Microsoft hopes to jumpstart SBS technology adoption

I find Microsoft's fascination with high-end enterprise computing somewhat confusing. After all, the company made its millions from individual consumers and small businesses, and emphasizes rapid version turnaround and volume pricing. Big businesses, however, aren't interested in constant upgrading and might not even be interested in saving software costs upfront. So when Microsoft started stressing terms such as scalability, I had little hope that the company would succeed in the markets that Big Iron once dominated. Surprisingly, however, Microsoft has done well in these markets. Thanks largely to the continued success and resiliency of Intel's 32-bit x86 product line, Microsoft has been able to take advantage of PC economics to get a toehold in the high-end enterprise. And some of the company's products, notably Windows 2000 Datacenter Server and Microsoft SQL Server, are powerful enough in their own right to compete against the entrenched UNIX competition.

While Microsoft's expansion into enterprise computing was going on, however, the company seemed to be abandoning its smaller and midsized customers. The company quietly discontinued its BackOffice suite of products and inauspiciously launched the last revision of Microsoft Small Business Server (SBS)—based on Win2K—many months after Win2K shipped last year. However, Microsoft will issue a compelling SBS 2000 Service Pack 1 (SP1) update later this summer that makes this product line the perfect entry into the Windows server world, especially for small businesses that can't afford onsite IT staff. The update couldn't come at a better time: Despite expected flat overall server growth during the next year, market-research firm International Data Corporation (IDC) reports that shipments of small business servers that serve less than 10 PCs will grow more than 10 percent during the same period.

I haven't worked with SBS since the early days, when the Windows NT-based SBS 4.x product line was current. Back then, I had a few thoughts about the product: First, the SBS management tools were friendlier and more accessible than their equivalents in stock NT installations. Second, SBS included a few features that weren't widely available, at the time, including a fax service. And finally, the idea of installing Microsoft Exchange Server, SQL Server, and Proxy Server on the same machine seemed a bit dicey to me, even if SBS' scripted install routine made the process fairly simple.

The situation has improved dramatically since then. SBS 2000 includes Win2K Server, Exchange 2000 Server, SQL Server 2000, Internet Security and Acceleration (ISA) Server 2000, and several other useful components, including shared fax and modem services, server health monitoring, and the Microsoft FrontPage 2000 and Outlook 2000 clients. With SBS 2000 SP1, Microsoft is updating each server component to the latest service pack release, including Win2K SP3, which will ship soon. Microsoft will update the Outlook client to Outlook 2002 (XP).

But the most compelling changes in SBS exist outside the box, if you'll excuse my use of that tired phrase. First, SBS 2000 SP1 includes support for the new server-based Windows Update service, Software Update Services (SUS), which provides all the server components in SBS with the same updating capabilities that Windows XP users enjoy. Second, because SBS 2000 is typically installed in small businesses with no IT staff, Microsoft is providing incentives for VARs and other channel partners to support the product, while making SBS 2000 easier to maintain.

"With Small Business Server, the customer typically buys the product from a VAR \[or other channel partner\], who then comes and deploys it onsite," said Katy Hunter, group product manager for Windows Small Business Server. "The VAR trains the users, and perhaps integrates an application on top of it, \[and\] signs a maintenance agreement with hourly rate services. With our new Channel Incentive Program, we will rebate up to $500 to the channel partner. Our partners can simply make more money this way, of course, or they can pass the savings through the customer. Others sign up customers for long-term agreements, and then give them 2 free months of maintenance or similar."

The idea, obviously, is to jumpstart technology adoption in places that have historically shunned local servers. "The more the customer sees, the more they get, the more they are going to want," Hunter told me. To this end, companies that outgrow SBS 2000 can upgrade to full Windows Server products later.

SBS 2000 SP1 will ship by the end of August, with widespread availability in September. A future release, SBS 2003, will include Windows .NET Server and SharePoint Team Services 2.0 and ship after that product line is completed late this year.

Follow-up: Change and Configuration Management
In last week's Windows & .NET Magazine UPDATE commentary about change and configuration management, I didn't make clear that my product recommendations were based, in large part, on reader feedback. One of the most wonderful side effects of this newsletter is the number of high-quality email responses I get from each issue. To give readers the full benefit of this resource, I often provide follow-up articles that are based almost solely on reader feedback. This feedback also enables me—one person—to write about 50 of these newsletters each year. Coming up with unique and interesting articles on a weekly basis is an intimidating task, but UPDATE readers make it a pleasure.

That said, I've written about change and configuration management several times in the past because I feel that this area of system administration is incredibly important and, curiously, largely ignored by Microsoft. I don't believe that any one tool is the definitive solution: As I mentioned at the end of last week's commentary, you need to research the tools that are available, including those I mentioned, and pick one that's right for your specific needs. For example, some tools provide configuration management for non-Windows products—important consideration in heterogeneous environments. Thanks to the excellent feedback I received to last week's issue, I'll have more to write about change and configuration management in the future. Thanks for reading.