While Microsoft has always championed the small business with its line of Small Business Server (SBS) products, the company's most strident server advances in recent years have been with high-end enterprise products, and not those that serve smaller companies. That's all changing with Windows Small Business Server 2003, a product suite that improves on the simplicity and ease-of-use features from previous SBS versions, and adds a host of new functionality. To better understand SBS 2003, I recently spoke with Guy Haycock, a Technical Product Manager for the Windows Server PMG, and Tracy Daugherty, a Group Program Manager for the Windows Server PMG. Here's what I found out.

What's new in Windows Small Business Server 2003

Like previous SBS versions, SBS 2003 includes everything a small business needs to get connected to the Internet, establish email, share files and printers, send and receive faxes, and so on. This time around, the product has been polished with better installation and deployment tools, simpler and more elegant management capabilities, and new features suggested by users, such as better backup and restore tools, and security-related functionality.

Based on Windows Server 2003

Previous Small Business Server versions were created by product groups outside of the core Windows Server team, and therefore often lagged behind the standalone server product release cycles. This is no longer the case now that Windows Small Business Server 2003 has been brought inhouse, so to speak, and made part of the wider Windows Server System. For those unclear of the benefits, SBS 2003 offers all of the features and functionality of Windows Server 2003, but also includes a host of features specifically designed to make the product easier to install, manage, and monitor. For users, SBS 2003 is a godsend, thanks to its wonderful client-side tools, which I'll examine a bit later.

"With Windows Small Business Server 2003, you get access to all of the raw capabilities of Windows Server 2003, as well as SharePoint, Exchange, SQL, ISA, and Outlook," Haycock told me. "We don't just bundle them; instead we examined what you need to do to be successful. For example, how do you get all of that technology installed without requiring 25 CDs and 17 hours of work? We've plugged in all the security best practices we've learned, and worked to help small businesses improve productivity out of the box."

Two editions

Unlike previous Small Business Server versions, Windows Small Business Server 2003 will be available in two editions, Standard Edition and Premium Edition. Standard Edition includes Windows Server 2003 (which is basically the equivalent of Windows Server 2003 Standard Edition), Exchange Server 2003, Outlook 2003, Windows SharePoint Services, SBS-specific components, and 5 Client Access Licenses (CALs). Premium Edition includes all the features and capabilities of Standard Edition and adds ISA Server 2000, SQL Server 2000 SP3, and FrontPage 2003. This product bifurcation is an excellent opportunity for small businesses that don't need a database server to move into SBS cheaply; most small businesses will want file and print sharing, and email, for example, but I'm guessing most can make do without the database.

Improvements to core Windows Server 2003 technologies

In keeping with previous SBS versions, Windows Small Business Server 2003 builds on the core capabilities of the underlying products, adding simple management and end user tools that drop all of the technical mumbo jumbo and replace it with clear, English-language choices. SBS' biggest benefit has always been across-the-board simplicity, and this version delivers it in spades.

Let's look at a few examples. Windows Server 2003 is the first Windows Server version to offer pervasive storage functionality through technologies like Volume Shadow Copies, and its Backup application is significantly improved over previous NT Backup versions, supporting media such as hard drives and network shares in addition to tape drives. SBS 2003 builds on these raw capabilities, but supplies simple front-end tools that makes managing backup and restore, and document retrieval, more elegant than in the base Windows Server 2003 package. SBS 2003 also includes pervasive remote capabilities, including the ability to remotely access the server as an end user, administer the server, or access troubleshooting data and reports. Again, all of this functionality is available in raw form by Windows Server 2003 and Exchange 2003, but SBS 2003 takes away the technical drudgery of figuring out how to make it all work.

OEM preinstalls

One of the most exciting changes to this version is that Windows Small Business Server 2003 will be available preinstalled on small server hardware from major PC makers such as Dell and Hewlett-Packard (HP). That means small businesses will be able to purchase cheap PC servers, enter a few location-specific bits of information on first boot, and have a functioning and secure Active Directory (AD) infrastructure up and running in less than 15 minutes, complete with email, remote access, a sophisticated intranet, and more. (However, you will still need to complete a simple To Do List after install in order to set up such things as users, machines, and a backup schedule). OEM preinstalls are an important development, especially for those companies that don't have much on-site technical talent. And for companies looking to outsource administration and monitoring, OEM preinstalls are an amazingly cheap way to get started with Microsoft enterprise products when there is no one qualified to deploy and manage the product on staff.

