Microsoft Aurora Beta Generates as Many Questions as Answers

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" (, 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.