When Microsoft discontinued its ill-conceived Windows Essential Business Server (EBS), I spoke out against the need for more on-premise server products—especially for infrastructure services like email and collaboration—and wondered why Microsoft wasn't offering smaller businesses more cloud-based options. Yes, certain servers—especially storage—still need to be hosted on-site. But a lot of the traditional Microsoft servers would be more valuable as hosted online services, giving customers all the power and benefits of these solutions but without the cost or complexity.

I realize this view is a bit idealistic. (I prefer the term "forward looking.") And I'm used to a little pushback, both from those who use Microsoft software and from the software giant itself, which, let's face it, still has a full stable of traditional, on-premise offerings.

So imagine my surprise this past week when I was briefed about Windows Intune, an ingenious online service that provides midmarket customers—those with 25 to 500 PCs in their environments—with a comprehensive set of PC management capabilities. This PC management comes without the need for Active Directory (AD), Microsoft System Center tools, or any other complex infrastructure. Instead, it operates entirely in the cloud and provides management functionality for the real world. In the case of the midmarket, this means environments with just one or two IT generalists running the show. Here, simplicity trumps complexity.

So what does Intune give you? Put simply, it provides a way to manage PCs, no matter where they are. So if you have users working from home, working remotely for long stretches, or traveling a lot, you can ensure that their PCs are protected with proven security software and up to date with the latest software and security updates.

You determine loose standards for the PCs in your environment using policies. Don't be confused by this term: These aren't Group Policies, but rather they're specific to Intune. There's also a reporting, auditing and licensing component. If your company is on the way up, you can utilize the Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack (MDOP), which is included.

PC management requires only a Silverlight-capable web browser, which means that you can oversee PC management from anywhere in the world. The console provides access to information about the overall health of your environment, no matter how distributed. Issues are listed as hyperlinks, which provide quick, actionable resolutions. The console also provides alerts to various types of problems.

Are there limitations to Intune? It's a v1 product, and it's lacking in some ways compared to Microsoft's more full-featured on-premise solutions. For example, there's no way to whitelist or blacklist specific applications or application versions, so there's no real way to prevent your users from loading unapproved software. Also pricing is up in the air. Microsoft is going to sell Intune through its Microsoft Online Services offerings, so it will be a per-PC subscription cost of some kind. They're looking for feedback on this, so let them know you expect it to be inexpensive.

Questions aside, Intune hits a sweet spot between functionality and complexity. And if your environment is typical—i.e., a mess—and you haven't yet grown to the size needed to truly take advantage of Microsoft's enterprise servers, Intune could be exactly what you're looking for.

But if you want to check out Intune soon, move fast: Microsoft is offering the beta only to a limited number of companies. So, if you're interested, sign up now at www.microsoft.com/online/windows-intune.mspx.