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Windows Small Business Server 2011 Essentials

Where Windows Home Server 2011 (see my recent review) is a slam dunk for its intended audience, its stable mate for the small business market, Windows Small Business Server 2011 Essentials, is currently more of a mixed bag. That's not because there's anything wrong with the product per se. It's just that the necessary add-ins that will make this server truly useful have yet to materialize.

But even on its own, SBSE, as I'll call it from here on out, is an undeniable achievement, with the cute caveat that I've been asking for a product like this for years, and a complete rethinking of Microsoft's Small Business Server product line for the cloud computing age: Where previous versions of SBS simply grafted a host of Microsoft productivity servers into a single, lengthy, and complex install process and integrated management console, SBSE goes in a different direction. Instead, it drops the complexity and provides just basic on-premise services (user and PC management, data storage, and so on) and expects that the productivity services--email, contacts, and calendar, document collaboration, and communications--will occur online via services like Office 365.

(There is a separate SBS 2011 product, called Windows Small Business Server 2011 Standard, which is designed as an upgrade for the classic SBS product line; this version includes on-premise versions of Exchange, SharePoint Foundation Services, Windows Server Update Services, and other tools. I do not recommend this product for new installs, and will not be reviewing it.)

The SBSE Dashboard

Basically, SBSE is a stripped down version of Windows Server, or a small business version of Windows Home Server 2011. And at a high level, the big differences between SBSE and WHS 2011 are easy to recognize: Where WHS is essentially unmanaged, offering the workgroup model of networking organization, SBSE provides a full-featured, Active Directory-based, domain services organizational scheme. (And it does so in the simplest package I've ever seen: I honestly didn't think this was even possible.) And where WHS 2011 is aimed at the needs of home users--with digital media sharing and centralized PC management--SBSE is aimed at the very smallest small businesses, those with the most limited budgets that are the least likely to pay for expensive and complex infrastructure. You know, the type of place where people use their own PCs for work.

I've been using SBSE alongside WHS 2011 here in my home office for the past several months, and while I don't currently rely on this product as much as I do WHS--for the lack of add-ins reason I alluded to above and will expand on later in the review--I do use it regularly and have come to understand what it does, and does not, offer the budding small business. And while the functionality is fairly basic right now, I suspect that the value equation for this cutest of Windows Servers will jump exponentially when those add-ins do start appearing.

Here's what's going on with Windows Small Business Server 2011 Essentials.

Automatic, centralized PC backup

As with WHS 2011, SBSE provides automatic, centralized backup of all the PCs on the local network; however, unlike with WHS, which works with only 10 PCs, you can use SBSE with up to 25 PCs. This feature alone is a decent reason to stock up on some cheap local storage, though of course the PCs need to be on the local network--and not out and about in the world, as would be the case with many of today's new small businesses--to be backed up.

Automatic server backup

Again in tandem with WHS 2011, SBSE also offers twice-a-day backups of whatever server-based data you want backed up, by default. (You can customize the schedule to your own needs.) Unique to SBSE, however, I'm told this service works with whatever other servers you may install in your environment as well, though I've not tested this. (As you'll discover in a bit, SBSE can be co-installed alongside an optional second server called the SBS 2011 Premium Add-on.)

Network health monitoring

Identically to WHS 2011, SBSE also lets you monitor the health of any PCs and servers on the network. This works when PCs are used remotely as well, and gives you the same types of alerts for such things as configuring Server Backup, out of date malware definitions, and so on, as does WHS 2011. I am curious to see whether a future Windows Intune add-in will let you farm out this service to the cloud at a per-PC cost, though I find the current Intune version to be a bit expensive, as will most very small businesses. Perhaps a SBSE-specific pricing scheme could be established to make that more viable.

