Is SBS 2003 Right for You?

Weigh the pros and cons for your environment

If you're a Windows server administrator, you've probably heard of Microsoft Small Business Server (SBS), but you might be unclear about what it is. Touted by Microsoft as a complete business server solution in a box, SBS offers a Windows Server 2003-­based server that provides messaging and collaboration, secure Internet access and data storage, fax capability, and the means to run line of business (LOB) applications.

In "SBS 2003 Overview," Michael Otey discusses installing and managing SBS 2003, but perhaps you're still unsure whether the product is right for you. Perhaps you find yourself squarely in the product's demographic—a small company seeking a low-maintenance, all-in-one server solution for your file-and-print and networking needs—but you're still contemplating whether to consider SBS 2003 or just go with Windows 2003. To answer that question, let's take a look at how SBS 2003's design is both similar to and different from that of Windows 2003, and how you might upgrade to SBS 2003 from an existing Windows server environment.

What SBS 2003 Is and Isn't
In many ways, SBS 2003 is a Windows 2003 server domain in a box. One server supplies domain controller (DC), intranet, file and print server, and email functionality. (For a list of features in both the standard and premium editions of SBS 2003, see Table 1.) Not only does one server take on all these duties, but SBS is deployed most often in a single-server network. Although you can feasibly add an additional Windows 2003 or Windows 2000 server, most SBS adopters follow the single-server model.

Microsoft has designed SBS primarily for organizations that want to get away from peer-to-peer (P2P) networks or that want to expand their simple file-sharing systems. Many small offices use their desktop OSs' networking capabilities to share files and resources. At some levels, this model works—I used it back in the Windows for Workgroups (WFW) days. However, the model has some big pitfalls. If a user turns off his or her computer at night or reboots it, any network resources (e.g., files, printer) attached to that computer are unavailable until the computer is back on. And response time suffers if the owner of a machine performs any taxing tasks on the computer. Additionally, in a P2P model, files often reside on individual workstations, not on a file server, which makes complete backups cumbersome and, therefore, unlikely.

To work around some of the problems of a peer network, you can dedicate a machine running a peer OS to file and print sharing (as I did), but even today's peer OSs lack tools for serious email, fax, and document management. SBS 2003 offers all that functionality in one server. SBS 2003 isn't a watered-down version of Windows 2003 and doesn't contain watered-down versions of the server software it runs. One major difference between SBS 2003 and Windows 2003 is that all the tools are in one box instead of distributed among several servers.

Another major difference between SBS 2003 and Windows 2003 is the extra guidance that SBS 2003 provides. Contrary to the tone of some of SBS 2003's text screens and planning materials, SBS 2003 isn't intended for the network novice. However, although Windows NT novices won't be comfortable with SBS 2003 installation and maintenance, Microsoft has taken some of its documented best practices for smaller networks and built them into SBS 2003. SBS 2003 designs your Active Directory (AD) implementation for you and automatically adds client computers to the domain when you add them to the list of computers that the SBS server will manage. You can configure client computers running Win2K Professional or later from the SBS server. And SBS 2003 has a helpful tool that lets you manage many tasks from one console. SBS 2003 offers many wizards to help you configure the server.

SBS 2003 also assumes that all Web sites are guilty until proven innocent. When you connect to the Internet through an SBS server, you'll find that all but a few sites (predefined by Microsoft) are blocked. You can easily bypass this blocking, but it's the default configuration.

When you first install Windows 2003, a Configure Your Server dialog box appears, but that dialog box is used only for configuring the server role, not for fully setting up the server. Windows 2003 assumes you have some knowledge about how to get started after you install the OS. In contrast, SBS 2003 provides more guidance. When you reboot after installing SBS 2003, you'll see a To Do List that reminds you of everything you need to do to get the server completely set up. These tasks include securing the server, scheduling backups (this task uses a backup wizard that prevents you from backing up to the system drive), and setting up email. This lack of assumption is consistent in most parts of SBS 2003 and its related tools.

Planning for SBS 2003
If you're considering SBS 2003 for your environment, you need to consider how SBS 2003 will fit into a domain. You also need to think about the hardware you'll need to support it.

You can make SBS 2003 part of a typical domain—but only to a point. The SBS server wants to be the DC: When you're installing SBS 2003, it doesn't ask which domain you want to join, as you might expect. That question isn't even on SBS's map. Other member servers can join the SBS domain, but the SBS server won't join an existing domain or permit a second DC in the same domain for longer than is necessary to get the domain running. Trusts don't work as you might expect, either. The SBS domain can be in a same-level trust relationship with another domain, but you can't always connect to shared resources in the other domain; if you can connect to them, they don't show up in SBS 2003's management tool. (An example is network printers in another domain.) This single-domain design has some implications for migration, as you'll see, and also implies that SBS 2003 won't work well for small offices that are connected to a larger domain. In such a case, you'd be better off with Windows 2003 or Win2K and its server functionality.

One potential pitfall of using SBS 2003 arises in small businesses that can't devote much money to IT. As a money-saving venture, unwary IT folks might attempt to short SBS on hardware—a bad idea. You're already saving money by putting all server functionality into one server, and that server has a lot of responsibility: It's a Web server, a mail server, a domain server, a print server, and possibly more. Because most SBS installations have only one server, this server is probably the single point of failure on the network. Make sure that you give SBS the hardware it needs, and protect your installation by using the To Do List's Configure Backup tool.

