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Caption by: Alan Stevens
Like previous versions of Microsoft's Windows Small Business Server (SBS), the latest SBS 2011 Standard sees updates to both the Windows Server operating system and the bundled applications that make up the package — principally Exchange, SharePoint and WSUS (Windows Server Update Services). This time around, however, there are also big changes to the way the product is packaged. Also, it's no longer Microsoft's only small-business server offering.
In fact, Microsoft now has two Small Business Server products — or will do soon. SBS 2011 Standard (the version reviewed here) and SBS 2011 Essentials, which is due for release in the first half of the year. Both are based on Windows Server 2008 R2, with very similar, easy to use, management consoles and browser-based remote access. However, there are big differences in who they're aimed at and what they have to offer.
One becomes two (or is it three?)
The Essentials product (previously codenamed Windows Small Business Server Aurora) is effectively an entry-level business implementation of Windows Home Server, designed to be deployed by companies with up to 25 users. As such, it concentrates on file sharing and client backup and doesn't include Exchange Server or SharePoint, assuming instead that buyers will use cloud-based services to provide for email, collaboration and other small-business applications. It's also relatively inexpensive to implement as you only have to pay for the server, not client-access licenses (CALs).
SBS 2011 Standard users get a full copy of Exchange Server 2010 SP1 with support for the latest browser-based Outlook Web App (OWA)
The Standard product (previously known as Windows Small Business Server 7), is much more of a traditional server solution — and a lot more scalable, as it's capable of handling up to 75 clients on a single Active Directory domain. Moreover, rather than assuming the use of cloud-based services, it includes on-premise email and collaboration servers, in the guise of Exchange Server 2010 SP1 and SharePoint 2010 Foundation.
Another big change is the dropping of the previously separate Premium edition of Small Business Server, which required customers to decide up front whether or not they wanted SQL Server on their network. Instead, there's now a Premium Add-on that allows buyers of both Standard and Essentials to deploy a separate Windows server to host the SQL software and support other server roles, including Hyper-V virtualisation and Remote Desktop Services (i.e. Terminal Server).
Getting started with Standard
Because it's based on Windows Server 2008 R2, you'll need 64-bit hardware to support SBS 2011 Standard. Not a problem if you're a new customer, but it could come as an unwelcome surprise for upgraders. The minimum requirements, also get a rise, with Microsoft recommending a quad-core processor at least (Exchange 2010 is a big user of CPU time) plus a recommended 10GB of RAM, although 8GB is shown as the minimum on the datasheet.
Microsoft also expects most customers to be installing from scratch, so another big disappointment for upgraders is the lack of an in-place update. Rather, you're expected to migrate settings and data from your old server to a new one, the concession in this release being the option to do so from the setup program using a pre-prepared answer file. Migrations from both SBS 2003 and 2008 are supported, along with migrations from SBS 2011 Essentials and from one Standard server to another to handle hardware upgrades.
For our tests, we did a fresh install, the setup procedure conforming to the usual Windows format and proving more or less trouble-free. Indeed, the only hiccup was the size of ISO disk image, which proved too big (6.3GB) to fit on a single-layer DVD. We overcame this problem on our Dell server using virtual media, accessed remotely via the built-in iDRAC management controller.
Having checked that our server met the minimum hardware requirements, setup then asked a few questions about our organisation before installing and configuring both the OS and the various applications that come with it. This process took around 45 minutes. The hardware then re-booted and we were able to start managing our server using the redesigned SBS console, which begins by listing the tasks needed to be performed, with links to wizards and other tools required to complete them.
A redesigned console simplifies day-to-day management of SBS 2011 Standard
Managing the server
We found the SBS console interface very easy to get to grips with, enabling us, for example, to create all our users in just a few minutes. The user wizard also created both Windows and Exchange accounts for us, without our having to delve into the underlying management tools. Client computers can also be configured from the console, or via a browser by users themselves. We did have a problem with 64-bit clients, though, which we had to manually configure as the SBS client setup program proved incompatible.
Although backup is included in the SBS 2011 Standard, only server data is protected: client backup is not supported and there's no disaster recovery option
Much of the day-to-day management is also handled from the SBS console, including backup — which, again, proved very easy. Unfortunately, you can only backup server data, with limited control over how the backups are taken; there are no facilities at all to include clients in the process. Restoring accidentally deleted files and folders proved straightforward, but we were disappointed to find that there was no bare-metal recovery or support for backup to tape or NAS storage, only disk.
A revamped Companyweb internal website is easy to manage and will suit a lot of small businesses
On a more positive note, share management proved very easy, as did website management with a nice built-in intranet site that should fit a lot of small-business needs. There's also a separate tab for security, with tools to check and manage antivirus and spyware protection on clients as well as the server, although the software to provide that protection isn't included.
Remote Web Workplace becomes Remote Web Access in this release and is now a SharePoint 2010 application
Another nice feature, also available with the Essentials product, is the enhanced Remote Web Access tool (previously called the Remote Web Workplace). Now a SharePoint application, this gives users secure remote access to their network resources via a browser, including, in the new version, shared files as well as email, server-hosted websites and remote desktop connections.
New in this release is access to shared files through a browser, via the new Remote Web Access application
We were also pleased to find that much of the underlying Windows Server code remains intact which, in theory, means being able to add third party hardware and applications to supplement what Microsoft provides. You won't be able to manage them from the SBS Console however, and there were times when we had to switch over to the standard Windows tools just to complete routine tasks on our test system
Licensing and prices
Lastly there's the little matter of paying for the software. As with previous SBS packages you'll need a licence for the server plus a client-access licence (CAL) for each user or device connected to it. The typical starting point is a server plus five CALs with a list price for this of $1,096 (£677 ex. VAT), although we found it online for around £470.
A five-user pack of CALs will cost you around £260 (ex. VAT), while the Premium Add-on requires its own server licence and more CALs, with a Premium server pack including 5 CALs likely to set you back over £1,100 (ex. VAT).
The end result is a fairly expensive solution. Indeed, factor in the cost of the hardware and most businesses are looking a starting price of £4,000-£5,000. Still, compared to sourcing the components separately Windows Small Business Server is a good buy, with the 2011 release a solid and well-rounded solution.
Caption by: Alan Stevens