On Monday, July 11, 2010, Microsoft will finally reveal some news I've been itching to share for months: The company is splitting its Windows Small Business Server (SBS) line into two products. Both will be based on the Windows Server 2008 R2 codebase. But where the first of these products, currently codenamed Small Business Server "7," will logically replace existing, traditional SBS products, the other, currently codenamed "Aurora," goes in a far more exciting new direction. In fact, Aurora delivers on what I've been asking--begging, really--Microsoft to do for years with SBS: Embrace the cloud in an emphatic way. This is exactly the SBS product I've been waiting for. And I suspect I'm not alone.

With this new generation of SBS products, Microsoft is splitting its support of the small business market into two categories, traditional servers and solution servers. Traditional servers are existing standalone products like Windows Server 2008 Foundation and Windows Server 2008 Standard. They're aimed at those customers who have specific needs around storage, infrastructure, line of business (LOB) applications, communication and collaboration tools, virtualization, and other "traditional" on-premise server environment scenarios.

Solution servers, meanwhile, are completely integrated server platforms, optimized for the small business. In the past, these solutions were delivered as SBS suites. Now, with this new generation of SBS products, there will be two offerings, SBS 7 and Aurora. SBS 7 is the on-premise solution for small businesses that is aimed at two specific workloads, communication and collaboration. Aurora, meanwhile, is what Microsoft calls a "cross-premise" solution: It provides some local functionality around file storage, printing, backup, remote access, and basic user/environment management (Active Directory-based), yes, but relies on cloud services for other optional services, including federated identity management between the local AD environment and cloud-based email and other services.

Microsoft differentiates between its traditional and solution servers. But from what I can tell, SBS 7 and Aurora are as different from each other as they are from traditional servers. Yes, they both target the small business. But whereas SBS 7 will likely see most of its uptick from existing SBS customers, Aurora is both a brand new thing (you can't upgrade to its from SBS) and, I think, the real future of this market. If everything goes as I believe it will, there won't be any more traditional SBS offerings in the future, just products based on Aurora.

Windows Small Business Server "7"

Windows SBS 7 is the next release of Windows SBS Standard and is a fully on-premise solution. As with previously SBS versions, it features an integrated install of the various bundled components, provides a single license for each of the bundled Microsoft technologies, and is typically sold along with low-end server hardware.

Because it is based on Windows Server 2008 R2 Standard, SBS 7 (like Aurora) is 64-bit only. It includes Exchange 2010 with SP1 for email and personal information management, SharePoint Foundation 2010 for collaboration, and Windows Server Update Services (WSUS) 3.0 for automatic product updating. With an optional (and added cost) Premium Add-On, you can also add SQL Server 2008 R2 Standard Edition for Small Business, which provides comprehensive data management and analysis, according to Microsoft.

In addition to these server solutions, SBS 7 provides automatic local backups of the server, anti-malware functionality, a central file repository, and other features that customers have come to expect from SBS. It is, in every way, a direct follow-up to existing SBS products, with all of the good and bad that comes from such a solution.

I've been pretty outspoken about the lack of interest in the small business market for on-premise solutions, especially those for email and collaboration. For this reason, I expect SBS 7 to see the most interest from existing customers who want to take advantage of the capabilities in the updated servers. That said, I don't feel that SBS 7 makes a lot of sense even in such environments. And while starting over from scratch isn't ideal, solutions like Aurora make more sense, I think, for a much bigger percentage of the customer base. I don't anticipate reviewing this product.

Windows Small Business Server "Aurora"

Windows SBS "Aurora," meanwhile, is quite exciting, though Microsoft is limiting the market for this server to new businesses, or those that have not yet established a server infrastructure. That is, Aurora cannot be added to an existing Active Directory (AD) domain. Instead, it must be the first server in a new domain. This will limit its uptake with existing customers, and I suspect that is very much on purpose. As a result, Aurora targets the smallest of the small businesses--those with 5 to 25 PCs--whereas SBS 7 can support up to 75 PCs. The thinking there being that these larger small businesses will soon grow into mid-sized businesses and could perhaps be in the market for a broader range of Microsoft on-premise solutions.


Aurora's Vail-like management dashboard. (Courtesy of Microsoft)

Like SBS 7, Aurora is 64-bit only. It provides a simplified version of Windows Server 2008 R2, health status monitoring for the server and connected clients, (Windows Home Server-based) Drive Extender technology for simplified server storage management and, with an optional Premium Add-On, a licensed copy of Windows Server 2008 R2 Standard technologies and SQL Server 2008 R2 Standard Edition for Small Business.


Aurora PC management. (Courtesy of Microsoft)

You also get automatic local backups of the server and connected PCs and remote access functionality for both the server and connected PCs. In case this isn't obvious, Aurora works (and looks) just like Windows Home Server "Vail"--see my preview--and is in fact based on the same underlying foundation. So it provides a host of WHS-like functionality around the management tools (which are nearly identical) and various capabilities. What's interesting is that while Aurora looks and works just like Vail, under the covers Aurora provides a full, native Active Directory infrastructure. So when you're adding and managing users, and working with connected PCs in Aurora, you're actually managing a directory, albeit with super-simple tools. In Vail, you're just working with a workgroup (and with a homegroup, with Windows 7 clients).


Aurora storage management. (Courtesy of Microsoft)

Where Aurora veers most wildly off the standard SBS trajectory, of course, is in its handling of email and collaboration tools. That is, there are none, at least not built into the product. But Aurora customers won't be left hanging. Instead, they'll be able to access Microsoft's hosted service versions of Exchange and SharePoint, leaving the management of these solutions to Microsoft (or, I suppose, a partner). This is exactly the delineation of functionality I've been proposing for SBS for years now: Create a WHS-like version of SBS with local storage and PC/user management, and put the email and collaboration in the cloud where it belongs. It seems perfect, though I'm curious to see if Microsoft announces pricing this week and, if so, whether the monthly cost for these hosted services will be lower for Aurora customers than is currently the case with Microsoft Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS). Stayed tuned.


Aurora web-based remote access interface. (Courtesy of Microsoft)

A few more differences/notes

Looking over my notes about these products, there are a few more differences between SBS 7 and Aurora, and other items that may interest you.

SBS 7 supports up 75 users while Aurora supports up 25 users only. While SBS 7 provides simplified on-premise System Center-based management capabilities, Aurora provides none.

Both products can run most server applications (Exchange, etc.) if desired. But while SBS 7 supports multiple workloads (Exchange, WSUS, SQL Server all running on the same box), Aurora does not.

Either system comes with virtualization (Hyper-V) host rights, but only when the appropriate Premium Add-On is installed. You can only run a single guest OS under either OS.

Where SBS 7 includes automated Windows Server Backup, Aurora provides WHS-like Windows Server Backup and PC image backup.

Both products must be the first server in a domain. That is, you can only create a new domain, not join an existing domain. (SBS 7 supports migrating.)

Both products will be sold to customers through multiple channels and Microsoft expects its partners to service both solutions for customers.

Aurora, like WHS Vail, will utilize a new extensibility platform, and many add-ons for one platform should work with the other. (Expect some demos as this week's Microsoft Worldwide Partner Platform.)

Final thoughts

I was told that I'd get my hands on the Aurora beta before Microsoft's partner conference this week, but that never happened. So I'll get a review when I can, but in the meantime, what I've seen of Aurora so far is quite exciting. In fact, I'm formulating plans to replace and/or augment Windows Home Server with Aurora in my own home environment going forward. I'll have more on those plans, and about Aurora, as soon as is possible. Stay tuned.