You'll find the dashboard clear and well designed, with a task-centric look and feel. That's a good thing, as it makes it simple for part-time administrators to log in, do what they need to do, and log out — saving time and money. The initial Getting Started view lets you set up updates, as well as providing options for backing up your server to an external USB drive. Microsoft recommends using two external drives, switching them out nightly and storing the drive that's not being used for the night's backup offsite.
Other Getting Started options let you set up how files and folders are shared, and introduce you to Aurora's centralised storage features. It's important to understand these, as they're very different from the traditional approach to drives and storage. Like Home Server, Aurora treats all the drives connected to a server as a pool of storage that can be used to share files across multiple drives (including adding data protection by automatically creating duplicates). It's an approach that gives users the security of RAID, with the flexibility of a storage fabric — and without the complexity of managing both. One thing to note with the beta code is that the cloud-hosted help files aren't present, which makes some of the Getting Started pages hard to use.
The file area of the Aurora web access application has a familiar Explorer-like look and feel, and files can be download to any PC as required
You'll want to set up remote access early on, as this gives Aurora users access to their files anywhere they can use a web browser. You'll need to have the appropriate ports open in a firewall for this to work, although Aurora will attempt to use UPNP to configure your router automatically. Once the router is configured, Microsoft gives you two options for managing remote connections. The first is to use your own domain name and router to set up Aurora like any other web server. The other is to use Microsoft's own cloud-based reflection tools to connect using a Microsoft-hosted dynamic DNS service. This is probably the simplest approach for small networks (and it's free). More complex networks, especially those including routers with multiple IP addresses, will need to use the more traditional approach to avoid routing problems.
The user experience
Users connecting to Aurora's remote web access will find the server's default web pages very reminiscent of Microsoft's Live consumer online services. It's an approach that reduces learning curves, and helps familiarise less experienced users with using a server. You can connect directly to shared files, or open a Remote Desktop connection to the server or to a connected desktop PC. The last option means users will be able to work with their PCs wherever they are, without needing a subscription to a third-party service. Aurora uses Microsoft's Remote Desktop Services, acting as a gateway device to connected PCs wherever they may be.
Adding users to Aurora is very easy. A simple wizard collects basic user information and lets you set a password, hiding all the complexities of Active Directory. Microsoft's default password rules mean that users need to deploy strong passwords, keeping their connections more secure. With Aurora acting as a gateway to cloud services using federated Active Directory connections, it's important to enforce strong passwords — especially for working with services that handle sensitive business data, like Microsoft's BPOS-hosted Exchange and SharePoint. You can use the wizard to set user permissions for remote access to folders and PCs.
Once users have been set up, you'll need to connect PCs and notebooks to the server. If you've used Home Server, you'll find the approach familiar enough. PCs connect to a download page on the Aurora server using their web browser, and then run the connection utility. This sets up the PC as a domain member and migrates files to the new domain user account. File migration can take some time, but once it's complete users can carry on using their PCs as if nothing has changed. The connection tool also installs a simple launcher application, which gives quick access to files and folders on the server. The installer also adds a backup agent to the PC (based on the consumer Home Server backup service), which handles the transfer of PC images to Aurora. It's unobtrusive, and can be configured to wake the PC from hibernation or sleep to handle overnight backups. The agent also acts as a simple computer health check, giving Aurora administrators a quick overview of network status.
Sadly we weren't able to test Aurora's cloud connections. There's an add-in folder where applications can be configured — but at this point in the beta cycle there's nothing available yet. Active Directory federation is well documented, though, and readily available libraries and sample code will simplify the development of connected services.
A business version of Home Server is something we've been suggesting that Microsoft deliver for a while now, so we were predisposed to like Aurora. Even so, we were prepared to be disappointed, as it's hard to adapt consumer services for business environments. However, Microsoft does seem to have got things right this time.
Windows Small Business Server 'Aurora' is easy to use, hiding the complexities of Active Directory behind a clean, well-designed appliance-like inferface. Small businesses looking for a first server will find Aurora easy to integrate, turning workgroups into domains without requiring complex IT infrastructure or even much in the way of system administration. If you're planning to support a network with less than 25 users and PCs, this could well be the way to go — especially if you want to use cloud services for email and collaboration and want to keep the number of user passwords and logins under control.