Microsoft Small Business Server 2011 Standard (Beta 1)

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Microsoft's SBS has gone through several versions on its way through the popular SBS 2003, the solid release that was SBS 2008 and now SBS 2011 Standard. In this article we'll look at SBS 2011 Standard (beta1) and see how it's positioned in the market compared to other offerings from both Microsoft and its competitors. SBS 2011 Standard was released to manufacturing on 14 December 2010.

The whole enchilada

SBS 2011 Standard is built on Windows Server 2008 R2 Standard, on top of which is installed Exchange 2010 SP1, SharePoint Foundation 2010 and Windows Server Update Services (WSUS) 3.02.

SBS console

SBS is a complex product, but its friendly console makes it easy to manage. (Screenshot by Paul Schnackenburg)

Just as in SBS 2008, there's an easy-to-use console that enables day-to-day management of the whole setup, as well as a web site called Remote Web Access (formerly known as Remote Web Workplace, RWW). RWA enables road warriors and remote workers to access email, desktops in the office, SharePoint and file shares through a friendly interface (file-share access is new in SBS 2011 and a really useful addition).

RWA

The new RWA, with easy access to most of SBS functionality, remotely, from any internet browser. (Screenshot by Paul Schnackenburg)

For system requirements, Microsoft recommends 10GB RAM, with a minimum of 8GB. But my real-world recommendation would be to go with 16GB for a new server (max RAM is 32GB). Minimum storage capacity is 120GB; just as with SBS 2008, make sure you assign at least 160GB, preferably more, to your OS drive. The issue is to do with the way Windows stores updates and patches (C:\Windows\winsxs), as well as the many other necessary components eating up disk space over time.

Going premium

There were two earlier versions of SBS: a standard version and a premium flavour. The difference was the included software: with Premium you got SQL Server, and in SBS 2003, Internet Security and Acceleration Server. In SBS 2008, this was extended with a second OS license which could be used to run SQL server, a Terminal Services server or act as a Hyper-V host that could run SBS as a virtual machine. Many small businesses benefit from SQL server as a backend for Line of Business (LOB) applications. You don't have to run the SQL Server 2008 R2 instance on a second physical server: the licence can be used to run SQL Server on the SBS 2011 server if it has enough resources.

The problem with the two versions was that if a small business bought SBS Standard and then wanted to install SQL server/Premium down the track, they were locked in, with no easy way to "upgrade" to the Premium version. The new model is more flexible: one (or more) SBS Premium Add-On packages can be bought at the time of initial purchase OR anytime down the track. You can also use the SBS Premium Add On in conjunction with SBS 2011 Essentials (code name Aurora, reviewed here).

To the point of sharing

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The strength of SBS 2011 Standard isn't in the SBS-specific components, but rather in the improvements to the included applications. The new SharePoint 2010 Foundation Services is built in, and compared to SharePoint Services 3.0 in SBS 2008, there are many improvements that are sure to win businesses and end users over to the SP world.

SharePoint 2010

Will the new, snazzy SharePoint 2010 interface and other improvements entice small business to finally leave file shares behind? (Screenshot by Paul Schnackenburg)

Chief among them is the ribbon interface, something most users have got used to from Office and tasks are also grouped together in tabs for easy navigation. The fact that Firefox 3.0 and Safari 3.0 are supported, along with Internet Explorer 7.0 and 8.0, will help adoption in offices where users prefer browsers other than IE. Another cross platform boon is that Office for Mac 2011 integrates nicely with SharePoint 2010.

A game-changer for collaboration is the inclusion of Office Web Apps so someone on the road can access Remote Web Access (from any internet connected PC), open up the internal website and edit an Office document directly in the browser. Currently, Office Web Apps require an Office 2010 Volume Licensing (VL) to access through an internal SharePoint site, something very few SBS businesses have (most small businesses acquire software through OEM licensing with a new PC or through full-boxed software). While no final word was available at the time of writing, it's hard to imagine Microsoft wouldn't offer some sort of licensing workaround so that SBS customers can access this handy feature.

Exchange is King

Exchange 2010 is a great email and collaboration tool, with many improvements over Exchange 2007 (included in SBS 2008).

