Confused about making the jump to Internet-based cloud services or virtualization? Let me help you sort out how you can take advantage of cloud-based services and on-premises IT infrastructure, depending on your specific needs and level of comfort with technology. Windows Server 2012 Essentials gives you the flexibility to choose the approach that’s right for you.

What Is Windows Server 2012 Essentials?

I’ve had years of experience working with Small Business Server (SBS) and its predecessor BackOffice Server, and I’m always interested to see how Microsoft’s approach to serving small business has evolved. Today, in the era of the cloud, you have options you’ve never had before. But choosing whether to go with maintaining your IT infrastructure completely on-premises or to mix in some cloud-based services opens new questions and considerations.

Of course, the first question is, “What is Windows Server 2012 Essentials,” anyway? WS2012 Essentials is a version of Windows Server 2012 that is designed around ease of use for organizations that may not have as much technical expertise as companies that have a dedicated IT staff. For example, as the successor to Windows Small Business Server, WS2012 Essentials gives you easier setup, installation, and migration experiences, a simplified management experience, and additional network-wide security features. In addition, it incorporates the latest Microsoft technologies for management, networking, data storage and backup, and document and printer sharing.

A major development is that WS2012 Essentials provides integration capabilities for cloud-based applications and services. This means you now have the flexibility to choose either the cloud or on-premises—or a mixture of both—as the best environment for your line-of-business and collaboration solutions. You don’t have to invest in hardware and technical experts if you want to save on expenses for such necessities as email and collaboration. You can simply opt to deploy cloud-based offerings such as Office 365.

What Are Your Options?

For most small organizations, when you consider how to deploy your IT infrastructure, you have a few fundamental options to choose from:

  • On-premises—In this case, you deploy your own server, network, and application infrastructure. This option is high in complexity and requires onsite IT expertise and/or third-party management. You capital investment is high with this option due to purchasing equipment software, and expertise.
  • Hosted IT—With this option, you pay a monthly service fee for all IT-related resources, including applications, storage, desktop environments, etc. The cost for soup-to-nuts services and 24x7 support is typically lower than the investment for an on-premises deployment, but your entire IT presence is dependent on a third party, and you might still need a local server to manage accounts and access.
  • Outsourced—Outsourcing IT is kind of like a copy machine contract: You don’t own anything (not even the hardware), and a third-party maintains your infrastructure. On the plus side, outsourced IT is on-premises, so you have local control. However, you might still need to hire a permanent IT person, even if that individual actually works for the partner. On the down side, outsourcing comes with higher costs and dependencies. Partner lock-in (as with hosting) could be an issue down the road if your needs change.

Those are the traditional options. But now, Windows Server (WS) 2012 Essentials gives you another path—hybrid IT. In this approach, you can capitalize on benefits from different IT models (including the ones above and Software as a Service—SaaS—and Infrastructure as a Service—IaaS) and minimize the risks and costs you’d have if you focused any single approach. With WS2012 Essentials, you can combine best-of-breed local server capabilities and standardized IT practices with cloud-based solutions.

You can lean as much or as little as you want towards local deployments versus cloud capabilities—what you choose depends on your business. For example, a law firm or medical clinic might require highly secure local document and email systems, while a media content company could need very extensive, easily accessible storage and enhanced application experiences.

Let’s look at some use cases to see what issues and benefits you get with on-premises and cloud-based services.

For Example: Law Office

When I’ve worked with law firms, I’ve always taken for granted that—regardless of the type of law they practiced—they maintained the highest levels of privacy and confidentiality. I’ve seen those who still prefer the lock-and-key method of safeguarding stacks of printed materials, but many others have turned to document management solutions to scan, store, and index critical information in digital from. WS 2012 Essentials in this scenario gives the firm a central, onsite server that ensures secure operations and protects data by letting them control where it resides, and where it goes.

Between add-ons such as Windows Rights Management Services and built-in capabilities including File Classification Infrastructure, WS2012 Essentials supports a highly secure on-premises environment. By keeping server hardware local to the business, the firm can not only protect sensitive information electronically, but physically (which government regulations might require). Even if data is copied from the server to a local storage device, the firm can maintain content privacy through embedded encryption.

But lawyers typically aren’t passionate IT administrators, so tasking them with IT management operations could prove challenging—kind of like asking your auto mechanic to fix your roof. To address situations like this, WS2012 Essentials give less technical administrators simplified dashboards and automated tools for managing domain security (e.g., user account settings), group policy across Windows 7 and Windows 8 clients, server configuration, backups, and much more. This means a relative IT novice could take responsibility for periodic changes, leaving more complex updates to a certified partner.

The firm may want to deploy SharePoint and host their own document library, complete with document classification and protection (including anti-malware), with domain-level security policies to limit remote access and filter input / output. Unified Active Directory group policies can also span client devices (such as desktops, laptops, and tablets) to enforce PC health and software guidelines that further protect the business’ infrastructure from viruses, exploits, or hacks.

