SBS 4.5 adds usability features for small businesses with up to 50 PCs

In October 1997, Microsoft shipped the first version of its integrated server suite of small-business applications: BackOffice Small Business Server (SBS) 4.0. By the time you read this article, Microsoft will either have recently released or be very close to releasing a major usability overhaul of the suite: SBS 4.5.

Even though Microsoft is charging full-speed ahead in the enterprise arena of clustering, data warehousing, and 16-way SMP, the small-business market is clearly on the company's radar screen. Why is Microsoft interested in perfecting client/server technology in the 5- to 50-PC market space? Steve Brown, SBS product manager for Microsoft, bases his forecasts primarily on research from analysts such as International Data Corporation (IDC) and Forrester Research, which count approximately 7 million US small businesses (i.e., businesses with fewer than 100 employees). According to Brown, less than 30 percent of US small businesses have a network, which places the number of potential small-business networks in the millions.

Updated System Requirements
Microsoft hardly changed the hardware requirements for SBS 4.5 beta 2 from those of SBS 4.0. Microsoft recommends a 120MHz Pentium processor as a minimum, with a 200MHz Pentium processor or faster preferred. Baseline memory requirements include 64MB of RAM and 2GB of hard disk space.

My goal was to simulate a small-business environment with budget constraints, so I went with a low-end hardware configuration on a nonbranded system assembled from branded components. My test server had a 133MHz Pentium processor, 96MB of RAM, and 4GB mirrored SCSI hard disks. Initially, I attempted installation with 64MB of RAM and a 2GB hard disk. With only 64MB of RAM available, I found performance too sluggish, even for testing. Also, when I included Office 2000 Professional on the system, I found that the SBS applications were unable to successfully complete unattended setups on a 2GB hard disk.

After speaking to Microsoft, I learned that the disk-space minimum depends on whether you have the SBS 4.5 and Office 2000 Professional bundle. With only SBS 4.5, the disk-space minimum is 2GB, and the file size after installation is approximately 1.3GB. Office 2000 doubles the minimum disk-space requirement to 4GB, and the file size after installation is almost 2GB. SBS 4.5's unattended setup needs the extra space to decompress the BackOffice suite components. Table 1 shows the SBS 4.5 and Office 2000 Professional disk-space usage.

Also, an SBS 4.5 server requires a 3.5" disk drive configured as the A drive, a video adapter that runs at a minimum resolution of 800 * 600 * 16, a CD-ROM drive, and at least one modem and network card from the SBS 4.5 Hardware Compatibility List (HCL). If you want the SBS 4.5 setup to automatically install and configure Proxy Server, modem sharing, fax serving, or RAS, you'll need at least one modem present during setup. In SBS 4.5, you can add and configure modems following setup. Microsoft says it changed the modem setup because small businesses typically use asymmetric digital subscriber line (ADSL) and router-based connectivity. Microsoft recommends a tape backup drive, a UPS, additional hard disks for RAID capabilities, and two phone lines—one dedicated to faxing and one dedicated to DUN.

The SBS 4.5 client requirements also remain largely unchanged from those of SBS 4.0. The SBS 4.5 client applications can run on Windows NT or Windows 9x. If you purchase the SBS 4.5 and Office 2000 Professional bundle, use Office 2000 hardware requirements for your desktop specifications. To simulate typical small-business hardware, I tested the SBS 4.5 client on a Dell 166MHz OptiPlex GXi with 96MB of RAM running NT Workstation 4.0 and on a Compaq 166Mhz Deskpro 2000 with 64MB of RAM running Win95. Both client configurations performed admirably. After the client setups completed, I used Internet Explorer (IE) 5.0 to browse internal and external Web sites, and I used Outlook 2000 to send and receive internal and external email.

SBS 4.5 and SBS 4.0 Differences
SBS 4.0 doesn't limit the number of user accounts that you can create, but it limits concurrent workstation connections to 25. SBS 4.5 lets you create any number of user accounts, and it supports 50 concurrent workstation connections. Microsoft maintains that hiring a full-time IS person becomes cost-effective for small businesses with more than 50 PCs: Small businesses with fewer than 50 PCs often rely on external service providers for installation and support.

SQL Server 6.5 in SBS 4.0 limited total database space to 1GB, including transaction logs. SBS 4.5 includes SQL Server 7.0 and increases the maximum size of each database to 10GB with an unlimited number of databases per SBS server.

SBS 4.5 comes with other version upgrades, including Internet Information Server (IIS) 4.0, Exchange Server 5.5, Outlook 2000, FrontPage 98, and Proxy Server 2.0. Although Microsoft made IIS 4.0 and Proxy Server 2.0 available as free upgrades for SBS 4.0 users, however, SBS 4.5 integrates the upgrades into the setup program.

