With network-attached storage devices selling for just a few hundred bucks per terabyte, and online service providers offering e-mail and full productivity applications for a few dollars per user per month, Microsoft's Small Business Server 2008 is entering into a tougher market than its older siblings have had to endure.
How we tested Microsoft's Small Business Server 2008
Microsoft's response? Let's paint SBS 2008 with the Vista brush and focus more on features that target the external, Internet side of the bundle instead of the traditional internal file-server side. In fact, Microsoft stresses the "application server" aspect of SBS 2008 far more than its file, print and workgroup server features. That said, after taking a close look at SBS 2008 RC0 (Microsoft recently released RC1 but there is not a significant delta between what we tested and that new beta code), we're not sure Microsoft is making any better a case for this version than for previous ones. Microsoft plans to formally launch SBS 2008 in November.
Included applications aren't new, just upgraded. Exchange 2007 replaces Exchange 2003, and the same upgrade goes for SharePoint. Security applications like Live OneCare and Forefront Security for Exchange are trial versions, only good for three or four months. File server user access controls are the norm for Microsoft, meaning they still offer less granular user management than pre-Linux NetWare. The best addition to the bundle is a second server license, but the price increase means larger customers (up to 75 users are supported) will pay more, in many cases, than they did for SBS 2003.
Server and client installation
Microsoft says 80% of SBS software purchases arrive on new hardware, so we tested SBS 2008 RC1 pre-installed on a Dell PowerEdge T605 server. Except for the actual loading of DVD disks, we can't see we saved any time with the pre-loaded version. Worse, downloading four patches for various installed Microsoft applications (but this is beta code, we must remember) kept interrupting the process. Let's hope there's less patching with the shipping version, because it will be aggravating for small businesses to pay third-party installation technicians to sit and wait for update download and subsequent reboot processes to complete.
RAM server requirements will probably stay at the 4GB for the beta (says Microsoft), meaning the demand for memory with this version has leaped forward over past versions. The RAM requirement for SBS 2003 was 384MB (512MB recommended). Does the RAM bloat owe thanks to Vista? Microsoft says no, but the Vista stamp is all over SBS 2008.
Once actual configuration starts, you'll notice the brighter, Vista-based icons and screen design,and the wizards for configuration tasks. The helpful Getting Started Tasks checklist remains on the SBS console, guiding administrators through initial setup steps. After initial setup, you can change that list from Getting Started to Frequent Tasks and Community Links, giving easy access to common admin jobs like adding users, managing shared folders, or generating reports. The top row of icons includes Home, Users and Groups, Network, Shared Folders and Web Sites, Backup and Server Storage, Reports, and Security. Menu nesting is out, replaced by these subject icons leading to tabbed pages, which should help administrators find what they need faster.
Wizards abound in all setup areas, even linking out to third-party domain registration services. While we shudder to think a company might give no more thought to securely installing a Web site than following a Microsoft wizard, this does illustrate the outward focus of SBS 2008.
Unfortunately, with the attractive Vista icons came User Access Controls to interrupt the administrative workflow. They pop up with SBS 2008 almost as often as in Vista, saying "a program needs your permission to continue." Even worse, Microsoft has yet to understand the need for the administrator password to bypass these popups. Unauthorized users messing with the server can just keep hitting Enter to continue without providing a password without penalty, although clearing the screensaver does default to demanding the admin password.
Once the user definitions are in place, connecting PCs to the server over the network starts with typing "http://connect" into the Microsoft Internet Explorer address space. Downloads of client connection software go quickly, but the reboots don't. PCs without .Net 2.0 support will download and reboot even a few more times than those that do.
Server backup configuration – which you get to via a checklist in the Getting Started icon list -- didn't work well in our testing. Only externally attached hard drives are allowable backup targets. We tried two different Iomega REV drives, (the brand new 120GB and older 70GB models), as well as the Odyssey Removable Hard Disk storage system from Imation using ProStor RDX hard disk cartridges. All three systems, representing two leading players in removable hard disks, were accessible to the operating system but ignored by the Windows Server Backup utility.
