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Please share recommendations for a church/school file sharing server configuration? If you have one in place in your organization, would you please share the specs. I’m looking for details including … 
  • Description of usage
  • Hardware – Can an older system serve this role??
  • Software – Operating system and anything else that assists with the server functionality
  • Backups – Method, frequency, local or cloud based
  • External access – Can staff members access from outside the building? If so, how?
  • Other good-to-know details???

Perry Lund - Grace, Oskalosa, IA

Here are my general experiences over the past 10+ years.

Usage: basic file services, DNS, DHCP and authentication (login, password, service access)

Hardware: Any Intel Xeon CPU equipped computer as most services do not require processing power. Storage is IMPORTANT - both quality, redundancy and speed. Minimum storage, a SATA RAID 5 setup with minimum of 3 hard drives. If video is not stored, smaller SATA drives in the 160 GB to 250 GB are actually more reliable. Data densities on 750 GB and larger hard drive is a major headache (ask me sometime). I like 2 smaller HDs in RAID 1 mirror for OS, and 3 HDs for RAID 5 for data. Hardware RAID controller is preferable.

Software: As a company, we use Ubuntu and CentOS Linux, which is pretty easy to setup now for basic services because they have maturing GUIs. Windows Server 2008 is much improved over past MS offerings, but its pricey. In the Mac OS X Server world, a MacMini Server is a great dollar value, as you get reasonable hardware (software based RAID 1), Intel Core2 Duo processor and up to 8 GB RAM. Mac OS X Server has no user license limits.

Backups: Online backups are in my experience the best method to use now in additional to RAID as a redundancy. CrashPlan, Mozy and Carbonite or Backblaze are good. CrashPlan offers a great range of options. You can backup from the server to any other PC on your network or even over Internet to home PC for free. You can backup to CrashPlan's data vaults over the Internet for a small monthly fee. Cloud-based backup is wonderful IMHO. Frequency of backup is usually 15 minutes intervals and we maintain multiple versions.

Note: If you need a complete cloned backup of your server and it is Windows or Linux, a copy of Acronis TrueImage Server is expensive, but works perfectly. It builds a bootable CD with RAID drivers for your specific machine.

External access: As a company, ArrowQuick tries to build or use web-based services in almost all its functions. Our accounting, HR, internal company handbook (wiki), media services (ResourceSpace), and ticket tracking are all web-based service. We setup both software VPN rules on our router and use port forwarding to gain external access.

Other goodies: Most people do not like it, but having solid internal DNS and DHCP is critical to good internal network performance. Seek help in setup of those services on Windows, Linux or Mac OS X Server if needed. Once setup, it makes life much better.

Example 1: My wife's school of about 625 students K-12 has used PowerSchool for its student information system for 10+ years. Over the first 10 years, the school utilized a variety of iMacs to handle the software as its requirements were pretty reasonable. PowerSchool utilized the 4D database, then moved to SyBase and finally Oracle. Over those transitions, the database reliability increased significantly as did performance. However the specification have grown to a point where Mac OS X was not adequately supported by Oracle (fun in and of itself). The school was faced with purchasing a pretty massive server at a significant cost. The hours of administration was also a cost in manpower.

The server specs would have included multiple Xeon processors, a minimum of 5 SAS drives for RAID, and a pricey backup system. I am a proponent of CrashPlan and other online backup solutions, but Oracle databases are not specified to use them. Tape backup systems are costly in initial purchase and ongoing tapes and labor.

My wife's school decided to go with PowerSchool being hosted on the Pearson company servers. In the last 5 months, this has proven to be a good decision. Julie (wife) has reduced her time in administration to simple authorization of timed upgrades. Backups and upgrades are a thing of the past and the old server (a Mac Pro) was repurposed as a file server, saving the school several thousand dollars on a new file server.

The only concern going into the hosted solution was that of bandwidth. Julie's school has a 5 MB fiber connection and the pipeline to the hosted server seems to be a good one. The speed for the end users has not been noticed by them. The uptime has been better in the last 5 months as well.

