When Microsoft announced that Windows Server 2012 had reached the Release to Manufacturing (RTM) milestone on August 1, it wasn’t clear if that meant just the mainstream Server versions—Standard and Datacenter—or also the small business focused Essentials and Foundation versions. Now we know: Essentials, at least, will trail other Windows Server 2012 versions somewhat. And this week, Windows Server Essentials 2012 reached the Release Candidate (RC) milestone.

“We reached another important milestone on the road to the final release of Windows Server 2012 Essentials:  the Release Candidate (RC) is available now for download and evaluation,” Microsoft’s Jeffrey Snover writes in a post to the Windows Server Blog. “If you haven’t started exploring the product yet, this new pre-release version is an ideal time to begin.”

I previously wrote about the Windows Server 2012 Essentials Beta, which was released in early July. This release is very interesting: It’s basically the replacement for several other niche-y Server products, including Windows Home Server, Windows Small Business Server Standard, Windows Small Business Server Essentials, and Windows Storage Server Essentials, and brings accessible Windows 8/Server 2012-class technologies—like Storage Spaces and cloud backup—to the small business masses at an affordable price. I’ve been evaluating Essentials 2012 as a replacement for my current home server setup, which runs Windows Home Server 2011. And I like what I see so far.

Of course, that’s based on the Beta version. With the Release Candidate, Microsoft has implemented a number of changes, according to a related post on the Windows Server Essentials and Small Business Server Blog. These include:

Increased support for importing your own SSL certificates. This previously arduous process is now much simpler, Microsoft says.

Installation of only critical setup updates during setup. With the RC release, Essentials 2012 only installs critical Setup-related updates during Setup. This change will make Setup faster and more predictable, especially for partners reselling the product to customers.

Windows SBS Best Practices Analyzer (BPA) changes. Microsoft has updated the BPA rules to include the latest set of rules and have also made it possible to ignore specific BPA rules by using our UI. (This was an issue I had with the Beta, actually, since some of the rules, while well-intentioned, would trigger frequent issues in the Server Dashboard, and could only be ignored on a case-by-case basis.)

Office 365 changes. It is now easier to import existing Office 365 users into Windows Server 2012 Essentials.

Verified DHCP supported. Essentials 2012 now supports turning on the DHCP role and setting a static IP address for the server.

More exciting, perhaps, Microsoft has also revealed some coming changes that include a Windows 8 companion app which will “makes it easy to access files and folders on the server, but also supports offline access.” And as with the previous “Colorado” servers—WHS 2011, SBSE 2011, and Storage Server 2008 R2, there will be an updated version of the Windows Phone app which allows customers to access files and folders on the server from their handset.

Windows Server 2012 Essentials will be generally available by the end of 2012, Microsoft says. I will install the RC version this week.