Microsoft releases Windows Server 2012 Essentials beta, fending off criticism

The software giant says the replacement for Small Business Server 2011 will offer 'simplicity', despite claims from customers that the line-up reorganisation may force them to trade up to pricier offerings

Microsoft has released the beta version of Windows Server 2012 Essentials, while trying to placate angry customers who face the end of the Small Business Server line.

The company revealed the new edition of Windows Server a week ago as the new low end of its range, and has now provided more detail on what the product entails. In a blog post on Wednesday, group programme manager Joe Nalewabau explained the engineering strategy behind the Essentials edition.

"From an engineering perspective, we planned Essentials 2012 around four core principles: simplicity and flexibility for customers and partners; better together with Windows Server 2012 and Windows 8; increased device support; [and] continued integration with cloud services," he wrote.

The post followed furious reactions from some customers to last week's announcement (the comments in that link provide a good guide to their frustrations). Apart from the death of Home Server, these were the main complaints:

  • Small Business Server (SBS) 2011 Essentials, like Essentials 2012, only supported up to 25 users. However, SBS 2011 Standard (or an add-on) allowed the support of up to 75 users. This middle ground has been taken away, so customers wanting to support more than 25 users will need to jump all the way up to Server 2012 Standard.
  • While SBS offered optional cloud integration as an add-on to its on-premises capabilities, Essentials 2012 does not have on-premises capabilities of its own at all. It provides centralised management of cloud and on-premises functionality, but those wanting to avoid the cloud altogether will need to run Exchange Server on a second server. This means small businesses either need to invest in this extra infrastructure and software, or pay for high-grade connectivity just to service in-house staff.
  • Some customers also seem to be opposed to the introduction of a Metro interface for accessing Essentials 2012.

In his post on Wednesday, Nalewabau sidestepped the fact that there will be no direct replacement for SBS 2011 Standard, arguing that Microsoft was simplifying the move beyond 25 users for those who wanted to retain SBS features such as client backup and remote web access.

"We wanted to address this issue in Essentials 2012 and so we now allow customers to do an in-place upgrade to Windows Server 2012 Standard," he wrote. "Now customers are running Windows Server 2012 Standard without any of the licensing limitations of Essentials 2012, but the majority of Essentials 2012 functionality continues to operate and is fully supported for up to 75 users and 75 devices."

Nalewabu reiterated that customers wanting on-premise email would need a second server running Exchange, adding that they could also use cloud services such as Office 365 or Hosted Exchange.

"We know that there are many different types of hosted email providers," he noted. "While we have focused on hosted Exchange email providers, we engineered the product to be email service agnostic which allows non Exchange based email providers to be integrated through this mechanism (note that this specific feature is not available in the beta)."

On the Windows 8 integration front, Nalewabu pointed out that several Windows 8 technologies will be present in Essentials 2012, such as Storage Spaces and File History , and that Essentials 2012 would be part of the overall Windows Server 2012 Application Logo Certification programme to boost application compatibility.

He also highlighted some of the device support advances that comes with Essentials 2012, such as iPad-friendly remote web access, an updated Windows Phone 7 app for accessing Essentials 2012 servers, and web services to let developers build access into their apps and gadgets.

As for the native Windows 8 Metro app for accessing Essentials 2012 servers, Nalewabu stressed that "the existing client LaunchPad will continue to be available for Windows 8".