Windows Server 2012 Essentials: Beta preview

Windows Server 2012 Essentials: Beta preview

Summary: Windows Small Business Server 2011 Essentials was disappointing, but there's a lot to like in its successor, which provides a small file-and-print server with integrated systems management and backup tools that's ideal for a small business or a home office.


The Windows 8 wave of products is resulting in some significant changes in Microsoft's portfolio. One significant departure is the venerable Small Business Server, made obsolete by licensing changes in the Windows Server product range, and by the 2011 arrival of the company's cloud-based Office 365. Even so, there's still a need for a small-business server platform — to host applications, and to manage directory services. For despite all the hype, it's still impossible to do everything in the cloud.

That's where Windows Server 2012 Essentials comes in. Building on the current Windows Small Business Server 2011 Essentials, the new server mixes business and consumer features, while providing a gateway to both Microsoft's and third-party cloud services via cloud directory federation. Microsoft's recent changes to its cloud licensing schemes for resellers should allow them to build small-business packages around Essentials and Office 365, offering the combination as a managed service.

You don't need a hefty server to run Windows Server 2012 Essentials, either. The base system requirements are a single 1.3GHz processor, 2GB of RAM and 90GB of disk space (we'd recommend that you use one drive for the OS and set up a Storage Space-based array for user and company data).

Getting started
Microsoft has done a lot to simplify the server experience in Windows Server 2012 Essentials. Installation is easy, with minimal user intervention. All you need is an administrator account and an initial user account, and you're ready to begin. Then it's a quick click from the Metro Start screen to desktop and the Dashboard. The built-in Dashboard is the heart of Essentials, with tools for managing your server and your users. It's also where you'll finish setting up your server, with seven simple steps to finalise the built-in updater, set up user accounts and manage the shared folders for an office. User accounts can be given different levels of access to the shared folders, with the default being read-only.

Windows Server 2012 Essentials
The Dashboard is where you'll configure and manage your server and your users. A setup checklist helps you get a system ready for users, and helps ensure you're ready to take a server live. (For more WS 2012 Essentials screenshots, see our gallery.)

It's now easier to ensure that user files are kept backed up, thanks to Essentials' support for one of Windows 8's new features — File History. User PCs running Windows 8 will be automatically configured to store file history information on the server — so you'll need to be sure you have enough disk space set aside for users' file snapshots. The process is transparent, so it's a useful tool for system administrators trying to keep user data secure.

Windows Server 2012 Essentials still uses the LaunchPad client to handle full device backups, to simplify access to shared resources and for remote access to a server (as well as giving administrators access to diagnostic information from PCs). Microsoft has said that is developing a Windows 8 Metro application to support additional remote access scenarios, along with a Windows Phone client.

Connecting to the cloud
Email drives the modern business, and even though Essentials doesn't come with a mail server, it's designed to be the heart of any email system, as it gives you a simple way of managing an Active Directory. You can quickly connect to an Office 365 account (using a simple wizard that handles domain federation) or to an Exchange Server running elsewhere in your network. You can add as many servers as you like to an Essentials-managed network — just make sure that the Windows Server 2012 Essentials system is the only Active Directory server in the network.

Windows Server 2012 Essentials
Setting up directory federation with Office 365 can be complex, but Essentials simplifies the process, giving you a wizard that sets up the connection and configures domain names appropriately.

The Dashboard isn't the only way to manage Windows Server 2012 Essentials: although it's not visible from the Metro Start screen or from the desktop, Microsoft has included the full Windows Server Manager. With support for many of Windows Server's more complex features (and for managing more than one server), the Metro-designed Server Manager is a powerful tool that turns Essentials into the heart of a Windows network and gives small businesses the tools they need to grow their server with their business. Like all Microsoft's current server products, there's also support for PowerShell, so you can use Server Manager to create management scripts that can be used to control your server from desktop PCs.

Essentially resilient
There are more Windows Server 2012 features in Essentials than just the Server Manager. Perhaps the most useful is support for Microsoft's new Storage Spaces technology. Storage Spaces uses server virtualisation techniques to build thin-provisioned storage pools that can be used to replicate the Drive Extender features of Windows Home Server, with an easy-to-manage storage pool that stores data redundantly. Of course redundant storage is no replacement for a backup strategy, but it goes some way to delivering a resilient single server solution for a small office. Microsoft has built-in backup tools that work with external disks, and with its own Online Backup Service (available as a server add-in for Essentials). Both server and client backups now support bare-metal restores, making it easier to get users back online after a hardware failure.

