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Hands-On with Windows Small Business Server "Aurora": Notes from the Field

I've written about Microsoft's new Small Business Server offering, code-named Aurora, a lot over the past few months. (Most recently in Windows Small Business Server "Aurora" Release Candidate.) Since then, I've been using Aurora as the basis for a new domain in my test environment, and I've spoken with Microsoft further about the product. Here are some notes from my time using Aurora over the past several weeks.

It's simple. Aurora is simple, maybe too simple. That's because it's designed for the smallest of small businesses, where there is not only no IT staff but perhaps not even someone who is particularly knowledgeable about computers. Aurora needs to work in these largely unmanaged environments, and my take on this is that it will do so just fine. But Aurora really comes into its own when it's run by someone who understands Active Directory and Group Policy: Push a bit beyond the surface UI and the entire Windows Server management infrastructure is there, waiting to be unlocked. A bit more about this in a moment.

What's confusing about Aurora, to me, is that it's not clear what's going on under the covers. Setup literally involves just a handful of steps, and the most taxing question you'll answer is the name of the new domain you wish to set up. Unlike with traditional Windows Server versions, Aurora assumes you're going to install it behind a home-like broadband router, like you'd get from a cable or DSL Internet provider, and it doesn't assume that it will be providing DNS or DHCP services.

On the client end, Aurora also simplifies the process of connecting users (and their PCs) to the domain by providing a very basic web-based installer, which can be found at http://server-name/connect. By default, users will connect via this interface, provisioning a new domain user account and PC in the process. If you're used to micromanaging this, it can be a bit off-putting.

Launchpad can be too chatty. Users can optionally use the LaunchPad software on their PCs, which provides them with PC- or network-based health alerts. Even in my small environment, these alerts have proven to be way too chatty, in my opinion, and users who are tasked with ensuring that the environment is kept in a steady, healthy state will quickly become overwhelmed by the number of alerts. These alerts change the LaunchPad's notification icon to yellow when there's an issue to resolve (a computer has important updates to install) or red for something very serious (a computer has a hard drive that is nearly full, or an out-of-date anti-malware solution).

Aurora is particularly prickly about getting the remote access and server backup capabilities online and working properly. If you don't do either, you'll be notified somewhat incessantly. For some reason, it's easier to disable client backups than it is server backups.

Shares are confusing. Aurora, like the Windows Home Server products on which it is based, comes with a set of default shares that provide access to server-based storage over the network. However, this isn't a home server, so the shares aren't designed around media content like music, photos, and videos. Instead, you get shares called Users and Company. Fair enough, but I found the process of creating new shares--and worse still, removing unwanted shares (Company??) too difficult, and I suspect the IT-less Aurora user base will as well.

What's really different, however, is that Aurora (like "Vail," the next version of Windows Home Server) also creates a unique drive letter in Explorer for each share. So the Company share can also be accessed, on the server, by the Y: drive, and the Users share is found at W: too. Why is this, I asked? According to Microsoft, these mapped drive letters make it easier for users to find the shares in the file system (they were previously somewhat hidden on in D:\Shares in WHS v1). And they're easier to back up as well.

OK, fair enough. But there's no UI for deleting shares and their accompanying drive letters simultaneously, at least not in the standard Aurora management UI, called the Dashboard.

Extensibility is the key. Where Aurora is really going to prove impressive is via its new add-on model. The problem, for now, is that there are no Aurora add-ons to test, though there is a hint in the UI that one is coming for Microsoft's Business Productivity Online Suite, or BPOS, which provides hosted versions of Exchange, SharePoint, and other Microsoft servers. I'm eager to try such an add-on, but I'll need to wait. So I asked about other add-ons that may be coming.

From the look of things, it's going to be pretty exhaustive. Microsoft plans add-ons for on-premise servers, like Exchange 2010, as well as for hosted services, and there is a very interesting set of management add-ons coming that will simplify Group Policy and other management features. Also coming are add-ons that will negate the very real need, currently, to logon to the server via Remote Desktop Connection to perform many management tasks. Those will all be exposed through the Dashboard in the future, which will be a nice change.

Microsoft is also going to offer something called a Premium Add-on for Aurora that will provide a fully licensed copy of Windows Server 2008 R2 and SQL Server 2008 R2. This provides features not found in Aurora--like Hyper-V--and lets you extend your new domain with a second domain controller. And it is a second machine: Contrary to the upgrade possibility suggested by its name, the Premium Add-on is installed on a second server, not over the existing Aurora box.

Summing up...

Put simply, Aurora lives up to the needs of its stated mission and will be an excellent solution for very small businesses. But where this thing will really come into its own is in the hands of someone who really knows their way around AD and GP. Just implementing something like folder redirection, for example, could make a huge difference for users. These kinds of capabilities, I think, will be out of reach for typical Aurora users, however, unless they sign up with a forward-looking Microsoft partner that understands the product and the ways in which they can provide value on top of the base package. Yes, Aurora is in many ways a starter server. But lurking underneath the hood is (almost) the full power of Windows Server, just waiting to be unleashed.

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