Despite its immense popularity, Microsoft’s Windows Server isn’t the easiest of platforms to manage, especially when applications such as Exchange Server and SharePoint are added to the mix. Small companies, in particular, often struggle to cope with the sheer volume and complexity of the features on offer, leading to numerous attempts at a simpler Small Business Server implementation to expressly cater for their needs. The latest such product, launched at the start of the year, is Windows Small Business Server 2011 Standard.
What is it and who is it for?
The concept behind Microsoft’s Small Business Server hasn’t changed that much since it was first released way back in 1997. The name has been altered a few times (it was called BackOffice Small Business Server in those days) but the components are essentially the same—a copy of the Windows Server OS for local file and printer sharing, a pre-installed copy of Exchange Server for e-mail, plus a few other components that have come and gone over the years.
Originally aimed at companies with up to 25 users, that limit has since been increased to 75 and support for a single Active directory domain implemented. SharePoint has also been added and the SQL Server in the original bundle hived off as an option. However, the integrated management console is still there, enabling these and other enterprise-class components added over the years, to be deployed and managed by companies with limited technical resources.
Just about everything in the SBS bundle is brought up to date in the 2011 edition, starting with the OS, which is updated to Windows Server 2008 R2. That’s then accompanied by Exchange Server 2010 SP1 complete with the latest Outlook Web App client, plus SharePoint 2010 Foundation Services to further enhance the collaboration features. The latest WSUS (Windows Server Update Services) server is there too; the remote access facilities have been enhanced and, last but by no means least, the SBS management console tweaked to make it even easier to use.
Pricing & setup
As with previous versions of Windows Small Business Server, this new release requires both a server licence and a Client Access License (CAL) for each user or device connected to it. A typical starting point is a server and five CAL bundle, retailing online for around £470 (ex. VAT) with an add-on pack of five CALs selling for £260 (ex. VAT).
Customers wanting to run SQL Server need to buy a Premium Add-on which, as well as SQL Server 2008 R2 includes a full copy of Windows Server 2008 R2 Standard on which to host it. A separate server is recommended, adding to the cost and complexity, but the second copy of Windows Server means full support for the Hyper-V virtualisation hypervisor, Remote Desktop Services (i.e. Terminal Server) and everything else the latest server platform has to offer. It does, however, come at a cost, the Premium Add-on needing its own server license and more CALs. A typical server plus five CALs bundle will sell for around £1,100 (ex. VAT).
Installation isn’t an issue as most small businesses will have the SBS software pre-installed, either by their server vendor or a specialist reseller. Otherwise it’s worth noting that, because it’s based on Windows Server 2008 R2, this new package can only be deployed on 64-bit hardware. Moreover, the minimum requirements are raised with Microsoft now recommending a quad-core processor plus 8GB of memory as a starting point.
On the plus side, that’s not an uncommon spec for a modern entry-level server, plus you don’t need to be rocket scientist to install the product. A unified setup procedure takes care of just about everything, making it no more difficult than installing any other version of Windows.
Does it do it well?
There’s no doubting the ability of the components in the SBS package to deliver the goods in terms of both functionality and, with the right hardware platform, performance. Moreover, it’s well put together, enabling the feature set to be easily managed by staff in the small businesses at which it’s aimed.
Create a new Windows user via the management GUI, for example, and each gets an Exchange mailbox, accessible using either Outlook or browser-based OWA client. Likewise there’s immediate access to the collaboration features of Exchange, to share calendars, organise meetings and so on. Users can also access a ready-made company website, created using SharePoint to support more structured document sharing, team calendars, discussions and so on.
Support for remote and mobile workers is also enhanced in this release with a new Remote Web Access option replacing the earlier Remote Web Workplace tool. Now a SharePoint application this gives remote users easy access to e-mail and the company website, plus new functionality in the form of SkyDrive-like connectivity to remote files from a browser.
Where does it disappoint?
Existing customers may be caught out by the need to switch to 64-bit hardware before they can upgrade to SBS 2011, plus there’s no option for an in-place upgrade. Instead, customers wanting to switch have to buy a second server and migrate existing data and settings from old to new, the only concession being an option to perform this migration during setup in the 2011 product.
Day to day management is very straightforward with just about everything done from the SBS console including backup. However, it’s only possible to backup server data with limited control over how backups are taken and no option to include clients in the process. There’s no bare-metal recovery or support for backup to tape or NAS storage, which means having to make separate arrangements to provide for full disaster recovery.
Similarly customers will have to make their own arrangements to fully secure their network and its users, with only minimal protection provided as standard in the SBS package.
Would we recommend it?
This new Standard edition of Windows Small Business Server is a solid and well implemented product that satisfies many, if not all, of the shared computing requirements of small organisations. That said, it’s no longer the only Small Business product in the Windows family with a new Essentials edition about to be released which muddies the waters somewhat.
Based on Windows Home Server and aimed at companies with no more than 25 users, SBS 2011 Essentials will sell alongside the Standard edition, and for a lot less, typically costing around £350 (ex. VAT) with no need for CALs. A move that may seem a little illogical, but then you don’t get e-mail or collaboration features in Essentials, just file and print sharing plus backup, with customers expected to use cloud-based services to handle what’s left out.