SME Server: The Linux solution for growing businesses

By   |  April 14, 2009

If you’re running a small business and you’re in the market for server, you might want to consider SME Server, a Linux distribution customised specifically for the small and medium sized business environment. You can find SME Server, which is is based on CentOS, a distribution known for its stability, at www.contribs.org.

The community’s forums and wiki are very active and there are lots of HowTos available. Additional repositories are also available for many extra packages that could not be included in the download because of the limitations of a single CD ISO file. The price is also right because it only costs the price of your bandwidth to download the 700MB file. One should however, feel free to contribute to Contribs.org, especially if you obtain payment for offering its services to others.

SME Server is for anyone who has a small to medium sized company: SME Server is designed to be an “install and forget” server. It becomes the hidden box that simply does it all. It features automatic security updates, backups, user and group management. It can host the office email, run a Windows domain and offer file- and print-server services with Samba (Windows file-sharing). File-sharing can also be offered by an ftp or http (web) service. DNS management and website/intranet hosting as well as dynamic DNS client support is included. SME Server can offer a Windows VPN (PPTP) service or, if you prefer, OpenVPN. Content filtering and virus-scanning is provided by web- and smtp-proxies. All these services are simply and easily configured via a web interface.

SME Server is configurable as a gateway, file-server or both. If you need a bigger setup, then you could use a set of SME Servers variously as a firewall and router, and as a domain controller (PDC), and as a domain member file-server. But, from a security “best practice” point of view, you should avoid offering network services on a firewall machine.

Why SME Server?
Perhaps you’re thinking: “So what, I can do that with [your favourite distro here].” What makes SME server special is that its features are well integrated and that after the installation there is no need for end users to see the command line again. You can install it and forget about it. You can deploy it at client offices without worrying about having to telephonically help an end-user through the intricacies of tab-completion and the bash history. SME Server quietly and efficiently gets on with its work.

Being a Linux operating system, one gets a lot of bang for their buck: A couple of years ago, I replaced a Windows 2003 Small Business Server running on a Pentium 4 that had a 1GB of RAM (RAM was expensive then, remember) with an old Celeron 1.1 Ghz with 192 MB of RAM for an office of about 20 users. The SME Server running on the old hardware outperformed the bigger server in every way. It had a boot time under of under two minutes, versus almost 10 minutes. Stability, easy backups and immunity to viruses were just some of the other benefits. That was a late 6-series SME Server. I’ve played with it off and on since then and continued to be impressed by it. The current release is 7.4, and improvements and additional flexibility are available as part of the installation: A screenshot tour of the installation is found here. Screenshots of the web-interface are included in the Administration Manual.

The SME Server website at www.contribs.org is well worth spending some time on, visit the documentation section and read the FAQ to orientate yourself to the way SME Server runs, and to discover some useful HowTos including Asterisk VOIP server, vTiger CRM and eGroupware. Here’s a link to a more detailed feature list for SME Server.

The only disadvantage of using SME Server that I have come across is that one cannot simply install standard RH or CentOS binaries due to changes to the system configuration as compared to standard CentOS. However, this is a small disadvantage and would rarely have an impact on users.

The only alternative to SME Server that I know of is a recent project called “e-box” which is based on Ubuntu. It has a slicker looking web-interface that utilises ajax extensively to avoid full page refreshes. You can find it at www.ebox-platform.com. Perhaps we’ll have an article on that soon too. Or one could always “roll your own”, by installing Samba, MTA, LDAP, FTP, Apache, etc on one’s favourite distro, but using SME Server is so much simpler.

Resources:

Andrew McIver works for a large ICT company in Midrand. He’s used Linux since Fedora Core 1, and currently switches between Kubuntu and openSUSE11.1.

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Introduction photo credit: iStockPhoto.com

Comments

6 Responses to “SME Server: The Linux solution for growing businesses”

  1. GwydionDdu
    April 14th, 2009 @ 12:41 pm

    We have used SME server for our customers who are not cash rich and need the functionality of say Microsoft’s SBS. Our last install of SME was for a local charity who needed a server and we installed the system and had it configured for e-mail, intranet, shared folders, and a Windows Domain Controller for 5 users all for under £500 and that included hardware. That was about 3 years ago and we have only had one support call from them since the installation, a Windows XP laptop had died.

  2. Ben Chambers
    April 16th, 2009 @ 12:25 am

    vThe only alternative to SME Server that I know of is a recent project called “e-box”

    Let me introduce you to ClarkConnect then. ClarkConnect has been actively developed since 2001. We get a lot (over 200,000) of cross over between companies that want the benefits of a SME server solution, but want a company (not a community) to back it there happens to be trouble.

    If anyone has any questions, I’d be happy to answer them (info at clarkconnect.com)…or better yet, one of our partners located on the continent could assist you in your own locale.

  3. Thumos
    April 16th, 2009 @ 6:15 am

    Do not forget ClarkConnect: http://www.clarkconnect.com/

    I would like to see a shootout between SME Server, ClarkConnect and e-box

  4. Shawn ( Penguin Solutions)
    April 17th, 2009 @ 12:47 pm

    We use SME extensively as an alternative to MS SBS, the solution is really very cost effective and allows Small and Medium size companies to run their businesses.

    It has many more other features not listed in the above article, eg SPAM, Antivirus etc…

    It really is very easy to learn and use, and due to its template system easy to make changes.

    I suggest it if your company is looking for an alternative…

    We ahve it installed at over 50 sites now, and some “users” think it is a Microsoft enviroment

  5. Etienne (Halo Communications)
    April 18th, 2009 @ 7:18 am

    The reason I’ve not converted many of our clients to Linux-based servers is:

    1) talented available support staff or in very short supply & are usually expensive (won’t sell something I can’t support)
    2) linux is not widely a know & understood technology by clients
    3) Exchange funcationality that is limited/not completely supported on linux servers

  6. Mac
    April 21st, 2009 @ 7:10 pm

    @Etienne (Halo Communications):

    re: (1): Thanks for your post, start learning the easy way: SME Server, Ubuntu desktop. And visit the Tectonic Directory at http://www.tectonic.co.za/directory for individuals/companies offering Linux support: I think you’ll find someone there willing to do support.

    re: (2) That is why SME server is a good idea: it sits in the background and behaves like/interoperates with windows. One doesn’t need to know Linux to adminster it. It as easy as logging in to an ADSL router, as the interface is web-based

    re: (3) exchange is a whole other beast, but “I feel you”. For groupware functionality you’d be looking at Kolab, Scalix, Zimbra or Chandler, or possibly OpenGroupware.org, phpGroupware, OpenChange (alpha software) OpenXchange. Some of which are readily installable on SME Server.
    fyi: ClarkConnect uses Kolab, and the Toltec connector for Outlook (so that outlook can talk to Kolab) is developed here in South Africa AFAIK.

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