Content storage and sharing

Where WHS 2011 provides pre-configured shared server folders for both documents and digital media files, SBSE is all business, and comes with a different set of stock shared server folders. Client Computer Backups, as its name suggests, stores your PC backups. (Server Backup is configured separately and uses a different drive for its needs.) A Company share appears to be SBSE's stab at providing access to company-wide shared files, though of course most small businesses will want to create their own specific folder shares. And Users is analogous to the Documents shared folder in WHS 2011, providing sub-folders for each configured user.

What's missing in SBSE, of course, is any form of digital media sharing. Sure, you could store digital media files--music, photos, videos, and the like--on the server and access them over the network normally. But SBSE doesn't provide a DLNA-based sharing mechanism like WHS 2011, so it's able to connect to a variety of devices out of the box. (I suppose a future add-in could correct this easily enough.) Likewise, as a managed environment (described below), SBSE does not integrate with Windows 7's simpler Homegroup sharing scheme.

Remote access

SBSE provides nearly identical remote access features as does WHS 2011, with identical interfaces and capabilities. You can access server-based documents and files remotely via the web-based Remote Web Access interface and a unique domain/URL. It has the same UPnP dependencies as WHS 2011, and if you didn't read my review of that product yet, please at least check out the section on remote access now to see how I overcome this; even if my silly router worked correctly with UPnP, I'd stick with the solution I've found, and it works equally well with SBSE as it does with WHS 2011.

Full Active Directory functionality

Where WHS 2011 goes a bit beyond a truly unmanaged environment by offering centralized network health monitoring and PC and server backup, at its heart is the unmanaged workgroup-style networking organization. SBSE, however, offers full-fledged, Active Directory-based domain services like a "real" Windows Server. And yet it exceeds Microsoft's supposedly more full-featured Windows Server versions in two key areas. First, the AD-based domain is created for you automatically during Setup, so you don't have to go in afterwards and manually set that up, along with all its prerequisites. Secondly, the complexity of AD is completely hidden from both users and administrators. This is the first time I've ever seen an AD-based server that could actually be used and managed by non-technical people. It's quite an accomplishment.

For those of us who are used AD, however, it's also somewhat disarming. In fact, in early pre-release versions of SBSE, I had to really muck around in the system to be sure it did what it said it did. It just didn't seem possible. But it's real, and in the theme of "best of both worlds" that will be repeated in the Add-ins section below, I'd note that you get simplicity here as well as the full power of Active Directory if you want it.

Here's a simple example. When you create a new user account in the SBSE Dashboard, you're prompted for first and last name, password, and the "level of access," which can be either Standard user (the default) or Administrator. (You then configure the type of access the user has for each shared server folder and whether they can use remote access.) On a "normal" Windows Server, new users are added via the far more complex Active Directory Users and Computers interface. Here, in addition to the fields mentioned above, you're prompted for the user logon name and domain, a pre-Windows 2000 version of that information, and must configure several options related to passwords. Later and separately, you determine what that user's access level is via the incredibly complex Member of tab of the busy-looking Properties dialog. Yikes!


What's interesting is that these options are of course still available in SBSE, and if you want to dig down into the Active Directory Users and Computers interface for some reason, you can. And that's true of virtually anything in SBSE: All the advanced controls are still there. And while I bet most customers will never need them, it's nice to know you can do it all with SBSE if you need to.

Extensibility through add-ins

SBSE is part of a new family of "Colorado" servers at Microsoft, each of which of utilize the same Windows Server 2008 R2-based infrastructure, management console (the Dashboard), client Connector and related software, and, most important, add-in based extensibility model. (The other Colorado products are Windows Home Server 2011 and Windows Storage Server Essentials.) That last bit is, I think, what's most compelling about these products, since add-ins let you dramatically enhance the capabilities of the server in a seamless fashion.

With WHS 2011, I'd imagine that cloud backup solutions will be among the most frequently used add-ins, and that will be true of SBSE as well. And I expect server security solutions to gain some traction too.

