Test Center review: Small Business Server 2008 gets "small" right

Microsoft's revamp of SBS takes the sting out of setup and admin for IT-challenged shops, without sacrificing the functionality that all businesses need

A small business is not necessarily a simple business. That rather basic lesson has taken much of the computer industry far too many years to learn. Successful SaaS vendors have realized that small businesses need the same sort of functions and support that large enterprises get – just in smaller quantities. Clearly Microsoft has come to the same realization with the release of Small Business Server 2008.

Small Business Server (SBS) is designed to be the only software sitting at the center of a small-business network. The wealth of functionality includes Windows Server 2008, Exchange Server 2007, Office Live Small Business 2008, Windows SharePoint Services, and Windows Server Update Services. Network and server security are available with SBS, though they’re not included in the basic price. You’ll get a trial license for ForeFront and Windows Live OneCare, which extend malware coverage to Exchange and all Windows clients on the network. If you want to continue to use them, though, you’ll have to pay for additional on-going licenses.

[ See the Test Center's reviews of other Microsoft servers: Windows Server 2008, Hyper-V and Virtual Machine Manager, Exchange Server 2007 and Office Communications Server 2007, InfoPath 2007 and Office Forms Server 2007, Office Groove Server 2007, and Office SharePoint Server 2007. ]

If you opt for Small Business Server Premium, you'll also get SQL Server 2008 configured to run on a separate server. That second server could also function as a Terminal Services server, opening up thin-client and point-of-sale options for many deployments.

Sound expensive? In fact (wonder of wonders), Microsoft has come up with a licensing model that should make it easier for a small businesses in the real world to afford SBS. Microsoft has also made it easy for IT staff – be they internal or contracted – to configure and maintain all SBS functions. Administration of the package is extremely well done.

The two-tiered staff
When I spoke with Microsoft reps before beginning the review process, they told me that focus groups pointed out a two-tier model for IT support in many small businesses. The first tier is internal IT staff, usually a single individual whose business card should probably read "utility infielder." This IT generalist has to keep up with all the server, client, and application software for the company, as well as tend to all the hardware. Their knowledge is broad, but may not be terribly deep on any given topic. Deep product expertise, when it's needed, typically comes from an outside contractor assigned to specific projects, like setting up servers or applications. That's the second tier.

Microsoft's response to this two-tier support structure provides two distinct ways of making most things happen within SBS. The first tier is a series of wizards and control panels that draw heavily from Vista's look and feel. For most basic tasks, these work well and provide just enough hand-holding to keep you from getting lost if you don't spend your working life on this one product.

The trade-off for ease of use is fine-grain control; there are levels of functionality that you just can't get to from the bright colors and big buttons. For tasks where you do need to get more intimately involved with SBS's inner workings, the Windows Management Console is available. Consultants and specialists who spend a good deal of time working with Windows Server will quickly take to this familiar interface.

Small Business Server doesn’t wrap all the management functions for the server-based applications into a single interface, and you can’t say that all the applications (in their various versions) use a consistent interface. SBS does, however, provide the dual interfaces for the operating system, and all the applications are consistent in the use of Windows Management Console at the highest level.

Setting up SBS
If you're like the vast majority of folks who buy Windows Small Business Server, you won't care about the hardware requirements for the operating system because it will come pre-installed from a vendor. If you want to install SBS on a machine you already have, make sure the hardware has a 64-bit processor, at least 4GB of RAM, and at least 60GB free on the hard disk. Oh, yes, you'll also need a bootable DVD-ROM (not simply a CD-ROM) from which to install the software.

Note that SBS will run on a single-core platform, though you'll almost certainly be happier with at least a dual-core CPU. In my testing, I found one piece of hardware that could be a huge problem if you're installing on existing hardware: the NIC. Because Microsoft assumes that most companies will buy SBS pre-installed on hardware the vendor has configured, it didn't spend a lot of time writing hundreds of drivers for legacy NICs. I suspect that the list of supported NICs will grow as SBS goes through the early release stages (I was looking at various release candidates, which tend to be solid but incomplete). In any case, you'll want to examine carefully Microsoft's technical and release notes before committing to installation on existing hardware.

