In-Depth

SBS 2003: Room for Improvement

Small Business Server 2003 is stable and easy to maintain, but readers say it could use a few more tools and options.

You can't get much more bang for your buck than with Microsoft's Small Business Server (SBS) 2003. Most users are quite pleased with what it does, but there's always room for improvement.

Aimed at organizations with 75 users or less and a limited IT support staff, the Standard Edition of SBS provides file and print services, Internet and intranet access, fax services and Exchange e-mail -- all bundled in an easy to deploy, wizard-driven package. The Premium Edition adds a SQL Server database, ISA Web proxy and firewall functionality. There's not much more a small business should need to keep itself up and running.

The best part of SBS is that it's about half the price of Windows Server 2003 Standard Edition. This makes SBS a no-brainer for smaller companies looking to support their business on a tight IT budget.

Microsoft significantly improved the product with the 2003 version, according to readers who cite its improved wizard-driven approach, easy setup and maintenance and unparalleled stability. The remote access features boost productivity, they say, especially the new Outlook Web Access (OWA) for Exchange. This is particularly helpful for small businesses needing to communicate with employees working from home or on the road.

Microsoft Small Business Server 2003

Microsoft Corp.
800-426-9400
www.microsoft.com/windows/sbserver/

License Fees:
Standard Edition: $599 with 5 client access licenses (CALs)
Premium Edition: $1,499 with 5 CALs

SBS 2003 isn't perfect, however. Even with all that added functionality, users say it could still use an integrated anti-virus and anti-spam tool, more full-featured backup and the ability to monitor network usage in real time. Plus, its major benefit -- all that functionality packed onto one server -- can quickly become a hindrance depending on usage patterns.

In fact, the one improvement all users would like to see is an option to break out one or two services to a separate box. Separating Exchange or ISA, for example, could improve performance and tighten security -- especially by keeping ISA separate from production services.

"I would love to be able to put Exchange on its own server, but you definitely can not move it [under SBS licensing]," says Chris Johnson, IT manager for the Carolina Youth Development Center (CYDC) based in Charleston, SC. The lone IT staffer at the 100-person nonprofit agency, Johnson says he was glad SBS 2003 increased the number of supported users from 50 to 75. Averaging 60 concurrent users, his organization was running up against the limit.

He recently rolled out SBS 2003 Release 2 (R2), which increased his Exchange storage from 16GB to 75GB. Still, having that many people hammering on Exchange can be a problem, especially when the same box is running all the other SBS functions. "You can move the repository for the e-mail," he says, "but the Exchange files themselves have to be on the same server, which isn't ideal."

Martin Straub
"For what (SBS) costs, it is way cheaper than it would be to buy those components individually, so it's worth it."
-- Martin Straub, IT director, Cordell, Neher & Co.

Martin Straub, IT director at 30-person accounting firm Cordell, Neher & Co. in Wenatche, Wash., has faced the same limitations. "If you have an office of 50-plus people, you don't want one server," he says. "You're taxing that server a lot, especially if you're using the Premium Edition and you have SQL apps."

Straub says he doesn't use the ISA features because it goes against best practices to run security software on the same box as production services. "If I had the ability to take that license and put it on a separate box, I'd probably use it," he says. "As it is, I have some heavy reservations about putting it on my main production server."

Overall, though, the pros outweigh the cons -- especially for organizations with barebones IT expertise, staff or budget. Straub says you can't beat the value of SBS, despite its shortcomings. "For what it costs and for the user licenses, it is way cheaper than it would be to buy those components individually, so it's worth it."

The low maintenance requirements are another cost savings and convenience. "So much of SBS runs on its own -- it's fantastic," says CYDC's Johnson. "Once you get it set up, it really takes care of itself, which is important when you're the only IT person."

Get Installation Help
Although SBS is easy to manage and maintain, most readers say it would be wise to hire a consultant to help with the initial installation. "If you're not a technologist and you do it on your own, you might luck out and get it to work, but what you don't know might hurt you," Straub says. "You might not get it secured properly or you might not have it set up so that it's easy to maintain."

Michael Hall, network administrator at Warm Beach Christian Camps and Conference Center in Stanwood, Wash., upgraded from SBS 4.5 to SBS 2003 about 18 months ago. As the one-man IT department for his company, he did it on his own without a consultant. He upgraded 62 users and 52 PCs over the course of a weekend, but he has run into problems. "I couldn't get ISA to work exactly the way I wanted and it just didn't seem very intuitive," he says. "I think someone starting from scratch should definitely have a consultant to help."

Once it's installed, SBS operation is straightforward and maintenance is a breeze, readers say. For example, Straub saved countless hours and support dollars when he switched from Novell NetWare and Groupwise to SBS 2003. "I was never very comfortable on the Novell platform because it was all command-line driven," Straub says. "I was probably using eight to 15 hours of outside support a month to help me maintain NetWare and Groupwise. With SBS 2003, I've eliminated that completely."

