On SiteIs Small Business Server Right For You?

Jay Shaw

I enjoy writing about problems I’ve actually encountered and resolved in my work. It gives me the opportunity to share the benefit of my experience on a particular topic and allows me to grow as a consultant. Plus, I can use writing as a tool to go back over decisions and approaches I have taken and reinvestigate them. Sometimes I can look back and say "I went in the right direction on this one," and other times I can decide that the approach I chose wasn’t the best one possible.

When I recommend a product to a client, it’s in their best interest (as well as my own) to offer one that I have used in the past. For that reason alone I had always avoided Windows® Small Business Server (SBS).

Years ago I had a bad experience with a client who had implemented SBS on their own. It was sold to them and installed on several servers by a major computer manufacturer. They ran into a multitude of problems because they were running several domains in different offices (a configuration that SBS just doesn’t support). No plan was put in place in advance for licensing, security, or even domain-wide communication. It was just not the correct tool for their particular needs. The environment was larger than SBS was designed to handle. Unfortunately, in trying to resolve their problems, I allowed this experience to color my view of the product in all situations.

Over the past few years, clients have been demanding more from their networks. It’s no longer just about providing e-mail along with simple file storage and printing. Even small customers want remote access, intranets, fax solutions, Web access to e-mail, enhanced security, and a host of other solutions. That being the case, I thought it was time for me to reinvestigate SBS with a more open mind.

What’s in the Box?

I discovered that SBS 2003 provides a fantastic value when it comes to server software. It’s like the Swiss army knife of operating systems. The premium edition of SBS contains Windows Server™ 2003, Exchange Server 2003, SharePoint® Services, Outlook® 2003, SQL Server™ 2000, FrontPage® 2003, ISA Server 2000, an integrated backup package, and a variety of other features. The standard edition includes much of the same functionality, minus SQL Server, ISA Server, and FrontPage (but it does cost a few bucks less). For a rundown of components visit Windows Small Business Server 2003 Features at a Glance.

If you are working with a small business (75 people or fewer) and need even a small portion of this functionality, then SBS is almost always going to be your best option. The only licensing you need worry about is the number of seats you will have to support.

Installation is fairly straightforward. A wizard will direct you thorough the process and explain the available choices. Active Directory® is installed by default. The Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) is also installed for you, as is Domain Name Server (DNS). Disk quotas are implemented by default and a wizard guides you through the installation of the firewall and the Exchange Server. The system is designed to make use of two network cards: one is the internal and the other is for a shared Internet connection. This simplifies the installation of Routing and Remote Access Services (RRAS) and of ISA Server 2000. A single network card configuration is also supported, allowing for integration with third-party firewall and proxy solutions. The administration of all this has been consolidated and simplified. You can access everything you need from the Server Management Console that pops up as soon as you log into the server (see Figure 1).

Figure 1 Server Management Console

Figure 1** Server Management Console **

SBS isn’t just a piece of server software, however. It goes to great lengths to provide a complete user experience. Windows SharePoint Services gives you a preconfigured intranet, which includes the ability to share calendars, documents, tasks, and so on. (SBS does not include SharePoint Portal Server in the package, but that is more of an enterprise-level tool.) The Connection Manager and Remote Web Workplace (RWW) tools are also added to make remote access to business resources easier.


Microsoft has put a lot of thought into providing a unified package that is easy to implement, secure, and administer. But as with most things in this line of work, you need to do your homework before you install or purchase anything. If you don’t, eventually you will end up paying for it one way or another.

Each member component has certain limitations built in, but most of these shouldn’t be a problem in a small business environment. However, if you need something the package doesn’t offer, moving to the full version can be complicated. The tough part is knowing when a Swiss army knife is what you need and when you may need something a little more precise.

Don’t make the mistake of assuming that SBS is stripped down. It uses the same technology as the full versions of all the included Microsoft products. There are some limitations, however, like requiring that all the components must run on a single server. In a larger business, many of these jobs would be split among several servers rather than just one.

Since SBS has a recommended limit of 50 users and an imposed limit of 75 users, you can run everything on one machine. Depending on the hardware you’re using, however, this can be a lot of work for a single server. Make sure you are using equipment that is up to the task. Minimum requirements for the professional version are a 300MHz processor and 256MB of RAM with at least 5GB drive storage, but you will definitely have a better experience if you go with more powerful hardware specifications.