If you're migrating from a peer network, you'll almost certainly need to invest in server hardware. Microsoft recommends that an SBS 2003 server have at least a 550MHz processor, 384MB of RAM, and 4GB of disk space, just for the OS. (If you plan to install Microsoft SQL Server support and Service Pack 3a—SP3a—for SQL Server, add an additional 420MB.) Also, the more demands you make on the server, the more memory and processor speed you'll need. I'd recommend starting with 512MB of RAM and a 1GHz processor.

Finally, do your homework before you try to set up SBS 2003. The CD-ROM installation kit includes several tutorials that can help you get started. Microsoft has also set up some common rules in SBS 2003 to help you monitor and secure your server. (For example, SBS proactively monitors disk space.) However, SBS 2003 can't—and doesn't—assume a complete lack of knowledge on the part of the administrator. Although SBS 2003 offers much guidance, compensating for an administrator who's never touched NT is impossible.

And although SBS 2003 is designed to be simpler to manage than Windows 2003 and Win2K, SBS 2003's built-in components can be opaque. If you set up monitoring and it doesn't work, the software won't tell you why it doesn't work or how to fix it. SBS 2003 isn't appropriate for novices, so if you lack experience with NT but are thinking about implementing SBS 2003, you'll need someone with networking experience to set it up.

Moving to SBS 2003
Upgrading an existing server to SBS 2003 is relatively simple. Most often, this upgrade will involve updating an existing Win2K Server or SBS installation. When you begin the upgrade, Setup migrates your settings for you. The computer you start from must be a server—you can't upgrade a workstation to SBS 2003—but it doesn't need to be a DC.

Some people are migrating to Windows 2003 or SBS 2003 directly from NT 4.0. In fact, one of Microsoft's primary targets for SBS 2003 is the group of administrators who are using NT 4.0 servers. However, NT 4.0 servers are unlikely to have the hardware necessary to support a straight upgrade. By modern standards, NT 4.0 isn't terrifically demanding of hardware. I still have an NT 4.0 file server and DC that's chugging along with 48MB of RAM and a 100MHz processor. Without a replacement of the motherboard to permit a memory addition, this server simply couldn't handle SBS 2003. If I wanted to upgrade an NT 4.0 DC to SBS 2003, I'd need new hardware. However, if I introduced new hardware, I'd need a way to move all the data from the NT 4.0 DC to the new SBS DC.

Unfortunately, I was unable to test this scenario because the migration tool wasn't finalized at the time of writing. But Microsoft tells me that the ideal situation for someone migrating from, for example, NT 4.0 and Microsoft Exchange Server 5.5 is to order the SBS 2003 server from an OEM so that SBS 2003 is preinstalled. Then, the SBS administrator can run through a few wizards to transfer user account information—with all rights and permissions, Exchange mail and contacts, and Internet and network settings—from the NT 4.0 DC into the SBS 2003 AD environment. The wizards would also migrate any files on the old server to the new one. If the NT 4.0 computer is a DC, the two DCs would be able to run in parallel for a few days so that the administrator has sufficient time to accomplish the migration. This migration tool will soon be available as a free download from the Microsoft Web site at

SBS 2003 vs. Windows 2003
For several reasons, you might be better off with the regular version of Windows 2003 than with SBS 2003. SBS 2003 isn't intended for a complex network architecture. An SBS server can't join a non-SBS domain, and an SBS domain must be a root-level domain. An SBS domain can be in a trusted relationship with another root-level domain, but it's not truly designed for this use.

SBS 2003 is similar to Windows 2003 but not entirely. Because SBS 2003 is intended for smaller networks, and because the SBS server is meant to be the DC, SBS 2003 doesn't have some functionality (e.g., Terminal Services) that's useful in larger networks. (However, you can use Remote Desktop—which is enabled by default—to remotely administer an SBS 2003 server from another computer. You can also make an SBS 2003 DC a Terminal Services license server.)

A final caution about SBS 2003: It's not quite as simple as it seems. Setup should cause no difficulties for experienced NT administrators, but a novice would do better to buy a preinstalled SBS 2003 server. The danger of a reduced-administration server OS is that administrators can mistake it for a zero-administration OS. The fact that SBS 2003 is designed to automatically follow some Microsoft best practices doesn't mean that it automatically follows all of them. Even if you walk through all the configuration wizards, you'll still need to install security patches and service packs and follow safe-computing guidelines. The audience for which SBS 2003 is designed—the shop looking for an extremely low-maintenance server—might balk at SBS 2003's required maintenance.

Is It a Good Fit?
SBS 2003 is best suited for administrators who need an all-in-one server OS to supply all their communication needs (e.g., printing, document management, email), with perhaps one helper server to supply features that SBS 2003 can't provide. SBS 2003 isn't a good choice for those who need more than one domain or who immediately anticipate the need to join a new domain. And although SBS 2003 is designed to simplify the life of the systems administrator, I don't recommend that inexperienced administrators try to set it up without help.

The ease with which you migrate to SBS 2003 from your existing network will depend on your network's current organization. If you're moving to SBS 2003 from a P2P network, you'll need to copy the data files to the new server, create user logon and email accounts, and install the printers—in other words, you'll need to set up the server from scratch and make sure it's done properly. If you're coming to SBS 2003 from a previous version of Windows, you can either upgrade existing user accounts or move them from the existing server to the new SBS 2003 server—when the migration tool is ready.

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