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Small Business Server 7 Highlights Gaps in Microsoft's Small Business Strategy

The Windows Small Business Server (SBS) world is being torn asunder as you read this, thanks to Microsoft's decision to split the product into two separate product lines that will, in effect, compete with each other.

OK, maybe that's a bit dramatic. But it's impossible to evaluate both of these next-generation SBS products--SBS "Aurora," which dispenses with most of the of the on-premise stuff in lieu of the cloud, and SBS "7," which is basically just the next version of the SBS you all know and love--without feeling a bit conflicted.

I've already discussed Aurora a number of times (see here and here). But since both products take a decidedly different tack, you might believe that Microsoft is hedging its bets between the cloud-based future and the on-premise past. But that's not what's happening here, not really. Microsoft's bet, such as it is, is with the future, with the cloud, and with Aurora in the SBS space. SBS 7 exists solely because the software giant has already created a thriving ecosystem for partners that wish to sell and maintain SBS with their own customers. SBS 7 gives these customers a way to move forward.

Maybe "forward" isn't the right word. SBS 7 gives Microsoft and its partners an upgrade to sell. But it's an upgrade that is rooted firmly in the on-premise past. Those SBS-using small businesses that would like to move into the cloud can do so, of course. But they have to do that on their own.

Why is this? Simple: Microsoft's partners--the customers that support traditional SBS products--have no incentive to push customers to the cloud. So while Microsoft can make the argument that SBS 7 provides its existing customers with a way to upgrade to the functional advances and improved security of its latest products, this product is really just a partner play. And at its heart, that's what I don't like about it. SBS 7 isn't as customer-centric as it perhaps should be.

(That said, Aurora is perhaps too simplistic. Indeed, there's a weird sense of "now what?" with Aurora.)

Hopefully, a future SBS version will bridge the gap between these two products, and Microsoft will provide an upgrade to existing SBS customers that lets them cross over to cloud-based solutions as an integrated part of the upgrade experience.

Perhaps. Meanwhile, back in the reality-land, I've spent much of the past week or so examining the next follow-up to Microsoft's traditional SBS products, SBS 7. If you're familiar with SBS, there are no major surprises. But if it's been a while, here's a quick overview.

SBS 7 installs as do traditional Windows Server versions and doesn't utilize the super-simple Aurora-style installer. Indeed, the first phase of Setup is essentially identical to that of Windows Server 2008 R2 Standard (or even Windows 7), which is certainly simple enough. But in comparing SBS 7 with Aurora, you can see how the needle has moved even further towards idiot-proof in Aurora.

Once Windows Server is installed, of course, you have to deal a bit of configuration as well as with the other Microsoft servers that are bundled into this product. It's as tedious as ever, but no surprises there. Management occurs via the familiar management console, with its quick look at network health assessment column (where "green is good").

Unlike Aurora, SBS 7 expects to be the center of your network, doling out DHCP addresses and whatnot. So it will detect the current network configuration and then seeks to replace it with its own scheme. This is actually understandable but speaks to the major underlying differences between Aurora and the old-school SBS 7.

Depending on your perspective, there are complexities--or tons of functionality--everywhere in SBS 7. You can create reports, manage software licenses, and access a variety of intranet web sites. There is a server firewall, a VPN connection, and a POP3 connector to think about. Users have roles, like Network Administrator and Standard User with administration links, and exist within groups, like Windows SBS Fax Users, Windows SBS SharePoint_MembersGroup and many more.

Put more simply, SBS 7 is too complex for a small business. And while the original ideas behind SBS were always well intentioned, in today's world, this product seems anachronistic. Where Aurora can be set up and forgotten, SBS 7 requires your time. It needs to be managed. I believe this product was specifically engineered to require oversight.

I understand that there are those fans of SBS who will recoil at my opinion of this product. But at least let me offer you this roundabout fig leaf: Microsoft's online offerings are also woefully unprepared for the unwashed masses. Primarily, the issue is cost, not quality. With Google offering a free version of its Google Apps solution, I'm unclear on why small businesses--especially the smallest of small businesses--would ever opt to pay for Microsoft's. It's that simple.

For this reason, I suspect that the vast majority of small business customers out there that do adopt a Microsoft server product in the future will choose Aurora. But they'll also adopt Google Apps, and not Microsoft's BPOS or other hosted services, as the Microsoft offerings are just too expensive. And this is a situation that needs to change.

Note: Coincidentally, Microsoft this week touted some BPOS (and Live @edu) "wins," including a tripling of the BPOS installed base and adoptions by some impressive corporations. This is fantastic, and no one is suggesting that BPOS isn't a great offering for mid-sized businesses and the enterprise. My concern here is more for small businesses.

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