Last month, Microsoft finally announced its plans for the next version of Small Business Server: Instead of a single line of traditional, on-premise products, the company is splitting SBS in two. So there will be an on-premise follow-up to SBS 2008, currently called SBS 7, that will look and work much like previous SBS versions. This product isn't particularly interesting to me personally, but I suspect it will be popular with a certain segment of Microsoft's customers and services partners. What I'm far more interested in is the new SBS product, currently codenamed Aurora, which takes SBS in an all-new direction, one I've been practically begging Microsoft to take for years.

Aurora is what Microsoft calls a "cross premise" server, meaning that it combines some on-premise functionality--primarily Active Directory domain services, storage, and printing--with optional cloud-based services such as Exchange Online. While it may take some time for the moniker "cross premise" to stick, if it ever does, the idea behind Aurora is brilliant and perfectly suited to the small businesses (i.e. those with 25 or fewer PCs) that it targets. That is, while it makes sense to keep some services on premise, it also makes sense to access others as hosted online services. And with Aurora, you get to pick and choose, while maintaining the single sign-on conveniences of the previous, integrated, on-premise SBS products.

Aurora is based on the same codebase as the next-generation Windows Home Server version, called Vail, and as such, it resembles Vail a lot more than it does previous SBS versions. (The SBS 7 management tools will look very similar as well.) That's a good thing. And if you're not familiar with WHS in general, or Vail in particular, then you're in for a wonderful surprise: It's as rock-solid as it is easy to use, and some of the best WHS features--most notably the Drive Extender technologies I'll discuss a bit more in just a bit--really put Aurora over the top.

Like Vail, Aurora is primarily about managing users, computers, and data, the latter via shared storage. Unlike Vail, Aurora is a "full" Windows Server product, meaning that it works with AD, so the users and computers you add to the system are managed through AD, and not through a proprietary (and more limited) workgroup-based system. Because Aurora looks and works just like WHS/Vail, however, it's a bit disarming. In fact, if anything, it's almost too easy to install and configure, a process that belies the power hidden within. SBS' strong suit, in my opinion, has always been ease of use, but this really takes that to an extreme, since the ancillary servers--Exchange, SQL Server, and so on--are no longer part of the package.

When you create a user in Aurora, you create a domain user, so there's none of the WHS silliness with duplicating accounts on both the server and the clients, and ensuring that the passwords line up. And connecting a PC to the domain is as simple as navigating to a particular web address (on the Aurora server), following the steps, and rebooting.

As in Vail, a new Aurora LaunchPad application provides a simple way for users to access server-based resources like shared folders, backups, Remote Web Access, and delegated, remote access to the Aurora management console, called the Dashboard. It's also extensible, so Microsoft and third parties can add functionality in the future.

The Aurora Dashboard is very similar to that of Vail though, again, it's important to remember that in Aurora you're working with a real AD-based domain. From this Dashboard, you can easily manage users, computers, client and server backups, storage, and, in the future, add-ins. (The add-in model appears to be based on that of the ill-fated Windows Essential Server product.) This is impressive because Aurora assumes that no one in the office is explicitly an admin or IT pro, but rather that some workers will be simply be tasked with these activities in addition to their regular duties. And unlike previous SBS (or full Windows Server products), Aurora should actually be simple enough for them to use.

Likewise, a new email alert system will provide admin-type users with notifications when something goes wrong. That way, these users don't have to make system administration a regular activity, but they'll be notified if a backup fails, a user turns off malware protection, and so on.

Key WHS technologies come across to SBS in Aurora in fine form. Backup provides full, image-based backups of your managed PCs as well as file-based backups, and is excellent for both file and disaster recovery. And you can optionally enable server-based Shadow Copies so that versions of documents on users' PCs are saved on the server in a central location.

As its name suggests, Remote Web Access provides remote web-based access to the Aurora server and individual features such as shared folders, computers (Remote Desktop), and the Dashboard management console. And the client connector software sits on each client PC, monitoring the system's health and ensuring that backups run smoothly.

My favorite WHS feature, Drive Extender, is perhaps the most impressive addition to this SBS version. What this does is treat all of the available storage attached to the server as a single pool of storage, instead of partitioning it into discrete drive letters. It also provides data duplication functionality at the share level, so that when enabled, all stored files are guaranteed to sit on two separate physical hard drives to help prevent data loss in the event of a hardware failure.

Aurora also includes a few new niceties that should be welcome in typical small business environments. When you bring a new employee on board, for example, they can connect their own PC to the Aurora domain, and once they've connected to the server and signed in with their directory account, Aurora will prompt them to optionally move existing data and settings from their previous non-domain account over to the new account. This lets you leverage employee's existing PCs while allowing them to retain their customizations. It's a nice touch.

Where SBS 7 also provides on-premise versions of Exchange Server, SharePoint Foundation, and, via a Premium add-on, SQL Server, Aurora assumes you'll access such services online. Frankly, many of the small businesses that would be attracted to Aurora aren't going to be paying for Microsoft Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS) anytime soon, but it's there if you want it, and you can federate your AD information between the Aurora server and the cloud. My expectation is that most Aurora users will simply use free versions of Google Apps or Windows Live custom domains.

However it's used, Aurora is exactly what I'd imagined for the future of Small Business Server, and I'm glad to see Microsoft is offering this as an option for future new SBS installs. (You cannot upgrade from SBS to Aurora, or add Aurora boxes to a new domain.) There are still questions around pricing and timing, but clearly Aurora will be a lot less expensive, and a lot more accessible, than SBS 7. I can't wait to see this product hit the market.