Experimenting with Microsoft BackOffice Small Business Server

If you've worked in the reseller channel, you know how painful growing and upgrading technology in a small business environment can be. In "Introducing Microsoft BackOffice Small Business Server" (December 1997), I evaluated Small Business Server (SBS), Beta 2 in the Windows NT Magazine Lab. As part of that review, I installed and configured an SBS system with seven client workstations to simulate Dr. John's Health Services, a typical small business environment. This month, I'll revisit some of those tasks with the release candidate (RC) version of SBS, and I'll examine the application services, Internet connectivity, and remote administration options that SBS offers.

To refresh your memory, Microsoft designed SBS to let someone with intermediate computer skills configure a business network environment that supports as many as 25 client connections. Microsoft targets the product for small businesses with fewer than 100 employees and no full-time MIS technician. Small companies can implement file sharing, printer sharing, modem sharing, fax serving, email, database applications, and secure Internet connectivity with one integrated, easy-to-use package.

A Little Background
In part 1 of my review, I ran some trials to get a feel for how the product compared with what Microsoft promised. However, based on what I saw in SBS, Beta 2, Microsoft had some work to do to smooth SBS's rough edges. I encountered problems with installation, including an error message stating that SBS could not locate enough space on a 4GB SCSI disk during setup. I also encountered unreasonably long response times for sending and receiving email, and network traffic slowed considerably with only three connections to the server from client workstations. Finally, the SBS system consistently crashed while trying to generate reports with the Crystal Reports component.

After the Microsoft SBS team reviewed my problems, I received the release candidate (RC) for SBS. The Microsoft team briefed me and gave me some strict warnings: SBS requires NTFS formatting to operate correctly; do not apply NT Service Pack (SP) 3 (SBS already incorporates it); do not uninstall Internet Explorer (IE) from the server; IE 4.0 is not compatible with SBS. Armed with the latest version of SBS and Microsoft's advice, I started my tests.

Basic Setup and Operation
I wanted to give this RC a fair shake, so I checked out a new server for my tests. I chose a Compaq Professional Workstation 5000 configured with dual 200MHz Pentium Pros, 128MB of RAM, a 4.3GB Fast/Wide SCSI-2 hard disk, an 8X CD-ROM, and the Gloria-L 3D Graphics Controller. (For details on the Professional Workstation 5000, see Lab Reports: "Professional Workstation 5000," July 1997.) The network adapter card was a Compaq Integrated Netelligent 10/100 TX PCI, and the modem was a U.S. Robotics Courier v.Everthing external; both products appear on Microsoft's SBS Hardware Compatibility List (HCL).

For connecting to client systems, I used two trustworthy Cogent S-1200 TX 100Base-TX Class II repeaters. The client machines consisted of six Compaq Deskpro 5100 workstations, three HP Vectra LV Series 4 workstations, one Dell OptiPlex GXMT 5166, and one DTK Computer workstation. All clients have at least a 100MHz Pentium and 32MB of RAM.

With the RC, installation went much more smoothly than with SBS, Beta 2. I called the domain CLINIC and my server HOPE. The only problem I encountered during installation was a warning that Proxy Server 1.0 had not been successfully installed. I corrected this problem by selecting the reinstall component option from the SBS CD-ROM. Once installation was complete, I began configuring my fictitious company, Dr. John's Health Services. The interface for adding user accounts was flawless and smooth, and I created shared folders for Patient Records, Finance, Insurance, Billing, and Payroll without a hitch. The interface is simple, and I liked being able to individually assign access to shared folders, shared modems, and the Internet, instead of having to assign membership in global groups for permissions and rights. For example, I allowed only three users to open the Payroll shared folder; all other users received an Access Denied warning.

I added workstations to the domain through the Set Up a Computer Wizard, which creates a user setup floppy to configure a user's account and connection from a client computer. The setup floppy 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. The process worked much faster this time than the 20 minutes I experienced when I set up clients with SBS, Beta 2. During a 9-minute period, I simultaneously configured four workstations with no visible slowdown in network traffic.