Ryan Rosenthal - Faith, Fond du Lac, WI 

We are running a server, I don’t know the exact hardware. It was donated and is of medium age. It is running Windows server 2003. It has a built in second hard drive that we use raid on to automatically back up everything. If the HD died we could swap in the second one and be up and running again. We also use an older server to handle all of the lab equipment. We are going to upgrade that to a better machine when I decide I have the time. Right now, on the main server, most people keep the majority of their files. Before we got the latest donation we were having some space issues, so some people kept things locally, but since the new machine I have been encouraging everyone to keep it on the server. (Nothing gets backed up locally unless they do it themselves.) We also have en external hard drive that I manually copy user files to every now and then. I simply drag and drop. I did use MS back up for a while, but I didn’t like what seemed to me as an all or nothing option. I was looking for this back up to be for someone who lost a file more so than a full system restore. The way it was set up before I would have had to roll back everyone’s files to recover one file or one person’s files. In addition I use the cloud to back up my grades. I have a copy of my grade files on drop box. I also found out that through our ATT email, we have online storage, so once in a great while I will back up my grade book to that. I also set up a sky drive account for the church secretary for her to back up some of the financial data that she wanted an off site copy of. (I honestly haven’t checked with her lately to see if she is still using it.) We used to use a tape drive, but that required the secretary to go to the server room and run the tape, wait for it, and then change the tape. This seems much more economical. 

We have a Cisco firewall in place that allows us to access the network through VPN. Some people use this mainly for checking email, but many of us do do other work from home, including the secretary. 

I think we do a nice job of sharing files electronically this way. It allows us to each make any copies we want or make some changes to our version before we copy it. Let’s use the Christmas service for example. At the 7th grade level, I like my students to be able to see the entire service so that they can see when their parts fall in relation to the rest of the service. I can go to the file and print it all off. However, some of the other teachers feel that having the whole service is overwhelming or confusing for some of the younger children, so they prefer to have only the parts that pertain to their students. They can go to the file and print out what they want.

Right now, as I see it, we have two main areas of improvement with our file sharing, location and duration. When people save files, we don’t have a good system for where things should be saved. For example, there is a folder on the server for last year’s Christmas service, but this year’s service is found in a totally different area of the drive several folders deep. The other issue is how long do we need to keep old services (or any other file) and who is in charge of deleting them when the time comes? 

The other thing I would say, that I need to do again, is make sure people understand what is and what is not backed up. Anything on the server is backed up. Anything local in the my documents folder, is not.

In the lab I have redirected the my documents folder so that it saves directly to the server and not locally. The nice thing about that is it can be done and the local user doesn’t even need to know/understand where the files are really being saved. 

I also use Team Viewer occasionally if I want to access my home pc from school

P.S. It is good to have a Cisco engineer as a friend/member.

Karl Henslin - St. Mark, Green Bay, WI 


Our school has 2 servers now.

They aren't just for files, they do DNS, AD, and print serving too, but we have a 5 year old consumer computer (Athlon 2 Nforce2 motherboard) running Server 2003 with 4 GB ram and 4 Harddrives using software mirroring to keep things backed up from hardware failure. We are also running a virtual 2008 server on a 3 year old machine with a P4D and 2 GB of ram. We are planning on licensing it in the summer, but we haven't licensed it yet. If one goes down, the other should keep anyone from even noticing since we are using DFS shares now. We use previous versions (shadow copies) 2 times a day on the shares, and we will be copying the virtual drives in the 2008 server each month. The tricky thing is that is needs to be shut down to do it right now. The 2003 server is being replaced this summer if things go according to plan, although we might just replace the drives and install server 2008 R2.

At church, we have a server 2003 maching running everything. It is running virtually on a new windows 7 64 bit system, and shadow copies send everything to a freenas box (6 years old, but new harddrive, checked capacitors before installing) on a weekly basis, including the system image so that we could get things going again if need be.

We allow remote desktop into the building to each teachers' computers through the firewall on different ports. We set security settings to lock accounts after 5 guesses, so hopefully no one can hack us that way. to get in, teachers go to start, run and type mstsc. Then their computer name:unique port. We used regedit to change the ports on each machine. A comsifter protects our school Internet, and we are planning on a smoothwall server to protect the church Internet soon.