It can be very complicated planning for future needs, but in this case it’s extremely important. If you think that your needs are going to change a great deal, it may make sense to purchase full versions of the individual products up front rather than try and save a few dollars now and have to migrate everything later. Migrating from SBS to the full versions of these packages can be complicated. If, for example, you are soon going to be adding a second physical location to your business, you may be better off installing the full versions of the Microsoft server product line right from the start.

Issues to Consider

How should you decide if SBS is the right choice? You can have only one SBS server and only one domain; no child domains are allowed. Trusts to other domains are also not enabled. These are technical needs that generally don’t apply to the small business environment, but are something you should be aware of just the same.

You may, however, add other member servers to your domain to spread the load for some functions. You may also add additional domain controllers, but there are certain limitations. The Flexible Single Master Operations (FSMO) roles, the Global Catalog, and the Operations Master role must remain on the SBS machine. While the software will not stop you from moving these roles off to another domain controller, once you do, the server will shut itself down every hour or so until you either put the transferred roles back or you remove the SBS machine from the domain altogether. This product is mainly intended for use in a single-location environment. Once you expand to any sort of multi-location environment, you will run up against these limitations.

Another limitation concerns Terminal Server functionality. With SBS 2003, you cannot run Terminal Server in application mode. You can administer the server, but you cannot use it for your remote users. You do, however, get the Remote Desktop Administration Tool. This was designed to increase security since having all those users working on your domain controller is not really a good idea anyway.

Even with these limitations, if your needs change, you still have options. You can add member servers, which allows you to use additional machines as servers. For example, you can add a separate server to provide Terminal Server access for your users—you just need to purchase the appropriate licenses. You could also use this approach if you need Exchange Enterprise 2003, as this lets you support an information store of larger that 16GB.

What if Things Change?

Often, businesses grow faster than expected. Needs change and so must the supporting infrastructure. Even if you do all the necessary planning, the information you used to make your decisions can change as well. You may purchase SBS and find it handles all your needs at first, but that over time, your organization no longer fits the "small business" label. It is for that very reason that Microsoft offers upgraded licenses called Transition Packs, so your investment is not lost. You can purchase the full versions of all individual products that are included at a discount.

The Transition Packs are a wonderful resource. While migrating from your SBS environment can still be a challenge, the Transition Packs do several things to make the migration process a lot easier. The Transition Packs will remove many of the original limitations of Small Business Server. For instance, you will be allowed to transfer the role of operations master to another domain controller. Trust relationships will now be enabled and you will be allowed to create child domains. Terminal server will function in application mode. You will be able to move server applications to other machines in order to split the load (note that you will have to purchase additional Windows Server 2003 licenses to do this). The 75-user limit will be lifted. You will also be able to use up to four processors instead of the pre-transition limit of two.

The Transition Pack comes with full licenses for each of the server applications, five client access licenses (CALs) for each package, and a license for a single standard Windows Server 2003. Since you are now licensed for the full versions of the software, you have the option of reinstalling the server. Usually, I move everything off to new equipment and then remove and reinstall the SBS machine. As a result, all the servers will run a similar configuration. Once you have transitioned to the full versions of your applications and moved to Windows Server 2003, there are still a few things you need to know. For example, there are several group policies enforced by default that can be confusing if you don’t know they are there. For instance, SBS forces the Windows firewall to be enabled on all workstations and remote assistance to be disabled. In the standard version of Windows Server 2003, these are not normally configured this way.

I think SBS is the most reasonable and economical choice in a small business environment. It’s important to remember that you have to do your research and plan ahead. Make sure that you know exactly what you are getting and how you plan to grow the business in the short term. Opportunities for upgrade licensing are not as common as they used to be, but with SBS, if you outgrow your license limitations, Microsoft gives you a way to get credit when you need to move to the full versions of the included packages. If that’s not a win-win scenario, I don’t know what is!

Jay Shaw is an independent network consultant. His company, Network Consulting Services, is located in Long Island, New York. He can be reached at info@ncservices.net.

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