InfoWorld review: Windows Small Business Server 2011 shines

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Microsoft's affordable bundle of Exchange, SharePoint, easy remote access, and integrated management continues to be a great platform on which to build a small business

Many small businesses have relied on Microsoft's Small Business Server (SBS) family of servers to get their feet wet with their first server and network. Introduced back in 1997 as BackOffice Small Business Server 4.0, SBS has matured into a tightly integrated platform of the most important services a small company needs: file and printer functions, email, calendar and contact sharing, and document collaboration. While it is limited in the maximum number of concurrent user connections, SBS doesn't shirk core services, providing enterprise-grade features at a price point almost every small business can afford.

The current iteration, Windows SBS 2011, is available in two versions: Essentials and Standard. SBS 2011 Standard (reviewed here) includes Windows Server 2008 R2, Exchange 2010 SP1, SharePoint Foundation 2010, and SQL Server 2008 R2 Express, and it supports up to 75 users. All of the core services -- file and print, email, collaboration, and remote access -- run in a single chassis, but can be extended to additional physical or virtual servers with the Premium Add-on Kit, which is made up of Microsoft SQL Server 2008 R2 and Hyper-V R2.

SBS 2011 Essentials (to be available in the first part of 2011) is intended for very small businesses with up to 25 users. Essentials provides a file and print platform for local applications while integrating with cloud-based email and collaboration. Unlike SBS 2011 Standard, Essentials doesn't include a copy of Exchange or SharePoint Foundation on the local server. All email and collaboration is done in the cloud through services such as Microsoft's Office 365. The physical server runs a full copy of Windows Server 2008 R2 and handles user authentication and server management.

Microsoft will provide an integration module for its Office 365 hosted service that handles SSO (single sign-on) and user provisioning from the Essentials server dashboard. Through the use of additional Cloud Integration Modules, admins can create profiles for just about any other hosting provider, including Rackspace and Google.

Although it targets the very small network, Essentials includes some enterprise-grade services. For example, a built-in backup system covers the network clients as well as the server. The client backup feature is unique to Essentials -- server backup is available only in Standard. Like Standard, Essentials also allows for remote access via Web browser into the network to access files and applications. (See also, "Two flavors of Small Business Server 2011: Which to choose.")

Windows Small Business Server 2011 Standard procedures
With Windows Server, Exchange, SharePoint Foundation, and SQL Express on premises, SBS 2010 Standard is the choice for IT departments that want to have their email and collaboration services on-site and under direct control. Unlike Essentials, Standard also includes Windows Software Update Services 3.0 (WSUS). This helpful service provides a single point of management for applying updates to all of your domain servers and desktops, eliminating random, uncontrolled installations without any IT oversight.

One feature not available in SBS Standard is Hyper-V. Microsoft does not recommend running Hyper-V on a domain controller or Exchange server, and since those are two of the building blocks of SBS 2011, Hyper-V is off the list.

A welcome change from previous releases of Small Business Server is that the Premium Add-on kit is no longer a stand-alone SBS server. Instead, it installs on its own hardware as an additional server in the SBS Standard domain. SBS 2011 Premium Add-on is truly an add-on package and cannot be installed as its own "first server" in the domain. And while health status can be monitored (and WSUS policy applied) from the Standard console, administration of Premium servers is handled via their local admin tools. The Premium Add-on kit is made up of another license of Windows Server 2008 R2 and comes with the full version of Microsoft SQL Server 2008 R2.

Another feature in Premium is the Hyper-V virtualization role. As noted above, Hyper-V is not available in either the Essentials or Standard editions, but because Premium runs on separate hardware, and without Exchange, Hyper-V is a viable option for further expanding your network.

Hardware requirements for SBS are up a bit from previous releases, but still well within reason considering the state of server hardware today. Essentials requires at least a dual-core 1.3GHz 64-bit CPU, 2GB of RAM, and 160GB of disk space. Its needs are minimal because there are no servers other than Windows Server 2008 R2 running on the local machine.

Those who have SBS 2008 installed will notice few -- if any -- changes in the server management console; those looking to upgrade from SBS 2003 will see the most differences in performing day-to-day tasks. The server management console is much improved over the one found in SBS 2003, with a well-laid-out ribbon interface that intuitively groups similar tasks and functions together. For example, the Users and Groups section provides a one-stop shop for creating users, defining password policy, and managing user roles and group affiliations. I like how I can go to the Security section and quickly see virus and firewall status for servers and clients. Similarly, just by selecting the Updates tab, I have access to Windows Software Update Services.

Remote access features have also been cleaned up and updated in SBS 2011. Outlook Web Access is vastly improved over previous versions, more closely mimicking Outlook. Remote Web Access (formerly known as Remote Web Workplace) also received a makeover, making it easier for browser-based users to share internal documents and calendars. One of the best new features of Remote Web Access is the ability to connect to shared folders inside the network. Think of it as personal online file storage. 

Windows Small Business Server 2011 Standard is still a great bargain for any small business looking to set up its first network. The bundle of Windows Server 2008 R2, Exchange 2010, SharePoint Foundation 2010, and Remote Web Access truly covers all aspects of what any business may need. The Essentials edition is a good fit for those that already have an online email presence in place and simply need better user management and remote access. The Premium Add-on kit will take care of the midsized network that requires a more robust SQL engine and wants to get a start in virtualization.

It's been said that good things come in small packages. SBS 2011 Standard shows that good things also come in big packages -- and at a great price.

Windows Small Business Server 2011

 
CostEssentials: $545 (no CALs required; 25 user limit); Standard: $1,096 (includes five user or device CALs); Premium Add-on: $1,604 (includes five user or device CALs)
PlatformsAny Intel or AMD powered server, 64-bit quad-core CPU recommended, 8GB RAM recommended; RAM and disk space requirements vary based on version
Bottom LineWindows Small Business Server 2011 is an excellent bundle of core server technologies -- including Windows Server 2008 R2, Exchange 2010, and SharePoint Foundation 2010 -- with the additional benefit of integrated administration. Plus, SBS costs less than purchasing each server separately. The downside: Essentials supports a maximum of 25 users, while Standard tops out at 75.
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