The new Outlook Web App, which gives web browser-based access to email, calendars, contacts and the like is very powerful, with close to full Outlook-functionality and this time in Firefox and Safari as well as IE. Another awesome new feature is conversation view for emails that group related emails together. And there's also support for SMS messages to be sent and received directly from Outlook. Access to Exchange from Smart phones is another strong point: any platform that licenses Exchange Active Sync (iPhone, Nokia, Windows Mobile and Windows Phone 7) will work with Exchange 2010.

It's important to realise, however, when you read about some of the amazing features that are on offer in Exchange 2010, such as Database Availability Groups (DAG) and Unified Messaging (UM), that none of these are available in SBS 2011 Standard. The version that's included is Exchange 2010 Standard (with the only limitation, compared to the full version, being max 75 users), but DAG requires the Enterprise version (and two servers) and UM requires an Enterprise CAL.

Migration

Just as with SBS 2008, there's no way to upgrade to SBS 2011 from earlier versions, but Microsoft does provide migration tools to help the process along. The new server is added to the existing network, and settings, files and data are transferred across to the new environment over a couple of weeks. There are new source-server health checks that come with SBS 2011 that should make for smoother transitions. For businesses that today have an SBS 2003 server, it's probably not too big a stretch to spring for new x64 server hardware, since it's likely that the existing hardware is fairly old.

For businesses that are on SBS 2008, the story is a bit different. Many small businesses like to run their servers for three, four years or even longer and will be hard-pressed to fork out for more x64 hardware. Since Microsoft's built-in migration tools require the old and the new server to co-exist, there's no way to reuse the existing server for SBS 2011, so alternative third-party migration processes (such as Swing Migration) are likely to become very popular again.

The way to start a migration, as opposed to a clean installation, is with an answer file. You store this file on removable media and setup will detect it and proceed with a migration. A tiny improvement over SBS 2008 that could potentially save hours of lost time is that the SBS 2011 setup will prompt for the answer file rather than just assume it's a clean installation if it can't find the file.

SBS standard install mode

A small improvement that could potentially save hours of time. (Screenshot by Paul Schnackenburg)

Choices

The choices that face a small-business owner looking to upgrade their IT infrastructure in 2011 have become a lot more complex. Looking to the cloud? Trying to use productivity applications on the net, perhaps through Google Docs (try it first please: apart from a few high points, it's really quite terrible). Or want to use Microsoft's BPOS/Office 365 as a cloud solution? What happens to productivity when the internet connection is down? And even if the link is up, what's the performance going to be, compared to 100Mbps or Gbps in the office? Perhaps the safer choice (until NBN) is to stay with an on-premises or cross-premises solution.

Even if you've decided on on-premises, there are more choices. Microsoft now offers SBS 2011 Standard (max 75 users), the full suite, with all productivity applications on site, and SBS 2011 Essentials (max 25 users) with just file storage, centralised user administration and easy remote access, with other productivity applications supplied through the cloud. Either of these can be supported by a second server with the Premium Add on for database, terminal services or virtualisation services.

And then there's the recently announced Windows Storage Server 2008 R2 Essentials (max 25 users) that can be joined to an Active Directory domain, with a simple console, remote access and PC/Mac client backup built in. This product will probably only be available as an OEM appliance and will fit in right next to SBS 2011 Standard to offer the client backup story. There's also Microsoft's Foundation Server (max 15 users), a bare-bone offering with no built-in productivity solutions.

SBS 2011 Essentials and Storage Server 2008 R2 Essentials became less attractive choices with the recent announcement that Microsoft is pulling the plug on the Drive Extender feature, which provided for cheaper hardware, as server class RAID solutions weren't necessary.

The Verdict

SBS 2011 is a solid, mature product that brings powerful collaboration and communications tools in an easy-to-use and manage package, priced right for small businesses. And for those SMBs that sleep better at night knowing they have control over their own data, and who are currently holding off on the cloud move, there isn't a better solution.

The question is how fast SMBs will move to the cloud. And Microsoft is definitely hedging its bets by offering solutions to cater for every choice.

Topics: Microsoft, Legal

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