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Microsoft Targeting SMBs with Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials

Microsoft has designed its forthcoming Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials product to be a "first server" for small-to-medium (SMB) businesses, according to details released by the company this month.

Microsoft released Windows Server 2012 Essentials in October. Microsoft has indicated that Windows Server 2012 R2, System Center 2012 R2 and a new version of Windows Intune will ship by year's end, so that's the timeframe in which to expect the arrival of the Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials product. However, "customer preview" test releases of Windows Server 2012 R2 and possibly Essentials R2 are expected to become available this week around the time of Microsoft's Build developer conference.

In a press briefing, Sinead O'Donovan, director of program management for Windows Server Essentials at Microsoft, said that "our schedule for Essentials will be no different from Windows Server 2012 R2." She added that this approach with Essentials R2 is new for Microsoft. For instance, the earlier Essentials release didn't coincide with the release of Windows Server 2012 but happened two months later.

Microsoft is eyeing the SMB server market because SMBs are expected to order more than 28 million on-premises servers by 2017, according to O'Donovan. SMB are increasingly adopting software as a service and bring-your-own-device support, she contended.

New Deployment Options
Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials will be available in two new ways. It will be available as a Server Edition and as a server role of Windows Server 2012 R2. The server role is called the "Windows Server Essential Experience" edition. When buying Essentials R2 as a server role, it's available with the Standard or Datacenter editions of Windows Server 2012 R2.

Microsoft has published "datasheet" and "white paper" publications that describe Essentials R2 at this page, but pricing details aren't known yet. Essentials R2, like its predecessor, supports up to 25 users and 50 devices, and O'Donovan said that "the 25-user limit probably won't change" by the time of product release. However, the limit on the number of users seems to depend on how the product is deployed.

There will be two new ways to deploy Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials: in a virtual machine (VM) or on premises as part of a server role. Microsoft eased the licensing terms to run it in a VM, according to the company's white paper description.

"With Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials, the product licensing terms have been expanded to enable you to run one operating system instance on the physical server in order to run Hyper-V, plus a second instance on that server in order to run Essentials as a virtual machine," the white paper states (p. 8).

Microsoft provided wizards that are designed to simplify setting up a VM to run Essentials R2. Clinton Ho, a virtual private networking specialist on the Windows Server Essentials team at Microsoft, said that Essentials R2 is aimed at the IT generalist, not at IT pros. He said that virtualization uptake has not been very high in the SMB space, where it has been thought to be somewhat complex. Installing a virtual instance of Essentials R2 will set up Hyper-V and it creates the VM and "all of the configuration is done for you," Ho claimed. The system detects the physical server and optimizes the VM size, he added. Running Essentials R2 in a VM is the preferred deployment option, according to Microsoft.

Essentials R2 is also optimized for use by Microsoft's hosting partners. Client Access Licenses (CALs) aren't required when Essentials R2 is offered by service providers as the licensing falls under Microsoft's Service Provider Licensing Agreement terms. However, when Essentials R2 is installed as server role, then it depends on the CAL model, which allows organizations to go beyond the 25-user limit, according to Microsoft's white paper.

"Because Standard and Datacenter utilize the Windows Server Client Access License (CAL) model, it is possible to have more than 25 users with access to the Essentials feature set," Microsoft's white paper states (p. 7).

Microsoft had some scalability limitations with the earlier Windows Small Business Server 2011 product, which is no longer being sold after this month. O'Donovan said that with Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials, "everything available in Windows Server is in the role." She added that Microsoft added some "locks and restrictions for the lower price point," although she didn't elaborate. Microsoft no longer bundles Exchange Server in Essentials as it did with its Windows Small Business Server 2011 product. That decision was taken to provide greater flexibility to organizations, according to Microsoft, including perhaps tapping Exchange Online or other such online services.

Simplified Set-Up and Management
Microsoft isn't aiming at deep technologists with Essentials R2, so it did things like making it easier for users to deploy virtual private networks, tap Storage Spaces (pooling the storage space of mixed storage media) and have access to low-cost redundant storage using wizards. Essentials R2 users typically won't use System Center for management tasks, so Microsoft provided "good-enough tools" in its Essentials R2 Dashboard for PC backup, system health monitoring and client access controls. Microsoft turns on Active Directory and Internet Information Services by default in Essentials to make it simpler for smaller organizations deploying their first servers. The product is also deeply integrated with Microsoft's Office 365 services, Windows Azure Active Directory and the Windows Azure Online Backup service.

Microsoft's white paper states that "Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials automatically backs up your client computers to the server and can help you easily restore the entire computer or individual files and folders from its backup." It's possible to restore individual files via "File History" support for Windows 8 and Windows 8.1 clients, or an entire computer can be restored. The Windows Azure Online Backup service is conceived as a secondary backup option on top of traditional hard-disk backup storage.

Microsoft added two new storage improvements in Essentials R2. SharePoint libraries are now integrated in the product and Microsoft added a server folders view, according to Jason Anderson, a program manager on Microsoft's Windows Essentials team. He added that health monitoring is now richer across devices and IT generalists can set up reports and have them distributed via e-mail according to a pre-set schedule.

Virtual private networks are set up in Essentials to automatically connect for remote connections using Microsoft's DirectAccess technology. Microsoft has set up some PowerShell scripts to enable the use of DirectAccess in Essentials R2, and it has improved its hotfix capability. During a Q&A, Microsoft officials said that it is "still using a white paper approach for DirectAccess" and that its use is still expected to be just a niche part of the SMB space.

Remote access to files is facilitated by a "Remote Web Access" feature, which Microsoft describes as a Web site that gets created automatically after installing Essentials R2. The Web site is used as secure access point for accessing clients and servers, as well as folders and files. IT generalists running Essentials R2 have a few client options for remotely accessing the server. They can use a My Server app for Windows 8 or Windows RT clients to perform administrative tasks, or there's a My Server app for Windows Phone 7 or Windows Phone 8 devices with the same remote management functionality.

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