Windows Server 2012 Essentials
Storage Spaces give Windows Server 2012 Essentials a simple-to-setup resilient file system, using the Windows 8 wizard rather than the more complex tools that ship with the full Windows Server.

Growing a network has always been issue for Microsoft's small-business servers, and migrating from one to a full-blown Windows Server network used to be challenging (especially when dealing with Active Directory). That all changes with Windows Server 2012 Essentials, and when you reach its 25-user limit, you can just do an in-place upgrade to Windows Server 2012 Standard. The majority of the Essentials features continue to be supported (up to a limit of 75 users), giving you time to migrate to alternatives and to design and build a larger Windows network.

You might not expect to find consumer features in a small-business server, but Windows Server 2012 Essentials has another role to play, as a successor to Microsoft's range of Home Servers. That's why it includes a media server — so you can use it to store music, photos and videos, and then make them available as a shared media library for use with desktop music players, as well as with network-connected music appliances. Those consumer features also include full access to the Windows Store, so you can install and run Metro-style applications on a Windows Server 2012 Essentials system.

Windows Small Business Server 2011 Essentials was something of a damp squib, but there's a lot to like in its successor. The advent of Office 365 made sense for Microsoft to rationalise its server product line, and replacing Small Business Server with an updated and improved version of Windows Server Essentials was the logical thing to do. Microsoft has given it more features, with support for Windows Server 2012 functionality like Storage Spaces. Improved backup tools also make it easier to make Windows Server 2012 Essentials the heart of a small-business network. Some may lament the end of the bundled server products that were part of the Small Business Server package, but Office 365 fills that niche neatly — without requiring additional hardware. The result is a small file-and-print server, with integrated systems management and backup tools that's ideal for a small business or a home office.

Unfortunately it's also a change that will affect the business models of many small software consultancies, which will need to consider how they can capitalise on a simplified server linked to the cloud (and the new Office 365 reseller plans). That's a big change to digest quickly, and it's the biggest stumbling block facing Windows Server 2012 Essentials. Microsoft will need to get its partners on board if its latest entry-level server isn't to go the way of its predecessors.

Topics: Operating Systems, Microsoft, Reviews, Servers

Simon Bisson

About Simon Bisson

Simon Bisson is a freelance technology journalist. He specialises in architecture and enterprise IT. He ran one of the UK's first national ISPs and moved to writing around the time of the collapse of the first dotcom boom. He still writes code.

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  • Home use redundant

    I think the consumer features in WSE2012 are redundant, for everything required by a prosumer or home office can be accomplished more cheaply and greater utility using Windows 8 clients as follows.

    1. Upgrade all PC's to Windows 8. The price of $40 per machine is good and will bring the whole network up to Windows 8 Pro Media Centre edition.

    2. Any requirements for media streaming can be handled from any PC.

    3. Any requirements for remote access can be handled by the remote session host capability in the Pro version on all PC's. Skydrive's remote fetch function will also come into play here.

    4. The file history feature of Windows 8 can direct continuous user data snapshots to a nominated PC (which does not have to be a dedicated server). The Storage Spaces function on the nominated PC can be used to provide RAID 1 like resilience (or you can use RAID 1 if supported by the mobo!).

    5. A little thought around keeping work-in-progress in Skydrive and Office 365 Pro Skydrive ... before moving the same to long term retention ... will allow one to operate with a fast (if small) SSD for WIP and low cost for long-term storage.

    6. Active directory account handling is not necessary in this small-scale scenario.

    Of course this minimalist configuration is not suitable for an office of 25 people.
  • I never understood SBS...

    You can get Windows Server Standard for the same price (or cheaper) and it doesn't seem like SBS has any additional features. Maybe it's easier for the non-technical user to setup and maintain?
    • SBS Benefits

      SBS Standard has some benefits over Windows Standard. For example,

      * SBS cal's cost less than Windows Server + Exchange CAL.
      * You could add the Premium Add On, which included Windows Server + SQL Server and their CAL's at a reduced cost.
      * SBS has Remote Web Workplace to let users connect via internet to their PC, OWA and Sharepoint. This feature is not available with Windows Server.
      * It was easier to administer for small business than Windows Server since it already included the OU's, GPO's and other setting preconfigured.

