I can't believe I'm writing these words, but here goes. Microsoft just released Windows Small Business Server (SBS) 2008, the best version yet of its small business server solution. For most potential small business customers of this product, however, it's time to move on. The future is in the clouds, and from what I can see, SBS is still largely stuck in the past.

Fortunately, embracing a less complex and potentially less costly future doesn't require you to abandon Microsoft or its excellent server solutions. Just yesterday, less than one week after the software giant announced the general availability of its SBS 2008 product line, Microsoft also announced the general availability of its hosted Exchange and Share Point solutions via Microsoft Online Services (MOS). My advice is this: Skip on-premise solutions like SBS wherever possible and look to the cloud.
 
MOS is available in a number of offering types, so your costs will vary according to need. You can purchase individual services on a per user basis--including Exchange ($10 per month per user), SharePoint ($7.25), Office Communications ($2.50), and Office Live Meeting ($4.50)--or you can get the Business Productivity Online Standard Suite, which includes all of the aforementioned products, for $15 per user per month. You can save money further by opting for Deskless versions of some products. Exchange Online Deskless Worker, for example, which provides only OWA-based Exchange access, costs just $2.00 per month per user. A Deskless version of SharePoint is also $2 and a Deskless Worker Online package, which combines both, is $3 per user per month.

Exchange especially, and SharePoint to a lesser degree, are exactly the types of services that many small and medium-sized businesses should consider moving out from on-premise servers to hosted solutions. They're complex and expensive, management-heavy, and mission critical. And Microsoft offers a migration toolkit for moving those who currently host Exchange on-site that wish to move to MOS.

As far as SBS 2008 is concerned, don't get me wrong. It is absolutely the best version of SBS yet created, and Microsoft should be saluted for its work over the past decade at moving its full-featured server products down market in a way that has made them really approachable by its smaller customers. But the only online services tie in SBS 2008 is an admittedly nicely done integration piece with Office Live Small Business. SBS customers should be able to do more than host just their websites offsite: Their email and collaboration environments should be optionally available as offsite hosted offerings as well. My guess is that Microsoft is heading in that very direction, but it needs to happen now, not in a few years.

For those small businesses that do opt for the hosted route, either via Microsoft's MOS or a partner-hosted variant, there are still some needs for local storage and, potentially, third-party server applications. In the latter case, SBS 2008 might still be a viable option for many businesses. But the smallest of small businesses might want to look at something even simpler and less expensive: Simply host what you can externally and utilize a Windows Home Server-based server or even a Vista-based PC for local storage. It sounds odd, but this kind of ad hoc solution will most likely save you time, money, and effort. And that will buy some time until Microsoft finally offers a largely hosted version of SBS with some local components and a monthly subscription fee in a future version of that product. It's inconceivable that the company isn't working on something like that right now.