Straub attributes that to the GUI-based nature of Windows and the wizard-driven approach of SBS. For example, initially he wasn't going to use the SBS fax services, so when he changed his mind, he had to activate them after the initial installation. "I just turned it on and started using it and was really impressed with how slick it was," he says. "It only required a few minutes of work."

Michael Hall
"SBS is so easy to run and maintain -- it's really the only way I can survive."
-- Michael Hall, Network Administrator, Warm Beach Christian Camps and Conference Center

Remote Control
The remote access features added to SBS 2003 are also a big plus. CYDC's Johnson upgraded from SBS 2000 to SBS 2003 18 months ago. He quickly found that the new remote access features helped reduce his overall admin time.

"I can get access from anywhere if I need to set up or change a user account," Johnson says, noting that he is using SBS to support several CYDC locations across two towns. "It really saves me a lot of time, and I can even do it from home if I want."

Straub says the new Outlook Web Access (OWA) feature was a key factor for his company. "We use OWA extensively when our employees are outside the office, during tax season or audit season," he says. "It comes installed as part of the server and you don't have to do anything other than check a box to enable it." The interface mimics Outlook on the desktop, he says, which also makes it easier for his users.

OWA does have some shortcomings, though, Johnson says. "It's great to check e-mail, but if you have to go back and look for something or if you have to send out a lot of e-mail to a lot of people and you don't have their addresses, it gets cumbersome," he says. "It doesn't pull up the address book the right way."

SBS 2003 Wish List

Most readers are happy with Microsoft Small Business Server 2003, but they would still like to make a few additions. Here's a look at their wish list:

> Approved hardware list. Michael Hall, network administrator at Warm Beach Christian Camps and Conference Center in Stanwood, Wash., ran into trouble using SBS's Internet services with his cable modem and router. "It would be nice to have a suggested router, one that is definitely compatible, to make things easier," he says.

> Imaging ability. Users would like to be able to image the SBS 2003 server so they could bring it up quickly in the event of a server failure. "Small businesses are more likely than large businesses to have somebody break in and steal the server, or have a fire, or some other catastrophic event," Hall says. "The ability to do a simple server image would be great."

> An XP-SBS client access license combo. Hall would also like to see a combined license that provides for desktop XP together with the SBS client access license. That way, he could build his desktops all at once, saving time and maintenance.

> AD or Group Policy wizard. Since most of SBS's functions are wizard-driven, it seems an oversight that it has no Active Directory or Group Policy wizard. "I know I can go in through Group Policy and make it so my users can't access the control panel," Hall says, "but I don't know AD and Group Policy well enough to be able to do that."-- J.C.

Missing Pieces
SBS clearly fits most users' needs, but there are still a few missing pieces -- especially when it comes to anti-spam, anti-virus and backup. "That's on my wish list," Hall says. "It would be great if SBS had some special tie-in with one of the anti-virus or anti-spam vendors or with a good backup vendor." Right now, Hall uses a backup utility from UltraBac, because he finds it easier to use and it handles his other servers.

"Backup is a place where I think they could do better," agrees Straub. "There's a wizard and a utility built into SBS, but it's very simplistic. You can only backup SBS. It doesn't let you back up or restore individual Exchange mailboxes, so I don't use it." Instead, Straub uses Symantec's Veritas Backup Exec because it gives him more granular control over the process.

"Anti-virus and anti-spam is another area where you need a third-party utility," Straub says. He notes that Exchange does let you use blacklists, which helps keep some spam at bay, but it's cumbersome to set up and doesn't work that well. "If Microsoft wants to package SBS as a (complete) solution, those are a couple of things they need to do."

Monitoring network usage is another missing piece, users say. In SBS 4.5, administrators could see who was logged into the network in real time and what they were doing. In SBS 2003, that utility is curiously absent. "I like to be able to see what [Internet] sites are being run through in real time," Hall says. "We don't have too much of a problem, but occasionally there is. We used to see it in 4.5, so it's disappointing that it's not there in 2003."

Better documentation and online help would also be welcome, although most attribute this to the small installed base and a lack of SBS awareness within the larger Windows and Microsoft communities. "SBS is almost like a second class citizen," Hall says. "You're always explaining it to people because they don't know what it is. People that just have a peer-to-peer net or a small server setup don't understand it and bigger organizations don't understand it. It's stuck in the middle."

That can be a problem when it comes to getting help. "You might find Windows-type things on the Internet," Johnson says, "but finding anything about Small Business Server is just a crap shoot."

Still, readers feel SBS 2003 is a great value, especially for organizations with minimal IT support. "It's absolutely the only way I can do what I'm doing -- supporting three databases, 50 users and the SBS box," Hall says. "SBS is so easy to run and maintain -- it's really the only way I can survive."

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