Review: Windows Essential Business Server 2008 Release Candidate 1

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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.

The experience

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.

EBS administration console
This provides a single-pane view of network health and allows you to manage servers, users, computers, licensing and other parts of your deployment.

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.

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