Indeed, from a pricing perspective, OEM preinstalls couldn't have come at a better time. You can now purchase entry-level PC server hardware from major PC makers in the $400-600 range, sans OS, and then add resources like memory and storage as needed. I recently purchased an entry level Dell server with a 1.8 GHz Pentium 4 processor, 256 MB of RAM and a 30 GB drive for about $400; today, you could probably get an even more powerful system if you shopped around (Update: Just this week, HP announced a $359 starter server). "Server hardware prices are declining sharply," Haycock told me, "following the rapidly declining pricing model of desktop PCs." It's a buyer's market.

Daugherty walked me through the experience a user will see when an OEM preinstall system is turned on for the first time. A Windows Setup wizard, based on that included with Windows Server 2003 but modified with Small Business Server-specific steps, guides the installation by prompting for company name, domain, and networking information. But even these steps aren't as complicated as they may sound, as the wizard has been improved to correctly fill in information where possible and guide the user away from making mistakes. For example, one common error many people make when installing Active Directory is to use an internal DNS name such as mycompany.com when in fact the internal name should be mycompany.local. (Why is this, you ask? The .local namespace is not registered on the Internet, and this naming convention will keep your internal domain separate from your public domain, improving security.) When you tell the wizard that your company name is mycompany, it prepopulates the appropriate fields with mycompany.local and explains why this is the correct choice.

Room to grow

Though it lacks merit, one of the most common complaints about SBS is that there is no upgrade path. With this version, Microsoft is addressing that complaint by providing a clear upgrade message, "Start with us. Grow with us." At the lowest level, very small businesses can achieve relatively secure peer-to-peer networking simply by using Windows XP clients. At the next level up is a single SBS 2003 server, providing Internet connectivity and sharing, email, file and print sharing, centralized management capabilities, remote access, optional database services, and other features. The next level up combines a single SBS 2003 server with a single Windows Server 2003 (typically Standard Edition) box, through which you can achieve AD replication, off-loading some of the work that would normally be required of the single SBS 2003 box. And as businesses grow, they can upgrade each of the products in the suite--such as Windows Server 2003, Exchange 2003, SQL Server 2000, and ISA Server 2000--to later versions, enabling them to take advantage of multiple-server installations as necessary. Microsoft even offers a migration package so users can move from SBS 2003 to the full meal deal, so to speak. So the notion that SBS is a dead-end is quite misplaced. If anything, it's the perfect starting point for virtually any business, since it's so easy to setup and use.

System Requirements

Windows Small Business Server 2003 Standard and Premium Editions require a 32-bit PC-style server with a 300 MHz or faster processor, though Microsoft recommends 550 MHz or faster. Standard Edition requires 256 MB of RAM (384 MB recommended); Premium Edition also requires 256 MB of RAM, but 512 MB is recommended. Either version requires 4-5 GB of available disk space, or 2 GB if upgrading from Windows Small Business Server 2000 to Windows Small Business Server 2003 Premium Edition (an upgrade to Standard Edition isn't supported). Both versions will need an SVGA (800 x 600) display, an optical drive, keyboard, and mouse.

Availability and pricing

Microsoft shipped the release candidate 1 (RC1) version of Windows Small Business Server 2003 on June 30, 2003, and the company tells me it expects to finalize the product sometime in August with general availability shortly thereafter. At this time, Microsoft hasn't announced pricing, but I was told to expect Premium Edition to be in line with the current version, which starts at about $1500 retail for the 5 CAL version, so we can expect Standard Edition to cost somewhat less. However, the sweet spot for Windows Small Business Server 2003 is likely to be with OEM preinstalls, and my hope is that such systems will start at about $999 for a basic Standard Edition-based set up from companies such as Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and other major PC makers; these PCs typically sell sans-OS for about $500 today, and though many small businesses will want to upgrade them with more RAM and storage space, they are still an amazing bargain.

Windows Small Business Server 2003 is currently limited to 50 users, but Microsoft is considering raising that figure, and I've heard the number 75 bandied about. Given the technical simplicity of making this change, the company could make the change quite late in the product's development. The Small Business Server folks I met with told me they would announce final pricing and capabilities when the products is released to manufacturing later this summer.

What's next?

In part two of this preview, I'll look at SBS 2003's features more closely, breaking down each of the new advances. Then, in the months ahead, I'll be evaluating Windows Small Business Server 2003 at home as my home server, but perhaps more important, I'll also be receiving an OEM preinstall server so I can test that scenario as well. I'm looking forward to it. Indeed, I've been looking forward to Windows Small Business Server 2003 since I first got my hands on the Beta 2 code back in January; and clearly this version is a major advance, one that all small businesses should evaluate.

While there are a few concerns--I really think the company should consider adding a two DC mode in a future revision, for example, and easily allow customers to spread out the various products in the suite to different servers--Windows Small Business Server 2003 is clearly a winner. I'll have more about this exciting new version soon.