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Microsoft Small Business Server 'Aurora' Beta 1

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Introduction

Microsoft's Small Business Server has had an interesting journey in the marketplace over the years: from the ill-received first versions (4.0 and 4.5), to the moderately successful behemoth SBS 2000, and then the runaway success that was SBS 2003/2003 R2, followed by the current SBS 2008.

Many small businesses in Australia and worldwide have grown and become more successful building on SBS's "big business IT functionality"; putting tools such as Exchange, SharePoint and SQL Server in the hands of small business employees has made them more productive. And many IT service companies have made a very good business out of selling and maintaining IT infrastructure for small businesses based on SBS. But the world is changing.

The cloud cometh

The problem isn't that SBS is a bad product — the functionality, ease of use and stability has improved from version to version. It's just that the target market for SBS (5-75 users) is starting to look to the cloud for those "big business features". To run SBS 2008 you need a fairly hefty box (at least dual-core, preferably quad, 8-16GB of RAM, preferably hardware RAID with fast disks and external hard drives for off-site backups) and you need someone with the knowledge to maintain Exchange (including antivirus and anti-spam systems), backing up SharePoint databases and so forth. In short, SBS is a fairly complex system that requires specialist know-how to maintain and to really gain business value out of it.

Many small businesses, especially "micro businesses" with less than 10 users, really can't justify the cost of running their own Exchange, SQL and SharePoint services when that same functionality can be gained through Microsoft's BPOS for instance (AU$16.95 per user, per month). Other free or low cost cloud options are Google Apps or Windows Live.

On the other hand, most small businesses can't do away with a server altogether; business critical data should be stored on enterprise quality mirrored hard drives in the office and be backed up offsite regularly; a central point to define user accounts is also crucial. Peer-to-peer workgroup networks never work well from a maintenance and security point of view. And what happens if you put all of the company's data in the cloud, when the internet connection is down? No one can work at all.

Microsoft's answer to these issues is the newest member of the SBS family, codenamed "Aurora". Under the hood there's a Windows Server 2008 R2 (x64 only) engine and on top the code comes from Windows Home Server (version 2.0, currently in beta under the name "Vail").

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There might also be some confusion arising from the fact that Microsoft is splitting the small business server product line-up; on one hand there's Aurora, an easy to manage file server and hub for your business with cloud links. On the other hand there's SBS "7"; the successor to SBS 2008, built on Windows Server 2008 R2 with Exchange 2010, SharePoint 2010 and so forth, for small businesses that want to host their own "big business technology".

Meet Aurora

Installation of Aurora was easy, with a minimal number of questions asked along the way. Minimum system requirements are a 2GHz x64 CPU, 2GB of memory and at least one 160GB hard drive.

This is the first SBS version we've seen that is actually easy enough for a non-IT trained person to manage and maintain. The main console, called the "Dashboard", is intuitive, with tabs for Users, Computers and Server shares/storage providing easy access to day-to-day tasks.

Aurora Dashboard

Your "one stop shop" for all Aurora management tasks. (Screenshot by Paul Schnackenburg/ZDNet Australia)

More importantly, it's extensible, with add-ins to provide additional functionality. At the moment there aren't a lot of add-ins available, but Microsoft has mentioned add-ins for cloud services — for managing on-premise Exchange services on a separate server, for group policy management, and a Premium add-in that adds the licence for a second server that can function as a Hyper-V virtualisation host or SQL 2008 R2 server. We tried the free AWIECO remote launcher add-in that provides access to common tools.

Dashboard add-in

After adding an add-in, it shows up as an additional tab with icons for each tool. (Screenshot by Paul Schnackenburg/ZDNet Australia)

It's clear that Aurora's success in the marketplace will depend to some degree on these add-ins, coming both from Microsoft and others. Aurora only supports up to 25 devices; SBS 2008 (and the forthcoming "SBS 7") supports up to 75 computers.