I love how Windows Server and Active directory make managing the network easy. If you are using Windows Home edition, you won't see the advantages though.

James Mahnke - Luther High School, Onalaska, WI

Why not keep it simple? No hardware, software, upgrades, maintenance or backups needed and it is FREE! All you need is Internet access.

Consider a Windows Live Skydrive account http://explore.live.com/windows-live-skydrive Check out the link for more details but in a nutshell it gives you 25GB of free storage space that you can choose who gets access to which files and/or folders.

Luke Johnson - Grace, Sitka, AK

I was going to echo the same (cloud-based file sharing), with a preference for the venerable Google Apps. Obviously Google and MS are in a neck and neck for the cloud, with lots of second tier competitors (zimbra, zoho, etc.)
http://www.google.com/a/help/intl/en/edu/index.html
http://www.google.com/apps/intl/en/nonprofit/index.html
My impression from Skydrive/BPOS is that MS is still trying to steer users toward their desktop software (esp Office/Exchange), and their cloud stuff is for 'when you are away from your PC' but not a 'replacement'. On the upside if you have users who love their locally installed Office suites, they can join cloud users with no re-learning, just 'save' the file to the cloud. Whereas Google isn't pushing any licensed software for desktops, just gleaning market data and advertising streams, and makes you use a browser for everything.

It's been in the works for a bit, but Google is working hard to bring everything in their portfolio under GA:
http://googleenterprise.blogspot.com/2010/11/ten-times-more-applications-for-google.html
So I think they have the edge on MS if you are looking for more then file storage and productivity; e.g. instant messaging, blogs, sites, youtube, groups, etc.
To circle back around to your original question though...you only mentioned "fileserver", and if you truly meant only something that does CIFS/NFS/FTP/HTTP, then....

There is the whole spectrum: the small $150 linux box at home with samba and mozy.com ... to Work with Server 2008 with replication DFS on SANS and Cisco VPNs for access. So really it depends heavily on your financial/technical resources and needs.

I have a soft spot in my heart for: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Network-attached_storage#Open_source_implementations if you'd like to build your own fileserver out old hardware, like a Dell desktop. But your the value of your time must be minimal, and perhaps even the value of your data.

And of course there are plenty of 'appliances' out there, most of which get favorable reviews, e.g.: 
http://www.amazon.com/D-Link-DNS-321-Network-Attached-Storage/dp/B0019OZ3OO 
I recommend these often for small (<50 emp) businesses, they are hard to beat for cost if you want something that works-out-of-the-box.

But everybody knows the catch-22.. if you DIY, you inherit all the other problems as well: hardware cost, administration, backups, physical location/maintenance (drives like to fail). And I think more and more people are 'seeing the light' of either Skydrive or Google Docs, even for 'simple' file-storage and collaboration. Being a professional IT guy... Google is adding years to my life via stress reduction. I love everything wrapped in safe SSL tunnels, with no VPN client messing up network settings on PCs, and correspondingly access to all users from every/anywhere.

This same topic is hashed over again and again on 'nerd' sites... if you want real nitty gritty, it's out there:
http://www.google.com/search?q=file+server+site%3Aask.slashdot.org&tbo=1&tbs=qdr:y&sa=X

Lastly, if you do go Google, there are some neat MarketPlace apps. For a piddly amount, I'd recommend: 
http://www.google.com/enterprise/marketplace/viewListing?productListingId=4354169+10645992921026298856
or the slightly more robust and expensive:
http://www.google.com/enterprise/marketplace/viewListing?productListingId=68+17631887083757151838

Kevin Draper - St. John's, Sleepy Eye, MN

Our church and school file server is an older donated PC. I believe it is a Pentium III with 512 MB of RAM and it has a network card, of course. It doesn't need to be a particularly fast machine. It simply holds several large hard drives for storage. We use Ubuntu (free Linux distribution) as the operating system. We use Samba, an open source windows network utility. For external access we have used Sonic Wall to VPN through the firewall. We don't have a regular backup solution for this machine at this time. 

We handle our internet routing and filtering on a separate computer.

The best advice I have for a congregation or school who is considering adding a server is to determine who is going to install, administer and support the server and pursue whatever configuration they are most comfortable with.

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