Server and Client Installation Highlights
SBS 4.5 has a more flexible server setup program than SBS 4.0, which required you to choose modems, network cards, and multiport serial adapters from a narrow SBS HCL. SBS 4.0's highly automated setup program provided little tolerance for hardware compatibility problems.

Microsoft designed SBS 4.5 for an unattended installation but provides hardware confirmation wizards that let you test and reconfirm the configuration of modems, drive controllers, network adapters, and video cards. You can reconfigure these devices after SBS 4.5 completes the NT Server 4.0 portion of the setup, before the balance of the BackOffice installation begins.

The Install New Modem Wizard lets you inspect the NT Server 4.0 installed modems. The wizard then provides a yellow or red flag on any suspected compatibility problems between modem firmware and .inf files. Modem firmware compatibility problems are a major SBS support problem, so Microsoft created a special SBS Web site with hyperlinks to modem vendor .inf files. (For more information about modem firmware compatibility, see the Web site at http://www.microsoft.com/ backofficesmallbiz/ support/modems.asp.)

The SBS 4.5 server setup also has a hardware component wizard to reconfirm hard disk controller, video adapter, network card, and mass-storage-device driver selections. As with the Install New Modem Wizard, if you need to make any configuration changes, you can update the settings, reboot the server, and continue with the setup program.

After the installation finalizes the SBS 4.5 server hardware selection, a new dialog box lets you review disk-space requirements and alter target directories for most of the server applications. The ability to alter target directories lets you split SBS components, data directories, a company-shared folder, and users' folders across different physical and logical drives. According to Microsoft, the target directory improvements eliminate the requirement to install anything other than the boot partition on the C drive. SBS requires that you install NT Server, the NT Option Pack, Service Pack 4 (SP4), and some very minor services on the system drive (you can use the D drive). You can install the other SBS applications on any other directory. Also, you can move the data folders (e.g., Company, Users) to a nondefault drive or path.

The client setup under SBS 4.0 can automatically push several applications from the server to workstations, such as IE 4.01, Outlook 97, the Winsock Proxy client, and the modem-sharing client. SBS 4.5 pushes the updated versions of the applications and can also push out an Office 2000 Professional unattended setup. You can now customize the Set Up Computer Wizard client disk to trigger many third-party application unattended installations.

Running the Set Up Computer Wizard on the SBS server console creates the SBS client setup disk for each user's workstation. When a user launches setup from the client PC, the setup disk automatically configures the workstation for TCP/IP, enables DHCP, and enters the computer name. Following a reboot, the first logon to the server triggers the unattended installation of previously selected SBS client applications, which can now include Office 2000 Professional.

Configuration Wizard Enhancements
In SBS 4.5, Microsoft left the Add User Accounts Wizard and Set Up Computer Wizard mainly unchanged from SBS 4.0. Microsoft recognizes three related steps to add a SBS user: Create the user account, give the user access to network resources, and prepare the user's computer setup disk. The big bonus for administrators is that you can now customize and use an SBS client disk to push out an unattended installation of Office 2000 Professional.

When Microsoft conceptualized SBS 4.0, small businesses had just started to use Web browsers and Internet email. As a result, Microsoft programmed the Internet Connection Wizard (ICW) in SBS 4.0 to assume that users were signing up with an ISP for the first time. Microsoft set up the ICW for users to choose from a select group of national and regional ISPs that Microsoft considered SBS-friendly in terms of proxy, email, and Web hosting support. Although the SBS 4.0 ICW had the potential to save time, small businesses told Microsoft that they wanted to keep their existing relationships with local ISPs and not have to choose from the SBS list.

In SBS 4.5, the ICW provides two options: automated sign-up and manual sign-up. These options let you rapidly create new accounts with an SBS-friendly ISP or configure SBS to use an existing ISP account. The ICW includes template forms to send to local ISPs for gathering the required information. Microsoft customized the templates for the three major supported connectivity options: modem, router, or full-time/broadband. These three templates extend SBS' reach into ISDN, asymmetric digital subscriber line (ADSL), and cable modems.

I chose to run the manual sign-up for a preexisting dial-up modem account. The program prompted me to create a standard DUN phone-book entry and enter my ISP account name and password. Next, the program asked whether I wanted to use Exchange Server to send and receive Internet email. I then entered my company domain name (i.e., I dropped the Web identification—www—and entered kisweb.com). I completed the Web site hosting and publishing information including the Web protocol (http://), URL, FTP (ftp://) publishing location, publishing account name, and password that the dialog box requested.

Finally, I arrived at one of the best improvements in SBS 4.5: the dialog box to configure firewall settings. Understanding how network ports apply to SBS is difficult for end users and administrators, so Microsoft has taken the guesswork out of properly configuring security settings. You can configure the proxy settings to grant or deny access from the Internet to Exchange Server, Proxy Server, PPTP, and POP3.

