Well-Timed Follow-Ups, Part 1: Windows SBS 2003

We had a weird series of coincidences recently in Windows & .NET Magazine UPDATE, and this week I'll start to straighten it all out. Two weeks ago, I wrote about small businesses, and specifically about Microsoft Small Business Server (SBS) 2003, which I believe will be an important release. The day before the article appeared in Windows & .NET Magazine UPDATE, Microsoft coincidentally called and asked whether I'd like to be briefed about the product, which just entered the Release Candidate 1 (RC1) stage. So I have more information about that product this week. Then last week, I wrote about the problems of patch management, and the day that article appeared in Windows & .NET Magazine UPDATE, I joined a group of folks from Windows & .NET Magazine in a visit to Microsoft's Redmond campus to discuss upcoming road show topics. One of the briefings--surprise--was about patch management, and I have some exciting news about that topic as well, although for space reasons I have to save that information for next week.

Microsoft says it will release the next SBS version in late summer. This release is notable for several reasons. From Microsoft's perspective, small businesses are a ray of sunshine in an otherwise cloudy business environment. Although sales in most markets that invest in IT are stagnant, sales to small businesses are growing 8 percent to 10 percent annually, according to IDC, and broadband usage in small businesses is growing almost 20 percent. The latter statistic is important because broadband Internet connections let small businesses inexpensively host their own mail servers and other services, while letting outside service companies remotely manage the company's IT infrastructure. Likewise, low-end server hardware prices are falling dramatically, following the PC pricing curve, meaning almost any small business can now afford the hardware part of the SBS 2003 equation.

As I mentioned 2 weeks ago, SBS targets businesses that are too small to hire full-time server administrators; these businesses typically use an offsite service provider or a part-time employee to manage their IT infrastructure. SBS 2003 addresses the needs of these environments by providing super-simple management consoles that can be remotely accessed; in fact, these consoles are so good, the wider Windows Server development team is investigating which consoles they can port to the other Windows Server products going forward. Microsoft also told me that the top concerns for the businesses it's targeting are backup and recovery (which is even more important because most SBS 2003 installations will be single-server, with no backup domain controller--DC), security, complexity, and cost.

SBS 2003 will ship in two versions, a standard edition and a premium edition. SBS 2003 Standard Edition includes Windows Server 2003 (essentially Standard Edition), Windows SharePoint Services, Microsoft Exchange Server 2003, and Microsoft Outlook 2003. SBS 2003 Premium Edition adds Microsoft SQL Server 2000, Microsoft Internet Security and Acceleration (ISA) Server 2000, and Microsoft FrontPage 2003 (note that existing SBS customers can upgrade only to the Premium Edition). This product split is exciting because many businesses will choose to forgo SQL Server and use a standard, low-cost hardware router to provide Internet connectivity to the office; SBS 2003 can work with these products and can do so automatically if they're compatible with Universal Plug and Play (UPnP), as Microsoft's Broadband Networking devices are. This choice will save customers money, although final pricing isn't yet available; Microsoft tells me Premium Edition will cost about the same as the current SBS version. Another exciting option is that SBS 2003 will be available with low-end server hardware from various OEMs, including Dell and Hewlett-Packard (HP). You can set up these preconfigured SBS 2003 boxes within 15 minutes, although you'll need to complete some configuration tasks after the initial boot. But the ability to have a functioning Active Directory (AD) and email server so quickly and inexpensively will be a boon for the small businesses Microsoft is targeting.

SBS 2003's Microsoft Management Console (MMC) Server Management Console snap-in, predictably, is excellent, and existing SBS users will feel right at home. The most commonly needed tasks--Users, Licensing, Internet and Email, Backup, Computers, Internet Web Site, Monitoring and Reporting, and the Help-like Information Center--are available from the main page of the MMC console, and other tasks, such as To-Do List, Internal Web site, and Printers, are available from the left-hand treeview. You can also access advanced management options (i.e., the tools you typically get with Windows Server). The real beauty of SBS, from an administrative perspective, is that all the tools have custom front ends that simplify the task at hand; you're not left with the technical, often indecipherable tools that Microsoft provides to enterprises.

Take Backup, for example. The first time you launch the Backup tool, it prompts you to set up a backup schedule. Although you can configure which parts of the system the tool backs up, SBS 2003 offers only full backup capabilities because the notion of incremental backups is both confusing and error-prone (e.g., one might lose a key tape required to get the backup restored, rendering the entire backup set useless). Then, SBS 2003's Backup tool provides options for modifying the backup schedule, modifying the storage used for deleted files and email (which abstracts the powerful Volume Shadow Copy Service--VSS--feature from Windows 2003), configuring My Document redirection, and more. As with most of SBS 2003's administrative features, your technical employees or the service provider can remotely administer Backup, monitor its progress, or receive email notifications when certain events occur. This functionality appears to be very slick.

I discussed SBS 2003's end-user experience a few weeks ago, but one item I neglected to mention is the way in which you configure desktops and notebooks to access the server. In the past, SBS used a low-tech, 3.5"-disk-based installation trigger, requiring someone to visit each machine. Now, users simply boot into the OS, go to a local Web site on the SBS server, choose a machine name, and the configuration occurs over the course of one reboot. Then, when users log on, they'll generally be unaware that they're now logging on to the domain and not logging on locally, and they'll have whatever custom features, applications, and settings you've configured. This element, too, appears to be very slick.

I have a lot more to say about SBS 2003, but I'm out of space and have yet to test the release candidate extensively. However, you can find out more about SBS 2003 in my exhaustive preview on the SuperSite for Windows ( http://www.winsupersite.com ), which will be available later this week, and I'll review the product's OEM preinstallation option more thoroughly later this summer. If you have questions about SBS 2003 that I haven't answered here or in the SuperSite preview, please drop me a note at [email protected]

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