Since this is beta, we can mark this as an easily fixable glitch. What we can't ignore is the inability to use network-storage devices as backup targets or Microsoft's goal of leaving all online storage options in the hands of resellers. For their own good, small businesses need to be pushed toward backup, but Microsoft seems to push away from the backup support they should provide with this SBS version.
Day-to-day with SBS
Client installation didn't add any mapped drives or links in Network Places on the PCs, probably because the focus from Microsoft is on browser-based connections. A link labeled Internal Web Site appeared on the desktop after installing the client software and connecting to the server. That led to an improved intranet experience with group workspaces already provisioned on the server, including shared documents, fax center, calendar, tasks, team discussions, photos, archived e-mail, and a user directory.. Even better, Macintosh users can play, even when using the Safari browser, which is a step up from previous version when they were excluded.
This intranet capability will set SBS 2008 above the lower cost NAS boxes that offer pure storage, and even the all-in-one systems like the recently reviewed Sutus Business Central 200. While the Sutus system has phones, a nice touch, there's nothing in the Sutus shared spaces to match the type of group calendaring and task lists services Microsoft provides. These Microsoft features aren't great or even real good, but they do address a glaring gap in the feature list of other products addressing this market. However, these shared workspaces lag behind multiple online collaboration vendors, even some of the free ones from Google. For instance, Microsoft lets you share documents, but not collaborate on them like Google Docs.
Continuing the outward-facing trend, an Exchange 2007 server comes as part of the SBS package. While we're not thrilled with the idea of administrators without any security training managing Exchange 2007 and not knowing how to lock down security holes properly, SBS 2008 does offer a "smart host" option to links with an e-mail host at an ISP or hosting provider so the company can download messages that way. This option offers protection from Internet attacks on the mail server, while still offering convenience and control to the company using SBS 2008.
One area where all-in-one NAS file systems -- like those from Infrant (now Netgear), Buffalo Technology and SnapServer (now Adaptec) -- beat SBS 2008 is in backup support. Almost all flavors of NAS, even the ones offering 1TB of disk space for around $500, offer better client backup software and server backup support than Microsoft. Backup may be boring, but file restoration is exciting, and Microsoft doesn't share our excitement.
SBS 2008 allows clients to move their My Documents folders to the server, which helps because locally stored files lead dangerous lives. But Microsoft stops there, and doesn't even automatically add server connections in client My Network folders during installation for backup or easy file sharing.
Pricing and availability
SBS 2008 will be launched in November.. That probably means January 2008 for volume shipments.
The server price jumps up to $1,089, almost double the price of SBS 2003. Five Client Access Licenses (CAL) are included on both SBS 2008 Standard and Premium, which costs $1,899 for the server, up from $1,499 for 2003 Premium. Standard CALs are $77 (rather than $90 for 2003) while Premium licenses are $189. Yes, add $112 per user for SQL access.
SBS 2008 Premium includes two server licenses so companies can separate applications from their primary server. SQL Workgroup has been updated to SQL Standard to support those applications. Premium users can use Standard CALs if they don't access SQL, which Microsoft promises will help keep the costs down. Microsoft also claims pricing will actually be lower for companies with more than 15 users of SBS 2008 Standard. CALs can now be bought individually rather than in five-packs.
Both versions of SBS include trial versions of Microsoft Forefront Security for Exchange Server Small Business Server and the new Windows Live OneCare for Server. After four and three months respectively, the bills start accruing.
Many nice surprises lurk inside SBS 2008, including easier management with the improved console and a friendlier look. Predefined reports add value and can be mailed to multiple recipients, including outside server manager companies.
In many ways, SBS 2008 appears to be less a self-administered small-to-midsize business server product and more a platform for easy deployment and remote management for SMBs by Microsoft resellers. Think of this as the kitchen sink server. We just wonder if small businesses will swoon when they add up the cost of the software, server hardware, ongoing outside management and better backup.
Gaskin writes books, articles and jokes about technology and real life from his home office in the Dallas area. He's been helping small and midsized businesses use technology intelligently since 1986. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gaskin is also a member of the Network World Lab Alliance, a cooperative of the premier reviewers in the network industry each bringing to bear years of practical experience on every review. For more Lab Alliance information, including what it takes to become a member, go to www.networkworld.com/alliance.