After I configured a client system, I immediately opened Outlook 97 to evaluate Exchange and the mail services. I was able to get all 11 clients to access their mailboxes and begin sending interoffice mail. Screen 1 displays a user's default address book that I created during the installation. The network performed admirably, sending and receiving mail instantaneously—including attachments of images, text, and binary code. The network slowdown prevalent with the beta code was not visible with the RC. The only problem I encountered was that some of the shortcuts SBS placed on the user's desktop did not point to the user's individual folder on the server. Deleting the shortcut and creating a new one solved this problem.

After I established the first five connections with server HOPE, SBS prompted me to add client licenses. SBS defaults to five connections during installation. Microsoft supplies additional licenses in sets of 5 (up to a maximum of 25) on floppies. Adding 10 extra licenses was extremely easy. Each client received a warning message that stated the server would be down and directed users to close all connections to HOPE. You must restart the server after adding licenses.

For this portion of my evaluation checklist, I was pleased with the performance of SBS. I went from a cold start through installation, configuration, sharing resources, and using an 11-client network with email in less than 3 hours.

Applications Support
For evaluating applications support, I installed Microsoft Office 97 with the SR-1 Patch into a shared folder on the server. Each user was able to open the shared applications folder and start a session of Word or Excel. From each client workstation, I created shortcuts for these applications on the user's desktop. I placed sample data into the Patient Records, Finance, Insurance, Billing, and Payroll shared folders. Using Word or Excel, each user accessed the sample data and performed read and write operations if the privilege was set in the user profile. If a user did not have certain privileges with a folder or file, the computer answered with the Access Denied warning.

Operations were flawless, and I was able to copy and paste data into email messages and forward the messages to other users. Network traffic held up fine—email exchanged instantaneously, and I downloaded and saved sample data with no noticeable slowdown on the server or the client workstations. One comment I'll make as an evaluator is that because of the audience SBS is intended for, Microsoft needs to include the applications support in the user setup floppy. SBS would benefit from the functionality in Microsoft Systems Management Server (SMS) that lets you push applications (such as Word, Excel, or third-party programs) to the clients. Setup would be much easier for end-users if applications and selected shortcuts to shared folders downloaded to the client systems, in addition to the SBS client software and shortcuts that SBS installs during setup.

Connecting to the Internet
The next step for Dr. John's Health Services was to connect to the Internet. Because the domain was functioning fine and SBS was performing well, I proceeded to sign up with an Internet Service Provider (ISP). Selecting this option from the To Do List (SBS's friendly user interface for configuration and maintenance operations, shown in Screen 2, page 74) automatically launches the Internet Connection Wizard, which locates an ISP, configures Exchange to work over the Internet, and registers a company over the Internet. I was prompted for my area code and the first three digits of Dr. John's Health Services' phone number.

To further refine the Internet connection process, Microsoft includes an Internet Referral Service. The RC lists two companies: Verio Small Business Services and SPRYNET. Both companies provide special offers for the BackOffice SBS beta sites. Microsoft expects to have additional ISPs by the product release date.

Through SBS, I selected Verio as my ISP, and the computer automatically dialed the toll-free number to begin the sign-up process. The registration information required for Dr. John's Health Services included my full name; the organization name, address, and phone number; and my password, domain name, and billing option.

During the registration process, the ISP passed its account and dialing properties to server HOPE. Next, the ISP configured the mail server to receive and hold mail for Dr. John's Health Services. The email protocol used on the Internet, Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP), expects a persistent connection; the ISP cannot hold a small business's email. Microsoft created an ISP Kit based on ETRN (an Internet standard Request for Comments 1985) to let ISPs configure their site to support the ability to hold mail. Exchange Server will automatically default to establishing a connection with the ISP every hour to check for email. This way, a small business doesn't need a dedicated phone line constantly connected to an ISP. The server will also automatically dial out to the ISP when a client activates IE and a connection does not already exist. SBS presents clients with the SBS Home Page shown in Screen 3, a single interface for communications options.

BackOffice Small Business Server
Microsoft · 800-426-9400
Web: http://www.microsoft.com/backofficesmallbi
Price: Contact vendor for pricing
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

Mail and More
On completion of the registration phase, I emailed a letter with attachments from my account in Dr. John's Health Services to my email account at Windows NT Magazine. I was pleasantly surprised that the email reached my magazine account in less than 10 minutes. I then started forwarding mail to all users in Dr. John's Health Services from my magazine account. Again, all users received the mail within 10 minutes. At the same time, I had Word and Excel applications running on the client machines and began forwarding internal mail as well, with no adverse effects to the network speed.

