Microsoft Serves Up Easier Management

When it comes to servers, small businesses can find themselves in a squeeze. Many vendor-based server platforms are oriented toward mid- and large- sized businesses, with complexity, hardware requirements, and price tags to match. In-house, or “homebrew” servers solutions are always an option, but they can require advanced technology skills, and the costs of retaining such, to setup and maintain.

Microsoft’s server is an enterprise-level product that has been scaled down and streamlined under the name Windows Small Business Server 2003. Originally released in 2003, Microsoft plans to release its successor, an upgrade dubbed Windows Server 2003 R2, in autumn 2006. Due to production delays, an earlier release schedule has been bumped, and a more specific date was not available at press time.

One-Box Server
Windows Small Business Server 2003 R2 is designed as a one-box server solution. Its two editions — the $599 Standard and $1,299 Premium — comprise a suite of services including messaging, Web, file and print and fax plus additional administrative and management features.

In a larger business, those individual services may run on separate machines to improve both performance and security. Windows SMB Server 2003 runs entirely on one machine, and its services cannot be split across multiple machines with one license. You can run a standalone Exchange or Microsoft SQL server on a dedicated machine in the same domain controlled by your SMB Server, but those standalone servers would require independent licenses.

Unlike its big brother, Windows Server 2003, SMB Server is a 32-bit operating system only. It supports Pentium/Celeron or K6/Athlon/Duron processors. Although SMB Server allows up to two physical CPUs, a single dual-core processor counts as just one CPU.

The typical buyer of a Windows Small Business Server plans to control one Windows domain which hosts services for no more than 75 people or devices. Because SMB Server is built on Microsoft’s flagship, Windows Server 2003, it sports a lot of power under the hood. For the SMB buyer, Microsoft has created dozens of wizards, unique to the SMB Server product, to guide setup and configuration of its many services.

If you buy a server with Windows SMB pre-loaded, it will boot directly into Microsoft’s “To Do List,” a sequence of wizards for setting up every major system service, from networking to messaging to SharePoint Web publishing to backup scheduling and system auditing.

Otherwise, installing Windows SMB follows the usual Windows process. It is somewhat of a bother that Microsoft has yet to add support for many common SATA interfaces to its install routine, requiring anyone with a newer computer to provide hard disk drivers to proceed with the install.

More shocking is the fact that the Windows SMB 2003 R2 installer, like that of preceding Windows products, requires drivers to be supplied on a floppy disk, and only a floppy disk. In an era where new machines increasingly lack legacy floppy drives in favor of USB flash and other high-capacity removable storage, Microsoft needs to catch-up with the times rather than leave administrators scrambling for old floppy drives to install its newest platforms.

New in R2: Network-Wide Updates
With the R2 upgrade to Windows SMB Server, Microsoft introduces its “green check of health” update service. Elegant and efficient, the Windows Server Update Service centralizes administration of Windows updates for the server and for all clients in the domain.

The update service checks in with Microsoft servers for any updates needed by any machines in the domain. It then downloads all updates and caches them on the SMB Server. Once the updates are available, the server distributes them to clients in the domain. From the SMB Server, an administrator can quickly determine if the whole domain is up-to-date — indicated by a green checkmark, the so-called green check of health — or whether any machines are not up to date, and why.

Expanded Rights
Windows Small Business Server 2003 R2 expands capacity and rights in several areas over its predecessor. Microsoft Exchange Server 2003 Service Pack 2 is the hub for messaging, handling e-mail, calendaring, tasks and scheduling, with Outlook clients or equivalent. Where the original SMB Server supported only 16GB of storage for the Exchange mailbox, R2 bumps this to 75GB. R2 also supports a total of 75 mailboxes.

Microsoft Windows Small Business Server 2003 R2 screen shot
Microsoft Windows Small Business Server 2003 R2 brims with wizards to ease administration.
(Click for larger image)

Of course what’s a Microsoft server without Client Access Licenses (CALs)? Every person or device that connect to a SMB Server service must possess a CAL. A user CAL is tied to an individual; it doesn’t matter which computer he or she uses to connect to the service. User CALs are appropriate for employees who might connect to your SMB Server with Outlook from office, home and on the road.

In contrast, a device CAL is tied to a client machine. This type of license is appropriate for a desktop or portable computer that may be used by several employees.

SMB Server R2 supports a maximum of 75 CALs, which can be a mixture of user and device licenses. The initial SMB Server license includes 5 CALs, which can be individually designated as either user or device when configured. Additional CALs can be bought in packs of five ($489) or 20 ($1929), but each pack in its entirety must be designated as user or device licenses.

Unlike the original Windows Small Business Server 2003, the second generation R2 CALs can roam within your domain. For example, suppose you run a standalone Microsoft SQL Server in the domain controlled by your SMB Server. A single user or device CAL is now valid for access to both servers. Under the original SMB Server, you would need separate CALs for each server.

Microsoft also bundles SharePoint — a centralized intranet publishing, collaboration and management service — with Small Business Server 2003 R2. With SharePoint, you can publish documents locally, and quickly add collaboration features such as instant messaging and message boards.

SharePoint content — from documents to tasks and schedules — is accessible through Microsoft Office applications, although note that Office itself is not included with Small Business Server 2003 R2.

Like the Small Business Server, SharePoint is powerful but presents a notable learning curve to the first-time administrator. SharePoint can be managed locally from the SMB server or remotely from a client machine connected via Web browser. Administrators can create users, intranet sites and manage content and permissions.

Premium Offerings
The Premium edition of Small Business Server 2003 R2 includes several powerful extras to account for its big price tag, which is double that of the Standard edition.

Most significant is Microsoft’s SQL Server 2005 Workgroup Edition. The software’s very similar to SQL Server 2000 Standard Edition — the product Microsoft previously bundled with the original Windows SMB Server 2003 Premium product. For this reason, companies that already own SQL Server 2000 Standard or newer may choose not to pay a premium price for SMB Server 2003 R2 Premium software

The Premium edition also includes Internet and Security Acceleration (ISA) Server 2004, Microsoft’s enterprise firewall product. The Standard edition includes the garden variety Windows Firewall, which many people find lacking in business environments. Some SMB Server buyers will already have a robust firewall protecting their networks. For those who don’t, ISA Server 2004 adds true firewall power to SMB Server’s menu of services.

Oddly, the Premium SMB Server also includes the Microsoft FrontPage 2003 Web-authoring environment. While FrontPage 2003 makes a natural pair with SharePoint publishing, FrontPage itself is an end-user product and not server software, so its inclusion seems a little out of left field.

Small Business Niche
The server needs of small business are receiving more attention from vendors. Besides Microsoft Small Business Server 2003 R2, both Red Hat and SUSE offer competing small business servers wrapped around the Linux platform with Enterprise Linux ES and SUSE Linux Enterprise Server, respectively (both start at $349).

Windows Small Business Server 2003 R2 admirably streamlines the complex administration process through its many wizards and close integration with the constellation of Microsoft products. Its licensing schemes for users and devices, although somewhat cumbersome, is at least less so than before, no doubt due in part to competition from Linux-based vendors.

Aaron Weiss a technology writer, screenwriter and Web development consultant who spends his free time stacking wood for the winter in Upstate New York. His Web site is:

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