Microsoft – Windows Small Business Server 2003 review

comprehensive SME server package
Photo of Microsoft – Windows Small Business Server 2003
From £440 + VAT (Server plus 5 client licences)

Windows Small Business Server 2003 is a much improved product. It’s easier to setup and manage than previous versions and incorporates new information sharing, collaboration and remote access features. Companies on a budget will also find the new, slimmed-down Standard Edition attractive, but the package still has its drawbacks compared to some other small business products.

At just over £500 including VAT, the new Standard Edition of Small Business Server 2003 is clearly priced to compete against Linux alternatives. Moreover, despite the low price tag it includes a full implementation of Windows Server 2003, the fastest and most secure version of Windows yet. Plus you get a full copy of Exchange Server 2003 for e-mail and the latest SharePoint Services which are now bundled to make it easier for end users to collaborate and share information.

The SQL Server database software isn’t included in the Standard Edition, but then a lot of small companies either don’t need it or are happy making other arrangements. For those who do require it, it’s included in the Premium Edition (from £1,070 plus VAT for 5 users), along with Microsoft’s ISA Server (firewall, caching proxy server and enhanced VPN) and FrontPage 2003 for Web publishing.

Hardware requirements depend on the number of users involved but everything in the package has to be installed on one server which, by default, is configured as an Active Directory domain controller. In most cases that calls for a fast Pentium 4 or Xeon processor, with a dual processor server and at least 512MB of memory for the Premium Edition. It’s worth noting, too, that you can’t deploy multiple small business servers together in one domain and there’s a limit of just 75 workstations. Add even one more and you have to upgrade to the full set of server packages, which can be a costly and time-consuming business.

Initial setup has been re-vamped to make it quicker and easier than before. However it still takes a couple of hours and if you’re looking to buy a new hardware we’d recommend having the software pre-installed. You’ll then be left to complete an on-screen ‘To Do’ list, from where it’s possible to launch wizards to handle the final configuration steps.

The wizards make light work of most of the options, including client setup, where customisable templates make it possible not just to generate Active Directory accounts, but to set disk quotas, create Exchange mailboxes and SharePoint workplaces all in one go. It’s even possible to make sure the latest service packs have been applied and to either install or update client software, such as Internet Explorer and the Outlook e-mail client, automatically. Floppies are no longer needed – users can simply browse to an intranet Web site and setup their PCs themselves.

Once everything has been configured, administrators will find a lot of new tools available to make their lives easier, such as an enhanced management console and improved backup option with a built-in scheduler. However, it’s not just administrators who benefit, with a lot of new facilities for users too.

One such is provided by SharePoint Services, with a pre-configured Web portal to enable users to share documents, pictures and calendars and to collaborate using discussion boards. The look and feel of the portal can be customised and users allowed to participate in its setup and day-to-day management. Plus, of course, they can launch applications from here and access all the usual file and printer shares, and other resources, provided by Windows Server 2003.

There’s enhanced support too for remote and mobile users, starting with simpler VPN (Virtual Private Network) setup and a custom Web site, called the Web workplace, to provide a single point of entry for users outside the firewall. Reached via a browser, this enables users to access resources and applications on the network remotely, including Outlook Web Access which is another standard component in the small business package. Users can even be given remote access to their LAN desktops via Web workplace, while administrators can use it for remote server management and troubleshooting.

Small Business Server 2003 is a big improvement over earlier versions and you certainly get a lot for your money. But that’s also one of the main drawbacks; behind the slick new interfaces and wizards, you’re still running a full implementation of Windows Server 2003, the complex Exchange software and, in the Premium Edition, SQL and ISA Servers too.

You also have Active Directory to contend with and anything other than basic user setup calls for a fair amount of time and expertise. Bear in mind, too, that licences are required for every client/device on the network which, in larger companies, can make the Microsoft solution expensive compared to some of the alternatives.

Company: Microsoft

Contact: 0870 601 0100

Microsoft has made its server software a deal more small business-friendly, with simpler setup and slick new management tools. An integrated Web portal and enhanced remote access are additional bonuses, along with the latest Exchange server software with mobile facilities. It's re-packaged and cheaper, too, but the underlying complexity could be an issue for companies lacking expertise.