Microsoft Small Business Server 2003 review: Microsoft Small Business Server 2003

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MSRP: $599.00

The Good Comprehensive feature set; tight integration with Exchange and SharePoint portal services; wizards and task lists simplify setup and ongoing maintenance; competitively priced.

The Bad Still not quite DIY simple; no server-side antivirus or spam filtering; firewall in Standard Edition is limited.

The Bottom Line For small businesses that need a business in a box and want to stick with Microsoft technology, SBS 2003 is the only game in town.

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7.8 Overall
  • Setup 8
  • Features 9
  • Performance 7
  • Support 7

Review summary

Microsoft's Small Business Server (SBS) 2003 is the company's attempt to make its server software both attractive and accessible to small businesses with little IT support. The package, which costs about $100 per desktop, includes e-mail and collaboration services, Internet access with firewall, Web and intranet servers, protected data storage, and printing and faxing. For a little more, you get better security and the ability to run line-of-business applications on SQL Server 2000. If all you need are simple mail, print, and file services, you can also find competing solutions for Linux and the Mac OS. But SBS is competitively priced, more tightly integrated, and offers more out of the box. The goal of Small Business Server 2003 is simple: to provide small businesses with the same technology employed by the big boys without requiring an IT army. During our tests, we discovered that SBS 2003 is not quite do-it-yourself simple, but it isn't all that difficult, either. Anyone with a basic knowledge of servers can be up and running within a few hours of opening the box.

SBS may be purchased on its own or preinstalled on servers from vendors such as Dell and HP. A large poster guides you through the setup process, which is fairly painless if you know how your Internet connection and network are configured. Our advice is to read it carefully. The easiest way to mess up an SBS installation is to launch into it without your network properly configured.

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The task lists remind you of the steps you need to complete to set up and maintain your small business network. Many of these steps are guided by wizards.

The actual setup is a step-by-step process. The wizard includes everything from establishing the Internet connection to adding users and computers to allowing remote access, adding a network printer, and setting up regular server backups. These same wizards are used when you need to add users or make changes, either via the task list or from the standard Server Management Console, which also provides access to advanced management features.

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The Server Management Console in SBS 2003 provides access to both basic and more advanced administrative features.

Most common maintenance tasks can be done by a reasonably savvy user. To add a new desktop or notebook to your network, for example, you simply fill out a Web-based wizard that walks you through the steps. When outside help is required, it's easy to receive; remote server (and desktop) access is installed by default.

Once you get into more advanced management tasks, you run out of wizards. If you want to accept mail or host Web servers for multiple domains, for example, you're on your own. And if something goes seriously awry, you'll need someone who knows servers to bail you out. But these issues aren't common, and the same can be said of any server software.

For ease of use, SBS is rivaled only by Apple Mac OS X Server, which is very easy to install and use. Linux, on the other hand, can be a real headache even for technical people, and we would not recommend it to small businesses that don't have extensive experience with the open-source OS.
Small Business Server 2003 is not a single application. Rather, it is a collection of Microsoft technologies--all installed on a single server. Ostensibly, it competes with other server suites targeted at small business, such as Apple's Mac OS X Server and Red Hat Enterprise Linux ES, but SBS offers more-extensive features and tighter integration among the applications and services.

SBS is available in two editions: Standard and Premium. Standard Edition, with five client-access licenses, costs $599. Premium Edition, with the same number of users, sells for $1,499. You can purchase additional client licenses for $99 a pop. Microsoft offers upgrade pricing for customers moving from previous versions or from Standard to Premium to standalone versions of Microsoft server applications. But buying it all together saves money. For instance, a 50-user network consisting of standalone Microsoft server applications would cost at least $6,500 if purchased separately, compared to about $5,000 using SBS.

The core of SBS is Windows Server 2003 which provides the platform for Windows SharePoint Services, Exchange Server 2003, Shared Fax services, server backup, and Routing and Remote Access Services, including a firewall. The Premium Edition adds ISA Server 2000 for more complete firewall protection, SQL Server 2000, and Microsoft Office FrontPage 2003. With both versions, every user gets a copy of Microsoft Outlook 2003.

