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Readers' choice: What every small-business sysadmin needs

The essential toolkit

Horses for courses

Start putting the management bits together – GFI, Spiceworks, CloudPhysics and so forth – and you actually head off a lot of problems before they arise. That is crucial when you are dealing with networks that are not in the same building as you or might even be half a continent away.

You will notice a lot of this is pre-canned stuff. Appliances, cloud offerings and so forth. There is a reason for that.

Small-business owners, by and large, own their own business because they want some illusion of control over their own life. They like the ability to tweak and twiddle and – most importantly – know that if they get hit by a bus they have a strangled prayer of having someone else pick up where they left off.

Being at the mercy of a nerd looking for job security is not high on their list of things that give them warm fuzzies.

Appliances and carefully selected, local cloud services are good choices for SMBs. A custom designed open-source nightmare of shell scripts and bailing wire is not.

Now this isn't a pitch for the "oneness of the cloud" or some such. The one-size-fits-all marketing tripe that gets trotted out by Amazon, Microsoft and the like is horsepucky of the nth degree.

Cloud is more expensive than local. It is lock-in in a huge way, puts your data outside your control, and nobody ever wants to talk about how the hell you are supposed to get your data back from said wonder factory drinking your future from yon local ADSL straw.

But much as I despise the rental model, I have learned that tactically the odd cloud company is actually useful. Appliances – both physical and virtual – are more so. I virtualise everything else. If it goes slow, I add a flash drive and Proximal Data.

I use Ninite, Notepad++, FreeFileSync, Navicat and SoftEther VPN more than I probably should and I spend a significant chunk of my day managing Linux servers from Webmin. (Or Virtualmin, if it is a web server.)

If you use Linux, use Fail2Ban. If you don't use Fail2Ban, monsters will eat your family.

Preserve your health

In the small-business space, keep everything as simple as possible and always with an eye to affordability.

Never let the powers that be force complexity due to claims of poverty. I have spent a decade of my life there and it is not a pretty place. I know for many there is a "do what you must" feeling, often tied to a sense that you just can't get a different or better job.

But there will never be a better time to escape than now. If you are working for an employer that can't afford the kinds of cost-conscious tools I mentioned above, leave. Right now. Leave and don't look back.

We are right smack at the height of the tech bubble and now is your chance to get out of that hell before it costs you your health.

Lashing together a bunch of incompatible systems with scripts and custom programming may sound macho and professionally intriguing, but five years down the line you will be working 18 hours a day putting out fires and not making any progress on anything.

Today's band-aid meets another band-aid tomorrow which is covered by another after that. If the money isn't there to make it go today, then chances are it will never appear.

I have walked up to my own grave and stared into the abyss of my own mortality working to make the impossible happen for a company that fought me for every last bent copper. The results weren't pretty. Do not do this.

Nothing is free. You pay with money, you pay with labour, you pay with risk, and sometimes you pay with all three. Don't spend more than you can afford in any of those categories and take the time to make sure you can trust your vendors before committing a client to them.

This is what little wisdom I have to offer. Good luck. ®

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