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Understanding the Concept of Workgroups Vs Domains in a Windows Local Area Network
Sharing information has become a simple process with the advent of email, just attach a file and the recipient gets the document you sent. However, in a small business there is often a need to share more than one file; you might want to share programs or program data, printers, a scanner, or simply just your Word documents.
A workgroup, also known as a peer-to-peer network, allows you to share files, printers, scanners, and other resources. Typically, with a workstation, you make each workstation a member of the same workstation, and set up shared folders on one or more workstations. You can also set up your printer to be shared. If you have a spare computer, you can designate it as a dedicated share computer. This computer then becomes a pseudo-server. It is not a “real” file server, but works as one, with limited functionality.
A domain provides this functionality and much more, by having one or more file servers and workstations joined to the domain to access the server(s) that manage security as well as access rights. Think of a domain as a city, within which businesses (file servers) and residences (workstations) exist.
So…what’s right for you? If you have a small business with very few employees, and are not too concerned about the security of your data, or access rights to folders, a Workgroup will do just fine.
Some things to consider with a workgroup:
1. It is best to have one computer act as a server, and let the other computers share files from that “server”. This reduces the traffic. If you have multiple computers sharing their drives, and users going back and forth from one machine to another to access data, there will be more traffic on your LAN, causing collisions and crashing things.
2. It is also a good idea if possible to have one computer a dedicated server. This minimizes the possibility of a user “hanging” the computer he/she is working on, thereby locking the other users out of the system while it is rebooting. Additionally, if no one is using that computer while it is operating as a server, chances are it will be less exposed to potential virus or malware attacks.
3. Any machine working as a server must be protected by a good UPS; that is, a battery backup unit.
4. The machine acting as a server must have its Power Options disabled, Hibernation disabled, and its NIC (Network Interface Card) set to not shut down to save energy. Any of these features enabled may make the server inaccessible to the workstations.
5. The Server must have a backup device with backup software programmed to perform unattended backups. Ideally, as part of a good disaster recovery plan, your network should also have a remote or online backup in place. (what good is your backup if you can’t get to your data?).
A domain gives you much more functionality than a workgroup. This is an overview of things to consider and benefits of setting up a domain:
1. First, your workstations MUST be running Windows XP Professional, or Vista or Windows 7 Business Edition. These versions of Windows are designed to work with domains.
2. Your domain will include at least 1 file server. This file server will be a domain controller. As a domain controller, the file server (if any server version of Windows is used) will host Active Directory. Active Directory is a database that will store each user’s name, with their assigned access rights based on the groups they belong to. For example, a user can be a member of Group Domain Users and have access to files and folders, or he/she can be a member of Group Domain Admins, which gives him/her rights to anything on the network. Active Directory also keeps track of computers, so it not only knows which user is authorized to log on to the domain, but also which computers can join.
3. Domain controllers use policies. These policies can simplify the management of the users and computers on the network by implementing rights and managing access when a user logs into the domain.
4. Security and permissions are very fine in a domain. That is, you can be as general or as specific as you need about giving users access to folders and files. A good upfront, thoughtful design of your network will help you simplify data organization and management as your network grows.
5. Go back to the Server; A server must have redundancy for its disk drives. For small networks, a mirror drive system will work. For larger networks, a RAID 5 system may work best. In a mirrored drive system, your file server will host 2 identical disk drives. Both drives will appear to you as just one. On the server you will see one C: drive. When you write or save a file, it is saved to both drives simultaneously. The advantage, of course, is that if one drive crashes, you can continue working from the other drive. Many servers offer “Hot Swap” drives. This allows you to remove the defective disk and replace it with a new one, without shutting down the server. The server will detect the new disk and you can rebuild the data to the new mirror.
6. Another big advantage of a domain is central management. For example, you can install an antivirus program on the server that will update its virus definition files regularly. The software on the server can be deployed to the workstations, and that software can be programmed so that all the workstations have the same features enabled or disabled. In addition, the server can “push” the virus definitions to the workstations, thus ensuring that all workstations are on the same version. This can also be done with other programs, it is not strictly for Anti-Virus protection.
This is a bird’s eye view of domains and workgroups. Of course, there is much more to them. Many books have been written on the subject. The hope is that this concise information will help you make an educated decision about your choice of Workgroup or Domain for your small business.
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