Introducing Microsoft BackOffice Small Business Server

Most small office networks rely on a variety of software products (and often operating systems) acquired from multiple vendors. Typically, the most computer-literate person in the office--whether CEO or secretary--chooses, installs, and manages the collage of software. Balancing technology and staffing is a real dilemma for many small businesses. Small companies need the services that technology can provide to grow their business and enhance their customer service, but hiring a full-time MIS person to implement and manage the technology might not make economic sense.

The solution to this dilemma may very well be Microsoft BackOffice Small Business Server (SBS). What is SBS? In general terms, the product lets someone with intermediate computer skills and two days to kill configure a robust business network environment that supports 25 client connections and harnesses the power of Windows NT Server, SQL Server, Exchange Server, Proxy Server, and more--all installed and configured through a friendly GUI. Think of SBS as "BackOffice Lite" for small businesses. Small companies can implement file sharing, printer sharing, modem sharing, fax serving, email, and Internet connectivity with one integrated, easy-to-use package.

SBS includes existing BackOffice components and some new components Microsoft developed just for SBS (Figure 1, page 70, lists the components). Exchange is the key component for providing internal and external mail service. To keep hardware requirements to a minimum, Microsoft has tuned the SBS version of Exchange (and SQL Server) to support no more than 25 connections. (Microsoft provides SQL Server in SBS to support business database applications, but none of the SBS components rely on SQL Server.)

In this first installment of the Windows NT Magazine Lab's SBS track, I'll report on SBS, Beta 2's setup, configuration, management, and online Help. In the next installment, I'll explore SBS's application services, general communications services, and Internet connection services.

The Context for SBS
To truly appreciate SBS, you need to see how it fits into a typical small business environment. For example, consider the fictitious Dr. X's growing family practice. Over the past 20 years, the practice's patient base has risen from a few hundred patients to several thousand patients. A few years ago, Dr. X hired two interns and several nurses just to keep up with demand. The handful of nurses and office assistants feel more confident in front of a typewriter than a computer, yet they admit they can't keep up with the paperwork (e.g., patient records, insurance forms) and general administration (e.g., billing accounts) of running a successful office.

Because Dr. X doesn't have time to explore all the options, Dr. X hires me as a consultant to examine the practice's business needs and present a reasonably priced solution to move the office into the 21st century. We discuss hardware requirements and software applications for networking, remote access, electronic mail, Internet access, modem and fax sharing, and backups. Then we discuss the office's database structure and which applications the staff will use and need to be trained on. Ka-ching! After recovering from price tag shock, Dr. X politely throws me out of the office and tells me never to come back--without even hearing about maintenance and support options.

Armed with the false assumption that the office staff can do better on its own, Dr. X and the accountant, office manager, and in-house computer expert go shopping. They buy whatever they can from anyone who offers a cheap, fast deal. Then Dr. X assembles the rest of the staff and gives the motivational speech, "Make it work, people!" Of course, no one wins in this situation because learning about, configuring, and supporting these computers often takes anywhere from 10 percent to 50 percent of the staff's time, leaving less time for primary jobs.

With SBS in the picture, my encounter with Dr. X might turn out differently. SBS provides an integrated software solution for common business environments; thus, bundling SBS with some hardware, line-of-business software, and training lets me provide an economical solution to Dr. X's problem. I decided to test this theory in the Lab by establishing a small business network environment for Dr. John's Health Services.

A Look at the Server
SBS, Beta 2 comes with a well-written Reviewer's Guide and a Start Here booklet. The product also includes Release Notes and a Hardware Compatibility List (HCL--make sure your hardware appears on the SBS HCL, which is substantially shorter than the standard BackOffice HCL). For a test server, I chose an HP NetServer E 45, configured with a 266MHz Pentium II, 128MB of RAM, and three 4GB SCSI hard disks. (For more details about the test server, see "HP NetServer E 45," page 113.) I reformatted the hard disks in NTFS before installation.