      IMO, SBS Standard was a great product for the market it was designed to, small business.
      • SBS = crippleware

        I've heard too many horror stories about SBS over the years and always avoided it. Crippled features, limited (or no) upgrade paths, incompatibility with 3rd party products.
  • Abandoning Home Server User Base

    Home Server did bring lots of interesting features like the automated backup of household computers, content mirroring and a very interesting price (it was easy to find a copy for around $50 - which was an incredible deal).

    Now, with Windows Server 2012 Essentials, Microsoft eliminates the household accessible price and raises it to more than $400.

    Thanks again Microsoft for letting down your faithful user base and active ecosystem.
    • Read johnfenjohnsons comment

      What he says is true: you can set up a cheap Windows 8 PC to do the same and target PC backups to a folder share on that system. Windows 8 has Storage Spaces too, so you get the "server" redundancy as well.
  • Why not just hardware RAID 1?

    What's the point of this resiliency thing if two physical hard drives are required? Might as well go hardware RAID 1 and skip the microsoft middleman.

    "Storage Spaces uses server virtualisation techniques to build thin-provisioned storage pools" Why do I get an uneasy feeling reading that and knowing Microsoft designed it...
    • Re: Why not just hardware RAID 1?

      Why use RAID 1 in hardware? Show me a real hardware RAID card (not just a dumb controller) that does RAID 1 with a processor without doing RAID 5 and we'll talk. I don't know of any, and if you're paying the expensive price for a hardware RAID 5 card, doing RAID 1 on it is just a waste of money. Unless it has a real processor, it's just a BIOS-level interface that requires an extra driver, and those aren't real hardware cards IMO.

      RAID 1 can be done in software with no hit on processing power. Even re-duplicating an array doesn't take any additional load over what would be used by the hard drive reads and writes anyway. I'd rather have the OS do this so that mission-critical loads take priority over duplication. It's also more flexible to mirror volumes rather than entire drives, especially if you can't get a replacement drive that exactlye matches the others in an array. You can run into sync issues that most controllers can't handle (again, unless you use a real ECC-handling RAID processor) when you have 2 different drives. Windows Server handles software mirroring much better for this kind of stuff. In fact, in a lot of test cases, true software mirroring and striping in Windows Server actually performs better than on-board motherboard RAID support. See my comment below.
  • I'm not sure why anybody recommends this:

    "we'd recommend that you use one drive for the OS and set up a Storage Space-based array for user and company data"

    Look, the problem with this is that this gives you absolutely zero high-availability.

    This is how I've always done Windows Server installs with low-end systems at a minimum: either buy 2 large drives and partition them, or else buy 2 separate drives for the OS. In any case, I make sure there is a separate volume for the OS, and at least one for the data (we're mostly talking about folder shares here) are on a separate volume or partition. Then I duplicate EVERYTHING across each pair of disks. And I mean EVERYTHING - including the OS and system partitions.

    Why, you ask? Think about that for a second - if your OS drive fails, are you going to piss around with recovery tools just to get it back up and running again, or wouldn't you rather have critical OS functions operational while you work on the array or while you go out and buy a new disk? I'm for the latter. In a business setup, this is critical too. Why don't the doc writers consider this? It just makes good sense regardless of the situation.

    So what I do is for very small deployments of a file server, I'll often partition 60GB for the OS (it should be more than enough for the basic OS and possibly an LOB app if it's self-contained and it doesn't use a large SQL database), and then folder shares and big data will go on the rest. If the system is a low-end server (Atom-based or any other mini-ITX platform) and I'm not doing RAID-5, I'll just use Windows Server's own mirroring, and mirror every partition, including the system partition. I mirror them in order as the original drive is laid out so that I don't run into sync issues. At the very least, I also use Enterprise SATA drives. No desktop drives whatsoever. I haven't tried WD's new "red" NAS drives, but maybe later. Mostly it's been RE3 and 4, depending on the size (RE4's are only available in 2TB+).

    Note: The GUI Disk Management in Windows Server won't let you mirror more than 2 volumes per drive. Luckily, DISKPART still does, and that's what I use to accomplish this task. Although I haven't tried it before myself, using DISKPART will also allow you to set this up as a simple script that you can add to your deployments after logon, if you so choose.