PC Networks in the Small Business

If there’s a few of you in your business, then it’s probably worth running a proper client–server network, with a central machine running Windows Server; and client machines running Windows Pro and joining a domain. If there’s only two or three of you, this probably isn’t worth the expense, and so you go down the path of buying a couple of Windows Home machines and networking them together, which people have been doing ever since Windows 3.11 and NetBEUI. These days you set up a Workgroup and just use the Windows wizard.

Actually, that’s easier said than done. One of my favourite quotes from an IT bod in a previous job was discussing the movie, “Independence Day” by complaining, “How does Jeff Goldblum hack into an alien civilisation with just a Nintendo Game Boy when it takes us all day to get two Windows machines to talk to each other?” The main obstacle these days is likely to be your anti-virus software’s firewall settings. We use ESET and have to get right into its settings to allow all devices on the same IP address range to talk to each other. You then create various ‘shares’ on each machine, map them to a drive letter for convenience and, Bob’s your uncle, you’ve got a network. Well, not quite; if any of the machines are turned off, you don’t see their shares, and half the time, shared drives, even mapped ones, don’t show up in File Explorer. Why not? I don’t know: It’s been like this as long as I can remember.

OK at the back, I can see you desperately wanting to point out, “Come on, it’s the 21st century: what about the Cloud and Office 365?” Good question. We have Office 365 and for quite some time we put all our shared content into SharePoint and were very happy. With everything encrypted in the cloud, your backups and ICO/GDPR obligations are taken care of too. It can be a bit annoying because, of all the various cloud storage solutions, it’s about the slowest to synchronise. So if I saved something in SharePoint an hour ago, it hasn’t necessarily synchronised with the Cloud and then back to my colleagues’ local storage yet. Then, one busy day when we could have done without it, SharePoint suffered a ‘service degradation’ and I realised we had to find an alternative. (We ended up, as is so often the case, passing usb drives around the office on that occasion; in the days of floppy disks, this was known as ‘FrisbeeNet’.)

The solution we ended up with may surprise you but is so far working acceptably. We had a WD MyCloud NAS (Network Attached Storage) that we used for home media: photos, videos, and music. I simply created a share, turned off DLNA media serving, mapped it to a drive letter on each Windows machine, and we have a reliable shared storage area that reliably shows up in File Explorer. With everything on a Gigabit Ethernet network, speed is acceptable too.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a route I can recommend. Our WD MyCloud is now a few years old and I recently tried to get a more modern version. Unfortunately, WD have absolutely ruined what was an excellent device: and the new model is so full of proprietary software & drivers, I can’t even start to describe how awful it was. You may be able to get hold of an NAS that can still run simple SMB shares without trying to point you down a proprietary path and trying to flog you overpriced movies and music, but I didn’t manage to find one myself.

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