are also reports that Windows 10 will disable counterfeit or illegal software installed on a machine.  This may impact on small businesses who have “borrowed” or use software they got from a company they used to work for but no longer have any affiliation to (and yes this is very common I’m afraid).  Personally I’m a big fan of this, as selling illegal software isn’t business, it’s fraud.  Likewise taking software from somewhere you used to work is theft, it might not seem like a crime, but Office Professional is around £400 to buy outright, and someone has paid for it… When companies spend billions of dollars developing products to make life easier for all don’t reap the rewards of their hard work, yet a criminal selling the products for a fraction of its true value pockets a small fortune and walks away, that’s not right. However, if Microsoft do implement this, the system should only be able to disable counterfeit Microsoft software, and I’d would hope that they would ensure a link to purchase legitimate software is generated as part of the process.  The cost of MS Office has never been so low, especially given the new subscription model for Office 365 (around £65 per year for up to 5 machines with Office 365 Home).  It also means you will always be up to date if you have a subscription, so no need to hoard CD / DVD’s and remember license keys, you just log into you Office account and away you go.

So… Is it worth upgrading to Windows 10?

Following some more in-depth testing of Windows 10 and how it interacts with servers, our current recommendation is no.  If you’re using small business server products such as Windows Server Essentials 2012, then you lose some functionality (which is due to be released in October 2015), and if you add a new device, you lose your profile as it connects the machine to the domain without transferring your desktop, documents etc. as it does with Windows 7.  It begs the question whether the roll out should have been early 2016 when they could actually spend the time ensuring it works with business networks, as I can’t see much beyond home users getting any benefit from it at the minute.

For home users, it is mostly situational, but we would say if you have Windows 8, or 8.1 then upgrade now as Windows 10 is a definite improvement and we can’t recommend it enough when compared to Windows 8. If you have Windows 7, I’d wait for Service Pack 1, as you’re probably happy with the operating system you have and the upgrade isn’t something that will bring you much in terms of additional functionality or usability.

Windows Phone will eventually become Windows 10, although timescales haven’t been released for when they plan to release it, although given the way they have rolled out the desktop version, it could be anytime between now and eternity.

Ultimately, Windows 10 will be around and have support until 2025. Windows 7 will be removed from support by Microsoft in January 2020, so you can plan for 5 years with Windows 7, or 10 years with Windows 10.