Managing Exchange Online using Server 2012 R2 Essentials Experience Role (Part 1)

If you would like to read the other parts in this article series please go to:

Introduction

Microsoft announced Windows Server 2012 Essentials back in the summer of 2012 as the next version of what used to be called Small Business Server (SBS) Essentials. This was, in many ways, the end of an era.

SBS was very popular as it was without a doubt a great platform: it contained in one box all of the elements a business could need such as the server’s operating system and management tools, together with SharePoint Server and Exchange Server. However, the two main problems with SBS were its 25 licenses limit and the fact it did not provide an easy upgrade path for companies once their needs grew larger than what SBS could handle.

Since SBS 4.0 launched back in 1997, e-mail functionality was provided in all versions of SBS by having Exchange Server installed on the SBS box itself. Eventually, this changed when Microsoft divided SBS 2011 into Standard (with Exchange built-in) and Essentials (without Exchange built-in).

Windows Server 2012 Essentials has been designed to work with three different types of e-mail systems:

  • Office 365;
  • Hosted Exchange;
  • On-premises Exchange.

The first two are very much what SBS 2011 Essentials was also designed to do. Through add-ins in the Essentials console, administrators could manage a large part of the e-mail system even though it was hosted in the cloud. The last one, however, is different as on-premises Exchange is not Exchange built into the SBS server itself, but a separate Exchange server. This has been the biggest complaint about Windows Server 2012 Essentials: the lack of Exchange and SharePoint.

On the other hand, Windows Server 2012 Essentials running on the right hardware can provide small businesses with everything they need to continue managing most of their IT infrastructure from one box. It may not be as simple to set up, but it does offer greater flexibility for small businesses to choose on-premises or cloud-based solutions, migrate from one to the other, or rely on a hybrid of both.

But we are not here to talk about Windows Server 2012 Essentials, but instead explore the new Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials Experience Role.

Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials Experience Role

Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials is an ideal first server for small businesses with up to 25 users and 50 devices. For organizations with up to 100 users and 200 devices, we can now use a Windows Server 2012 R2 server with the Windows Server Essentials Experience role installed.

This role, which can be installed on a “normal” Windows Server 2012 R2 Standard or Datacenter edition server, has the following limitations:

Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials Essentials Experience role in Windows Server 2012   R2
Must be the domain controller at the root of the forest and domain, and must hold all the FSMO roles. Does not have to be a domain controller if it is installed in an environment with a pre-existing Active Directory domain.
Cannot be installed in an environment with a pre-existing Active Directory domain. If an Active Directory domain does not exist, installing the role will create an Active Directory domain, and the server will become the domain controller at the root of the forest and domain, holding all the FSMO roles.
Can only be deployed into a single domain. Can only be deployed into a single domain.
A read-only domain controller cannot exist in the domain. A read-only domain controller cannot exist in the domain.

Table 1

Image A major disadvantage that existed   until very recently, was that the online services integration features of the Essentials Experience role, including Azure Active Directory and Office   365, were only supported in environments with a single domain controller…   In environments with more than one domain controller, integration of these   services was blocked due limitations in the user account and password   synchronization mechanism. This has finally been overcome with the release of   the Windows August Update, which added support for both Azure Active   Directory integration and Office 365 integration features in domain   environments consisting of a single domain controller, multiple domain   controllers, or Windows Server Essentials as a domain member server. For more   information, please refer to http://support.microsoft.com/kb/2974308.

When we install the Windows Server Essentials Experience role, we can take advantage of all the features that are available in Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials without the locks and limits enforced in it. It enables organizations to:

  • Protect servers and clients’ data by backing up servers and client computers within the network using Windows Azure Backup;
  • Manage users and groups through the server’s Dashboard. In addition, integration with Windows Azure Active Directory enables easy data access for Microsoft online services users (such as Exchange Online and SharePoint Online users) through their domain credentials (password sync);
  • Store company’s data in a centralized location;
  • Integrate with Microsoft online services such as Exchange Online, SharePoint Online and Windows Intune:
    • Integration with Office 365 enables administrators to synchronize and manage Office 365 user accounts and access through the Dashboard;
    • Integration with SharePoint Online enables administrators to create and manage SharePoint libraries through the Dashboard.
  • Use the Anywhere Access functionalities on the server (such as Remote Web Access and virtual private networks) to access the server, network computers and data from remote locations in a highly secure manner;
  • Access data from any location and on any device by using the company’s customized web portal (through Remote Web Access);
  • Manage ActiveSync mobile devices that access company’s e-mail by using Office 365;
  • Monitor network health and obtain customized health reports.

As the title of this article suggests, we are going to explore how to manage Exchange Online using the Windows Server Essentials Experience role.

Essentials Experience Role and Office 365

Windows Server 2012 Essentials and the Essentials Experience role build on the previous Office 365 Integration Module for SBS 2011 Essentials. This option is now part of the core product (not a separate download) and provides a seamlessly integrated management experience on Essentials for customers who are using Exchange Online.

On top of the core feature set that was included in the Office 365 Integration Module for SBS 2011 Essentials, such as integrated user account management and automatic user password synchronization, Microsoft also made a few enhancements to make the experience better:

  • Support for multiple e-mail addresses. Having multiple domains and/or assigning multiple e-mail addresses to a single user are common scenarios even for small businesses. Now it is finally possible to easily do that from within the Essentials’ Dashboard;
  • Improved Office 365 domain configuration wizard. In the Office 365 Integration Module for SBS 2011 Essentials, administrators were required to configure Remote Web Access (RWA) when configuring a domain for Office 365, which caused a lot of confusion. For example, administrators had to provide an SSL certificate which was not actually needed by Office 365, but was required by RWA. Now these two have been de-coupled. Another improvement is the option to configure a different domain name for Office 365 and for RWA, allowing small businesses to continue to use the same free domain names like letsexchange.remotewebaccess.com for RWA on Essentials and a different domain name for e-mail in Office 365;
  • Display mailbox usage information. The Office 365 tab on the Essentials Dashboard now shows the mailbox usage information.

Now that we know what the Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials Experience Role is, in the next article we will be installing it and integrating it with Office 365.

Conclusion

In the first part of this article series, we started by looking at Windows Server 2012 Essentials and the new Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials Experience Role. In the next part, we will be installing it and integrating it with Office 365.

If you would like to read the other parts in this article series please go to:

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