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Windows SBS and EBS 2008 Preview Part 2: What's New in Windows Small Business Server 2008

In Part 1 of this preview, I discussed the pricing and licensing issues for Windows Small Business Server (SBS) 2008 and Windows Essential Business Server 2008. In the case of SBS 2008, I believe the new pricing scheme will be the most (needlessly) controversial aspect of this upgrade, given the mistaken impression that costs are rising across the board. But with that out of the way, I'd like to focus on what these two products bring to the table in terms of new features.

First, it's worth highlighting that both SBS and Essential Business Server are now being marketed as part of a new product family called Essential Business Solutions, a product family that also includes the recently released Windows Home Server. All three products include similar-looking management consoles, but I don't really think there's much low-level synergy between the products as such. For example, neither SBS nor Essential Business Server appears to take advantage of Windows Home Server's unique storage technologies. That said, a certain familiarity among each product's management console is obviously a good thing, as that is the primary interface for each. And with the expansion of SBS into three separate products, SBS can now focus solely on the small business market. There's a certain clarity of vision this time around, something that was missing in previous SBS releases.

Speaking of SBS, all the bundled products have been updated to the latest versions in SBS 2008, as previously noted. Premium Edition buyers will have access to two new features: First, SQL Server 2008 Standard Edition has replaced the SQL 2005 Workgroup Edition from the earlier version of SBS. And with SBS 2008, customers are now licensed to install SQL 2008 on a second server; the suite actually includes a second installation of Windows Server 2008 to accommodate this installation as well. (And although the first server must be 64-bit, the second can be 32-bit or 64-bit as Microsoft includes both 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Server 2008 and SQL 2008 in the box.)

System requirements have jumped dramatically in SBS 2008. Although a multi-core CPU is not strictly required, you'll need at least a high-end single core CPU (2.66GHz or more) and--get this--4GB of RAM. This might just be the first time I've seen a Microsoft product ship with reasonable and realistic system requirements.

On the software side, SBS 2008 gets the aforementioned new administrative console, which is attractive and usable. It follows the tab-based UI paradigm first introduced in Windows Home Server, with tabs for Home/Getting Started Tasks, Users and Groups, Network, Shared Folders and Web Sites, Backup and Server Storage, Reports, and Security. The new console is not based on Microsoft Management Console (MMC), and does away with the whole snap-in paradigm. But fear not, the new console is indeed quite extensible and open to third-party tools.

A surprise hit in the previous version of SBS, Remote Web Workspace, has been updated with a fresh new look that features three simple and colorful buttons labeled Check Email (Outlook Web Access), Connect to a Computer (Terminal Services Gateway), and Internal Web site (SharePoint Web Services v3). This plain English approach to task management will be appreciated by the non-techies who actually have to use this interface to access SBS' features.

From an administrative standpoint, the addition of pervasive security controls will likely eliminate the number one concern of potential SBS customers: With 24/7 broadband access providing ubiquitous connectivity, small businesses need to be online, yes, but they also want to make sure their data is safe. SBS 2008's security controls also monitor client health, so you can be sure all of the connected PCs are up-to-date.

There's also some nice integration with Microsoft's Office Live Small Business services. Now, when you create or use a domain name via SBS, you do so via simple SBS wizards that interact with Office Live's back-end servers seamlessly.

Another nicety: Using simple UI checkboxes, you can easily perform tasks like moving the Exchange or Windows Server Update Services (WSUS) data store. These tasks were possible in SBS 2003, sort of, but required 30 pages of documentation and a lot of determination.

While SBS 2008 benefits from the roles-based administration model that Microsoft promoted with great effect in Server 2008 (indeed, this model arguably has its roots in earlier SBS versions), SBS still doesn't support any form of administrative delegation. This arguably makes sense given the target market, but I wonder if there isn't a bit of room between end users and administrators/partners. That said, an earlier attempt at delegated admin via a power user console in SBS 2003 went nowhere.

SBS 2008 deployment is easier than ever. There are basically just four pages in the Setup wizard, in which you configure the domain name, administrator account, time zone, and business address, and with a pre-built box from a major PC maker, a small business can be up and running in little over half an hour.

There are two weak spots, however. The installation of SQL 2008 remains completely separate from the other workloads in Premium Edition and isn't integrated in any way. And because SBS 2008 is a 64-bit product, there's no in-place upgrade option, so existing customers hoping to upgrade will need to do a migration instead. This involves bringing up the new server, running a few migration wizards, moving all the old data over to the new server, then shutting down the old server.

Overall, SBS 2008 looks like an impressive upgrade. Next week, I'll check out Essential Business Server 2008, a new product aimed at the mid-market.

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