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Microsoft SBS 2003 suits small offices

Oct 13, 20035 mins

The old saying, “third time’s a charm” definitely applies to Microsoft‘s Small Business Server 2003. Released last week, SBS 2003 is a polished and well-designed product that will satisfy the needs of small offices with multiple PCs but no central file server or IT support.

Expanding on SBS systems built on Windows NT and 2000, SBS 2003 comes in two editions: Standard and Premium. The Standard Edition includes file and print services, Internet Information Server, Web and portal services, and Exchange Server 2003. The Premium Edition adds SQL Server 2000, the Internet Security and Acceleration server and Office FrontPage 2003. Pricing starts at $500 and $1,500, respectively, including five client licenses.

Many server appliance vendors aim to make their products easy for non-technical users to run, with varying success. But Microsoft achieves ease of use two ways. First, hardware vendors such as Dell and HP will pre-install the software on their servers, so users need only configure their network details. Second, the installation is wizard-based, producing a workable default configuration in nearly every case.

We tested the product two ways, once with it pre-installed and once from scratch. We received an HP Server TC2120 with the final beta software pre-installed. Configuration consisted of details for network addressing and connecting to our cable modem. Installation went quickly.

When the official SBS 2003 software became available, we installed it onto an existing server. After about an hour of handling Windows installation details, we reached the same To Do List screen for configuring the software as we did with the pre-installed version.

Microsoft includes a poster-sized Quick Start Guide with space to jot down pre-installation information. The guide was remarkably clear, even when handling multiple options and explaining technical concepts such as disk partitioning.

We liked the To Do List screen, located in server management utilities. It provides necessary configuration steps, along with a button to click for context-sensitive help. Each step opens a wizard to help complete the task and a Done box you can check when finished. You also can access the To Do List from the management screen for configuration help as needed.

Basic file and print services for client PCs are handled easily using Microsoft’s standard network processes. Users can configure private storage space on the server; and for easy centralized data backup, the server can redirect each client’s My Documents folder to the server. Users also can share information via Microsoft’s SharePoint Services. SharePoint lets you access document libraries, view announcements, engage in threaded discussions and link to internal and external resources.

The home page on the server management console gathers all the server information. Administration relies on simple “click to configure” options. Users familiar with managing a Windows peer-to-peer network will have no trouble configuring user access to disk shares and other standard network management tasks.

Despite the server’s many improvements, we came away with some quibbles and concerns. For one, Microsoft is pushing the product’s remote-access capabilities, specifically Outlook Web Access and direct connection to SBS 2003 across the Internet. But the documentation doesn’t ensure users will enable them securely. Important details are buried in the Getting Started Guide appendix, and users are pushed to use a Universal Plug and Play router, ignorant of the security problems with UPNP devices. Before setting up SBS 2003’s remote-access features, we recommend getting help from dealers or consultants.

 Microsoft Small Business Server 2003




Company: Microsoft, (888) 218-5617

Cost: $600 for the standard edition; $1,500 for the premium edition. Both include five user licenses. Pros: Installation is straightforward for a product with multiple components; SharePoint collaboration is easy yet powerful; surprisingly low RAM requirements provide adequate performance; useful monitoring tools and wizard-driven configuration in the management portal. Cons: DHCP IP addressing handled poorly; backup reported well but couldn’t restore from tape.
The breakdown  
Manageability 25%4
Features 25%4
Ease of setup 20%5
Documentation 20%4
Reporting tools 10%4
Scoring Key: 5: Exceptional; 4: Very good; 3: Average; 2: Below average; 1: Consistently subpar

The Windows 98 clients we tested couldn’t run a Remote Network Configuration Wizard or connect to SharePoint. To enjoy all SBS 2003’s benefits, you need to upgrade to Win 2000 or XP.

For small businesses, the Exchange 2003 server seems like overkill, although it ran efficiently. It lacks direct support for POP3 clients, forcing Eudora users (for example) to move to Outlook or Outlook Express or use a Web mail option.

While static IP addresses for the server and other PCs are supported properly, the Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol server for assigning IP addresses to client computers works unusually. There is no way to specify an address range for allocation, only a way to block address ranges.

To test back-up and restore capabilities, we connected a Sony StorStation AIT-2 USB tape back-up drive. However, SBS 2003 only recognized an earlier Sony AIT drive. Although SBS 2003 accepted the drive and ran a backup with no errors listed, it didn’t read the restoration files, probably because of incompatibilities between the old and new drivers. IT administrators know to test restorations before trusting a tape unit, but non-technical users don’t. SBS 2003 should have reported the backup wasn’t viable.

Last, previous SBS editions didn’t have the low-entry cost, but client licenses cost less, $60 rather than $100. If a company adds 23 additional users, the cost advantage is gone ($2,879 for SBS 2000 vs. $2,876 for SBS 2003). Because SBS 2003 can handle a total of 75 clients expanding on the earlier cap of 50 users, you can pay more at the end even if you start out paying less. But Microsoft says the vast majority of its target audience has only a handful of clients and will therefore see a substantial decrease in their networking costs, yet still have room to grow.

Gaskin is a technology writer in Dallas. He can be reached at