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By | Tim Anderson 22nd December 2010 12:18

Microsoft Small Business Server 2011 - what's in it for you?

Not quite all-in for the cloud

Review “We’re all in for the cloud” said Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer earlier this year; but the company’s new Small Business Server (SBS) 2011 is only half-in at best, even though smaller organisations are among the most obvious candidates for online services because they generally lack specialist IT staff.

The strategy behind SBS 2011 is curious. The Standard Edition which has just been completed, is a refreshed version of SBS 2008, based on Windows Server 2008 R2 and including upgraded server applications such as Exchange 2010 and SharePoint 2010. No radical cloud transition here; it is more of the same.

“In the SME space there is a lot of investment in on-site applications and current IT skills and our customers are still asking us for an on-site solution,” said Microsoft’s SBS man Michael Leworthy, defending this approach.

That said, Microsoft is also releasing SBS Essentials 2011, which shares technology with Windows Home Server 2011 version 2, codenamed Vail. The Essentials edition has been delayed until the first half of 2011, possibly because of the last-minute decision to drop a key feature called Drive Extender that simplifies disk management.

Essentials is a cloud-oriented version of SBS. It provides a local directory service, shared folders, and central backup of client computers, while hooking into cloud services such as hosted Exchange and SharePoint for email and collaboration, with single sign-on thanks to use of Active Directory Federation Services (ADFS) under the covers.

The perfect solution for small businesses, you might think – except that SBS Essentials is limited to 25 users. What if a company were to out-grow SBS Essentials? Should it migrate from cloud to on-premise? It is a muddled strategy, and no doubt reflects Microsoft’s internal conflicts.

I reviewed the final build of SBS 2011 Standard. At a glance it is similar to SBS 2008, though hardware requirements have leapt form 4GB RAM to 10GB with a quad-core processor. Leworthy blames Exchange 2010, which he says is “a little processor intensive.” Installation onto lesser hardware is not actually blocked though, which is useful for evaluation and testing. You get Exchange, SharePoint, Active Directory and Windows Update Services, tuned to work on a single server, with a console for management and wizards for common tasks.

Microsoft has refined installation, which now has migration from an earlier version of SBS built into setup, though migration is still complex and must be done onto new hardware rather than in-place. The licensing has also been revamped. Instead of a Standard and Premium edition, there is a Standard Edition and a Premium add-on, offering SQL Server and a license for a second instance of Sever 2008 R2. This means that customers can upgrade to Premium later, rather than having to decide whether they need those features at initial purchase.

SBS 2011 has several advantages over its predecessor. The updated Remote Web App – formerly Remote Web Workplace – is now a SharePoint application that gives access to shared folders as well as email, remote desktop, and the internal web site. The shared folders are presented with a user interface somewhat like SkyDrive, Microsoft’s hosted web storage service, with drag-and-drop upload of files into the browser. SharePoint 2010 is a strong upgrade, and includes Office Web Apps for in-browser viewing and editing of Office documents.

The remote web acess exposes shared folders

The new Remote Web Access exposes shared folders as well as SharePoint and Email

The wizard for joining client computers to the SBS domain, called Connect Computer, now automatically migrates pre-existing profiles along with their data. It sounds a small detail, but this makes the process significantly smoother for users with existing PCs.

The Essentials Truth

Outlook Web App in Exchange 2010 is better-looking and more functional, and the new Exchange also supports conversation features such as the ability to ignore a thread.

You can also hook SBS 2011 to cloud services using ADFS, but there are no wizards for this, just the standard Server 2008 tools.

Still, these features do not make a compelling upgrade story in themselves, though for customers on SBS 2008 who are replacing server hardware a simultaneous move to SBS 2011 might make sense. Microsoft seems to recognise this, and its guide to partner opportunities focuses on upgrades from SBS 2000 and 2003 rather than from SBS 2008.

Exchange 2010 upgraded Web Outlook App

Exchange 2010 features an upgraded Outlook Web App for remote email in the browser

The main selling point for SBS 2011 is simple: it is the most cost-effective way to deploy the Microsoft platform to small organisations. In that sense it is a great deal; but the downside is that you also get all the complexity of Enterprise products crammed onto a single box. This gets worse if customers also install third-party or custom applications onto that box, each with its own specialist requirements. Microsoft’s Premium option, which provides a second server joined to the SBS domain, does make it possible to add apps like these without breaking the main server.

The complexity of SBS is good news for partners, who generally get a stream of maintenance work following each deployment, and a lengthy migration task whenever the server hardware is changed.

SBS Essentials 2011, on the other hand, is a product that promises to be genuinely low-maintenance, and with single sign-on for local and cloud applications it looks ideal for organisations up to the 25 user limit. It makes sense for Microsoft to continue with the full-fat SBS Standard Edition; not every business wants to migrate to cloud computing. The 25 user limit though looks artificial and unnecessary. It would not surprise me if it gets extended or dropped. Since an Essentials server has less work to do than full SBS, it could in theory support more users rather than fewer, especially if you do without the client computer backup option. SBS 2011 Standard is a decent refresh, but next year’s Essentials looks the more interesting product.

SBS 2011 Standard costs $1,096 with 5 CALs, and $72 for additional CALs. The Premium add-on is $1,640, with SQL CALs $92 each if required. SBS Essentials will be $545 with no CALs required. UK pricing is not yet available. ®

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