Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials: A Better Solution than you Thought (Part 1)

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

Introduction

According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, there were around 28 million small businesses in this country as of 2013. Now, the SBA’s definition of “small” might be a bit different from mine; they apply that label to any business that has fewer than 500 employees. However, their statistics also show that over 19 million of these are sole proprietorships, a tax structure used by only the smallest businesses. Many of these are part-time businesses, but bring in enough revenue to have to file taxes.

Whether part-time or full-time, companies with 1 to 25 workers have many of the same needs as large companies – just on a smaller scale. They need email, web sites, and the ability to collaborate and share documents and information with others inside and outside of the company. They may need to be able to store records in a database, and they may need a way to conduct meetings remotely with colleagues, customers, vendors and others.

What they don’t need is the expense and headaches of a whole server room full of machines that need to be tended to on a full-time basis by someone with technical expertise. That’s why many of these small organizations found a solution in Microsoft’s Small Business Server (SBS), which had its origins in the Windows NT-based BackOffice Small Business Server that was introduced way back in 1997.

A brief history of SBS and Windows Server Essentials

The idea behind SBS was to take basically the same concept used by hardware makers to create multi-function machines (printer/scanner/fax/copier) and apply it to software. SBS in its various incarnations combined the Exchange email server with the SQL Server database server, Proxy Server or its successor ISA Server, and later SharePoint services. Earlier versions also included the Outlook mail client and FrontPage HTML editor. Different versions and editions supported from 25 to 75 users.

Microsoft refined and developed SBS through its final version, SBS 2011 (which came out in late 2010). Then, in the summer of 2012, they announced that they were discontinuing SBS. I can well remember the weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth that occurred at that time; there was quite an uproar from SBS MVPs and small business IT admins who had come to depend on it as a relatively easy to deploy, cost effective “all in one” solution for small companies.

Microsoft announced, at the same time they broke the news about the demise of SBS, that its replacement would be Windows Server 2012 Essentials. Unfortunately this was more than just a name change; there was something big that was missing in WS2012 Essentials: Microsoft Exchange and the other server applications that came with SBS. Given that the cost savings of getting all of these server products in one low-priced package was the reason most customers deployed SBS in the first place, this didn’t sit well with most of them.

Microsoft’s answer to these complaints was that Windows Server Essentials, which is basically just the Windows Server operating system limited to 25 users, “allows customers the flexibility to choose which applications and services run on-premises and which run in the cloud.”  Of course small companies could buy a full copy of Exchange or SQL or SharePoint if they wanted to run those services on premises, but the cost would be far more than what they paid for SBS and the administrative overhead would be higher. Obviously, Microsoft’s “hidden agenda” (though not very well hidden) was to motivate small businesses to move their email and other server hosting needs to Office 365.

Where that leaves us today

Fast forward a couple of years to late 2014, and the cloud has gained much more acceptance. A cynic might surmise that small businesses have embraced it because they really had no other viable choice. But one can’t argue with the fact that cloud computing is beginning to mature and overcome some of the obstacles that made businesses and individuals hesitant to commit to it in earlier years.

Early concerns about security and reliability are slowly fading, as many small businesses have come to realize that the vast resources that public cloud providers have to put into securing their data centers makes cloud-hosted services, in most cases, more secure than the typical on-premises small business network.

Microsoft and Google are offering “three nines” (99.9% uptime) in their standard service level agreements (SLAs). This translates to no more than 8.76 hours of downtime per year (10.1 minutes per week), which often out-performs the reliability of small on-premises networks. There are other providers that can offer four or five nines (99.99 or 99.999% uptime) – at a higher cost, of course. This means considerably less downtime: just under 53 minutes and 5.26 minutes per year, respectively. Here is a table showing downtime for different service levels:

 

Availability %

Downtime per year

Downtime per month

Downtime per week

90%   (“one nine”)

36.5 days

72 hours

16.8 hours

95%

18.25 days

36 hours

8.4 hours

97%

10.96 days

21.6 hours

5.04 hours

98%

7.30 days

14.4 hours

3.36 hours

99%   (“two nines”)

3.65 days

7.20 hours

1.68 hours

99.5%

1.83 days

3.60 hours

50.4 minutes

99.8%

17.52 hours

86.23 minutes

20.16 minutes

99.9%   (“three nines”)

8.76 hours

43.8 minutes

10.1 minutes

99.95%

4.38 hours

21.56 minutes

5.04 minutes

99.99%   (“four nines”)

52.56 minutes

4.32 minutes

1.01 minutes

99.995%

26.28 minutes

2.16 minutes

30.24 seconds

99.999%   (“five nines”)

5.26 minutes

25.9 seconds

6.05 seconds

99.9999%   (“six nines”)

31.5 seconds

2.59 seconds

0.605 seconds

99.99999%   (“seven nines”)

3.15 seconds

0.259 seconds

0.0605 seconds

Table 1

With companies accepting the advantages of hosted Exchange, SharePoint and Lync or going to business Gmail accounts if they don’t need those other services, Windows Server Essentials begins to make more sense for small businesses.

Introducing Windows Server Essentials

When Windows Server 2012 was released, it came in four different editions: Foundation, Datacenter, Standard and Essentials. Foundation edition, limited to 15 users and 50 RRAS connections, was only available to original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and could not be bought at retail. Datacenter edition was available through volume licensing and OEMs. For small organizations, the choice was between the Standard and Essentials editions, both available through retail channels.

Essentials is limited to 25 users and 250 RRAS connections, whereas Standard supports an unlimited number of both. Standard edition also allows for many more processors and more RAM, and includes Active Directory Federation Services, Hyper-V and the ability to install in server core mode, none of which are supported by Essentials. Other than Hyper-V and perhaps server core, these are things that almost no small businesses would ever need.

In addition to a lower cost, one of the main benefits of Essentials is its simplified management, which can be done through a touch-friendly web interface. Essentials is also integrated with Office 365 to make it easy for small businesses to incorporate those services with their Active Directory. However, if the nature of your business (or your personal preference) dictates that you keep your email services on-premises, Essentials also integrates with Exchange 2013. Microsoft offered a supported migration path from SBS to Server 2012 Essentials plus Exchange 2013.

In November 2013, Microsoft released the R2 version of Windows Server Essentials, along with other editions of Windows Server 2012 R2. Interestingly, in Windows Server 2012 R2, the company provides the ability to install the “Windows Server Essentials Experience” as a server role when you install the Standard or Datacenter edition. What this does is give you the dashboard, remote web access and other features that were unique to the Essentials edition, but without the limitations on the number of users and connections and with the features (ADFS, Hyper-V, server core) that Server Essentials lacks.

Microsoft also introduced a number of new features and functionalities in the regular Server Essentials edition and made improvements to many of the existing features. Server and client deployment options were improved, and there are new functionalities for managing users and groups, storage, data protection and more. We will be looking at some of those additions and enhancements in Part 2 of this article.

Summary

When Windows Server Essentials first came out, there was a great deal of disappointment in the small business ranks, but both the consultants who deploy it for customers and the small companies themselves are now realizing that it has a lot to offer and can save them money, even though it doesn’t include all the on-premises server applications that were a part of SBS.

In this multi-part article, we’re delving into its benefits, its limitations and how it can be used to best advantage in some common small business scenarios. In Part 2, we’ll look a more detailed look at some of the enhanced and new features in Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials that can give small business admins more flexibility and control over their networks.

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

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