Computers are cheaper than ever, which means contractors can
afford one for each hand, some for their employees, and a
couple of spares. That's the good news. The bad news is that
multiple computers equal multiple Excedrin headaches when it
comes to file and document management. Ask anyone who has
wasted a day or two working on the wrong version of a set of
CAD plans or has mailed a customer a detailed quote based on
last year's prices.
Luckily, more and more of you are using broadband Internet
access and setting up networks so you can share the connection.
That opens the door for the next logical step -- setting up a
Grand Central Station
The concept is simple: Instead of letting everyone in your
company have copies of your project files riding around on
their individual computers, you set up a small office network,
and then you create one centralized "place" (the file server)
where all your data is stored. No one in your office will save
files to their local hard drives anymore. Instead, they'll open
files from the file server, work on them as always, and save
them back to the same place they found them.
If you have mobile users with laptops, or want to open "work"
files from your home office, you'll connect to the file server
from the Internet and then use one of several "synchronization"
software packages to make sure you're working on the most
current version of your file. When you're done, you'll
reconnect, and synchronize the updated files back to the file
server, where they'll be waiting for the next user.
In addition to eliminating "file version" mistakes, having all
your information in one central spot makes it much easier to
perform regular backups and routine housekeeping on your
Before you can use a file server, you need a small office
network. I'm not going to get into the details of setting up a
network here, except to say that it's gotten much easier (and
cheaper) than ever before. Check out my recent column on data
2/03). One of the full-featured models discussed can serve as a
network hub, a gateway to the Internet, a security firewall,
and even a wireless access point all rolled into one device.
Given a basic knowledge of Windows or MacOS, you should be able
to network several computers together and provide them with
shared Internet access for a few hundred dollars (see Figure
Figure 1.Whether your users are "in house" or
connecting from a home office or the job site, a file server
attached to your small office network creates a centralized
place to store and back up your project data.
Once you have a functioning small office network, you can set
up your file server. You have several hardware choices, each
with advantages and disadvantages.
computer. Say you have a desktop computer that's used
only once in a while, for instance by a part-time bookkeeper.
As long as it has enough free hard drive space (or can be
easily upgraded) to store all your project files, it can be
used as your file server. Because of the inevitable crashes and
possible data loss, it's bad business to have someone regularly
running programs and doing work on a computer that you're using
for a file server. But if you're a small company and it's not a
regular occurrence, you can get away with it. Price: $0 and up,
depending on necessary upgrades and modifications.
Dedicated PC-based server.
This is the most versatile option and, surprisingly enough, not
terribly expensive. Checking out Dell's website
(http://www.dell.com) recently, I found the
600SC mini-tower server selling for $399 (without operating
system, keyboard, or monitor). A dedicated server not only can
handle serving files to your network, but also can double as a
print server (for sharing a printer) and even run applications
like in-house e-mail and remote access/synchronization
software. If you're willing to spend a little more, PC servers
can be purchased with backup power supplies, multiple hard
drives, and dual network cards for extra reliability. They can
also accommodate advanced backup devices like tape
Dedicated servers can be set up to run a familiar Windows
operating system, or you could save some money and install one
of the many free or cheap "open source" UNIX derivatives like
Linux (http://www.linux.org) or FreeBSD
(http://www.freebsd.org), both of which will
work for Windows or Mac file sharing.
Network "server appliance."
This third category of file server, also called network
attached storage, or NAS, is gaining popularity because it's
relatively inexpensive and is dog- simple to get set up on your
network -- just plug in to your network hub and configure using
a web browser on one of your other computers. There's not much
more to think about. Typically, a NAS appliance will be a
semi-sealed box containing one or more hard drives and running
a very scaled-back operating system -- just enough software to
read and write files to the hard drives and maybe some security
or backup utilities.
One well-known brand of NAS is the Snap server
(http://www.snapappliance.com), with new
models showing up from Linksys
(http://www.iomega.com), and others (Figure
2). Prices start around $500 street.
Figure 2.The Linksys EFG80 combines up to 240GB
(80GB standard) of file storage with a built-in print server
and security and backup utilities, giving it a lot of bang for
the buck for small office networks.
If there's a downside to NAS servers, it's that they're pretty
much one-trick ponies. While some have basic print-sharing
capability, you can't install or run applications from them
like you can from a PC-based server.
So go out and get your file server. Next time around, we're
going to look at several ways to use it to make sure your
project documents are always up to date and in sync.Joe Stoddardis a technology consultant to the
building industry and a contributing editor at The Journal of
Light Construction. You can reach him at