New Windows Server 2012 Essentials Is a Gem for Home Businesses and Small Businesses

Last year, I sang the praises of Microsoft’s “Colorado” small server offerings, which included Windows Home Server (WHS) 2011, Windows Small Business Server (SBS) Essentials 2011, and Windows Storage Server Essentials 2008 R2. This year, Microsoft killed off all three of these products (as well as the unrelated Windows SBS 2011 Standard offering) and is replacing them with a single new low-end server called Windows Server 2012 Essentials. And I couldn’t be happier.

Microsoft’s partners aren’t happy with the retirement of SBS Standard, since it was such a clear and consistent source of revenue for so long. But I feel that the product line was unnecessarily complex, and its on-premises approach to tech infrastructure -- with multiple, locally installed servers -- is out of touch with the realities of today’s highly mobile and highly connected world. Meanwhile, Windows Server 2012 Essentials -- let’s just call it Essentials from here on out -- is exactly what the doctor ordered for home business and small businesses.

Conceptually, Essentials appears to be a sequel to the well-designed but poor-selling SBS 2011 Essentials product: It offers the same super-simple domain set up with minimal on-site resources around user, machine, and storage management. It supports up to 24 users. And it assumes that most customers will utilize cloud-based email, calendar, contacts, and other services, hopefully but not necessarily Office 365. (You can always add servers, too, of course, including on-premises Exchange, SQL Server, and SharePoint servers if you’re a real glutton for punishment.)

But the truth is, Essentials is a lot more nuanced than that. And it draws in the best features from the other Colorado servers, providing a single server that (almost) does it all.

For fans of the WHS line, Essentials provides an optional media server, just like WHS. (What it lacks for home users, however, is HomeGroup support; since Essentials uses a domain, it isn’t compatible with HomeGroup sharing.) And the new Storage Spaces technologies, also available in Windows 8, means that Essentials has a modern replacement for the lamented Drive Extender feature, providing both single pool of storage functionality and storage redundancy.

Storage Spaces also makes Essentials a far more compelling entry-level storage server than, say, Storage Server 2008 R2, a product that never made any sense to me. (Like WHS 2011, it shipped without Drive Extender.)

Indeed, if you’re familiar with the mainstream Windows Server 2012 versions -- Standard and Datacenter -- you might know that the management interface for Storage Spaces in those products is decidedly complex. But Microsoft opted for the simple Windows 8 version of the Storage Spaces control panel. Virtually anyone could use this tool to configure multiple disks into a single, redundant pool of storage.

From a user and PC management perspective, Essentials is likewise simple. (Yes, this is a theme that permeates the product.) It uses a modern version of the Dashboard management front-end from the Colorado servers that looks like Server Manager in Server 2012 but is -- wait for it -- much, much simpler. (Server Manager is also available if you want to get down and dirty, but I suspect most home and small business offices will never need it.)

Nice touches abound. With a simple wizard, you can enable a nice set of Group Policies related to folder redirection and security settings that centralizes users’ desktop experiences on the server. When you connect Windows 8-based clients to the server, Essentials automatically stores their File History backups centrally on the server, too.

On the cloud side, Essentials offers built-in integration with Office 365 -- previously available in SBS 2011 Essentials as an add-in -- and with the Microsoft Online Backup Service, which backs up the server to Microsoft’s cloud. (This is also a feature of mainstream Windows Server 2012 versions.) There’s even Best Practices Analyzer (BPA) integration, to help ensure that the server is configured optimally. And like its predecessors, Essentials offers nice Anywhere Access functionality courtesy of Remote Web Access (RWA), providing a web-based front end to the files on the server and a Remote Desktop experience for connected machines.

There’s very little to complain about with this solution. I’d like to see a workgroup/domain choice during Setup so that those smallest of small businesses -- and those with home offices -- could simply forego the domain, however. I’ve never been a fan of the client-based Launchpad applet that’s required for backups. And unless you configure it properly, Essentials, like its predecessors, can be a bit too chatty about unimportant alerts: I get it, the BPA scan had warnings. Now go away.

But these are minor nits. Essentials includes everything that was right about WHS and SBS 2011 Essentials and indeed combines them together into a single product that is ideally suited for small, mobile operations in which email and related services are handled by cloud services, as they should be. I’m using the Beta version as the center of my own home office’s network, and it’s working like a charm.

It’s no replacement for the on-premises SBS 2011 Standard, of course. I happen to feel that abandoning this product was the right decision, and it’s pretty clear that the current version on the market was just a throwaway for existing customers. Some might disagree with that. But Essentials more closely confirms to the realities of today’s world, I think, and is forward-leaning and simple rather than old-fashioned and complex. It’s also inexpensive: Essentials will set you back just $425. And it will support in-place upgrading to a mainstream Server version if your business grows past 25 users.

You can download the Beta version of Windows Server 2012 Essentials from the Microsoft website. No word yet on when the final version is expected, but I’d imagine it will be ready before the end of the year. (The mainstream Windows Server 2012 versions will ship to customers broadly in September.)
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