Review: Windows Small Business Server 2003 R2

SBS has always been about bringing the 'big guns' to smaller outfits, and this release is no exception

Microsoft Corp. has long seen the value in providing computing and server solutions to small and midsize businesses, although only recently has it put more of its industrial-strength marketing presence behind its product line in that arena. Microsoft released Windows Small Business Server 2003 R2, an update to the version of SBS released in late 2003.

R2 integrates many of the improvements included in Windows Server 2003 R2 -- the core operating system of the SBS product -- and increases the focus on client and server security and updates. Let's take a look.

New features and how to get them

Most things are as they were in SBS 2003 -- Windows Server 2003, Exchange Server 2003 and so on. The core components of the suite haven't changed that much. A couple of newcomers -- one to the Standard edition and another to the Premium edition -- make the difference. The most prominent new features and enhancements to R2 over the previous version of SBS are as follows:

  • The "green check" of software health. While SBS networks have always been supported by Microsoft update tools like Software Update Services and Windows SUS, those tools haven't been specifically integrated into the SBS paradigm. The "green check of health" refers to the results given by an integrated version of WSUS, with special reports and an easy-to-use administrative interface that takes care of updates for the SBS server, any additional servers running on the network and all client machines. The setup, administration and reporting tools are unique to SBS and designed to insulate the small-business owner from having to worry about deploying WSUS in his environment. Daily reports let the administrator, or the consultant he has hired, know of the status.   
  • SQL Server 2005 Workgroup Edition. Previous versions of SBS included a pretty limited version of SQL Server, whereas with SBS 2003 R2, users get access to a much more powerful and capable SQL product than they've had before. (The naming is unfortunate.)   
  • Expanded client-access license (CAL) rights. SBS 2003 R2 customers can use their CALs to access additional servers running Windows Server 2003, Exchange Server 2003 and SQL Server 2005 Workgroup Edition on the SBS 2003 R2 network. As before, no duplicate CALs are needed when new servers are deployed on the network as the business grows.

Current SBS 2003 with Service Pack 1 customers may be able to upgrade to R2 using the Technology Upgrade Program to receive SBS 2003 R2. Through this program, you can receive a copy of the R2 Upgrade Media Kit if you purchase SBS 2003 with SP1, either Standard or Premium edition, preinstalled on a new server from a reseller or a registered System Builder during the eligibility period from March 1, 2006, through Nov. 30, 2006.

SBS customers with Software Assurance, the bulk license agreements they can individually sign with Microsoft, will be able to obtain SBS 2003 R2 without purchasing a new server license, only the cost of shipping the media. SBS customers without Software Assurance will only be able to purchase a new version upgrade package via retail channels and stores.

The recall issue

You might have heard about a minor recall in late summer regarding the final version of R2 shipped in some quantity to retail channels. Microsoft did a routine check of the media it released to manufacturing and discovered that some beta and release-candidate versions of certain files had been included. While these nonfinal versions wouldn't really have affected operating servers, Microsoft Update services to the machine would have been affected.

Microsoft recalled all of the faulty media and shipped new, audited, totally final versions out -- they're now all where they should be, in stores and other venues, and have been since September 2006. If you purchased SBS 2003 from July through early September from a reseller, and haven't yet gotten in touch with it about this recall, do so now.

My verdict

I have always been fond of SBS. It's struck me many times that small and even midsize businesses often neglect their IT needs and do not take the time to determine how effective computing can really make them more efficient and increase their profitability.

SBS has always been about bringing the "big guns" -- the industrial-strength, Fortune 500 servers and their feature sets -- to smaller outfits, and SBS 2003 R2 is no exception. With R2, businesses no longer have to shell out significant amounts of cash to have consultants come to their sites every time Patch Tuesday rolls around. They get the database tools to run a full-fledged e-commerce site or modest data-mining outfit, and the collaborative and groupware capabilities are better than they ever have been.

The value of upgrading from SBS 2003 to SBS 2003 R2 is less clear to me, considering the expense, particularly for organizations that aren't running up against the product's boundaries or limitations. But for new businesses, R2 is a great way to go.

Jonathan Hassell is an author, consultant and speaker on a variety of IT topics. His published works include RADIUS, Hardening Windows, Using Windows Small Business Server 2003 and Learning Windows Server 2003 (O'Reilly, 2006). His work appears regularly in such periodicals as Windows IT Pro magazine, PC Pro and TechNet Magazine. He also speaks worldwide on topics ranging from networking and security to Windows administration. He is currently an editor at Apress LLC, a publishing company specializing in books for programmers and IT professionals.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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