July 30, 2008, 3:21 PM — Recently, Microsoft released its second release candidate build, RC1, of Windows Essential Business Server, or EBS, a midmarket server solution for businesses with 50 to 300 users and computers.
Why is a "solution" needed? Microsoft researched the midmarket environment and found that most shops this size have one, maybe two, IT-specific employees who are essentially generalists. They have a wide breadth but a shallow depth about a lot of technologies, and spend most of their time reacting to problems on the network. They're interested in security, easing support burdens, deploying and managing devices and software, keeping track of assets, and backing up and restoring their professional assets. In other words, they face a lot of the same problems as larger organizations, but they don't have a formalized structure, a proactive nature or a huge budget to address problems.
Enter EBS, which aims to try to solve some of these issues and overlay a "best practices"-based approach for businesses like these.
There are three servers required to fully deploy the suite, a somewhat onerous requirement for organizations that fall on the lower end of the target audience spectrum. However, as the suite is designed to scale to 300 users or devices, the services are pretty densely packed as it is, so it was apparently important to allow for room to grow.
The three servers start with the management server, which acts as a sort of "hub" for all of the operations on the network. The management server contains:
- Windows Server 2008
- Active Directory
- File & Print
- System Center Essentials
The messaging server does nothing, but Exchange and mail-related services and provides a second domain controller. Specifically, it runs:
- Windows Server 2008
- Active Directory
- Exchange Server 2007
- Forefront Security for Exchange Server
Sitting in front of all of these machines is the edge server, or security server, which protects the servers and everything else on the network from outside threats. The security server roles include:
- Windows Server 2008
- Exchange Server 2007, in an edge transport role for message-receipt hygiene
- Forefront Threat Management Gateway for Medium Business
A premium edition will be offered that adds a fourth license for Windows Server 2008 and SQL Server 2008 Standard Edition, in addition to the elements already discussed that come within the standard edition of EBS.
The idea behind Windows Essential Business Server was clearly to make administering a midmarket network easier. The first step of the setup process is to run a downloadable tool that basically examines the current environment. It identifies any of 91 health and configuration issues that have proven to be troublesome in the past, including problems with Active Directory, networking, Exchange, the overall configuration of Windows Server in general and so on.
The team at Microsoft analyzed records of customer support calls and looked for ways to, in an automated fashion, identify these issues and offer best practices advice in correcting them. One bonus of all of this: You don't need to be considering EBS, or purchase EBS, to use these tools. They're free for everyone, so if you're just looking for a better environment, you, too, can take advantage of the guidance from these "automated assistants." You can find these tools here.
For those folks moving on with the EBS implementation, a second tool in the package helps out with planning how the network will look after EBS is deployed.
Once you have the suite installed, the one-stop metaphor continues -- into the Windows Essential Business Server Administration Console.
Third parties are also integrating status monitors, single-click management tools and other functionality into the administration console view. These tools are not yet available for EBS, but they will be soon.
The idea is for the midmarket administrator to come into the office in the morning and within just a few seconds view his network's health; verify that licensing requirements are in check and that the organization is compliant; make sure mail is flowing, users can log on, Internet access is up and security is in place; and manage any hardware that can be monitored through ISV plug-ins to the console. It's something that has no parallel in the 50- to 300-user market and is a creative idea.
Additionally, the logic of a one-stop suite extended to licensing. If you bought all of these products in an ad hoc fashion, you would absolutely pay more than the combined suite price. To stay in compliance with each product's licensing requirements, you would also be required to purchase client access licenses, or CALs, for your users or devices that corresponded to each product. This definitely adds a layer (or two) of complexity to a midmarket administrator's job.
But with EBS, you buy one product -- the suite -- and one CAL for the suite for each user or device on your network, up to 300. With traditional Microsoft pricing, you'd have to buy one CAL per device for each of the three or four affiliated server products. In other words, you save one-third or one-fourth the cost, roughly speaking.
EBS allows you to manage these licenses through the integrated administration console, so you always know what you have. Kudos to Microsoft for clearing up a big burden that, to be fair, it imposed on its customers.
There's also some polish for the users: EBS "stole," or integrated, the Remote Web Workplace (RWW) from Small Business Server. RWW is a Web site designed for network users to come in and access Web mail, connect to their computers at the office via Remote Desktop Protocol and access their business applications like Windows SharePoint Services (WSS). Although WSS wasn't accessible in earlier test builds, I like the new look of RWW. I had some problems using the "Connect to my Computer" function, which I am still working with Microsoft to solve, but ultimately this is a great addition and another value point for the "suite" approach.
I tested RC0 on an HP BladeCenter c3000 enclosure equipped with three ProLiant BL260c G5 server blades with 10GB of RAM each. I received the unit and the blades with the installation files pre-setup -- as I would find the servers if I had purchased a unit with EBS pre-installed. I went through the installation and set up the environment.
It's a long setup process -- starting some parts of the process overnight, it took me a good (and realistic) day and a half to get the server environment set up and configured, with all three machines ready for what would be production use. I tested RC1 in a virtual setup and found the experience quite similar, just more refined.
I found the EBS Administration Console to be intuitive, with an easy feel to getting the most tedious but regular parts of the system administration job out of the way. I was easily able to add users, discover computers on my network, monitor their health and status, get update approval and deployment functioning, and view errors that occurred.
For most problems that the System Center Essentials agents discover on network computers, the SCE console opens for further information and possible diagnosis suggestions -- here, the integrated "polish" of the suite wears off. I found the SCE console hard to navigate and difficult to understand at first glance, although as an administrator gains experience with the product this should be less of a problem.
E-mail transmission and receipt worked well. When I intentionally caused problems with the messaging server, the EBS Administration Console was quick to reflect that e-mail for the business was affected, and it was a relatively straightforward task to use SCE to determine what the problem was.
I had little reason to touch the security server, which in my test builds was running a pre-release build of Forefront Threat Management Gateway. I did try to publish some applications to users coming from the Internet using TS Gateway and TS RemoteApp, but I was unable to successfully configure a publishing rule from within TMG. I believe it's safe to assume that is a beta bug, as the TS functionality works in another environment similarly configured, but without TMG. Other than that, TMG comes configured to adequately protect the default deployment of EBS.
The suite approach has its ups and downs when it comes to pricing. If you were to purchase all of the components of the suite separately, not even including licenses, you'd be paying more than the list prices for EBS. However, the prices are still striking for a business with a simple, ad hoc IT budget:
- EBS standard: $7,799 plus $112 per CAL at full list price; $5,472 plus $81 per CAL under an Open agreement
- EBS premium: $10,213 plus $274 per CAL at full list price; $7,163 plus $195 per CAL under an Open agreement
Each initial EBS server suite license includes 5 CALs.
There is value in the integration and other components you receive with EBS, and these prices do reflect a discount as opposed to purchasing the products individually, but there is still some significant expense involved.
The last word
Overall, I like EBS a lot. I think it serves a definite market need and helps administrators who are overworked and completely reactive to problems to set up an environment where they can gain control and freedom to enhance their businesses rather than just being problem-solvers. With mail, management, security and (in the premium edition) database needs in one box, it's hard to argue with the value the suite approach brings to a midmarket business. It will be interesting to track this product to release, but at this point, it's looking good.