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Charting the Needs of Small Businesses - 03 Jul 2003

Later this year, Microsoft will release a dramatically improved Windows Small Business Server (SBS) 2003 (code-named Bobcat) family of products to satisfy the needs of small businesses that have no inhouse IT staff. As with earlier versions, SBS 2003 will provide all-inclusive Microsoft server solutions that work out of the box and that you can upgrade and expand to standalone Microsoft servers as the business grows. But SBS 2003 isn't a Fisher-Price version of the Windows Server System, as some have charged. Indeed, with this release, small businesses looking at Microsoft technology will have much greater flexibility and capabilities than the standalone products that make up the suite provide.

In addition to the great front-end management tools that the company has always offered in SBS, Microsoft will ship this version of the suite in two different editions--one with Microsoft SQL Server 2000 and one without. The reason for this approach is that many small businesses don't need a database server. However, most small businesses do need email, and SBS 2003 will include Microsoft Exchange Server 2003. The suite will also ship with Windows Server 2003 (which includes Microsoft Internet Information Services--IIS--6.0 and support for Windows SharePoint Services), Internet Server and Acceleration (ISA) Server 2000, and shared fax and modem services. Microsoft defines small businesses as companies with less than 75 PCs, a not-so-subtle change from previous versions, which assumed 50 or fewer PCs.

As with earlier versions, SBS 2003 will include simple, centralized Web-like management consoles that wrap the functionality of various tools in Windows and the other server products, providing administrators with one place of management. This approach will let tech-savvy employees at small firms manage their servers if necessary or, even better, let service providers more effectively monitor the servers and services at multiple clients. Better outsourcing is a key goal of SBS 2003, because in many cases, companies simply don't have the internal resources to maintain these types of server products.

For end users, SBS 2003 will include a new simple front end for accessing the services that the bundled products provide. In SBS 2003, users will be able to log on to a central Web page that provides a list of English choices, not technical gobbledygook. For example, you won't see an option for Microsoft Outlook Web Access (OWA), but rather a choice that reads "Check your email." Likewise, for remotely accessing your PC while you're on the road, the front end will provide a simple menu choice that, again, hides the underlying technology. What a concept.

I'll have more information about SBS 2003 as Microsoft begins to finalize the release. I'm told that the product is essentially completed but waiting on Exchange 2003, which is waiting on Microsoft Office 2003 ... the pain of integration, one might say. Currently, Microsoft expects SBS 2003 to ship in late summer or early fall.

Even a product as comprehensive as SBS 2003 can't answer all a small business's needs, however, and many companies might still need help in some areas. I'd like to examine some of these areas in the coming months, and I'm interested in any feedback readers have about ways in which developers can meet the needs of small business. Some of the topics I've begun investigating include storage and Network Attached Storage (NAS); mobility solutions that extend the capabilities in Exchange and portable, non-PC devices such as Pocket PC and Palm OS handheld devices; and services that let small companies automate their systems electronically and work with their partners and customers over the Internet in ways that match the capabilities of much bigger corporations. Today, small businesses constitute one of the largest and, arguably, the fastest growing IT segments. If you're working for such a company or provide services for small businesses, please contact me and let me know what you think.

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