Windows SBS 2011 Pricey but Powerful

The Microsoft server for small businesses offers simplicity in a full-featured package.

Just because a business is small in terms of headcount doesn't mean that its needs don't require enterprise-quality software. In many ways, a small business needs a reliable and easily supported platform for core business services far more than a sprawling multinational; at the very least, the need exists for something that's both powerful and simple.

Windows Small Business Server 2011 delivers both power and relative simplicity, using Windows Server 2008 R2 Standard as the core of the package. SBS 2011 is meant for providing collaboration, file, mail, patch and print services to a single domain of up to 75 users. But what runs on top of Windows Server is what will make SBS attractive to a small business that wants enterprise-class software at its fingertips. This includes Exchange, SharePoint Foundation, Windows Server Update Services and more.

For an e-mail server, SBS 2011 uses Exchange Server 2010 Standard with Service Pack 1, which offers improved inbox management compared to earlier versions of Exchange, and built-in e-mail archiving features.

SBS 2011 also includes the SharePoint Foundation 2010 collaboration platform, to make it easier to share documents and other media. This includes a canned Website suitable for use as a company intranet site.

Windows Server Update Services 3.0 provides an effective tool for central patch management of Windows and Windows Server systems; as part of the SBS 2011 package, this includes WSUS 3.0 Service Pack 2, which added support for Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2.

Small businesses that want a little more redundancy in their SBS 2011 deployment and a proven database engine, or other features such as Microsoft's Remote Desktop Services or the Hyper-V virtualization technology, can access those features with the help of the Premium Add-on package. The Premium option includes a version of SQL Server 2008 R2 designed for small business environments, and adds a second domain controller to the Active Directory domain.

The hardware requirements for SBS 2011 are only daunting to someone who hasn't looked at the specifications for server-class equipment in a few years; as a minimum, the processor must be a quad-core, 64-bit CPU that runs at 2GHz or faster. There must be at least 8GB of system RAM, and 10GB is recommended. SBS 2011 can use more processors and RAM, of course; the software will support up to four physical CPUs and 32GB of RAM. After almost 15 years of work with various iterations of Windows Server, I always recommend spending more on hardware up front than one would think necessary, because the hassle of upgrading hardware in the middle of a deployment comes with its own costs.

The one part of SBS 2011 that doesn't feel terribly small-business friendly is the pricing; the Standard Edition, which includes the core Exchange, SharePoint Foundation and WSUS features, lists at $1,096. That figure includes five Client Access License (CAL) entitlements, which can be applied per-user or per-device; 20-CAL packs for the standard edition are available for a list price of $1,447, with additional 5-CAL packs at $361. The Premium Add-on lists at $1,604, and comes with its own 5-CAL package. Additional Premium Add-on CALs are available in 20-packs for $1,831 and 5-packs for $457.

By the time one has laid out $2,000 or $4,000 for appropriate hardware to run SBS, and another $2,000 or $4,000 for the software to support, say, 50 users, the total bill for an SBS installation is rather substantial. In contrast, a Mac mini from Apple with Snow Leopard Server supports e-mail and Web hosting, as well as contact and calendar sharing, for far less; that platform starts at $999 for a 4GB unit with no per-user licensing fees.

Of course, a Mac mini server isn't anyone's idea of server-class hardware; it lacks lights-out management, redundant power supplies and other features that SBS customers can leverage in their deployments by using machines from vendors such as Dell and HP. But these days, small businesses want to get 11 cents in change for every dime they spend, and the combination of SBS 2011 and server-grade hardware may be out of reach for many shops.

I used SBS 2011 for the better part of a week on hardware that just met the specification; even in that barely adequate configuration, the system was surprisingly responsive to the local management console and to clients on the network. Basic administration tasks such as setting up public-facing services are driven by the configuration tools, and it's a simple matter to set up reports on system health and status for internal consumption or for a service provider's use when troubleshooting. Backup facilities are prominently featured on the system dashboard, as well.

Windows Small Business Server 2011 is a solid platform that won't require a lot of handholding to get up and running; it offers customers a selection of enterprise-class tools that aren't compromised in function. It's probably best suited for those small businesses with very deep pockets, as the cost of hardware and licensing can easily run into five figures; if price is no object, then SBS 2011 is likely to be a good fit.