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Expert tips on getting the most from windows server essentials

While many small businesses utilize the cloud for running their apps and services, there can still be some advantages to deploying your own on-premises server solution. For these businesses, Windows Server Essentials (WSE) may be just the ticket they need. The latest incarnation of WSE, Windows Server 2016 Essentials edition, is a cloud-connected first server that is ideal for small businesses having up to 25 users and up to 50 connected client devices. To help you get the most out of using this product, I've asked an expert to share his secret tips and tricks that he's learned from his own hard-earned experience helping his customers deploy, configure, and troubleshoot WSE. Sam Garcia started working with computers way back in the 1970s when Fortran and Cobol were kings. Sam holds A+, Network+, MCSE, DCSE, HPCP, and other certifications and has 45 years of practical experience in the computing field. He has always liked the hardware side of computers and has worked as a technician setting up and repairing desktops and laptops in Texas, California, Illinois, Maryland, Virginia and now D.C. Metro. He says he has worked at one time or another for all the big boys including Dell, HP, Apple, IBM, NCR, and so on. These days, Sam designs, implements, maintains, and repairs network systems for under 25 workstations in retail, legal, scientific, medical and automotive environments. Most of his business is via word of mouth, enough to make a living and give him free time to pursue his various interests in computers. Let's now learn from Sam's top tips and best practices working with Windows Server Essentials.

Plan before deploying

Perhaps the most important piece of advice I'd offer is to think everything out and write it down before you start. Things like membership in user groups, compatibility of applications with the platform, support phone numbers, printers and MFP's, BYODs, backup, UPS, choice of antivirus, mobile devices, and so on are all part of the master plan.

Avoid the gray market

I buy the 2016 Windows Server Essentials direct from Microsoft online only. One of my customers found it somewhere for $99 and is regretting it as it won't validate: It's a blocked volume license, not retail. Also Microsoft offers technical support with the product, which is really a lifesaver when setting up some of the new more advance services like Anywhere Access connectivity.

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Once you buy Windows Server Essentials from the Microsoft Store (currently $567) just download it and either burn it to a DVD or save it to a flash drive. But if using a flash drive, first verify that your server can boot up from an external USB device beforehand. Many older servers do not boot from external USBs, which means you will need to burn the DVD instead.

Change the workgroup name

Boot up from the DVD or external flash drive and follow the icons to set up the user name and password and, in my specific case, the domain or workgroup. Do not use the default "workgroup" as the name; change it to anything but "workgroup" because hackers know that "workgroup" is the default. In my case I use the name of the business as the domain name, or the last name of the CIO, owner, community, street name, or whatever.

Populate AD but do so privately

Now use Server Manager to add all of the computers that are going to connect to the 2016 Windows Server Essentials, which is up to 25 computers. We use either the same password (generate a password using Windows password generator, enforce the minimum password requirements, no weak passwords) for all the workstations or by choice in different groups like accounting, production, legalities, doctors, sales, technicians, engineers, mechanics, and so on. This makes it easier to create groups and use AD to assign to the group what apps the group can access and which they cannot access. Keep a list of each user and their login password because people do quit their jobs, and a full restore is not something to look forward to. And very important: Be sure there is not one prying eye during setup.

Disable IE ESC

Temporarily disable Internet Explorer Enhanced Security Configuration (IE ESC) so you can download all of the drivers, programs, and so on that you need. One of the earlier beta editions of WSE allowed you to add each website on the fly, but the final edition does not do this and it can be very frustrating and time consuming to add each website to the Trusted Sites list in IE. But don't forget to enable IE ESC again at the end of the setup after all programs are working!

Prepare for emergencies

All the workstations need to join the same domain/workgroup. Do so after adding them as users in the specific group (e.g. accounting, production, etc.) in WSE using Server Manager. It is just easier to set up the groups and populate them than to have up to 25 users and no real way to identify them. I use the computer name as in that way I can 100 percent identify it and assign it to a specific group. The computer name can be acquired by physically going in front of the workstation and right clicking on the properties. An easier way is to use the applications login, which is specific to the applications (e.g. QuickBooks, All Data, Shop Manager, etc.) as that way all users will at least be able to "see" all the apps. It's up to you to decide which approach to follow after presenting this easier alternative to the owner or CFO and getting their approval. My experience has shown me that the alternative method is preferred as it allows anyone with the proper credentials to access all apps from any workstation in case of an emergency.

Choose a backup solution

2016 WSE offers cloud-based Microsoft Azure backup. 1TB of data storage is $20 plus the disk usage, which comes out to about $30 per month. Some businesses go for it, but some still have reservations. It's up to you to explain the benefits of encryption, secure connections, and be able to fully restore everything including the apps and any workstation that fails. But learn to respect the decision of the owner/CFO and implement whatever path is decided upon. One of my customers bought an external 2TB drive from Seagate for $69 at a local store and I attached to the server and it works just fine as a backup solution.

Let's get physical

Physical security and ventilation of the server are both very important and need to be included in your master plan. As a practical example, one of my customers had their server installed in a closet with no ventilation. It got to be more than 130 degrees and the server failed and I had to reinstall it in a room with ventilation. Another customer bought a mini-cage with a fan built in for which he paid about $400. The cage locks and is secure. A third customer installed their server in an unoccupied office that has a deadbolt lock. Whatever type of security you are going to use needs to be approved, so don't forget to contact your insurance company for the extra coverage!