Hard on the heels of Windows Server 2003 and Exchange Server 2003, comes Small Business Server 2003, a budget-priced amalgam of several MS Back Office components aimed at Small Businesses. Its basic premise has been unchanged since the launch of the original NT-based SBS 4.0 back in 1997 – you take Windows Server, Exchange Server, SQL Server and several other sundry servers, lash them together with a user-friendly front-end that obviates (in theory!) the need of an MSCE-toting IT guy to run it, limit the number of users to, say, 50, and knock it out a low-ish price. Small businesses will love it because at a stroke, it includes everything they need to get connected to the Internet, establish email, share files and printers, send and receive faxes and so on. And so it is with SBS 2003. However, the product continues to evolve and it’s quite simply the best version yet. This shouldn’t really come as too much of a surprise as it’s based on the latest generation of Microsoft's server products, including Windows Server 2003, Exchange Server 2003, Outlook 2003 and SharePoint Services, some top-notch products. Factor in even-more added functionality and slicker management and monitoring tools and you can’t really go wrong, can you? The SBS differs from its predecessor, SBS 2000, in that there are now two versions, Standard and Premium Edition. The former includes Windows Server 2003 Standard Edition, Exchange Server 2003, Outlook 2003, Windows SharePoint Services, SBS-specific components and 5 Client Access Licenses (CALs). The Premium Edition includes all of these features and adds ISA Server 2000, SQL Server 2000 SP3 and FrontPage 2003. Presumably Microsoft is, with the Standard Edition, anticipating that some SMEs won’t want a database back-end (probably true) or a firewall (probably less true). Other improvements in SBS 2003 include much better storage management and backup capabilities, courtesy of Server 2003’s Volume Shadow Copy technology and a significantly improved Backup application. One cool new feature is Web-based remote-access, which lets users log on via HTTPS to an SBS 2003 web page called the Remote Web Workplace. From there, they can access any important network resource and even establish a remote desktop connection to a desktop computer on the LAN, if that computer runs Windows XP. Administrators get access to full remote-management capabilities through the same screens. There is also default support for network access through current versions of the Pocket PC OS. Although designed for Windows XP client, this feature should still work with any Windows 9x system that has a current version of Internet Explorer. Because SBS 2003 uses HTTPS, and the encrypted Remote Desktop Protocol, it’s quite possible that the headache known as ‘VPN’ may be made redundant by the Remote Web Workplace. Up and running
Installation of either edition remains a fairly lengthy chore, devouring a minimum of four CD-ROMs and a number of hours along the way. However, Microsoft anticipates that the majority of SBS 2003 sales will come from OEM pre-installs on servers, from the likes of Dell and HP. In that case, the laborious process is short-circuited to a more reasonable 15 minutes or so. A single integrated procedure installs and configures all the products, including Active Directory, DHCP, DNS and Exchange, and lets the administrator set up users. The wizard can even migrate an existing peer-to-peer network to SBS's domain controller model. The installation process has undoubtedly been honed and requires little human intervention. Nevertheless, the relatively techie questions posed will put it beyond the capabilities of even moderately techie-skilled small businesses – SBS installation is still probably a job best left to a VAR. In fact, the involvement of VARs seems unavoidable. SBS 2003, with its built-in intranet and slew of collaborative tools, gives small businesses the same gee-whiz network capabilities as multinationals currently enjoy. Whether small outfits have the time, or inclination, to use such sophisticated tools remains to be seen. Given that many businesses will ‘just want to get the damn thing up and running’ and will inexorably take short-cuts, the imposition of best practices via the ‘Complete the Configuration’ check list and wizards is a welcome feature. For example, it will schedule backups by default, storing the information on server shares if tape isn't available, and redirecting desktop data to users' server directories. Setting up client workstations, previously performed via sneaker-net, is now performed disklessly. All a user has to do is log on to SBS server's Web site. Their systems are then configured through a wizard and new client software, including Outlook 2003, is installed over the network. When users next log on, they logon on to the new domain and not locally but still retain all the previously configured custom features, applications and settings . Pricing
There’s good and bad news on the pricing front. There’s no doubt about it that the components that go to making up SBS 2003 would cost considerably more sold separately than the integrated whole. The Premium Edition carries the same price tag, £1,070, as before, while the Standard Edition will sell for a remarkably low £440. Not only that, but the 50-seat ceiling on SBS networks has now been raised to 75. The prospect of a sub-£1,000 server pre-installed with SBS 2003 has to be a distinct possibility. The bad news is that the price of CALs has jumped dramatically. Although exact UK pricing will be determined by the reseller, in the US the recommended price has leapt from $60 to $99. This has the effect of making a 25-seat SBS 2003 Standard Edition setup dearer than the much better specified 25-seat SBS 2000 network, thus neutralising much of the benefit of the low entry-level pricing. To be fair, however, this is ameliorated by the fact that, if you do want to expand beyond the SBS 75-seat ceiling and install the full retail versions of all the various server components of SBS, your investment in SBS 2003 and CALs can be offset against the cost of the upgrade. Microsoft even offers a migration package so that SBS 2003 customers can make the move to full-blown Back Office suite, which makes SBS 2003 a good starting point for most businesses looking to grow.

OUR VERDICT

The release of the feature-packed SBS 2003 confirms Microsoft’s belief that there’s still plenty of gold in them thar SME hills. VARs and solution providers will most likely find that this year’s model is evolutionary and not revolutionary, when compared to SBS 2000. The emphasis is on refinement rather than a dramatic new product. The good news for them is that SBS 2003 makes the need for their services more, rather than less, likely. Despite the hike in CAL pricing, it remains a good choice for small businesses with fewer than 75 seats.