Microsoft Aurora Beta Generates as Many Questions as Answers

 
 
By Andrew Garcia  |  Posted 2010-08-26
 
 
 

Microsoft Aurora Beta Generates as Many Questions as Answers


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 for those."

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.

A Look Inside


 

Aurora is based on the Windows Server 2008 R2 platform, which means Aurora must be installed on 64-bit-capable hardware. At a minimum, Aurora also requires 2GB of memory and a single 160GB hard drive, although I tested with 4GB RAM and three virtual disks of differing sizes installed inside Hyper-V running on a Windows Server 2008 SP2 system.

Managing Aurora from the server desktop would be a standard Windows Server administrative experience, but the desktop wallpaper on the server makes it clear Aurora is not meant to be managed that way. Instead, day-to-day management is performed via the Dashboard built into the LaunchPad application running on a client workstation. So while I had to use the familiar Server Manager to add a DHCP server to my test network (DHCP is not installed by default), I consigned all my other administrative tasks to Dashboard from a Windows 7 Enterprise workstation.

From the Dashboard, an administrator can quickly see the status of managed PCs in the domain. I could see what machines are currently online, whether they have been backed up successfully, as well as if any pending alerts (categorized by severity) have been reported to the server. Reported alerts include systems that require important patches and those that lack up-to-date security software.

I easily could configure user accounts from the Dashboard, setting the user's privilege level (standard or Administrator) and the folders to which they have access. I could also easily reset passwords, define what shares a user can access or the user's access levels to computers and data resources when they are on the road. 

Like Windows Home Server, Aurora uses Microsoft's Drive Extender technology to manage hard drives on the server. When adding a disk to the server, I could select whether to add the new storage to the default storage pool for greater aggregate capacity (which opens up the option to enable file duplication for critical folders or share). I could also instead choose to define a new disk as a backup drive, which can be removed and rotated to an offsite location for disaster recovery purposes.  

Storage may get consumed rapidly within Aurora, as each managed workstation is backed up daily by default. However, Microsoft claims Aurora goes about this smartly, backing up only data not previously archived -and accounts for like data found on multiple computers in the network and only saving it once.  Aurora also makes it fairly painless to recover data from a backup:  I was able to recover a file unchanged for about a week from the previous day's backup within seconds.

Connecting clients to the Aurora domain is quite simple: A user simply needs to browse to http://servername/connect; run the Connect application found on the page (which does require .NET 4 Client Profile to be installed on the client); then log in with their network credentials. After a reboot, the Connect application then asks the user whether they would like to migrate their files and settings from the local profile to the network profile and whether the PC should be woken from sleep or hibernate state to perform scheduled backups.

In my tests, I connected three client computers: A 32-bit Windows 7 Enterprise virtual machine, Windows XP Professional with service pack 3 laptop, and a MacBook Pro running Snow Leopard. Aurora also supports clients running Vista.

Aurora allows users working remotely to easily access their data as well, through RWA (Remote Web Access). Assuming the right holes have been punched in the perimeter firewall, a remote user can use their network credentials to log into a prebuilt, secured Webpage on the server that provides access to those shared folders the user has the rights to see. 

Also through RWA, Aurora makes it simple for a remote user to access their in-office computer via a Web browser. The administrator controls a list of which PCs each remote user can access. Given the right permissions, Aurora brokers a Remote Desktop session between the client browser and the desktop computer in the protected network, theoretically allowing a user to access their work machine from anywhere, provided the target machine is powered up.

I say "theoretically" because I couldn't actually get it to work in my tests. When setting up RWA on my Aurora server, the wizard asked for a trusted certificate for my external domain. I didn't have one for my test domain, so I could not complete RWA setup. Throughout my testing, the only noticeable impact of this shortcoming was that Remote Desktop requests could not complete, as the remote client requires a trusted certificate to validate the RDP session. For a full evaluation of Aurora's capabilities, testers will need to provide such a certificate.

From what I've seen so far, the Mac integration unsurprisingly doesn't offer some the features available for Windows systems. Mac users get their own LaunchPad, with easy access to shared folders and to the Remote Web Access site, as well as backup functionality (which I didn't test). On the server side, the Mac appears in Active Directory/Computers. Mac users do not get access to a Dashboard, so Aurora management needs to be done from Windows. 

According to Leworthy, Mac is considered a first-level client for support, and the feature set will include LaunchPad, backup support through Time Machine and centralized alerting. However, much of the functionality is still to come later in the beta process.

 

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