One big problem for any small business adding a server to its network is the inescapable fact that IT infrastructure requires management. Small organisations can't afford full-time IT support, and managing an industry-standard server (whether it's running Linux, Windows or OS X) takes time. However, you don't need to know about managing Active Directory if all you want to do is share documents and keep your desktops and notebooks backed up.
Cloud services are one option for small businesses, with hosted email and collaboration tools taking the heavy lifting away from a small in-house network. Not only do cloud services outsource what could be expensive and time-consuming infrastructure, but they also allow smaller organisations to use the same tools and services deployed by much larger enterprises. However, there's an overhead in handling service provisioning for users — and in removing access cleanly when a user leaves the office. Users also have to struggle with multiple usernames and passwords, and with inconsistent password-management policies and procedures.
Microsoft's Home Server went some of the way to giving small businesses what they need, with tools for handling backup and giving small networks centralised storage, but it wasn't quite enough. There was no way to centrally manage users, and no way of sharing those managed identities with the outside world. At heart, Home Server is a very PC-oriented experience — one that works well in the home, but struggles when exposed to the wider internet.
Windows Small Business Server 'Aurora' provides Home Server-like storage and backup, along with an easy-to-manage version of Active Directory and remote web access. For more SBS 'Aurora' images, see our screenshot gallery
The upcoming 'Aurora' release of Microsoft's Small Business Server attempts to bridge that divide, bringing Home Server-like managed storage and backup together with an easy-to-manage version of Active Directory (along with directory federation tools that link on-premises identities to the cloud). Built on the same code-base as the 'Vail' release of Home Server, Aurora is designed to be a headless file server with RAID-like data protection, and limited support for applications. A client-side agent simplifies connection to the server, and handles backing up user data, while a remote web access function takes files out to the wider internet, for access at home or on the road.
We've been exploring a pre-release version of Aurora for a while now, looking at the platform's features and examining just how easy it is to use — for both part-time administrators and end users unfamiliar with the way servers work.
Setting up Aurora
As it's still beta code, we set up a basic Hyper-V virtual machine to host Aurora. Our VM had two cores, 2GB of RAM and 200GB of storage (there's a minimum requirement of 160GB, for the first hard disk in the system to host the base Aurora OS). Setup is straightforward and needs minimal user intervention. In practice we're expecting Aurora-powered devices to come from OEMs much like Home Server currently ships, with the OS pre-installed and ready to go. Even so, some ISVs and consultants might prefer to build their own custom Aurora systems. Alternatively the relatively low-power OS could be used to extend the life of older servers, repurposing them as workgroup or branch-office servers. Aurora is based on Windows Server 2008 R2 and is therefore 64-bit only, so you'll need to ensure that any hardware is 64-bit capable.
Windows SBS Aurora is straightforward to install, requiring only a handful of reboots to complete the process
You start the setup by choosing a hard disk for the installation. One that's done the process is largely automatic, with just a handful of reboots required to complete the installation. A Windows 7-like startup screen welcomes you to the final setup steps, which involve choosing a locale, checking that the time is correct and filling in a product key. Next you'll begin the process of building the Aurora Active Directory, with an organisation name, an internal domain name and a server name. It's important to remember that Aurora is most definitely a member of the Small Business Server (SBS) family, and it needs to be the master of its own domain. You can't join SBS Aurora as a member server in an existing Active Directory, making it only suitable for small office or branch office use. Nor can you change that domain name or server name without a complete reinstall. After giving an administrator account name and password, the server finishes off the installation — a process that takes several minutes.
Everything in Aurora is designed to be controlled from a single central dashboard, which you can view through a client application or by using Remote Desktop Services to connect to the server (and there's always the option of hooking up a monitor and keyboard). Although you do get access to other Windows Server features from the remote desktop, in practice they're irrelevant and can cause confusion.
Aurora is controlled through a single central dashboard, viewed either via a client application or using Remote Desktop Services