From the end user's perspective, SBS delivers Exchange-based e-mail, calendars, and contact lists that can be shared with other users; file sharing and network printing; and a preconfigured intranet site using SharePoint. The SharePoint collaboration tools can be used from any Web browser, but the service is also tightly integrated with Microsoft Office 2003. SBS provides several tools for remote users, including Outlook Web Access for checking Exchange mail from any PC with an Internet connection, a virtual private networking (VPN) client, and Remote Web Workplace.

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Build an instant intranet with the included SharePoint portal services, one of several features you won't find in the competition.

Despite its long list of features, SBS still leaves a few holes that small businesses will need to address, most notably antivirus and spam-blocking tools. Exchange does a good job of filtering attachments, keeping viruses and Trojan horses off users' PCs, but you'll still need to protect the server itself; most major antivirus vendors such as McAfee, Symantec, and Panda have server-based solutions for small business.

The best way to deal with spam is to use the excellent junk-mail filter in Outlook 2003. But the filter works only after the mail has been delivered to the client (in other words, it requires cached mode) and not on the server, so it is useless when accessing mail remotely using Outlook Web Access. One solution is to add a server-based spam filter such as iHateSpam, which works with SBS. (Microsoft has promised its own server-based spam filtering around the middle of the year. It should be a free upgrade.)
So-called speeds and feeds won't be the primary concern for most small businesses, and we did not measure the throughput performance of SBS 2003 for this review. Having said that, we found the performance during our testing to be completely satisfactory, with a light user load.

We conducted our tests using a Dell PowerEdge 400SC with a 2.4GHz Pentium 4 processor, 1GB of DDR memory, and two 120GB hard drives. Don't be fooled by the $400 servers. By the time you add memory, storage, tape backup, software, and other features you'll want, you should expect to pay $2,000 or more for a solid small-business server. The exact requirements will depend on the number of users you need to support.

We had no reliability issues with SBS, and the server did not crash. We did, however, have to restart the server on two occasions when the Web browsers on desktop clients somehow lost the ability to connect to the Internet, even as other applications worked properly.

We also found the firewall in the Standard Edition to be touchy as to its settings, and we recommend not changing them after the initial setup. Better would be to use an external firewall that offers greater flexibility than what the Standard Edition offers. The Premium Edition, which we did not test, includes a better built-in firewall, according to Microsoft. The service and support options for Small Business Server 2003 are complex and vary depending on how and where you purchase it.

If you buy SBS 2003 directly from Microsoft and install it yourself, you'll have access to Microsoft-moderated support forums for free, but you'll pay for one-on-one phone and online support. Microsoft monitors support forums and promises a response within 48 hours. You can also purchase support plans through Microsoft's certified support partners. These options and exact costs are all &siteid=7&edid=&lop=txt&destcat=ex&destUrl=http%3A%2F%2Fsupport%2Emicrosoft%2Ecom%2Fdefault%2Easpx%3Fscid%3Dfh%3Ben%2Dus%3BProdoffer09a%26sd%3DGN">described in detail here.

If you purchase SBS with a new server from an OEM, the manufacturer provides the service and support. Dell provides 30 days of free phone support for setup, installation, and troubleshooting issues with each license. Additional phone support is available from Dell on either a per-incident basis or for a period of time (with a maximum number of incidents). HP offers 90 days of free phone or online support for each SBS 2003 license.

Finally, many small businesses will purchase SBS 2003 through a VAR (value-added reseller). Microsoft hosts an online directory for &siteid=7&edid=&lop=txt&destcat=ex&destUrl=http%3A%2F%2Fdirectory%2Emicrosoft%2Ecom%2Fresourcedirectory%2Fsolutions%2Easpx">finding a local VAR. The support options will vary depending on the VAR you choose and the partner level.

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