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Small Business Server 2008 - Start Looking Now

By on Wed, 10/29/08 - 1:45pm.

Are you already familiar with Small Business Server 2008? (and by "familiar" I mean more than just that you've read the marketing material.) If your answer is no, and you work in or work with companies who are the target market for SBS 2008, then you need to start becoming familiar with the product. Now. Preferably yesterday.

Even if you've been working with the Small Business Server product line for several generations of the software, that knowledge and experience is only going to get you so far with SBS 2008. The changes between SBS 2003 and SBS 2008 are on par with the changes from SBS 4.5 to SBS 2000. This is not a product that you're going to just install and pick up along the way. If you have any intention of supporting this product for your own organization or for other organizations, you need to start working with it now to best prepare yourself for this new world.

On the surface, SBS 2008 doesn't seem to be all that different from its predecessors. As a package, it bundles a server OS, web services, e-mail services, and management tools to get all these features running happily on a single box. But as you dig down into the components, the differences become really striking. For instance, Server 2008 enabled IPv6 by default. If you disable IPv6 on the SBS server, bad things can happen (http://blogs.technet.com/sbs/archive/2008/10/24/issues-after-disabling-ipv6-on-your-nic-on-sbs-2008.aspx). Exchange 2007 is managed more in PowerShell than in a GUI console, and many of the tasks you may have done regularly in a console on Exchange 2003 are now handled in a command line interface instead. Server 2008 no longer natively supports tape drives for backup (that's Server 2008, not SBS 2008, but because SBS 2008 is built on Server 2008, it inherits that configuration). SBS 2008 only supports a single network card in the server, meaning that it can no longer be used as an edge network device (no more using the SBS server as a firewall).

While it may seem like I'm pointing out negatives in the product in the above list, I'm not. Those items are just changes, and if you're not aware of them before you go do your first SBS 2008 deployment, you could run into trouble. Other significant changes that could be seen as more "positive" include the addition of a second server OS license with SBS 2008 Premium. That means that you can take your SQL-based application (SQL 2005 and 2008 are both included with SBS 2008 Premium right now) and load that application on a second server, without having to purchase a separate OS license for the second hardware box. Or you can load SQL and the SQL-based app on the SBS server (provided it has enough horsepower) and use the second server OS to host a Terminal Server.

The bottom line is that SBS 2008 is NOT SBS 2003. Over the course of the blog posts I'll have here over the next month, I'll address some of the specific challenges that you will face when deploying SBS 2008, but I want to impress upon you the importance of starting to look at SBS 2008 now and becoming familiar with it now before you get ready to deploy it at a client site. How can you do that?

First, the SBS 2008 installation media is available through MSDN and TechNet, provided you have an MSDN or TechNet subscription. If you are a Registered Member in the Microsoft Partner Program, the October MAPS shipment included SBS 2008 media. Plus, you will soon be able to download an evaluation version from Microsoft's web site. So access to the media is not going to be an obstacle.

Second, find a test environment to load and configure SBS 2008. This may be a little trickier given the minimum hardware reqirements for the product, but you should have some sort of sandbox area to see how SBS 2080 is going to work. I've tested SBS 2008 both virtually and on physical hardware, and loading it into a virtual environment doesn't have a negative impact on the experience of BSS 2008. That makes this a perfect opportunity to begin exploring the different virtualization options that are available as well as looking at SBS 2008.

Third, and I'm dead serious about this, run through multiple migrations form SBS 2003 to SBS 2008 in a test environment before you attempt to run a live one. Microsoft has a white paper and help file with their migration story. Jeff Middleton's Swing Migration process for SBS 2008 is still in development. Both of these approaches have their individual benefits and drawbacks, but either process will get you from SBS 2003 to SBS 2008. But this is not a simple process. I took a virtual copy of my production server and ran through four different migration scenarios while testing SBS 2008, and I still ran into some issues when I migrated my own production system. I'll address more issues related to migration challenges in another post, but I cannot stress enough the importance of spending time working through the migration process before you ever attempt a live one. There was a tenet in the SBS community related to the installation of SBS 2003 that said you needed to run through three installations of SBS 2003 on your own before attempting to do a production installation so you could get an idea what was really happening with the install. I'm on record saying that the same approach works for SBS 2003 to SBS 2008 migrations. Until you've done three of these, you really shouldn't try one for real.

I've seen a number of IT Professionals already talking about how their customers are chomping at the bit to get SBS 2008 installed into their businesses. This both excites and frightens me. I'm excited to see customer interest in the product, but I'm terrified by the possibility that some businesses will have an IT Pro perform the installation, or should I say attempt to perform the installation, without having ever done a real install of the product themselves first. One of the reasons I migrated my production environment as soon as I could was because I have my first SBS 2008 installation (not a migration, fortunately) scheduled in a couple of weeks. I'm not about to unleash SBS 2008 for my customer until I've had some real-world time with the product in a production environment, even if it is just my own office (but what better place to see the warts and wrinkles).

And that's my very strong recommendation to everyone who is wanting to deploy SBS 2008 for a customer. Run it yourself, first. Go through the install. Go through a migration. See what you have to do to make the product work. Don't read into that sentiment that the product is difficult or problematic, it isn't. In fact, I think that someone who installs SBS 2008 and has never seen an SBS installation before may have a better chance of getting it to work because there will be no preconceived notions of how you THINK it should work. Basically, if you follow the wizards and give them the correct information, the product will work. If you start to tweak and tinker, you could land in hot water. And I don't know about you, but I'd much rather have the hot water in my own sandbox than in front of a client. Any day.

So please, go out there and push SBS 2008 for your clients when it makes sense (and yes, SBS 2008 is not a good match for every small business, but many small businesses will get a lot out of the product). But make sure you do your homework first. Class has started and you've been given your first assignment. There are a lot of tutors out there who will help you learn the material. There are several blogs where you can glean useful information. There are books on the way that you can reference. But in this case, reading and theory is no substitute for hands-on experience. You're the one who is going to have to pass the test in front of your client. Do the work, get prepared, and your deployments should be successes instead of failures.