REVIEW: Windows Small Business Server 2008

Ian Yates tests Microsoft's Small Business Server 2008 and finds it will met most small business' needs and has powerful virtualisation features - if you can do without a functioning mouse.

If you can believe the reports from the consultants, just about the entire planet has switched over from physical servers to virtual servers. Judging by the price paid recently by EMC for virtual outfit VMWare you’d have to agree with the consultants and start wondering why your business is the only one that hasn’t gone virtual. But then, unless your business is classified as “enterprise” there’s a good chance you’re not the only one which hasn’t gone virtual – yet.

You can find any number of seminars, case studies and white papers which will tell you why you should virtualise your file servers, your database servers, your email servers, and any other servers you own. Most of the arguments make good sense, and who wouldn’t want to consolidate a rack full of hardware into just a few black boxes? The obvious flaw in these pitches is that the small business sector usually only has one server in one box, perhaps two, and that one server is doing most everything they need.

Of course, when the thing crashes and burns, and there are no servers left to do anything, the small business owner will no doubt be more open to a strategy of virtualisation for the replacement kit. But convincing a cash-strapped SMB client to spend money virtualising a server which is already working just fine is not an easy task. However, good old Microsoft just made it a tad easier to take the first tentative steps into the world of virtual reality. At least that is, when it comes to servers.

The latest iteration of Microsoft’s Small Business Server runs Windows Server 2008 underneath the hood and integrates the usual server functions along with Exchange Server for email and Sharepoint Services for the intranet. The “premium” edition adds SQL Server to the mix, and also comes with a separate extra copy of Windows Server 2008. This means you can run two physical servers – recognition by Microsoft that some small businesses have rather large databases and need a separate box to house them.

Any way you do the maths, if you have fewer than 75 users, then SBS 2008 is a cheap way to buy the software, unless you need neither Exchange nor SQL servers. Even if you don’t want to host email internally, the “premium” edition is still the cheapest way to get two copies of Windows Server 2008 along with one copy of SQL Server 2008. You can just leave Exchange in the cupboard if you don’t want it or need it. What’s even more interesting than the bundled products is that you can run a virtual server on top of your SBS 2008.

That’s right, Microsoft’s response to those wildly successful VMWare people is Redmond’s very own virtual manager, called Hyper-V, and they’re giving it away for free with every copy of Windows Server 2008, and that includes Small Business Server 2008. Of course you need another Windows Server 2008 licence but you get one of those with your SBS 2008 Premium Edition. You can now proceed to emulate those enterprise IT gurus and host your own Virtual SQL Server 2008. This will make you very cool and allow you to join in the conversation at the bar on the 19th hole.

However, rather than bothering to be cool, what you could do instead is host your very own virtual server to use for testing out those new applications which everyone keeps pestering you to acquire, or for testing out the new version of those custom changes to your “integrated business management solution”. Some of you might call that the “accounting system” or the “order entry thingy” but you know what we’re talking about. And those custom changes are always rock-solid with no errors aren’t they?

With a virtual server, you can insist that all new programs, and all custom changes to existing programs, get loaded and tested there first, before being let loose on your hapless order entry team. You can even give your software suppliers remote access to your virtual server, so they can do their own testing against a copy of your real data, without the risk of having them wreck anything. Heck they can even crash the virtual server if they like. You should care – except to be happy it wasn’t the production server they trashed.

Almost as good as the news that this all comes for free out of the box is the news that it really is very easy to setup a virtual server. It’s really easy to setup any Windows Server 2008, since Microsoft has finally reversed the procedure that we were all used to following. Rather than installing every possible bell and every available whistle, the 2008 version installs the bare minimum – just enough to get you a console to login to – and leaves it up to you to decide what features you want to add.

The features are called “roles” in Microsoft speak, and you use the included Server Manager console to select the ones you need and click “add”. Even the office cadet can become a systems integrator with this edition of Windows Server 2008. One of the available roles is Hyper-V, which is Microsoft’s virtual server manager. You choose it, answer some fairly obvious questions and watch the flashing lights for a few minutes. After that you launch the program, stick your Windows Server 2008 DVD in the drive and load a virtual server.

Once that’s done you simply start the server using the Hyper-V manager, then connect to the server, which presents you with a Remote Desktop Connection style console. You can also use genuine RDC to connect to your virtual server from any other PC or server, once everything is set up properly. About the only “gotcha” in this process is the minor annoyance of not being able to use your mouse when connected to the virtual server. The default gives you keyboard but no mouse – we’d like somebody at Microsoft to please explain what they were snorting when that option got signed off.

No matter, when you try and use the non-working mouse, a window pops-up telling you why it doesn’t work and what you need to do to make it work. This does beg the question, if they already know what’s wrong, then why not fix it for you, instead of annoying you. Perhaps Microsoft didn’t want to give you no reason to curse them and decided it was best to offer a minor bone of contention rather than a major grievance. Anyway a few clicks later and the mouse works and you have a virtual server to play with – and start testing stuff. Go ahead, create a few virtual crashes and try for some Blue Screens of Death. It’s nice to be able to do that without any cursing coming from the cubicle farm.

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