Microsoft provides the SBS software on three CD-ROMs, two for Intel processors and one for Alpha. The product also includes three SBS installation floppies, and four floppies containing client licenses. (Microsoft supplies licenses in increments of five.) The SBS software limits use to 25 client computer systems (the number of computers connected to the server, not the number of users). Multiple users can share computer resources as needed--Microsoft expects no more than 100 users.

Initial installation was a little bumpy, and I had to keep reminding myself that I was trying a beta version of SBS. To start with, the setup boot floppies didn't let me proceed past Disk 3, and the software presented an error message stating that SBS could not locate enough space on drive C during setup. I installed a clean version of NT 4.0 using the standard setup boot floppies and experienced no problems. Using the SBS CD-ROM, I attempted to install SBS over the standard version of NT 4.0, but the process hung, forcing me to cancel the installation.

I then reformatted all hard disks as FAT and used the SBS setup boot floppies. This time, I was able to complete the installation. During the installation process, the Small Business Server Setup Wizard asks for four items: name, organization, computer name, and domain name. After you enter that information, the installation process copies the files from the CD-ROM to your hard disk and asks to reboot the machine. After restarting the machine, the Small Business Server Setup Wizard asks for general company information and defaults to a complete install, which requires very little input from you.

After the system restarts, the To Do List shown in Screen 1, page 72, appears. The To Do List presents a friendly and easy-to-understand interface for SBS configuration and maintenance operations. From the To Do List, I immediately selected Add a New User so that I could start adding users to Dr. John's Health Services' network. I was impressed with the Add a New User Wizard that stepped me through creating a user account and setting up access rights. The interface is simple, and I liked that I could individually assign access to shared folders, shared modems, and the Internet, instead of assigning membership in global groups for permissions and rights. The Add a New User Wizard also automatically creates a mailbox for the user.

After creating a user account, you can start the Set Up a Computer Wizard. I think a better name for this wizard is Preparing Client Computers Wizard because the wizard creates a user setup disk to configure a user's account and connection on a client computer. For example, the setup disk configures Outlook 97 with the user's email account, places shortcuts on the desktop for the user's personal folder and company shared folders, and installs SBS client applications. You can also use this wizard to add another user to a computer already set up for SBS. Several users can use the same client computer, though not at the same time.

A Look at Client Computers
Using the Set Up a Computer Wizard, I created accounts and setup floppies for the fictitious family practice. I then installed those floppies on my client systems. The first client I installed was for Dr. John. The client-side configuration process involved simply inserting the floppy into a client machine and running setup.exe. The setup.exe program starts the Client Wizard, a hands-off, automated installation process. You must restart the system after joining the domain and again after downloading the SBS client applications. In my case, the whole process took about 20 minutes.

Client computers can run either NT Workstation 4.0 or Windows 95. Microsoft recommends an Intel 486DX or higher processor, with 16MB of RAM and 60MB of available hard disk space. The client system needs a 3.5" floppy drive to install SBS from the setup floppy. The network adapter card must be from the HCL, and NT 4.0 workstations must have Service Pack 3 installed. The server automatically starts the Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) service for the network. On the client computers, you must configure TCP/IP to accept DHCP; otherwise, the User Setup Wizard won't work on the clients.

After the final restart, the user account is active and the client-side user must enter a name and password and select the proper domain. The client desktop displays shortcuts to shared folders and Outlook 97. On my test client, I knew the shared folders were empty, so I activated Outlook 97 to see whether SBS configured it properly. Roughly 10 minutes passed before the default window came up and gave me the "Thank you for choosing Outlook" message. (I hope Microsoft improves performance in the final shipping version of SBS!) Once Outlook 97 was running, I verified that the configuration was correct and that the global address book had all the user accounts listed.

I then proceeded to create setup floppies for the rest of the fictitious office. Creating the floppies was easy and fast; however, the 20-minute installation time for each client machine got a little annoying. In real life, the end users do the setup, and client-side installation doesn't consume much administrator time. I noticed that when I configured more than three client machines at the same time, the installation process and network traffic slowed considerably.

