Small Business Server 2008 gets 'small' right

Microsoft's revamp of SBS takes the sting out of setup and admin for IT-challenged shops, without sacrificing the functionality that all businesses need

A small business is not necessarily a simple business. That rather basic lesson has taken much of the computer industry far too many years to learn. Successful SaaS vendors have realized that small businesses need the same sort of functions and support that large enterprises get -- just in smaller quantities. Clearly Microsoft has come to the same realization with the release of Small Business Server 2008.

Small Business Server (SBS) is designed to be the only software sitting at the center of a small-business network. The wealth of functionality includes Windows Server 2008, Exchange Server 2007, Office Live Small Business 2008, Windows SharePoint Services, and Windows Server Update Services. Network and server security are available with SBS, though they're not included in the basic price. You'll get a trial license for ForeFront and Windows Live OneCare, which extend malware coverage to Exchange and all Windows clients on the network. If you want to continue to use them, though, you'll have to pay for additional on-going licenses.

If you opt for Small Business Server Premium, you'll also get SQL Server 2008 configured to run on a separate server. That second server could also function as a Terminal Services server, opening up thin-client and point-of-sale options for many deployments.

Sound expensive? In fact (wonder of wonders), Microsoft has come up with a licensing model that should make it easier for a small businesses in the real world to afford SBS. Microsoft has also made it easy for IT staff -- be they internal or contracted -- to configure and maintain all SBS functions. Administration of the package is extremely well done.

The two-tiered staff

When I spoke with Microsoft reps before beginning the review process, they told me that focus groups pointed out a two-tier model for IT support in many small businesses. The first tier is internal IT staff, usually a single individual whose business card should probably read "utility infielder." This IT generalist has to keep up with all the server, client, and application software for the company, as well as tend to all the hardware. Their knowledge is broad, but may not be terribly deep on any given topic. Deep product expertise, when it's needed, typically comes from an outside contractor assigned to specific projects, like setting up servers or applications. That's the second tier.

Microsoft's response to this two-tier support structure provides two distinct ways of making most things happen within SBS. The first tier is a series of wizards and control panels that draw heavily from Vista's look and feel. For most basic tasks, these work well and provide just enough hand-holding to keep you from getting lost if you don't spend your working life on this one product.

The trade-off for ease of use is fine-grain control; there are levels of functionality that you just can't get to from the bright colors and big buttons. For tasks where you do need to get more intimately involved with SBS's inner workings, the Windows Management Console is available. Consultants and specialists who spend a good deal of time working with Windows Server will quickly take to this familiar interface.

Small Business Server doesn't wrap all the management functions for the server-based applications into a single interface, and you can't say that all the applications (in their various versions) use a consistent interface. SBS does, however, provide the dual interfaces for the operating system, and all the applications are consistent in the use of Windows Management Console at the highest level.

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