SBS Revisited

To set the record straight: SBS is an excellent solution for many small businesses

In my February 2004 Editorial, "The SBS Dilemma," InstantDoc ID 41406, I related a discussion I had with managers of two small businesses regarding Small Business Server (SBS) 2003. One business was very small and used peer-to-peer style networking; the other was significantly larger and had several servers. Both businesses decided against SBS, but for different reasons. The smaller business found SBS too complex and was unable to deal with the additional technology. The larger business was too close to SBS's 75-user limit and didn't want to risk facing an expensive and time-consuming upgrade. Those businesses' rejection of SBS caused me to question whether Microsoft really understands small business.

Several readers—primarily SBS consultants—interpreted the editorial to mean that I think SBS is a poor product. Others read into it a recommendation that small businesses buy Windows NT solutions. Neither inference is accurate.

A Place for NT
Let me tackle the easier misconception first: I'd never recommend running NT on any new system. Doing so probably isn't even possible because NT-compatible drivers don't exist for much of the new hardware. Although NT 4.0 was a great product 10 years ago, technology moves ahead and we've got to move with it.

That said, I can certainly understand why a small business that has an established NT network might not want to abandon a wholly owned solution that still works. Such businesses might have to set dip switches on hardware, but they don't have to worry about planning an Active Directory (AD) forest or using Group Policy Objects (GPOs). NT is simple.

Neither of the businesses I mentioned is running NT. But if you are, I recommend preparing a migration path, if for no other reason than to ensure hardware support. Old hardware is a problem waiting to happen, and some crucial backup and restore components, such as tape drives, can be difficult or impossible to replace. You certainly don't want to discover that fact when you're trying to do a restore.

You don't necessarily need to plan on replacing your NT system—a less painful approach would be to add a new server to the existing environment. Depending on the situation, that new server could be an SBS system, a Windows Storage Server 2003 solution, or just a Windows Server 2003 system. The new server can take advantage of today's technology, and you can become familiar with it while it runs in your existing environment. If you have legacy applications that might not run on Windows 2003, consider using virtual machine (VM) software on the new server to continue to run the application—you'll probably realize a performance boost.

A Place for SBS
To set the second misconception straight, I want to say that I'm an SBS user. I've used SBS as the primary domain controller (DC) for my small network since just before the product was officially released. I used SBS 2003 to migrate from my Windows 2000 Server and Microsoft Exchange 2000 Server to their 2003 counterparts. In the process, I took advantage of SBS's enhanced AD setup to correct several long-standing AD problems that I'd created early on and had never gotten around to fixing.

The fact that I use SBS tells you that I think it's a good product. It's more capable and easier to manage than my Win2K server was. But is SBS a fit for every small business? No, it isn't. For small peer-to-peer networks, SBS is both too capable and too complex; for businesses close to the user ceiling, it's too binding. However, between those extremes, SBS is an attractively priced solution for small businesses that have access to technical personnel and that are comfortably under the 75-user ceiling. For businesses that have from about 10 to 50 users and that want to replace aging hardware, need remote access to their server, desire improved client and server backup, or don't already have a firewall, SBS 2003 is a great solution.

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