Yesterday, Microsoft released a Beta version of Windows Server 2012 Essentials, the next version of the poorly-received Windows Small Business Server 2011 Essentials. Based on a quick install of the Beta, it appears to be based on the Windows Server 2012 Release Candidate (RC) code but includes the same type of integrated domain setup as its predecessor.

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“The beta is a significant engineering milestone for the team,” Microsoft group program manager Joe Nalewabau writes in a post to the Windows Server Blog. “We have made some changes to the way that we think about the first-server market (SMBs, home offices, etc.) and the products that we offer in this space based on feedback from our customers and partners. This post will provide some high-level insight on how the engineering strategy as we built Essentials 2012.”

Nalewabau notes that Essentials 2012 focuses on four core principles:

- Simplicity and flexibility for customers and partners

- Better together with Windows Server 2012 and Windows 8

- Increased device support

- Continued integration with Cloud Services

And while I’m pretty sure very few of you have actually installed or used this product’s predecessor, SBS Essentials 2011, that list above reads very much like an updated version of the goals for that previous product too. Check out my article, Windows Small Business Server 2011 Essentials, for more information, as well as Office 365: Small Business Server 2011 Essentials Integration, for a look at that cloud services integration piece.

A few thoughts.

This is not a review. Like everyone else, I’ve only had access to this product, in any form, for less than 24 hours. But since I am familiar with the previous version and am actively investigating a replacement for Windows Home Server (a related product that was just killed off), I wanted to discuss what Nalewabau writes in the introductory blog post with an eye towards understanding Essential’s new and expanded role.

These products are not targeted at the traditional IT Pros. We spend a lot of time creating simple and integrated experiences that will work for non-IT Pros with the help of our broader partner ecosystem. This was not coincidentally the conclusion I had about SBS 2011 Essentials combined with Office 365, that while the Essentials product itself was simple enough (almost too simple), linking it to Office 365 would require some professional help. But really this is about positioning Essentials as a product Microsoft’s partners will love, not loath. We’ll see: So far, I’ve seen a lot of animosity about the discontinuation of the traditional Windows SBS Standard product line. Put simply, Essentials 2012 is simple enough for anyone to install as a standalone server. If you can install Windows 8, you can install this too.

Simplified product line-up. With the previous generation of servers, there were lots of very similar products—Windows Small Business Server (SBS) 2011 Standard, Windows SBS 2011 Essentials, Windows Home Server (WHS) 2011, and Windows Storage Server 2008 R2 Essentials—which was, perhaps, too confusing. This time around, there’s just one: Essentials. So this product takes on some of the features from the other, discontinued products, such as the media sharing functionality from WHS. (It’s not really a direct replacement for SBS Standard, however.)

Simplified moving past 25 users. One of the many issues with SBS 2011 Essentials was that once you hit the 25 user limit, you had to migrate to a mainstream Windows Server version. So Essentials 2012 provides an in-place upgrade capability to Windows Server 2012 Standard. Nice! (I wonder if Windows Server 2012 Foundation will also include this ability.)

Flexibility for customers to choose how they want to consume email (on-premises, hosted, or cloud). The expectation with the previous version was that you’d use Office 365 for email, document collaboration, and so on, but you could of course install Exchange or other servers on the box. I found the integration bits to be interesting but limited and hard to configure. This time around, Essentials offers three choices for email: On-premise Exchange (but on a second server, which would of course require a Windows Server license too), Office 365, or hosted Exchange through a partner. Honestly, this is more limiting than before unless I’m misunderstanding, since you can’t apparently install Exchange on top of Essentials now.

Better together with Windows Server 2012 and Windows 8. Because it’s based on Windows Server 2012 (and Windows 8), Essentials gets some awesome new technologies like Storage Spaces and File History (including the ability to centralize Windows 8-based File History backups on Essentials, though to be fair I’m doing that already with WHS 2011, so that’s not exactly unique.) These two features, plus media sharing and the cloud backup bit noted below, could put Essentials 2012 over the top as a WHS replacement.

Increased Device support. Nothing dramatic, but Essentials 2012 will include Remote Web Access (RWA) improvements aimed at making the experience nicer on mobile devices like tablets, a native Windows 8 Metro app that’s similar to the desktop-based LaunchPad (which will still be available), a new version of the Windows Phone server management app, and a few other new features.

Continue integrating with Cloud Services. As before, Essentials 2012 will integrate with Office 365, now through an updated and integrated version of the previously separated Integration Module. And Essentials 2012 provides the same cloud-based Microsoft Online Backup capabilities as other Server 2012 editions.

OK, that’s what’s in the post. But I have few other quick thoughts about Essentials 2012, mostly with regards to whether this can replace WHS.

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The big issue, as I see it, is that Essentials 2012 forces a domain on you. That it does so in such a disarmingly simple way is, of course, both laudable and unbelievable, but I’d rather see a domain/workgroup option in Setup so that I could more wholeheartedly recommend this product for power users/enthusiasts who want a home server. I noted above that virtually anyone reading this should be able to install Essentials, and that’s true enough. But properly configuring a domain is another story all together, and a domain really isn’t the right solution for home.

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I was worried that Microsoft would abandon the nice management interfaces it built for SBS and the “Colorado” servers (WHS, SBS Essentials, and Storage Server Essentials) and replace them with the complex Server Manager from Windows Server 2012. This fear was partially realized by the new Server Manager-like Dashboard in Essentials 2012. But the similarity is only skin deep, thankfully, and as you use this tool you realize it’s about as simple as the product on which it runs and is, in fact, an updated take on the Dashboard from WHS 2011/Essentials 2011. Good.

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Obviously, Storage Spaces is a big part of this server, whether you’re using it at home or not. If you’re familiar with this feature on both Windows 8 and Server 2012, you know that the user experience for configuring Storage Spaces is completely different on each, with Windows 8 offering a simple, control panel-based experience and Server 2012 providing what appears to be a complex trap from one of the “Saw” movies. Well, I’ve got good news: Essentials 2012 uses the much simpler UI from Windows 8! Also good.

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More testing is required, of course, this is just some initial thoughts.

There’s no word on when we can expect to see the final version of Essentials 2012, but given that this version is a Beta, and the Beta of Windows Server 2012 happened back in February, end of year 2012 is perhaps the earliest possible time frame.

More soon.