Managing SBS
After configuring my users and client machines, I started to explore the management tools that come with SBS. From the Start menu, you can select Manage Server, which displays a full-screen GUI that lets the day-to-day administrator manage and support the network from one location.

SBS presents its management options on three tabs: Tasks, More Tasks, and Online Guide. The Tasks tab provides icons for troubleshooting and managing users, printers, email, shared folders, and backup and restore. Screen 2 displays the details for the Manage Connected Users task. Unfortunately, Screen 2 typifies the inconsistencies in this beta version: The server had seven connected clients accessing email, but the window displayed only three connections. (Microsoft stated that the problem I had may be a refresh problem with this particular function.)

Screen 3 displays the Manage Shared Folders option from the Tasks tab. Instead of having to manage groups and memberships, the administrator can control access to folders, manage folder size, and move folders to different drives. (You can also access Manage Connected Users from this window.)

Under the More Tasks tab, the administrator has options for managing email distribution lists, hard disks, computers, Internet access, and faxes, and adding or removing software and hardware and publishing on the Internet. Screen 4 shows the Manage Computers window, where you can view networked computers, add or delete a computer to or from the domain, and troubleshoot common computer problems.

The Online Guide tab provides a feature that I hope migrates to other Microsoft products. Much like the regular Windows Help program, Online Guide combines Contents and Find options in an interactive GUI. But in addition to reading about a topic, you can complete operations directly from the topic description window. For example, I wanted to explore the Emergency Repair Disk feature. My search produced the Help window shown in Screen 5 (which I am sure any computer novice can understand). After reading the descriptions, I just clicked the here link and followed the directions to create the Emergency Repair Disk. I was also pleasantly surprised that a few of my actions requiring a restart of the server automatically generated an alert message (such as the one in Screen 6) on the client computers.

Most of SBS's Help pages have the theme: First display an easy-to-read explanation or description, and then provide an interactive option to complete the task. I found a few Help pages missing, and I wanted page-forward and page-backward capabilities. When I proceeded down the wrong Help path, I couldn't back out a page at a time; I had to start at the beginning of the Online Guide.

Smooth the Rough Edges
A management tool I did not get to try is Crystal Reports for Microsoft SBS. From the Online Guide, I read that I could generate system reports from NT's Event Viewer, and tables and graphs on email usage, Internet access, Web server statistics, and fax usage. Seagate Software Information Management Group makes Crystal Reports for Microsoft SBS, and Microsoft does not provide technical support for it. All my attempts to generate a report produced application error messages.

Overall, I was pleased with SBS, and I'm excited about its potential. Microsoft has taken the powerful applications in the BackOffice suite and packaged them for the small business market. Giving small companies the network performance and communications they need without requiring full-time MIS support is a good idea. The SBS interface simplifies installation, configuration, and day-to-day administration. Based on what I saw in the beta version, however, Microsoft has some work to do to smooth SBS's rough edges.

If you've worked in the reseller channel, you know how painful growing and upgrading technology in a small business environment can be. With SBS, I installed and configured a robust applications server and seven client workstations in just 1 day. I easily created user accounts with permissions and access rights. Setup floppies let users effortlessly install and configure their workstation.

Next month, in the second part of my SBS coverage, I'll describe how SBS handles applications support, Internet connections via an Internet Service Provider (ISP), and Web publishing. I'll conclude my report by looking at the remote control utilities available through SBS and by evaluating how effective the product is for Dr. John's Health Services.

Microsoft BackOffice Small Business Server
Contact: Microsoft Corporation * 800-426-9400
Price: Still to be determined
System Requirements: 100MHz (or faster) Pentium or Alpha, 64MB of RAM, 2GB hard disk, 1.5GB available hard disk space, SVGA color monitor, CD-ROM, One or more modems, Network card
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