Review: Microsoft Windows Small Business Server 2003

Microsoft Windows Small Business Server 2003 (SBS) bundle represents a nice compromise between packaging and functionality.

February 27, 2004

5 Min Read
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Microsoft Windows Small Business Server 2003 (SBS) bundle represents a nice compromise between packaging and functionality. It ties together several essential services into one, cohesive package that allows small-business owners to focus on running their businesses, instead of running their networks. Yet it is easy enough to set up and simple to use. Lest you think this means VARs and integrators are cut out of the equation--on the contrary, Microsoft has created a platform by which savvy resellers can augment their software-licensing revenue with professional services.

SBS 2003 comes in two editions: Standard and Premium. Both include Windows Server 2003 as well as Exchange Server 2003, Outlook 2003, SharePoint Services--Microsoft's intranet and portal-services package--Internet Information Server, backup, help desk and fax services. This basic bundle does an excellent job of integrating essential (and some nonessential) network services into a single package. The Premium edition addresses those companies with robust Internet needs by including Internet Security and Acceleration Server (ISA) 2000, SQL Server 2000 and FrontPage 2003.

Integrated ApplicationsThe key benefit of SBS is the tight integration of its network services. Instead of installing the operating system, the e-mail server, the Web server and backup software separately, Microsoft has successfully created a unified installation that is designed to minimize setup and configuration time. It's hard not to be impressed when, within an hour of installing the software, users are able to send e-mail, visit the company's intranet site, and send and receive faxes through Outlook. Additionally, the integrated help-desk facility makes it easy to organize and track support issues when they arise.

The real simplicity of SBS becomes evident when setting up users and configuring client computers. Through the Manage User utility on the server, the server administrator is not only able to create the user account and set permissions, but also configure the client computers at the same time, including adding applications and configuring Outlook. Because Exchange installs by default on the server, it makes sense to automatically configure the Outlook clients to connect to the Exchange server in one, simple step.

Another slick management tool is the Remote Web Workplace (see screenshot). With only a browser and an Internet connection, the administrator has access to virtually all server services, including logging into the server as different users. Resellers will find this feature provides a nice vehicle for additional revenue by building managed services on top of the initial hardware and software sale.For starters, support contracts allow the reseller to perform routine network maintenance, such as adding user accounts and modifying permissions, as well as installing the latest patches. Through the Remote Web Workplace, support personnel can also deploy software to the server and customers. The Remote Web Workplace is browser-based, so support can happen from the next cubicle or from across the world. Virtually anything that is done from the server itself can be done through the Remote Web Workplace. Support personnel will also appreciate the performance and usage reports that are available at a glance.

Building customer Web applications is another area that resellers can take advantage of. With remote access to the server built into SBS, it is easy to create and maintain the customer's Web site. With SBS Premium Edition, SQL Server can provide a back-end database engine for an electronic storefront, and ISA can be configured to apply security policies to Internet traffic.

As a standard feature of Windows Server 2003, SharePoint Services allows companies to keep employees up-to-date on company issues, and provide a companywide calendaring solution, document libraries and discussion boards.

Simplified InstallationFor our evaluation, we received an HP Server TC2120 with Small Business Server 2003 already configured on it. We simply had to identify specific network settings and we were ready to go. Microsoft has partnered with hardware vendors, such as Dell and Hewlett-Packard, to bundle Small Business Server 2003 with their server hardware, creating an "almost-turnkey" solution for small-business owners. Resellers can also create their own hardware/SBS bundles, allowing them to image preset configurations, thus reducing the amount of setup time for each of the servers. A preconfigured system setup took less than an hour to get up-and-running, including e-mail, corporate intranet and remote access.

After testing this preconfigured system, we wiped the drive and reinstalled from scratch. Using the integrated setup and configuration wizard, we were able to create a fully operational system in approximately one-and-one-half to two hours, with most of the time spent waiting while the installer copied files from the four installation CDs. While the installation is similar to Windows XP, Microsoft has included tools that help get the bundled package (i.e., the operating system and included server applications) configured quickly. For example, after installing all of the software, Small Business Server 2003 presents a configuration "To Do" list that guides the administrator through the necessary tasks to get the network services customized for that particular installation. We really got the sense that most of the setup time will be spent customizing for your client- and employee-facing components, rather than configuring systems to make sure they are working correctly. This allows business managers to focus on the creative and strategic aspects of their jobs rather than on the infrastructure mechanics.One of our biggest complaints with Windows--that is further exacerbated with Small Business Server 2003--is the amount of auto-loaded "stuff." Microsoft auto-loads many services unbeknownst to the user. These services open potential security holes that require a steady stream of security updates. Microsoft tries to mitigate these security risks with its Windows Update feature, but computing purists still prefer to enable the services they want and disable those they don't.

Still, Microsoft has created a nice bundled solution for small-business owners. The tight integration makes the entire package accessible to the user without any trouble. Its remote-access feature creates opportunities for resellers to develop value-added services, including management contracts and Web-application development. Given the economic climate during the past two years, smart companies have realized that increasing the stickiness of their customers is just as valuable as finding new customers. Microsoft Small Business Server enables savvy resellers to create monthly ongoing service contracts to provide key technology solutions to their customers.

Small Business Server 2003 supports up to a maximum of 75 client computers. Licensing is based on either a per-user or a per-device scheme. The five-user Small Business Server 2003 Standard Edition's retail price is $599. The Premium Edition starts at $1,499. Additional user licenses cost roughly $100 each and are sold in five and 20-user packs.

Eric J. Bowden is CTO at KeyLabs. He specializes in software testing.

This article appears courtesy of VARBusiness0

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