But Microsoft has announced two very specific add-ins for SBSE that I think will put this product over the top. Since the more important of these is not available in final form yet, I will review it separately later in the year. But I've seen both in action and like what I've seen. They are:

Windows 7 Professional Pack for Small Business Server 2011. This add-in simplifies the management of Windows 7-based PCs on the network by providing pre-configured, Group Policy-based security settings, user data backup, and offline file access on client PCs. This product is actually available now; I blogged about it last month when Microsoft completed development. You can download the Windows 7 Professional Pack for Small Business Server 2011 from the Microsoft web site.

Office 365 Integration Module for Windows SBS 2011 Essentials. This add-in will integrate SBSE with Microsoft's excellent Office 365 service, providing small businesses with a best of both worlds solution that combines SBSE's on-premise functionality with Exchange Online-based email, contacts, and calendar, SharePoint Online -based document storage and collaboration, and Lync Online -based premise and communications in the cloud. And this is real integration: Once the add-in is installed, the new user wizard will include Exchange-specific fields and link the AD-based user account to Office 365 as well. So you don't have to manually recreate the same user accounts in both SBSE and Office 365, as you would otherwise.

From a domain perspective, it means that the business can have a single domain name that works (via sub-domains in some cases) with Remote Web Access in SBSE and the online services in Office 365 (Exchange email, SharePoint).

This integration extends to setup as well. If you already have an Office 365 subscription, you can link it to SBSE during install. Otherwise, and probably more commonly, you can simply create a new subscription to the service directly from within the wizard, without having to separately visit the web.

Management of Office 365 occurs through a new Office 365 tab in the SBSE Dashboard. In the demos I saw, clicking this revealed the web-based Office 365 management UI inside of the Dashboard, but hopefully a more seamless and native interface will be available in the final shipping version. Either way, however, it achieves the goal of centralizing management of what would normally be two different services.

If you're as excited by this add-in as I am, you should check out Microsoft's demonstration video of the solution. Sadly, it won't ship until the end of the year.

Windows Small Business Server 2011 Premium Add-on

Both SBSE and Windows Small Business Server 2011 Standard can be extended with a second server box which includes Windows Server 2008 R2 Standard and Microsoft SQL Server 2008 R2 for Small Business. This opens up a number of interesting possibilities, including access to Hyper-V (which is not part of SBSE), and a slate of line of business (LOB) apps and other solutions that require SQL Server. (You could actually install just SQL Server on your SBSE box separately if you wanted; remember, it's a real Windows Server install.)

The inclusion of a second Windows Server install also provides you with Active Directory redundancy, since you can (and should) configure this second box as another domain controller. And Microsoft notes that you could also install the free SharePoint Foundation 2010 on the second box, giving you access to a local version of Office Web Apps. (As with SQL Server, I'm pretty sure you could do this directly on the SBSE box as well, however.)

I don't have any need for the SBS 2011 Premium Add-in, so I've not tested this optional feature. It costs about $1600.


Though SBSE was finished months ago, small servers preinstalled with this software are slow to appear. HP recently announced the availability of a ProLiant MicroServer that can be preconfigured with SBSE, and I've ordered one and will report back later. As with WHS 2011, you can always purchase SBSE in software-only form; places like sell it for under $400, and you can install it on your own PC or server hardware as I'm doing. It's straightforward.

Still, the lack of a compelling selection of SBSE-based server hardware, at least so far, is disappointing. For this platform to really take off, I think, preconfigured and low-cost server hardware is key. So is that Office 365 add-in.

Final thoughts

In its current state, Windows Small Business Server 2011 Essentials is a simple and useful "first" server aimed at the smallest of small businesses. But it's basically unfinished until server hardware and the crucial Office 365 add-in appear, more promise than reality. I expect this situation to be rectified by the end of the year. Until that happens, you're free to install SBSE on your own hardware or choose from the few existing prebuilt servers and enjoy the simple but basic SBSE experience. That's what I'm doing, and when the Office 365 add-in appears, I'll report back and see whether I can offer a more compelling recommendation.

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