To safeguard information on site, someone like an office manager could schedule central backups of both server and client volumes together, and even use Windows Azure Online Backup cloud-based storage to protect the firm overall.

WS2012 Essentials allows small businesses to retain core infrastructure and security features on their local networks, and includes technologies to enable robust integration with cloud-based services.

So in a situation that requires local control, WS2012 Essential has the features that serve the business needs, is simplified enough to allow less technical users to maintain day-to-day functionality, and has flexibility to combine on-premises control with cloud-based integration.

For Example: Media Company

If you look around www.microsoft.com, you’ll see thousands of videos, ranging from simple talking heads to complex animations, live-action footage, and 90-minute TechEd sessions. Dozens of media companies—mostly smaller operations of perhaps ten to twenty people—are responsible for much of this content. They all routinely work with massive files, multiple versions, even hundreds of hours of source recordings. All in all, this adds up to terabytes worth of material.

When I worked with these companies in the past, exchanging files was a nightmare. Either they shipped a DVD, or I had to spend hours downloading the latest versions from their FTP sites. And I’m sure they had issues storing all of the interim files, multiplied by every other project they were working on. How much easier would it have been if they had been able to extend their on-site storage capacity to a cloud-based service where I could play the latest video directly from the web?

WS2012 Essentials would have made a huge difference on both sides. It would have removed what must have been an enormous stack of hard drives and DVD burners on their desks and saved me loads of time spent downloading files. Using secure, cloud-based Windows Azure storage spaces, they could have automatically backed up media files and provided secure access to clients over the web. The only files they would have needed locally would be the current version, while the full history of the project could have rested safely in the cloud.

This hybrid approach allows end-users to work in ways that are familiar to them, while at the same time making it easier for small businesses to take advantage of the growing set of offerings available in the cloud through platforms such as Windows Azure.

For Example: Medical Clinic

Unless you’re a genetically-engineered superhuman who never gets sick or injured, everybody goes to the doctor at some point. It might just be winter flu. Did you break your arm, or just bruise it really bad? The doctor will sort out the diagnosis, but either way files are generated, processes are followed, and information exchanged. Your old country doctor might know you by name and remember every ailment you’ve had since you were born, but most clinics don’t run that way. Now governed by stringent regulations such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), medical establishments must adhere to strict guidelines about how and where your personal data can be stored and accessed.

Many clinics and private practices have packaged health information management software solutions, potentially customized by a solution provider. In addition, they may need to periodically send records, test results, and medical data to other clinics for further analysis, or perhaps to provide treatment while you are traveling. If so, then not only do you want your sensitive private details protected from prying eyes, but your doctor is required by law to make sure that they are.

This is a case where WS2012 Essentials lets you deploy on-premises medical applications and also supports messaging and collaboration by integrating with Office 365 or Hosted Exchange in the cloud. And if you need more direct control over email, you can use the same WS2012 Essentials administration tools to manage a local Exchange Server. Plus, the Windows Phone application will let doctors and nurses remotely access the server. DirectAccess provides another mechanism to gain secure remote access to health applications and data from Windows 7 and Windows 8 clients.

This example illustrates that WS2012 Essentials has options to help your business support client machines, whether they are local or remote. Users can get at what they need most, when they need it—locally or in the cloud.

How Should You Choose?

These are just a couple of examples to show that with WS2012 Essentials, you can run all your IT infrastructure and applications completely in-house on your own hardware, or you can take advantage of cloud services that you can manage from a unified dashboard, even on tablets or other web-enabled devices.

It won’t always be a clear decision on what to place locally or in the cloud because you can take many paths. The examples above should provide a little bit of direction based on real-world requirements, but the following table might also help:

 

Requirement

On-Premises

Cloud

Mixed

Expansive storage

High cost to purchase and maintain, but enables greater control.

Far lower costs, but may not meet legal or regulatory requirements.

Keep sensitive data local, but leverage Windows Azure or other online storage for large data.

High security

Keep all apps and data local.

Consider hosted solution focused on providing compliance services.

Using Hosted Exchange combined with on-site file storage is still a good option.

High availability and reliability

Very high cost for the small business to implement, not entirely practical for standard IT environments.

Cloud services such as Windows Azure and Office 365 are 24x7. Your data will always be there, and will always be accessible.

When other parties are relying on your infrastructure, it will be beneficial to leverage the capital investments made by hosters and cloud providers.

Virtualization

A great way to get more out of your server hardware (with an upgrade to WS2012 Standard), or for a hoster to provide IT as a Service to multiple small businesses at the same time.

New Windows Azure capabilities for hosting virtual machines makes it possible to run your entire IT environment from the cloud.

 

The bottom line is that the answer to whether you should go for on-premises, hosted, or cloud-based IT implementation depends on your particular business needs and situation. The good news is that WS2012 Essentials give you options that you can combine in various ways to customize your solution to fit your individual business needs.

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This article was written by guest blogger Joel Sloss.