Microsoft’s research on SMB IT pays off for networks of all sizes
|Executive Summary: Microsoft's thorough research into what small-to-midsized businesses (SMBs) need in a network infrastructure led to easier installation and management for the latest version of Windows Small Business Server (SBS) and the new Windows Essential Business Server (EBS). The company's research also led to identification of problems that affect all IT shops—particularly Active Directory (AD) infrastructure problems—and to the distillation of some best practices to help correct and prevent trouble.|
You deploy servers. You know how time-consuming and complex deployment is. And Microsoft knows you know it: To determine what features to include in their new releases, the product teams that developed Windows Small Business Server (SBS) 2008 and the new Windows Essential Business Server (EBS) 2008 thoroughly researched market needs. In the course of that research, the teams performed an experiment to measure just how much time and effort deployment involves. According to Björn Levidow, principal lead program manager for EBS, “We hired somebody to set up Exchange Server and Windows Server 2003, configure IIS, and set up Threat Management Gateway and make it all work nicely. It took that person about 80 hours to get it working correctly.”
That experiment led to the streamlined deployment and setup that Microsoft built into SBS 2008 and EBS 2008. But it also led to the identification of problems that affect all IT shops and to the distillation of some best practices to help correct and prevent trouble. Whether you’re in a small-to-midsized business (SMB) or a large enterprise, the lessons learned from SBS and EBS research can make a difference to the proper functioning of your network—and your Active Directory (AD) infrastructure in particular.
Top 10 Problems
Microsoft developers found that they could streamline EBS and SBS deployment by finding problems IT generalists didn’t realize they had. Björn said deployment “took an expert 80 hours, and required following all the manuals. \[The expert\] had all the background knowledge ahead of time. But midmarket IT generalists don’t have all that background.” So, Björn continued, the product developers “set ourselves a goal that we had to make it so customers could install EBS over a weekend.”
By testing installations on existing networks, Microsoft discovered common infrastructure problems. Björn said, “The biggest challenge, which we found through our TAP \[Technical Adoption Program\] deployments, was their existing infrastructure \[wasn’t\] ready to accept an EBS environment configured to best practices. Many of our TAPs had environments that were so dirty that our installs would fail because AD wasn’t available. Everything would work fine, but once we started trying to do things that were timing-sensitive or when we had multiple operations right after each other putting some load on their AD network, we’d start getting failures or long timeouts.”
The solution to these problems was to create a deployment diagnostic tool for EBS and for SBS. Björn explained, “We built this preparation tool, which looks at their whole environment. The way we learned what to check for is that Microsoft’s support services had this great internal tool they would parachute into enterprises, run it, and then take it away with them because it was unsupportable. We took all that knowledge and put it into supportable code. Microsoft support had about 300 different checks. The EBS developers took the 90 checks that were applicable to midmarket companies and coded them in. Now we can run them ahead of time to make sure the environment is clean.”
The 90 checks that the EBS and SBS research led to apply not only to SMB IT environments, but to organizations of all sizes. You can download the entire Windows Essential Business Server Preparation and Planning Wizards from Microsoft’s website at go.microsoft.com/fwlink/?LinkID=120587. Table 1 shows the top 10 problems the EBS product team uncovered and a link for help on Microsoft’s website.
Many of the problems uncovered by the EBS and SBS research are related to AD. Microsoft representatives discussed ways they could address these problems in their product development. Kent Compton, a senior product planner for EBS, explained, “Our \[customers\] know AD. The funny thing is when we ask how many OUs \[organizational units\] or GPOs \[Group Policy Objects\] do you have, they don’t know. Windows XP, Windows Vista, Windows Server 2003 and 2008 have a total of about 3,000 GPOs. The average midmarket company probably uses about three. They don’t do simple things like locking a screen saver so somebody can’t come up and fiddle about. The problem with AD and Group Policy is people don’t leverage them.”
The EBS and SBS teams built tools to help customers take advantage of these technologies. Björn said, “We set up Group Policies for automatic folder redirection every time you create a user. We also set default software update policies for all clients so they’re secure by default—also through Group Policy. We are using AD in a much richer way than people in the midmarket might without our assistance of setting up the best practices.”
Sean Daniel, a senior program manager for SBS, added, “For Group Policy or the AD technologies, we give customers simple, familiar property pages or wizards in the shell to walk through how to set those things up—if they aren’t set up by default—or to tweak them.”
“We do the same in EBS,” Björn noted. “The \[EBS\] wizards have a little more flexibility in terms of parameters you can set. The defaults are easier to change because midmarket IT generalists like to have that bit of control more than the SBS customer.”
Moving AD and Group Policy complexity into wizards could cause difficulty for administrators when they need to troubleshoot problems. Björn replied, “We designed the EBS admin console with troubleshooting in mind. We have contextual fall-through: We allow you to fall through to various troubleshooting tools, including SCE \[System Center Essentials\], from our console. SCE takes alerts and events from various places and brings the data up into our console so you can get a single view. We do the same for all the other tools as well. We’re the jumping off point, the one place where you can see your whole environment.”
Ease for All?
Because many problems identified for SMB IT apply to organizations of all sizes, why doesn’t Microsoft just make Windows Server itself easier to use? The answer lies in the greater complexity of IT in large companies. Generalizing the requirements of an SMB is far easier than finding a configuration that would work for more than one enterprise. As Björn said, “Given the size of the company \[EBS is\] going into, we can assume a bunch of things about how things will be configured by having the three servers. In an enterprise, you can’t make those assumptions. So it’s not just a matter of simplifying Windows Server. You have to understand enough about the environment and have enough constraints so you can make smart choices in how to simplify it—yet give the customer the tailored functionality for that market segment.”
But even if Microsoft can’t guess every company’s needs, the lessons the product teams have learned from studying SMBs can provide benefits to any company. Check your network for the top problems Microsoft identified, and maybe you’ll save yourself headaches. Simplifying configurations and following best practices can pay off for organizations of any size. As Devesh Satyavolu, a product manager for the Windows Essential Server Solutions family, put it, “The real pain in the midmarket is getting to best practice configuration and helping make sure we’re simplifying IT. Once they have the best practice IT, it’s the gift that keeps giving.”