Setting up SBS involves stepping through a wide swath of the first-tier configuration and administration interface. After you enter basic information like time zone and language, SBS begins to make suggestions to help you along the way. You can override the suggestions, of course, but it's quite possible to get a basic network established by simply clicking "OK" repeatedly. Once the network connections are established, you launch into setting up the various accounts and services required to actually use the server.

A series of "Getting Started Tasks" takes you through the rest of the process, beginning with more detailed network setup. Early on, you have to configure communications with your firewall and tell the firewall that SBS will be handling DHCP for the network. SBS really, truly wants to handle DHCP; it doesn't absolutely have to, but pieces of the built-in security and network management will be quite grumpy if you let the firewall do it. My recommendation is to let SBS do the job.

The Internet Setup Task requires basic knowledge of your domain and registrar information, though a wizard will connect you to a registrar and help walk you through the process if you don't already have a domain in place. In early release candidates, there was a single registrar shown; Microsoft says that they will have several options for domain registration in the final version.

One of the good things about the SBS setup is that it walks you through the process of creating a backup program. In a nod to higher-capacity storage systems and lower-cost USB hard drives, the assumption is that you'll attach one or more USB drives to the system for backup.

Users and licenses
Adding users is another Getting Started Task, and the wizard simplifies things considerably. Entering information once populates a variety of tables, including the Active Directory entry for the employee. After users are created, you can add computers to support the users – a Web-based enrollment checks the client machines to see whether they have the services and capabilities to be part of the SBS network. Assuming everything checks out, the machine is added to the AD roster, and you're ready for licensing. Adding the client machine to the AD roster does more than just enable network access, though; with SBS, malware protection and a variety of monitoring and reporting functions are extended to clients through the server operating system.

Microsoft SBS Client Access Licenses (CALs) can be assigned to users or machines, a nice option if you're running multiple shifts or have users with intermittent access requirements. CALs are available in 20-packs, 5-packs, or, in a hat-tip to the realities of small-business life, single-CAL packs. In addition, SBS comes with five "temporary CALs" that you can borrow against to get a new user up and running immediately. The idea is that you set up a new employee with a temporary CAL and then buy the regular license, returning the temporary CAL to the pool. This way, you don't have to wait until you've had a chance to buy a CAL before you can bring on a new user, and you don't have to buy more CALs than you need. In many ways, the new licensing scheme may be the most important change to the product.

Mobility and management
One of the other realities Microsoft has recognized is that small-business employees are far more mobile today than in the past. Remote Web Workplace is a standard SBS feature, and it's established through one of the basic wizards. Microsoft has also included services for supporting Windows Mobile devices as clients to SBS applications.

Of course, setting up SBS is one thing, and ongoing management is something else entirely. Management and administration of SBS follow the path established by setup, via Vista-like interfaces and functional tabs for working through the various admin stations. One of the points at which the two-tiered structure becomes evident is in the reports tab. There are a variety of reports available, with security status, client and system status (including license availability), backup status, and others pre-configured. You can set up different levels of detail in the reports and arrange to have them automatically e-mailed to various distribution lists.

It's easy to imagine a situation in which summary reports go to the small-business owner (or IT generalist), with much more detailed reports going to an IT consultant who may be called in to remedy more complex problems. Everyone gets the information they need, and no one gets info they can't use. Note, too, that the reports generated cover the entire small business network, not just the server. Security, usage, and update version reports cover all the client machines in the small business network, not just the server.

So why would you choose Small Business Server 2008 over a standard installation of Windows Server for your small business? Licensing alone could be enough of a reason, since the CALs are priced for small businesses and available in single quantities. The first-tier user interface is another reason, since it promises to cut administrative costs and make it possible to keep more setup and management functions in-house.

With the release of Small Business Server 2008, Microsoft shows signs of understanding that small businesses have a wider range of server options than ever before. For most small companies, SBS 2008 will provide the basic functions necessary for the business in a package that is easy to set up and administer, and that integrates readily with Microsoft Windows Vista and XP clients. The purchase price won't be as low as Linux, but the polish and ease of use are both high, and the single-user CAL makes SBS 2008 the most affordable SBS yet. Microsoft has been listening – and this time, it shows.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Security (20.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Scalability (10.0%)
Setup (20.0%)
Functionality (20.0%)
Administration (20.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Microsoft Small Business Server 2008 8.0 8.0 9.0 9.0 9.0 9.0 8.7

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.