Windows Server Essentials: Still big for small businesses

Windows Server Essentials: Still big for small businesses

Office 365 is a great tool for small businesses, but many still need local servers and joint cloud/on-premises administration

With its pulling of the plug on Small Business Server (SBS) in 2011, Microsoft encouraged small business (those with as many as 500 users and 500 devices) to go with the new Essentials version of Windows Server. Windows Server 2016, now available for download, has gotten a lot of attention -- the 2016 version of Windows Server Essentials, not so much.

Microsoft's server portfolio had so many great tools that small IT shops requested, but they didn’t want -- or couldn't afford -- to set up the required infrastructure. To accomplish that ease, Microsoft put everything in the SBS box: Exchange, SharePoint, SQL Server, and so on. But today, small IT shops can use Office 365 instead.

Why bother with Windows Server Essentials now? Because although you can rely entirely on Office 365 in the cloud, chances are you want more local control and hands-on capabilities on local servers. That's the main reason to use Windows Server Essentials, as a supplement to Office 365. (Yes, you can also use Windows Server Essentials in an on-premises-only deployment for basic services.)

By integrating your Windows Essentials Server with Office 365, you can perform much of the administration through the Dashboard on your server. For example, you can create accounts easily; you can manage license assignments; password changes made on-premises are synced to Office 365; and you can manage mobile devices and other services from the server. Granted, you could do this from the Office 365 admin center too, but it's so much easier to have everything in one place.

The Essentials Experience server role, shown in Figure 1, is how you connect Windows Server Essentials to Office 365. It contains wizards to handle complex integrations, such as synchronizing directories and setting up single sign-on. Remember: The Office 365 integration works only with a single domain controller, and the wizard must run on that domain controller.

windows server essentials fig1

Figure 1: The Essentials Experience server role helps you extend the functionality of your server to the cloud-based Office 365.

To illustrate how Windows Server Essentials works, I set up a single Windows Server 2016 server and configured Active Directory so that it would be the sole domain controller for my domain. I then enabled the Essentials role and let it install the role and features needed for a Windows Server Essentials server. Once the role was installed, I selected the Essentials shortcut on my desktop to open the Essentials Dashboard (shown in Figure 2).

windows server essentials fig2

Figure 2: The Windows Server Essentials dashboard.

Then I selected the Services option to get a list of integration options for cloud services and on-premises Exchange (see Figure 3).

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Figure 3: Using the Essentials dashboard to configure your Office 365 connection.

Note that Azure Active Directory and Intune are included in the list of services. New to the 2016 version, Windows Server Essentials can integrate with Azure Site Recovery Services, which allows for real-time replication of your server/site for recovery purposes. It can also integrate with Azure Virtual networking to allow for point-to-point (P2P) or site-to-site (S2S) virtual private networks so that when you have split resources (some in the cloud and some on-premises) they appear to fall under one local network.

To kick off the wizard, you click the integration link and follow the prompts. You can either create a subscription for Office 365 or use an existing one through the wizard. Once the wizard has completed, you can use the dashboard from the server to add and manage user accounts in Office 365.

Hat tip to Andrew Higginbotham, an Exchange MCM and Microsoft MVP, for suggesting I cover Windows Server Essentials 2016 in this column.

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