Microsoft Small Business Server (SBS) customers, by now, are used to the uneven treatment they receive from Microsoft. On one hand, SBS includes several ease-of-use management features that set apart the product from more traditional Windows Server offerings. On the other hand, Microsoft often takes its time delivering SBS software updates and service packs.

Such is the case with Windows SBS 2003 Service Pack 1 (SP1), which trailed the mainstream SP1 release for Windows Server 2003 by almost 2 months. When Microsoft announced the release of Windows 2003 SP1 in late March, it asked Windows SBS 2003 owners to postpone updating to SP1 until the company released the Windows SBS 2003-specific version. And last week, the company released that version.

In case you're not familiar with Windows SBS 2003, let's take a look. Windows SBS 2003, Standard Edition combines Windows 2003 with the most recent versions of Microsoft Exchange Server and Microsoft Office Outlook (email server and client), Windows SharePoint Services (document collaboration), and some other ancillary services. The premium edition adds Microsoft SQL Server 2000 (database server), Microsoft ISA Server 2000 (firewall and Web cache), and Microsoft FrontPage (Web development).

Like previous SBS versions, Windows SBS 2003 offers a host of simple consoles and processes that make the products easier to install, configure, and manage. This ease-of-use is crucial because SBS customers, typically, have been less technical than the enterprises and small-to-midsized businesses (SMBs) that install other Windows 2003 editions. Also, the multiproduct nature of Windows SBS 2003 could make the product even more daunting to neophytes. Windows SBS 2003's management consoles are a thing of beauty.

With Windows SBS 2003, Microsoft has made SBS appropriate as a revenue generator for services companies. The idea is that small businesses with no IT staff can outsource the management of their environments to services-based companies that can monitor the systems remotely and use automatically generated reports to address concerns as they come up. That business model has proven particularly lucrative with Windows SBS 2003.

With Windows SBS 2003 SP1, businesses get all the latest service packs and updates for the various SBS products. That means that all Windows SBS 2003 users get an integrated installation of Windows 2003 SP1, Exchange Server 2003 SP1, Windows SharePoint Services 2.0, Windows XP SP2, Microsoft ActiveSync 3.8, and the SP1 update for whichever Microsoft Office 2003 applications they have installed.

Windows SBS 2003, Premium Edition users also get SQL Server 2000 SP4 and ISA Server 2004 with SP1. The latter option is a completely new version and a radical improvement over the ISA Server 2000 product that shipped with the original Windows SBS 2003. The premium edition updates are available only on CD-ROM from Microsoft: You can't download them from the Web site (see the order URL below).

Unlike the mainstream Windows 2003 SP1 release, Windows SBS 2003 SP1 hasn't been widely tested yet, so I recommend thorough testing and evaluation before you upgrade. I've installed Windows SBS 2003 SP1 twice so far--once as an upgrade to an existing installation and once as a slipstreamed Windows SBS 2003 installation, and so far, so good. But there are lots of little things to remember. I advise you to pay attention to Microsoft's installation release notes and installation instructions (see the URLs below). Once you install SP1 on Windows SBS 2003, you can't remove it.

And, if you're curious, I can confirm that Microsoft will ship both Release 2 (R2) and Longhorn versions of Windows SBS, in late 2005 and 2007, respectively. SBS R2 will include the core Windows 2003 R2 enhancements, and Longhorn SBS will include integrated patch-management features based on Windows Server Update Services (WSUS) technologies.

In related news, Microsoft also announced last week that Windows 2003 SP1 has been distributed to nearly one-fifth of the Windows 2003 installed base. According to Microsoft, 1.2 million SP1 copies have been distributed. There are an estimated 6.73 million Windows 2003 installations in production worldwide, according to IDC. "The more than 1.2 million SP1 downloads in less than 2 months represents about 18 percent of the total Windows 2003 installed base," a note from the company reads.

Microsoft Windows Small Business Server 2003 Service Pack 1 (SP1) (Download--210MB)
http://www.microsoft.com/downloads/details.aspx?familyid=b6f8a4c0-b707-4161-adeb-44f1b756119f&displaylang=en

Windows SBS 2003 SP1 (Order--including premium edition updates)
https://www.microsoft.upgrade.com/sbs

Release Notes for Windows Small Business Server 2003 SP1
http://www.microsoft.com/downloads/details.aspx?familyid=022677cc-f5ac-4bfb-9ad0-454e89cb98bb&displaylang=en