Windows' SMB bundle offers few new upgrade enticements

Tests show base product is still as solid as when it was released three years ago.

Microsoft Small Business Server 2003 R2 to ship without many upgrade enticements.

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For comparison's sake, we installed a fully functional, prerelease copy of SBS 2003 R2 (scheduled to ship in August) and a retail copy of SBS 2003 on two different systems. Microsoft does a good job of leading new users through a string of installation wizards and retains the To Do List configuration page that appears as the first choice under the standard management menu. The collection of server-management task items on the server administration home page provide a complete server overview.

Windows Server Update Services (WSUS) in the SBS 2003 R2 Standard Edition, SQL 2005 Workgroup, and Internet Security and Acceleration Server 2004 headline the new feature list. Tying SharePoint collaborative tools deeply into the provided ISS Web server doesn't offer many advantages but pushes users down Microsoft's new collaboration path.

ALL-IN-ONE NETWORK SERVERS MICROSOFT SMALL BUSINESS SERVER 2003 R2

Microsoft

4.1
Price:Standard Edition: $599; Premium Edition: $1,300 (13% lower than SNS 2003). Upgrade prices are $299 and $699, respectively.
Pros:To Do List page helpful for less-technical administrators; added Windows Server Update Service helps with security; more reporting screens and monitoring feedback than competitors; servers.
Cons:Only minor technical advances from SBS 2003; offers only five user client-access licenses with system, customer must purchase one CAL for every concurrent user (to a maximum of 75); pushes Exchange Server onto neophyte administrators.
The breakdown
Manageability 25%4Scoring Key: 5: Exceptional4: Very good3: Average2: Below average1: Subpar or not available
Features 25%4

Ease of setup 25%

4
Documentation 10%4
Reporting tools 10%5
TOTAL SCORE4.1 

Microsoft claims great advances in security, but those advances come mainly from better patch management for workstations. SBS 2003 R2 makes it easier to apply the constant security patches forced on Microsoft Windows users. The WSUS now included with SBS 2003 R2 will offer companies with fewer than the 75 maximum client computers supported by SBS a way around individual PC updates. WSUS inventories the server and clients for Microsoft applications and downloads the appropriate patch files. Clients then update over the local network rather than clogging company Internet connections.

SBS 2003 R2 offers an extensive intranet portal for small companies with employees ready to collaborate. Templates for team workspaces, discussions, document storage and the Social Meeting Workplace come preloaded. These tools add to the shared calendar, document storage and contacts available through the Exchange server.

One of the nicer features of SBS 2003 R2 is a one-click process to redirect every user's My Documents folder to the server. Once a user's files are stored on the server, any of the several backup options for the server also will back up those files.

Companies will have to change their e-mail clients to Outlook Express or Microsoft Office Outlook 2003 to fully benefit from SBS 2003 in any form. Users without Microsoft Office can leverage the included Outlook 2003 client software to share calendars, contacts and task lists that are beyond the capabilities of Outlook Express. Users with Windows versions previous to Windows 2000 must upgrade to use all SBS 2003 R2 features.

Remote users play well with SBS 2003 R2, leveraging easier Remote Web Workplace (Microsoft's version of GoToMyPC) and VPN support.

Microsoft trumpets its ease of use, but the user-friendly screens don't explain the depths of SBS 2003 R2. A company adding its first file server won't have a clue about Active Directory, forests, group policies and domains. If you plan to get full value from an SBS 2003 R2 server, you'll need help to get the server configured securely and get yourself up to speed quickly as an administrator, especially if you have more than a handful of users. Outside support experts can be granted access to manage SBS 2003 R2 remotely, a good idea for most small businesses.

The best choice?

As the leading name-brand player partnered with all the leading server hardware vendors (Dell and HP offer servers preconfigured with SBS 2003), Microsoft seems to have the market to itself. Yet network-attached storage (NAS) units offer outstanding storage values, with multiple vendors selling 1TB of disk space for less than $1,000 (see 2006 NAS test).

Some NAS units have operating systems that include user file-access controls secure enough to compete against SBS 2003 R2. Included client backup software and print servers level the comparison even more. Some NAS appliance vendors used to offer Web and e-mail servers along with intranet portals, but that tradition seems sadly lacking in today's products.

SBS 2003 R2 administrator feedback screens offer more system information at one glance, including details about the top five users of CPU cycles, than any other NAS unit we've tested.

We worry that most small businesses lack the security expertise in-house to keep Windows Server locked down adequately, especially when running their own Exchange and Web servers on the Internet. Microsoft's large reseller army should provide support and ongoing management for customers buying such a complicated system as their first server.

Small businesses that start with Microsoft SBS 2003 make a commitment not only for file and print service but for all Windows clients and applications.

Many buyers won't look beyond the Microsoft logo on the cover and will buy SBS 2003 R2 regardless of cost and security concerns. This new server operating system may be the safe choice, but at the expense of other options with more flexibility, lower cost and much less lock-in to Microsoft client operating systems and applications far into the future.

Gaskin writes books (Talk Is Cheap: Switching to Internet Telephones is his 16th), articles and jokes about technology and real life from his home office in the Dallas area. He can be reached at james@gaskin.com.

NW Lab Alliance

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.

Learn more about this topic

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Microsoft unveils plans for Windows Small Business Server

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