The recent news that Microsoft are discontinuing their all-in-one Small Business Server (SBS) offering sent a shockwave through the entire IT community. In a blog post on the SBS product group’s blog at the start of July, the news was made very clear: the end of an era is upon us. However, it is not just small businesses or those who specialise in working with them who should listen up and take note. This development is one of many which will define lasting change in the way we do computing, in this decade and beyond.
For those who are not in the Microsoft or the SMB market, SBS rapidly became a valuable product for companies with 75 users or fewer when it was introduced to the market. The platform was an instant winner because it combined a good number of products from the Windows Server portfolio into a single server which was very easy to manage. For the first time, small businesses were able to compete in the global marketplace alongside their enterprise rivals — realising the benefits of identical technologies, but without breaking the bank. Many companies sought a collaboration server like Exchange to manage all their communication better than they could achieve with conventional email systems. This was undoubtedly one of the most popular products to be bunded with SBS, and one which enabled many to thrive and flourish.
I owe a lot to SBS — in fact, without it, I would not be writing this article. Regular contributors at Experts Exchange may be aware that I began learning about networks and servers when I built my first server at the age of 11 to run the family computers. That server was running SBS 2003. Back then, my knowledge of networking was non-existent, but over time and with the supportive guidance from my peers at Experts Exchange, I was able to learn. I work now with a few organisations from 5 users up to several thousand, managing their infrastructure and developing solutions to help them integrate technology into their business model to position themselves and grow. For one such company, having an office staff and a snazzy computer system is unheard of in its industry, yet I have watched them develop from a small setup with a single laptop and a home office to a very successful company in their own right — and they give credit to their SBS server for helping make that happen.
So what’s the alternative?
Well, it’s not all bad news, and no, that’s not because I’m advocating we make what we already have the de facto standard for the next umpteen years and stop innovating. The replacement product comes from the Windows Server 2012 range, which has been massively revamped and simplified. It’s called Windows Server Essentials. This supports a maximum of 25 users on a single physical server and provides many of the services expected of a local server. Unfortunately, there’s a drawback. No Exchange Server. Companies are encouraged to push email hosting away from the local premises to Office 365 in Microsoft’s public cloud. The Essentials server provides integration with the Office 365 cloud to manage and control the service. It does still provide support for an on-premises Exchange Server and there is the option to use Windows Server 2012 Standard, which now allows a physical host and 2 virtual servers under a single license. However, the licensing for that must be acquired separately. Quite understandably, this strategic change in the rules of engagement has caused much controversy.
I understand and fully appreciate the intention of cloud-based computing – moving the infrastructure away from individual companies to service providers and large datacentres, increasing reliability and managing cost for the end-user. The model makes sense on the surface and has been enjoyed by many for years – consider Hotmail, one of the first cloud-based email services, joined rapidly by Yahoo! and Gmail in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The technology is not new. Indeed, Google, Microsoft, Apple et al. have been successfully pushing it for years. What is new and scary is the paradigm shift which is trying to immerse the business sector kicking and screaming into the cloud before the technology is proven. There are many issues blocking adoption of the cloud: compliance, conflicting privacy laws between countries (where the service provider is in one and the user in another) and the lack of affordable, high-speed Internet connections in all corners of the globe. For these reasons, I am not convinced that cloud is the way forward for business (and apparently, neither is Steve Wozniak). I want to know exactly where my data is and have complete control over who is permitted to access it. I cannot afford to entrust such data to another individual. If everything is in my hands, it’s my fault and my fault alone if something goes wrong. On the contrary, in the cloud, it’s impossible to know exactly what is happening to your data, nor is there any guarantee today’s data will still be there tomorrow.
There is always difficulty effecting change in just about any situation, but this becomes very prominent when the impact is global. At first, I was saddened by the loss of SBS, but at least I know there are valid options for the future. I am concerned over the direction of the IT industry and the forced shift of companies to the cloud. It is a very big worry, and many IT professionals feel their entire livelihoods have been torn from beneath their feet. However, we cannot stand still. As Paul Cunningham of exchangeserverpro.com says in his news article on this story, This is IT. Things change. You either change with them, or you die too. We do, however, need to be very careful how we play the hand we have been dealt, and moving leaps and bounds into the cloud is not a card I am about to play any time soon.