Configuring Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP), Internet Information Server (IIS), Exchange, and Proxy Server was hassle free—SBS handles all those tasks automatically. An option under the Internet Connection Wizard is the Domain Name Wizard, which lets a small business register its domain name directly with InterNIC. You can establish a company on the Internet within 24 hours, when InterNIC propagates its directory. Verio assigned me the domain name CLINIC.ABS.COM, and email addresses using the format [email protected]
.abs.net, where user is the username for individuals with an SBS account in my domain. The whole process from connecting to an ISP to using the Internet and email took less than 15 minutes to configure.

With the use of FrontPage 97 and its templates, I spent about an hour creating a Web page for Dr. John's Health Services. I followed a sample template and changed only some text to reflect the fictitious business. Through the SBS console, I selected Post Web Pages to Your Web Site. By default, the ISP hosts the Web pages; however, you can choose to host your Internet Web site on your server.

Management Blues
Once a network is up and running, a smart administrator will monitor it to make sure it's running smoothly and to anticipate potential problems. The network must be easy to manage and control. SBS networks are no exception, especially because SBS businesses might not have MIS support.

The control panel for SBS is the Manage SBS window, which you activate from the Start menu. The To Do List appears first, and exiting the To Do List presents the Manage SBS window, which contains three tabs: Tasks, More Tasks, and Online Guide. The Tasks tab provides icons for managing users, printers, email, shared folders, backup and restore, and troubleshooting. (You can add icons to the Tasks tab; however, to do so, you must edit the Registry, which is not something the intermediate user will likely attempt.) If you select Manage Users and then Manage Connected Users, you see the window shown in Screen 4, which contained incorrect data for my network. I had 11 users connected to server HOPE from 11 client workstations; each user was accessing email and running an application. However, the Manage Connected Users window listed only 3 users with active con-
nections and displayed several connections for the same computer with no username identified.

Cross-checking with Server Manager revealed that the server did not show a connection with all the client computers. When I tried to interrogate the connection to a client, SBS displayed the message "The network path was not found." However, the computer in question could transmit and receive email across the Internet and run a remote application from the server. I encountered the same problem under SBS, Beta 2, and Microsoft stated that this problem might be a refresh problem.

From the Tasks tab, you can select Manage Shared Folders to control access to folders, manage folder size, and move folders to different drives. From the Manage Shared Folders window, I activated the Share a Folder Wizard, from which I granted access to the shared folders that contained sample data.

Under the More Tasks tab, you can manage email distribution lists, hard disks, client computers, Internet access, faxes, modems, adding or removing software and hardware, and publishing on the Internet. When I selected Manage Computers, I encountered another problem. My network configuration had not changed, yet the window displayed only a few of my 11 connected computers.

Recovering the SBS Console
In closing the Server Manager window, I accidentally closed the Manage SBS window. When I selected Manage Server from the Start menu, SBS greeted me with an error window stating, "ActiveX component can't create object." Consulting the SBS release notes, I found an entry recommending that if the SBS console displays the ActiveX component error message, stop and restart the WWW Publishing Service. Using the Services applet in Control Panel, I stopped the WWW Publishing Service, restarted it, and selected Manage Server from the Start menu. Fortunately, the SBS console returned and displayed the Tasks tab.

Unfortunately, every time I closed the Manage SBS console, I had to stop and restart the WWW Publishing Service to open the window. At times, the software presented me with a blank Manage SBS window when I jumped from the More Tasks tab to the Tasks tab. Because I had chosen to host the Web site on the ISP and not on server HOPE, I decided it might be easier to turn the WWW Publishing Service off. However, I found that the Manage SBS console continued to give me the same ActiveX component error while the WWW Publishing Service was off. The WWW Publishing Service had to be on if I wanted to access the Manage SBS window.

