Essential Business Server – Tell me more!

(Note: It has been brought to my attention that I inadvertently named this article the same thing I had named a previous article.  As such I am renaming this article, four hours after the original publication time.  Thanks for understanding.  -M)

For the past several years I have been a huge proponent of Microsoft Small Business Server.  I really believe that it is the ideal server solution for most small business networks.  I cannot count how many businesses and consultants I have turned onto the product, but am confident it is not a small number.

I have always considered an important part of being a friend the ability to recognize ones faults and accept them; Small Business Server certainly does have a number of faults or shortcomings that would not be an issue for most small businesses, but for some would give them reason to hesitate and possibly avoid SBS.  Among these are:

  • Several server applications that were meant to run separately are running on the same box;
  • That single box is a major single point of failure, wherein any minor component or intrusion could grind an organization to a halt;
  • Because the current version of SBS is based on the x86 (32-bit) version of Server 2003 it is limited to 4 Gigabytes of RAM – sufficient for basic operations but can get tight if the organization needs to run applications on SQL Server in the Premium Edition. (note: Small Business Server 2008, due to to release to manufacturing in the second half of 2008, will be built on the x64 version of Server 2008)
  • (also in the Premium Edition) Microsoft Internet Security & Acceleration (ISA) Server is necessarily installed on the same box as Active Directory Directory Services.  While the real degree of vulnerability of this configuration may be debatable what is clear is that this is contrary to both Microsoft and industry best practices for security.

When I first saw Essential Business Server in January, 2007 (Mitch: 'Hey Kevin what are those servers in the corner?' Kevin: 'Those are my Centro boxes.  You're going to like Centro!') my first reaction was that it was too good to be true; in effect EBS addresses all of the actual issues people have raised against SBS.  (It should be noted that there are a plethora of issues that have been raised that are myths, fallacies, and fabrications… EBS does address many of these as well!)  In a nutshell, Essential Business Server:

  • Is built across three physical servers, distributing roles, segregating server applications, and offering redundancy;
  • includes Microsoft System Center Essentials (SCE), which is essentially the best features of two enterprise System Center products (Configuration Manager & Operations Manager) pared down and packaged for businesses with fewer than thirty servers and five hundred workstations.  Among other functions SCE monitors the EBS network and generates reports based on the Operations Manager model.  Because of that the EBS reports are not custom XML documents created against SBS wizards, but are rich in-depth reports that are identical in scope to what enterprise admins see;
    • SCE uses the same Management Packs (MPs) for the individual components that were designed for Operations Manager, and because these can be deployed beyond the basic three server EBS configuration the centralized monitoring in EBS can be easily extended to all servers, workstations, and applications within an organization;
  • The EBS Management Console is easily extendible (not by me, but by anyone who can code or script their way out of a paper bag) to offer a customized experience to individual organizations, while maintaining sufficient familiarity so that any IT Pro with a basic familiarity with EBS can step in and manage it.

As well, because EBS is a product of the Essential Server Solutions team (the same folks who brought you SBS, the letter K, and the number 3) it offers an ideal balance between the enterprise and the small business.  Many of the features that have been key to SBS are included, like:

  • Unified installation experience simplified for the entire offering across the three servers;
  • Centralized management console
  • Most administrative tasks are wizard-driven
  • Remote Web Workplace (RWW) offers users the best remote experience going.

I have been working with EBS for several months (thanks to the good folks who were kind enough to provide the hardware) in a number of environments, but most recently (and comfortably) in a virtualized Hyper-V environment, which has allowed me to leverage technologies such as snapshots when I am playing around in the sensitive bits, and then recover quickly when I pooch things.  It also allows me to quickly adjust the allocated resources nearly on the fly when needed. 

I have demonstrated EBS to a lot of IT Pros over the past six months, and I recognize that the number of businesses that would really benefit from EBS is much lower than those who will stick to SBS, but what interests me is that there are a lot of small business IT consultants who do not seem interested in broadening their horizons – as well as their solutions offerings and earning potentials – to this line.  They have each given me different reasons, which all seem reasonable.  Among them:

  • The investment in three servers to run it in-house in order to become familiar with it is a real obstacle;
  • They do not see the earning potential of taking on a smaller number of EBS clients as opposed to a greater number of SBS clients;
  • They are afraid that the learning curve for them to familiarize themselves with the needs of a three-server solution with up to three hundred clients is too steep.

I am not going to lie: the jump from SBS to EBS is going to be easier for IT Pros who came out of the enterprise world than it will be for those who graduated to SBS from individual computers and small workgroups.  However I would urge any SBS consultant to invest the time to read up on EBS, and even invest in three low-end machines to install it on.  These machines can be repurposed after a few weeks, but before dismissing it get your hands on it.  Even if (for now) it is just another technology that you will have had your hands on, one day one of your clients, contacts, or colleagues will ask you if you have experience in it, and the ability to (honestly) answer yes may be the gateway to a whole new level of clients and technologies.

In a future article I will cover (in more depth) the differences between SBS and EBS, and some of the reasons why a smaller organization might opt for the EBS technology.  For now I hope that some of you are going to head over to http://technet.microsoft.com/en-ca/evalcenter/cc184869.aspx to download the public preview, and see what it's all about.

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