Executive Summary:
Microsoft's Windows Essential Business Server (WEBS) is an integrated server product that's easy to deploy and manage and simplifies midsized companies' IT infrastructure, including setup, migration, and licensing.

One of the many proverbs you often hear repeated at Microsoft goes something like, “We generally don’t get things right the first time. But on the second or third try, we eventually kick our competitors’ butts.” Case in point: an integrated server product that’s easy to deploy and manage and is aimed at simplifying IT infrastructure for medium-size companies (i.e., those with as many as 250 PCs). The first try in this area was Microsoft BackOffice Server in the mid-1990s. Microsoft bundled Windows NT Server 4.0, Microsoft Mail (MS Mail, the company’s Messaging API—MAPI—mail server prior to Exchange Server), SQL Server 6.5, SNA Server (for connectivity with legacy IBM servers), and IIS 1.0, all on a single server. This software bundle was conceived to emulate the success of IBM’s AS/400 midrange computers. Although BackOffice was highly successful, it was perceived as a threat to sales of some of its component products. BackOffice quietly went away after the BackOffice Server 2000 release (around the time when the US Department of Justice lawsuit caused Microsoft to officially expunge the word “bundle” from its vocabulary). However, Small Business Server (SBS), an “integrated suite” consisting of Windows Server, Exchange, Windows SharePoint Services (WSS), Windows Server Update Services (WSUS), and Microsoft’s integrated fax service, persisted. This suite for environments with as many as 75 users became highly successful following the release based on Windows Server 2003. Honed and improved with each version, ease of use has been the key to SBS’s success. In fact, SBS is so successful that it inspired a new midmarket suite, Windows Essential Business Server (WEBS—formerly code named Centro), which stirs memories of BackOffice Server and opens up the lucrative medium-size business market, with 1.4 million enterprises worldwide.

The Essentials
Currently in private beta and set for release in late 2008, WEBS targets companies with 25 to 250 PCs, 50 to 100 employees, and 1 to 5 IT staff members. WEBS Standard Edition requires three physical 64-bit servers, one for each of its components—a management server to run Windows Server 2008 and System Center Essentials (SCE—clearly, someone at Microsoft loves the word “essentials”); a messaging server to run Exchange Server 2007 and Microsoft Forefront Security for Exchange Server; and a security server to run the upcoming version of ISA Server and an Exchange 2007 gateway. If you buy WEBS Premium Edition, you also get SQL Server 2008.

Like SBS, WEBS makes setting up and managing all the components easier than coordinating and licensing each product’s implementation individually. The heart of that ease is the unified administration console, which you can access from within the network or remotely via VPN. This console is preconfigured with best practices for managing common IT workloads, including networking, security, collaboration, and remote access.

WEBS provides “new technologies that simplify license management.” You get one WEBS CAL for all of its component products. From the admin console, you can determine how many licenses you have and to whom the licenses are assigned. And you can reassign licenses—for example, to replace an employee who left the company.

Software and Hardware
In addition to offering WEBS as an all-in-one software package that you can install on your own 64-bit machines, Microsoft is letting hardware partners produce WEBS appliances (analogous to Windows Storage Server or ISA Server appliances). Fujitsu Siemens, HP, and IBM will offer WEBS servers. Additionally, Microsoft’s software partners can sell add-ins for the WEBS unified admin console.

Getting IT Right
It’s too soon to tell whether Microsoft got WEBS right. But apparently, the company listened to feedback from SBS customers who wanted an upgrade path beyond the limitations of SBS. Also, Microsoft learned that a simplified interface for setup, migration, and licensing is important to IT organizations that don’t have the luxury of specialists for areas such as messaging or database management. Similar to the management interface of Windows Home Server, the WEBS admin console does seem to be a step forward for busy IT generalists.

I’m intrigued by WEBS. Will you try it when it’s available? Let me know what you think, and I’ll incorporate your feedback into a future Hey Microsoft! column.