Windows Server 2012 Essentials Beta Released

Microsoft made a beta test version of Windows Server 2012 Essentials available for download on Wednesday.

This release has notable changes from its predecessor, Windows SBS 2011 Essentials, which Microsoft plans to discontinue. The changes in 2012 Essentials are partly technical, but also reflect a forthcoming server product realignment that Microsoft announced earlier this month. For instance, Microsoft described the editions to come for its Windows Server 2012 products, which are expected to arrive in September. Along with that announcement, Microsoft explained that it was discontinuing Windows SBS and Windows Home Server, which targeted small business users.

Windows Server 2012 Essentials will remain as a surviving server option for small businesses, along with Windows Server 2012 Foundation. A Microsoft FAQ (PDF download) vaguely explains the difference between the two products. Microsoft is marketing Essentials as a "first-server option for small business customers" that have in-house IT skills limitations, whereas Foundation is designed for organizations with a "greater level of IT skill." The Foundation edition will support up to 15 user accounts, while Essentials will support "up to 25 uses [sic] and 50 devices," according to Microsoft's FAQ. Both products won't require purchasing Client Access Licenses, or CALs -- a contract and expense that permits user access to Microsoft's server products.

Scalability to a Degree?
One big benefit for small business users of Essentials 2012 is that they will be able to perform "an in-place upgrade" to Windows Server 2012 Standard, should the need arise, according to a Microsoft blog post by Joe Nalewabau, a group program manager on the Windows Server Essentials team. Nalewabau said that Windows Server 2012 Standard is "fully supported for up to 75 users and 75 devices," although he added a vague cautionary note about there being "maximum supportability limits for the Essentials 2012 features" (which is 25 users and 50 devices).

Rob Helm, managing vice president at the Directions on Microsoft independent consultancy speculated that this limitation language has to do with what Microsoft has tested so far.

"I think the problem is that Essentials has features like Remote Web Access that are not in Standard," he explained by e-mail. "With Essentials 2011, if you upgraded to Standard, you lost those features completely. With 2012 Essentials, it appears that those features will be available on Standard, but they have still only been tested with up to 75 clients. 'Supportability' probably means that customers might be able to go over the 75-client limit, but they shouldn't go complaining to Microsoft product support if something breaks as a result. Incidentally, I think the number 75 was chosen because that is the maximum number of users for Small Business Server 2011, even though Small Business Server won't get a 2012 version."

Microsoft didn't clarify the point, but just claimed that upgrading to Standard allows a sort of scalability.

"With Essentials, customers can grow with the needs of their business over time; you can purchase and convert to Windows Server 2012 Standard, removing the maximum user and device limits while retaining all your data and configuration settings as well as the unique value-add features that Essentials provides," a Microsoft spokesperson stated by e-mail.

Another benefit to come in Essentials 2012 is the ability to tap another on-premises server to deliver e-mail. Alternatively, users can configure Essentials 2012 to work with hosted Microsoft Exchange or Microsoft's Office 365 service. Nalewabau explained in the blog that "in SBS 2011 Essentials, we had an add-in for Office 365 connectivity, but no integration was possible with an existing Exchange Server running locally on a second server."

Other Perks
Microsoft is promising better support for "line-of-business" applications in Essentials 2012. While Essentials is based on Windows Server, some application providers didn't acknowledge Essentials' support for their applications, Nalewabau explained. Microsoft is currently working on that problem with its partners.

"Applications that pass the Windows Server 2012 Application Logo Certification requirements will also meet the requirements of working on Essentials 2012," Nalewabau wrote.

Apparently, Microsoft's developer partners working with Windows SBS won't be left in lurch when Essentials 2012 is released. Nalewabau claimed that "existing add-ins for SBS 2011 Essentials and WHS 2011 continue to run in Essentials 2012."

Microsoft also plans to integrate Essentials 2012 with the Microsoft Online Backup Service. No details were provided about the service, which taps Microsoft's Windows Azure cloud-based operating system. Microsoft previously announced that this service will be available for Windows Server 2012 users, but it hasn't indicated whether it will be an extra cost or not.

Microsoft is also promising compatibility between Essentials 2012 and Windows 8. For instance, Remote Web Access in Essentials 2012 will provide support for Windows 8-based and Apple iPad mobile devices. The LaunchPad client will be available in Windows 8 Metro form, allowing remote management of the Essentials 2012 server. Essentials 2012 also will work with some Windows 8 features, such as "storage spaces" and "File History." Essentials 2012 is now capable of supporting backups for volumes "greater than 2 terabytes," according to Microsoft's FAQ.

Lastly, Nalewabau said that Microsoft has updated a Windows Phone 7 client app to work with Essentials 2012 servers. It's not clear which app he's referring to, but Microsoft did release a Windows Phone 7 Connector application that enables server management and remote media-file streaming. It's currently available for download as version 1.1.

Fallout for Older Products
Microsoft plans to phase out sales of its current Windows SBS product offerings. Microsoft's OEM partners will stop selling Windows SBS 2011 Standard on Dec. 31, 2013, and other channels will stop selling it on June 30, 2013, according to Microsoft's FAQ. Windows Home Server 2011 will meet a similar end date by the end of December 2013.

The Premium Add-on to Windows SBS 2011 and Window SBS 2011 Essentials, which added SQL Server application support, access to Window Server 2008 R2 technologies and virtualization, will no longer be sold by OEMs on Dec. 31, 2012. Other channels will stop offering it two months earlier than that date.

Microsoft is promising users of the 2011 Windows SBS products with Software Assurance (SA) coverage that they will be able to upgrade to the new products. For Windows SBS 2011 Standard users with SA, they'll get "one Windows Server 2012 Standard license and one Exchange Server 2012 Standard license," according to the FAQ. Those customers with the 2011 Premium Add-on will get "one Windows Server 2012 Standard license and one SQL Server 2012 Standard license."