Waiting on the Attack of the Small Business Servers

All summer, I've been waiting for new hardware running Microsoft's "Colorado" servers. And all summer, I've been disappointed. Despite promises that we'd see new machines based on Windows Small Business Server 2011 Essentials, Windows Home Server 2011, and Windows Storage Server 2011 Essentials by the end of May or June at the latest, it's now August, and very little in the way of hardware, new or otherwise, has appeared.

And though one of these products, in particular, is still missing a key piece that I think will soon put it over the top, these Colorado servers are so good as-is, I'm not going to wait anymore. You need to know about them now.

Conceptually, the Colorado servers are technical successors to the original Windows Home Server (WHS), which was itself based on Windows Server 2003. The Colorado servers do offer more modern underpinnings courtesy of Windows Server 2008 R2, but what really sets them apart from other Microsoft servers are their laser-like focus on very specific markets and the formalization of an extensibility system that allows third parties to extend the products' capabilities in new and interesting ways.

As its name suggests, WHS targets the home market and provides three core capabilities: centralized storage and sharing for personal documents, photos, music, and movies; automatic and centralized PC and server backups with network health monitoring, and remote access (to PCs, the server, and its content).

Back when WHS was the only such server, I and others used to pester Microsoft about the need for small business server of the server, and SBS 2011 Essentials is the answer to that complaint. It looks and works a lot like WHS 2011, but with two key differences. First, there are no media sharing features built-in, which makes sense for a small business product. And second, SBS 2011 actually uses Active Directory on the back end, so even though the front-end interfaces are incredibly and suspiciously simple, it's really using a mature, directory services–based infrastructure.

The third Colorado server, WSS 2011 Essentials, is a bit of a dark horse. It's the only one of the three I'm not using regularly, and while there are a few reasons for that, the important one involves a technology called Drive Extender (DE). Microsoft introduced DE in WHS v1, providing what I assumed was the future of Windows file systems: It was essentially a way to automatically ensure that files written to certain folders would be replicated on two physical disks, but it also had the neat side effect of deemphasizing Windows' archaic drive letter scheme.

DE v2 was going to be one of the key features of the Colorado servers, moving this excellent and simple technology to more mainstream Windows versions and, I think, eventually to the Windows client as well. But during test of these products in 2010, Microsoft discovered that DE wasn't compatible with third-party server apps. And since the common extensibility model across these products was more important strategically, DE was killed. This makes WSS 2011 Essentials a bit less, well, essential in my book. And I think the market will simply continue the use of even simpler NAS devices. I could be wrong, but again, this is the one Colorado server I'm not using, and the removal of DE plays a big role in that.

Of course, the removal of DE from WHS 2011, especially, was also problematic, as storage is a key feature of both of those products as well. (Not the key feature, but you get the idea.) To overcome this issue, Microsoft enabled a more comprehensive server backup feature that I think nicely answers the data duplication question. (I discussed my decision to continue utilizing this product for my own personal needs in I'm Betting On Windows Home Server 2011. I've not regretted this decision.)

Anyway, WHS 2011 and SBS 2011 Essentials are sister products, and very similar from a management and usage perspective. Typically, you'd acquire these products with new PC-like server hardware, add storage if required, stick the box in a corner, and get on with life. This new hardware, as noted, has yet to arrive in any appreciable sense, though I assume it's still on the way from various hardware makers. But you can purchase WHS 2011 or SBS 2011 Essentials (but not WSS 2011 Essentials) from Newegg.com and other electronic retailers, and pricing is aggressive. (Especially with WHS 2011, which can be had for less than $100.) What you'll find is that these systems install easily and quickly on virtually any modern PC, just as does Windows 7. And sure enough, this is what I've done, using an older Dell Precision workstation and an Inspiron desktop PC for the servers.

So why would you use such a product? Even the smallest and newest of small businesses will have some need for centralized storage, and either WHS 2011 or SBS 2011 Essentials fits that bill quite nicely. Deciding between them will require understanding the trade-offs, such as the fact that WHS includes server backup and SBS does not. But SBS uses AD, and WHS does not. I divide them as Microsoft intended, using WHS for home media and SBS 2011 for work.

Where these products will really shine—and this is the other bit that's not quite there yet—is via their extensibility capabilities. All of the Colorado servers share an identical add-ins model, though of course each also exposes its own unique product specific capabilities as well. One of the most eagerly awaited add-ins is the Office 365 Integration Module, which will let small businesses utilize SBS 2011 Essentials for local storage and user/PC management, and Office 365 for cloud-based email, calendar, contacts, and document collaboration (and, as it turns out, mobile device management too).

With this add-in, now due in "the fall," according to Microsoft, customers will be able to manage their local- and cloud-based infrastructure from a single console (that provided by SBS 2011 Essentials). I've seen a demo of a prototype of this system, and I'm quite eager to utilize it in my own environment.

And not to look too far ahead, but it's not hard to further imagine a "small business in a box"-type product that would tie together SBS 2011 Essentials, Office 365, and Windows Intune 2, the latter of which would add software deployment and updating management; Intune 2 is due by the end of the year too. This would be a compelling offering if it was priced appropriately.

I'll keep using WHS 2011 and SBS 2011 Essentials and will report back when the Office 365 Integration Module appears. But a recent release from an unexpected quarter has me wondering whether SBS 2011 Essentials, in particular, didn't just get some interesting competition.

This release was a bit surprising to me, since it comes from Apple, which isn't exactly known for its business solutions. But here's something to think about: The latest version of the company's desktop operating system, Mac OS X Lion, costs just $30 and can be upgraded to a full-fledged server OS for just $50. And OS X Lion Server is surprisingly capable for that cost: You get centralized mail and calendar servers, iOS device compatibility, a Wiki server (sort of a poor-man's SharePoint), and other interesting features.

I'm going to experiment with OS X Lion Server on a Mac mini and see if this makes sense for small businesses as well. My gut tells me it will be more applicable to Mac-oriented shops, but those are becoming more and more common. And I've already verified that many of the Lion Server features do work fine with PCs as well, though connectivity to the server isn't as seamless as I'd like.

If this experiment bears fruit, I'll report back on that as well. In the meantime, do take a look at Microsoft's Colorado servers. The software giant's hardware partners have done everything they can to squelch enthusiasm for what should have been three of the more high-profile Microsoft product launches this year. These servers deserve more attention than they've received. 

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