The power of Windows 2008 R2

Unlike Windows Home Server/VAIL, there's no mucking about with fake account management; behind the simple dashboard is a full Windows 2008 R2 Active Directory domain with centralised control of user and computer accounts. The power of Group Policy is also available, something that could greatly benefit a typical Aurora network, but at the moment there's none of this functionality exposed in the dashboard.

Data protection is vital for small and big businesses alike; Aurora provides a good alternative to expensive hardware RAID, with data duplication at the share level through a technology called Drive Extender that's inherited from Windows Home Server. As soon as we installed a second hard drive and added it to the Storage Pool (as opposed to backup), all the default shares on the server started duplicating.

Dashboard storage

Managing all available disk space on the server as a pool is ingenious and very easy to work with. (Screenshot by Paul Schnackenburg/ZDNet Australia)

Backup is also easy to configure: plug one or more external hard drives into Aurora, complete the easy wizard, and the selected data is backed up according to schedule. The most frequent time is every half hour; the default is twice a day. Interestingly, Aurora offers client computer image-based backups, something no other version of SBS offers out of the box. These can be stored together with the server backup on external drives, providing a fairly comprehensive disaster recovery solution (provided someone is conscientious enough to make sure the external drives are swapped regularly). There's even an option for client computers to be woken up from hibernation/sleep to allow the server to do the backup.

Aurora backup

Configuring backup is easy — now make sure someone swaps those drives every night. (Screenshot by Paul Schnackenburg/ZDNet Australia)

In locations where upload bandwidth is available and cheap enough (National Broadband Network anyone?) we'd really like to see options for cloud-based backup as well. It's a service many small business IT service providers already offer today. An add-in for Aurora to make this easy to configure would be good.

Shared folders are easy to create, but your options for access are limited to No Access, Read, or Read and Write.

Client computers

Connecting client computers is an easy task: just browse to http://server-name/connect on the client PC. This is a small step backwards from SBS 2008, where you don't have to remember the server name and can just use http://connect; this is because Aurora isn't acting as a DNS server for your network. Surprisingly, there's even a link to download software for Mac computers, although we didn't test this feature. Aurora's health monitoring solution keeps tab on both the server and client computers, including Mac OS X 10.5 and later.

If you have customised your desktop and settings, you'll be pleased to know that the connect wizard, as in earlier versions of SBS, transfers those settings to your new Aurora-based user account.

Connecting a client computer to Aurora also installs the Launchpad, a gadget with access to the most commonly used tools.

Aurora Launchpad

Shortcuts to the most commonly used tools in Aurora, right there on your desktop. (Screenshot by Paul Schnackenburg/ZDNet Australia)

With the recent announcement that Microsoft's free Security Essentials (anti-malware) is now supported in businesses up to 10 users, perhaps Microsoft should include an automatic installation of MSE for client computers?

Remote access

Just as in earlier versions of SBS, the primary means of working remotely is Remote Web Access (RWA), a custom, secure website that provides access to file shares and remote desktop to client computers (Windows XP SP3 and later) that the user has been granted access to. Server access is also available if you have administrator credentials.

Aurora RWA

A mobile workforce can stay connected from anywhere with an internet connection. (Screenshot by Paul Schnackenburg/ZDNet Australia)

There are comprehensive wizards holding your hand as you progress through setting this up; we found it to be the trickiest part of configuring Aurora. There are several options: purchase a new domain through a provider (the only providers are GoDaddy and eNom; neither offers .com.au domains), configure an existing domain that you already own, or go for the free option of companyname.remotewebaccess.com.

Email notifications for critical server and client computer issues can be sent to an IT consultant.

Aurora email notification

Clear emails let relevant people know when something's up with the server. (Screenshot by Paul Schnackenburg/ZDNet Australia)

Conclusion

After some hands-on time with the SBS Aurora, it's clear to us that this is a product with a great future. It's coming at a time when many small businesses are starting to look at hosting some, or all, of their complex IT services in the cloud. There are also many micro businesses that don't have a server today that would be well served by Aurora's feature set, depending on Microsoft's pricing.

We await Beta 2 for a more complete picture of Aurora's role in the SME market, but this early beta hits all the right cues.

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