Windows Server 2012 Essentials: Easy small business Internet and cloud

Windows Server 2012 Essentials gives small businesses many options, including built-in hooks to cloud-hosted Office 365-based email and more economical backup and disaster preparedness.

Microsoft announced a new product last year, Windows Server 2012 Essentials, a packaged solution for small and mid-size companies with less than 25 users. Windows Server 2012 Essentials provides easier setup, installation, and migration experiences--and a simplified management experience--compared to "out of the box" Windows Server 2012 Standard or Datacenter editions. Consider that with Windows Server 2012 Essentials, users get a slick web-based, touch-friendly login to their on-premise desktop computers not available with any other Microsoft product.

Figures A and B show the login and landing page experience for small business employees. Also, because Windows Server 2012 Essentials has built-in hooks to Office 365, it is particularly suited to small businesses that want to integrate on-premise Active Directory with cloud-hosted Office 365-based email services. Many service providers are also using Windows Server 2012 Essentials to answer customer demand for migration from legacy Small Business Server (SBS) solutions.

Figure A

Modern-looking login page to Remote Web Access of Windows Server 2012 Essentials

Figure B

Home page for Remote Web Access: Simple, easy-to-use interface for getting to computers and data

Why consider Windows Server 2012 Essentials

Often a smart decision for a small business is to move their formerly on-premise email server solution to a public cloud offering. Many issues like higher email services availability, lower administration costs, and shifting disaster tolerance responsibility to the cloud provider drive the economics and business sense in this mega-trend. Here are two others:

  • It can be just too plain expensive to perform backup and proper disaster preparedness and archiving with on-premise messaging infrastructure.
  • Organizations of any size that depend on Internet access and power to their main (or only) office, know they are in some state of peril compared to services delivered from a hardened datacenter.

There are exceptions to this equation where the small business owner can essentially choose to pay more for on-premise email that remains "in control." For example, Exchange 2013 includes sophisticated content filtering features to enhance protection of intellectual property (IP). A small business with demanding compliance management needs is a great customer to use on-premise Exchange 2013 with Windows Server 2012 Essentials instead of Office 365-based mailboxes.

Windows Server 2012 Essentials supports this configuration as well, that is, either on-premise Exchange or in-public-cloud Office 365. Using both email services at the same time (a hybrid messaging environment) is not supported by Windows Server 2012 Essentials at this time. Microsoft must consider that a business small enough to run Windows Server 2012 Essentials (25 users and 50 devices is the limit) will not operate in hybrid cloud mode, at least for their email system.

Small Business Server (SBS) successor

Microsoft has had a bundled email server with every release of their small business solution since 1997, when Microsoft BackOffice Server 4.0 Small Business Edition included Exchange Server 5.0. The most recent small business solution before Windows Server 2012 Essentials--Small Business Server 2011, included Exchange 2010 as a core component. Breaking a 16 year business model, Windows Server 2012 Essentials is the successor to that product line and it contains no built-in email system.

Service providers and small business consultants have built profitable and mutually satisfying business relationships with SBS customers in this decade and a half. Those partners need to provide value in an increasingly cloud-based IT landscape. Delivering a cloud migration and/or legacy SBS upgrade experience with a Windows Server 2012 Essentials framework is a valid business model.

There is a supported migration model from SBS to Windows Server 2012 Essentials that includes Exchange on a separate on-premise server, for customers that can't move to Office 365. So either moving to Office 365 for email--or migrating off SBS 2008 or SBS 2011 to Exchange 2010 or Exchange 2013, you can use Windows Server 2012 Essentials for a consistent administration and client experience.

Simplified administration and management Consider that Windows Server 2012 Essentials adds small network management functionality to the Windows server and network administrator experience. A daily health report that is easy to read alerts key staff members, or service providers, of backup, updating, or other failures on servers and client computers and devices. Figure C demonstrates this effective but simple value: At a glance on your mobile device you know there is one service on your server not running, and that the server is also waiting to be restarted to load security updates.

Figure C

Daily Health Report from Windows Server 2012 Essentials on a mobile device screen
Consider the value of just the daily health report seen in Figure C. For example, the Server Backup status can be verified each day by either a green checkmark, or other alerts if backups were not occurring as expected. Just having a means to easily detect failed backups within a day of their occurrence is actually high value information. Figure D shows off the Essentials Dashboard, a brutally simple but functional user interface for key network administration tasks.

Figure D

The administration console for Windows Server 2012 Essentials: a study in simplified design.
For an appreciation for how much the Windows Server 2012 Essentials server experience adds over a conventional installation of Windows Server 2012 Standard or Datacenter editions, notice in Figure E the nine (9) roles configured in Windows Server 2012 Server Manager. Administrators familiar with configuring all those individual components, in particular the Active Directory certificate server (AD CS) and Remote Desktop Services (RDS), can attest that without scripting that would be a time-consuming and even complex procedure to accomplish all on one server.

Figure E

The Windows Server 2012 Essentials server experience adds and configures all these roles automatically.

Client Launchpad focuses on backup and shared access with Mac support

Figure F shows the Launchpad of a Windows Server 2012 Essentials client-side applet installed on each computer (PC or Mac) of the small business network. A purpose of the client-side applet is to monitor backups of the local PC to a network drive (or Mac Time Machine), and alert the user of backup failures. Adding a framework for the small business network to deploy monitored backups of the Windows Server 2012 Essentials server itself and some or all of the client computers is a major feature of the Windows Server 2012 Essentials solution.

Figure F

The Windows Server Essentials 2012 Launch Pad application for PCs (left), and Macs (right)
The Launchpad applet is automatically installed when connecting network computers to the Windows Server 2012 Essentials domain using their web browsers. See the "connect" web page in Figure G.
  • Small business PC users browse to the "servername/connect" folder of the Windows Server 2012 Essentials server to download and run an application that joins their Windows 7 or Windows 8 computer to the domain and applies desired backup and security policies.
  • Mac users browse to the same page to download a small application. There is a Mac-specific package that also auto-opens a Launchpad, which integrates with Time Machine in the same manner as Windows Backup. Shared folders on the Windows side are pre-authenticated by the Mac Launchpad, enabling easy access by Mac users.

Figure G

PC and Mac users browse to an internal web page to enable Windows Server 2012 Essentials integration features.

By John Joyner

John Joyner, MCSE, CMSP, MVP Cloud and Datacenter Management, is senior architect at ClearPointe, a cloud provider of systems management services. He is co-author of the "System Center Operations Manager: Unleashed" book series from Sams Publishing, ...