Microsoft's Small Business Server Aurora beta is polished and provides core server functions well, but its positioning and options for customer growth cause concern.
Microsoft's Small Business Server, codenamed Aurora,
which recently opened to public beta, looks to be a slick piece of software
that is quite polished given its early beta status. However, the beta left me
with many questions regarding Aurora's
future positioning in the market place, especially regarding the options Aurora
customers will have down the road as their company grows beyond Aurora's
preset licensing limitations.
Unlike typical SBS (Small Business Server) iterations, such
as the forthcoming SBS 7, that come with on-premise enterprise productivity
applications such as Exchange and SharePoint, Aurora has more modest
goals. Targeted toward companies with 25
seats or less, Aurora promises an
easy-to-set-up-and-manage Windows Server that primarily delivers directory
services, file sharing, client and server backup functionality, and Web-based
remote access. Additional functionality will be added through simplified
integration with Microsoft's online applications.
In my tests of the beta, I found Aurora should deliver on
much of that promise, blending a rock-solid foundation of Windows Server 2008 R2
with a simplified management interface and services evocative of Windows Home
Server. On the other hand, how the integration with cloud-based services such
as Microsoft's Business Productivity Online Standard Suite (BPOS) works remains to be
seen-this capability is not yet available through the beta.
Because Microsoft has seen fit to tout Aurora
as a "bridge to the cloud" (http://bit.ly/a9UBm6
it's disappointing that the actual bridge isn't actually built and testable as
part of the beta, leaving the promise of a hybrid architecture by the wayside
for what is currently a typically premise-based solution. While it's early in
the development cycle to make any definitive claims, I do wonder whether the
lack of this critical integration at this point in development hints at trouble
within the Microsoft server group- either technical or political-in getting
that bridge built.
Microsoft Senior Product Manager Michael Leworthy says the Aurora
team is working currently on a number of cloud integration
opportunities, including BPOS, and that those cloud integrations will
be lit up for testing closer to Aurora RTM.
"The preview primarily focused on showing the infrastructure core
roles that are provided, trying to get testers to provide our
engineering teams enough feedback to close those cycles down," said
Leworthy. "We just got the SDK out into our premier ISV's and hoster's
hands, and we are starting to do early training with them on building
add-ins and cloud integration modules."
With its focus on the smallest businesses that likely don't
have centralized IT resources or much in the way of IT staff, Aurora
could be a bit of an enigma. Since the small business enthusiast segment with a
DIY spirit is likely rather small, I would imagine most companies interested in
Aurora software would turn to VARs
or consultants to put Aurora in
place. Therefore, it seems like a good time for resellers to start testing Aurora
and getting familiar with its capabilities. However, it also seems that
Aurora's design and toolset subsumes some of the value these parties could
provide to their customers, so I'll be curious to see how reseller interest
develops as the product matures.
However, I suspect an Aurora-based appliance from a Windows
integration specialist will be the most attractive option of
all for small business customers, because the device
could further ease adoption by combining and optimizing both the hardware and
software along with additional value-added modules or add-ins.
According to Leworthy, Microsoft is following familiar trails when
it comes to hardware integration. "We are following similar discussions
we've had for previous releases like SBS 2008 and Windows Home Server.
We expect to follow similar pathways and release mechanisms as we have
I'm also curious what options Aurora
leaves for customers as their business grows. With its cap of 25 users and its
focus on delivering productivity applications via the cloud, there doesn't
appear to be a logical next step for Aurora
customers once they hit their 26th
managed system. It won't make sense to move to SBS 7, which
delivers its productivity applications on-premise. That would leave a move to
Windows Server 2008 R2 Standard as the alternative, which currently lacks Aurora's
management toolset and out-of-the box simplifications for core services.
Leworthy said this issue is near and dear to him and that customers
should expect Microsoft to provide more guidance toward a migration
path for growing Aurora customers post-RTM, including tools, best
practices and solution accelerators.
Microsoft has announced neither a price nor a release date
for Aurora at this time. Given that
the more fully featured SBS 2008 Standard Edition costs $2,629 for the server
software with 25 total CALs (Client Access Licenses), while Windows Server 2008
R2 Standard with 25 CALs costs $1,806, I would speculate that Aurora pricing
will fall somewhere in between those data points.