Small companies with limited technical resources may be interested in Microsoft's new Windows Small Business Server 2008 (SBS 2008), both in terms of its functionality and ease of use. However, it's not cheap — especially if you want to do more than the basics, as expert help will be required to fully exploit what the package has to offer.
It's important to understand that SBS 2008 is far from a cut-down solution. What you get are full versions of key Microsoft products, notably Windows Server 2008 and Exchange Server 2007, both more usually deployed by enterprise customers with in-house IT support staff.
Windows Small Business Server's management console has been improved to make it easier to navigate and perform common tasks.
The good news is that the software is easy for non-specialists to install. There's also a simplified management console to help with day-to-day server administration, security and backup. The bad news is that there's a lot more functionality than most small companies need; there are also limits to how much you can achieve using the management console.
According to Microsoft, most customers buy their small-business software preinstalled on a server from an OEM such as Dell, Fujitsu-Siemens, IBM or HP. Even so, some will still do as we did and install it on a server themselves. We were impressed with how slick and flexible the process now is compared to previous versions.
Two editions are available, Standard and Premium, both based on the latest Windows Server 2008 OS. Exchange Server 2007 is provided to look after email, with SharePoint Services 3.0 for collaboration — the emphasis in this release being on web-based access to shared information. The Standard Edition ($1,089 or ~£707) installs from a single DVD, the inclusion of the new Exchange Server meaning that it's 64-bit only. The host server also has to be the domain controller, and you're limited to just 75 users overall and can't set up trusts with other domains. These restrictions are unlikely to concern most small businesses, however.
Web-based access to shared resources is the order of the day in Small Business Server 2008.
SQL Server 2008 is the main reason for buying the Premium Edition (from $1,899 or ~£1,227). A second copy of Windows Server 2008 is also included in order to run this on a separate host server, if required. You can also take full advantage of the advanced features in Windows Server 2008, such as Hyper-V virtualisation, with a physical and virtual instance both covered by the licence. In theory, therefore, you could run both SBS 2008 servers on a well-specified physical machine. Server Core deployment and PowerShell scripting can also be used, as can Terminal Services complete with the new application-sharing option.
A full copy of Windows Server 2008 is provided in SBS 2008. You can use all its options, including the Hyper-V hypervisor.
There's a fair amount of code to load, so installation can take a couple of hours. Fortunately you're not asked many questions, so it's not particularly onerous. Moreover, where previous versions assumed the server would be the internet gateway, the default with the 2008 release is to use a separate network router/firewall, which is much easier. Exchange is installed automatically, complete with Outlook Web Access (OWA). The most common server roles and features required by small businesses are also configured during the setup process. An internal web site and remote web workplace are also created.
SBS 2008 users get a shared calendar plus email via Outlook Web Access and the standard Outlook client.
The server console comes in for a major facelift, with separate tabs for the main options making it a lot easier to navigate. A number of new and improved wizards help with common tasks like adding new users, creating new shares and web sites. Reporting tools are integrated too, along with a backup facility — although you can only take backups to external hard disk, and the backup and recovery options are limited compared to third-party alternatives.
SBS 2008 has built-in backup, but its functionality is limited compared to specialist third-party alternatives.
Local client PCs are easily joined to the domain and configured to use the server automatically. A link labelled 'Internal Website' provides access to the main portal here, allowing users to open shared documents, calendars, tasks and so on. Remote users can be given access over the internet with or without a VPN connection, but it's here that things start to get a little more complex. Indeed, as soon as you begin to do anything more advanced you're referred back to the standard Windows tools, which can be difficult to get to grips with unless you know what you're doing.
Pricing has been tweaked (upwards), and you now need to buy a separate, more expensive, licence for users wanting to access the Premium Edition services. And although you get security tools for both the server itself and Exchange, they're only trial licenses.
Security tools are provided for both Windows Server and Exchange, but you only get trial licenses.
We liked it, but Windows Small Business Server 2008 is something of a mixed bag. It's definitely got a lot to offer, providing small businesses with affordable access to enterprise-quality applications in a manageable format. But to fully exploit those applications most small businesses will need expert help, which can quickly bump up both the cost and complexity of the solution. There are plenty of simpler alternatives that can to do what most small companies need for a lot less money.