On the final mouse click of configuring the firewall settings, I received the message Error-unable to configure proxy. A Dr. Watson crash of sbsicw.exe followed the error message. I consider this error a beta bug. Although a second run through ICW with the identical configuration brought the same error, the ICW proceeded to restart all appropriate services. After the restart, I was able to browse the Web and send Internet email messages through Exchange Server successfully from both my NT Workstation and my Win95 desktop clients.

Management Console Enhancements
The idea of an HTML-based customizable central management console isn't new to SBS. However, SBS 4.5 adds two useful indicators to the console page. The example console page in Screen 1, page 91, shows the indicator bars for each logical volume's total disk space and available disk space. In addition, the console page will display a big red X if any crucial services stop. Microsoft says the final release of SBS 4.5 will let you double-click on a stopped service to restart it. The red X indicator will eliminate the need to visit the Control Panel Services applet and the event log to inspect stopped services. Because the console is HTML-based, you need to refresh (i.e., press the F5 key or right-click the console page) often to get the latest status information.

Remote Management Capabilities
Under SBS 4.0, Microsoft's vision for remote management was via DUN. Microsoft thought service providers would manage SBS 4.0 remotely over RAS (as if the SBS Server were a remote node). But most service providers who remotely managed SBS 4.0 found the console too graphically intense to provide acceptable transmission performance over an analog modem. Consequently, service providers gravitated toward remote control applications, such as Symantec pcANYWHERE.

Microsoft recognized the remote management shortcoming and retooled the SBS 4.5 remote management capabilities. Service providers can now use NetMeeting 2.1, included in SBS 4.5, to access the SBS 4.5 console. (For more information about videoconferencing, see Brian Gallagher, "Video and NT," October 1998.)

NetMeeting dramatically increases analog modem performance during remote management. Microsoft cautions users against using PPTP to access the SBS 4.5 console over the Internet because data transmission with NetMeeting occurs in clear text. Another drawback to NetMeeting is that to complete the connection, someone needs to click Accept at the server console. Although Microsoft intended the acceptance requirement to add security, service providers accustomed to traditional remote control packages might find this security mechanism quite frustrating.

Server Status Tool
New to SBS 4.5, the Server Status tool is a windfall for proactive network administrators. The Server Status tool lets you have status reports and server logs automatically emailed or faxed to you at predetermined times. You can easily keep tabs on IIS logs, Proxy Server logs, Winsock Proxy logs, server services status, and available disk-drive-space percentages.

You can use four tabs on a dialog box to configure the Server Status tool (one of the Administration Tools). I configured the Server Status tool in my test environment to forward all logs at scheduled times. I received the summary email message and all attached log text files via an internal Exchange Server email account and through an external Internet email account.

The Bottom Line
Microsoft recently finalized SBS 4.5 licensing and pricing and announced that SBS 4.0 users will receive a free upgrade to SBS 4.5. (For more information about ordering SBS 4.5, see the Web site at http://www.microsoft.com/backofficesmallbiz.) From the SBS 4.5 beta, no upgrade path to the SBS 4.5 final release or Windows 2000 (Win2K) exists. To upgrade from the beta, you'll need to reformat your hard disk and install the SBS 4.5 software.

If you're starting from scratch with SBS 4.5, the full product with five Client Access Licenses (CALs) is $1499. The price of a 5-client add-on pack is $299 (a drop from $319 in SBS 4.0). Because SBS 4.5 now supports up to 50 concurrent connections, Microsoft will unveil a 20-client add-on pack for $999. However, Microsoft won't make a 25-CAL product available.

SBS 4.5 pricing and licensing for competitive product upgrades (e.g., to upgrade from NT Server) and Office 2000 Professional bundles are the same as those for SBS 4.0. The SBS 4.5 competitive product upgrade with 5 CALs is $929. The 5-CAL SBS 4.5 competitive upgrade and Office 2000 Professional bundle is $2329. The 5-CAL SBS 4.5 and Office 2000 Professional bundle is still $2899. Table 2 provides a SBS 4.5 licensing summary. (For more information about licensing, see the Web site at http://www.microsoft.com/ backofficesmallbiz/ guide/licensing.asp.)

Other licensing changes include SBS 4.5's availability under the Microsoft Open License program and an OEM licensing change. Under SBS 4.0, PC vendors such as Dell, Compaq, and Gateway bundled SBS 4.0 with 10 CALs, but SBS 4.5 will limit OEM licensing to 5 CALs.

SBS 4.5 enhancements show Microsoft's responsiveness to reader feedback, focus group results, newsgroup posts, and technical support calls. SBS 4.5 makes huge strides forward in terms of installation flexibility, ease of deployment, remote administration, and proactive management.

Corrections to this Article:
  • "Small Business Server Overhaul" contains several references to the Microsoft Small Business Server (SBS) Web site at http://www.microsoft.com/backofficesmallbiz. Microsoft has moved SBS Web site to http://www.microsoft.com/smallbusinessserver.