Management Backup
Continuing my evaluation, I investigated the backup systems for managing SBS and the domain. One feature is a variety of preconfigured Performance Monitor windows available through the Exchange program menu. You can select Performance Monitor windows to view Server Health, History, IMS Queries, Statistics, Traffic, Load, or Users. The windows provide useful information, but they do not look like the typical Microsoft window with a title bar and borders, as you can see in Screen 5. You can resize the windows and move them around with the mouse, but they do not provide a right-click option menu. The only way I could close these Performance Monitor windows was to activate Task Manager and select End Task. (Microsoft claims that double-clicking the graph area displays a title bar and Close button, which you can use to close the window.)

One feature I wanted to make sure I tested was Crystal Reports for Microsoft SBS. Seagate Software Information Management Group makes Crystal Reports for Microsoft SBS, and Microsoft does not provide technical support for Crystal Reports. All my attempts to generate a report during my evaluation of SBS, Beta 2 produced application error messages. 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.

I was pleasantly surprised with the RC version of this management tool. In just a few guided clicks of the mouse, I generated several different reports, such as a Server Summary that displayed total messages sent and received, and a breakout by user of who sent the most email internally and externally. I produced a graph depicting the number of Web site hits by hours of the day, and I generated a summary of the Web sites most popular with the domain users. Screen 6, page 78, shows a report of the Top 10 sites that domain users surfed. (This feature presents a useful way to identify when clients are visiting non-work related sites.)

Remote Management
SBS provides the ability to manage and control a network from a remote client over RAS. Microsoft includes the utility software in the CD-ROM bundle, but Microsoft needs to correct some major bugs before the software is useful. While I was following the installation instructions supplied in the release notes, the blue screen of death (BSOD) paid me a visit when I attempted to run the remote client software. The BSOD occurred twice on the remote client computer after clean installations of NT Workstation 4.0 and SP3.

I decided to modify the instructions and configure the remote workstation as a regular user within the domain over a RAS connection. This tactic proved successful; however, even with a 56Kbps connection, the download of SBS client software took more than 3 hours. From the Dial-Up Monitor, I found that 38MB of data had been downloaded to the client computer.

My next step was to install the Remote Client software on the computer. This step was successful and did not give me the BSOD. However, when I ran the Remote Client software, I received the very unusual Manage SBS console shown in Screen 7. Every first letter on the tabs and icon labels was missing. The tabs and icons were functional, but the labels were hard to decipher. As a value-added reseller (VAR), I would be concerned about what other software code might be missing. Response of the Manage SBS console was slow over the modem connection, except for the Online Guide, which displayed complete Help pages promptly.

At the end of the Lab's product evaluation process, the product reviewers typically critique their experiences with the product to put product strengths and weaknesses in perspective. Sometimes problems are only cosmetic or cause a minor hiccup in the overall performance of the product, but sometimes problems are critical enough that the vendor needs to address them before it releases the product commercially. In the case of SBS, several problems are significant—especially considering SBS's target market (no permanent MIS support). For example, having to stop and start NT services to make the Manage SBS console appear is inappropriate.

Monitoring tools need to accurately describe what is happening in the network—displaying only 3 of 11 active connections in my test network was unacceptable—and monitoring tools must be easy to use. For instance, performance monitoring windows need to toggle on and off in the familiar fashion; users should not have to use Task Manager to close these windows.

As a potential VAR, I want a remote client package that I can trust to work properly and feed me realtime information. I don't have a lot of confidence in a product when the GUI is missing letters, as in my remote access experience with SBS. The product must be error free, or VARs will be reluctant to install it. Small businesses cannot afford frequent maintenance costs.

Keep Working, Microsoft
I'm going to hold Microsoft's feet to the fire on this product. With this RC, the company obviously made improvements from SBS, Beta 2, but more work needs to be done. The concept behind SBS is great: Give a small business the computing power it needs to succeed in the booming information age, and deliver that power in one package that doesn't cost a fortune and doesn't require a rocket scientist to run.

SBS's performance is there, too, but the product must have error-free management and control to be useful. Reliability and ease of use are what small businesses need to keep down their total cost of ownership. Obviously, Microsoft still has some work to do on SBS. By the time you read this review, Microsoft may have addressed the problems I experienced with the product. I hope so. The product is worth the extra effort.

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