Essential Business Server: Best Practices in a Box

While many partners eagerly await the debut of the solution formerly known as "Centro," some grumble that Microsoft's midmarket server bundle leaves them with too few third-party options.

Steve Rubin has seen the future and he wants other Microsoft partners to know it's looking pretty good.

As a member of Microsoft's Technical Adoption Program (TAP) for Essential Business Server (EBS), Rubin's WorkITsafe LLC, a small New York City-based managed services company, has had a working preview of EBS, installing it at a medical company and a fast-growing small business in need of a larger system.

The experience has been a happy one. Rubin says installing the new system was "supersonic," taking only about six total hours, not counting migration. A number of WorkITsafe small business customers who seemed like good candidates for EBS are already excited by the prospect of the all-in-one product that can take a growing company beyond the limits of Microsoft's Small Business Server (SBS).

"The feedback from our current clients who fit the profile for EBS is very warm and exciting. Some say, 'As soon as it's ready we'd like to have it installed,'" he says. "This is going to be something that will fly off the shelf. It has a lot going for it."

Rubin isn't alone in his enthusiasm for the new product, which, at press time, was scheduled for release in November. The buzz is already strong among both partners and their clients. Some participants in the TAP program rave about the new product's ease of deployment, pricing and market potential. The partners, generally from the small business sector, all see EBS as a gateway to bigger markets.

"We can now go after that midlevel market with a product that we're pretty comfortable using," says John Endter, president of E Squared C LLC, a seven-person Gold Certified Partner and IT services company based outside Reno, Nev. "It will be an easy move for us."

At the same time, some partners have expressed concern about the fact that EBS comes bundled with certain other Microsoft products, which they say reduces opportunities for them to make their own recommendations regarding third-party solutions.

In development for three years, EBS (previously known by its code name, "Centro") represents a major commitment to the midsize business market. Endter calls it "Small Business Server on steroids," comparing EBS's similarities to that successful product. Like SBS, EBS is a ready-to-go package. It consists of three Windows Server 2008 licenses to support a management server featuring System Center Essentials 2007, a messaging server featuring Exchange Server 2007 and a security server featuring Forefront Threat Management Gateway. A Premium Edition adds a fourth license of Windows Server 2008 for a database server running SQL Server 2008. (For more details, see "Essential Business Server at a Glance.")

Some partners are particularly excited about an EBS feature called Remote Web Workplace, a built-in portal for viewing and managing an entire system from remote locations. Endter says that in the past such a feature for midsize customers required special programming throughout the system that could cost from $50,000 to $100,000 extra. But the advanced capability is part of the standard package in EBS.

"That's going to be the one thing that sells EBS the most," Endter says. "It's the icing on the cake."

Joel Sider, a senior product manager in Microsoft's Windows Server solutions group, says the EBS package is designed and priced for midsize companies with an added bonus: "It's 30 percent less expensive to buy EBS than all the technology within it," Sider says. "It unifies all the products, technologies, deployment and management."

A pricing preview released in May costs out the EBS Standard Edition software, including five client access licenses (CALs), at $5,472. Customers can purchase additional CALs for $81 each -- another feature allowing them to tailor licensing to their exact needs. The Premium Edition is tentatively priced at $7,163; individual CALs are $195.

Partners who have worked with EBS extol another benefit beyond pricing: the ease of installation. Gold Certified Partner itSynergy, a Phoenix-based network-infrastructure specialist, recently performed two landmark installations under Microsoft's adoption program. The first, for a homebuilding company with multiple locations in Arizona, was considered the most complex EBS installation to date. The other, for a behavioral health company, was considered the largest installation, involving 120 users.

itSynergy President Michael Cocanower says each installation took just one weekend to complete.

"It went remarkably well," he says. "It took a lot of planning and lab work, but if you were to duplicate the environment with individual products, there's no way it could be done in a weekend."

Cocanower says this speed of installation will be a big selling point for EBS, especially when it includes previously tricky system-wide features such as Remote Web Workplace.

"For the midmarket, it does sell itself," he says. "Installations in the past have been slow and complex. This really gives customers the ability to leapfrog the process in one fell swoop."

Rubin is equally enthusiastic about his company's TAP experience. One medical-company client was converted to EBS from a Windows 2003 system; another was outgrowing its SBS system. In each case, migration was nearly flawless.

"The tools are easier and more sophisticated," Rubin says. "The transition went very smoothly and they are very, very happy and excited so far."

Essential Business Server at a Glance

Built on the foundation of Microsoft's popular Small Business Server, the soon-to-be released Essential Business Server (EBS) offers a beefed-up, out-of-the-box solution for midsize business customers. Here's a look at EBS in a nutshell:

EBS will be available in two packages. The standard package consists of three Windows Server 2008 licenses to support:

  • A management server that includes Networking, Active Directory, File & Print, System Center Essentials 2007 and Windows Server 2008.
  • A messaging server featuring Exchange Server 2007, Windows Server 2008 and Forefront Security for Exchange Server.
  • A security server with Windows Server 2008, Exchange Server 2007 and Forefront Threat Management Gateway for Medium Business. The premium edition adds a database server that runs Windows Server 2008 and the standard edition of SQL Server 2008.

Power plus simplicity: Although EBS can support up to 300 users or devices, it's also earning kudos for simplicity of use. EBS reduces the number of setup screens from the 129 you'd typically find on a similar a la carte bundle down to just 30. The EBS package also comes with 25 preconfigured security settings and 300 pages of best-practices documentation. "It has the same IT horsepower as the big systems, but doesn't require a large staff or resources," says Joel Sider of Microsoft's Windows Server Solutions Group.

Remote access: Much pre-release buzz centers on the solution's Remote Web Workplace feature, which allows business owners, IT staff and partners who provide managed services to view and manage EBS through a remote portal. "It offers a better visual overview of how the domain is looking at any point in time," explains early adopter Steve Rubin of WorkITsafe LLC.

Streamlined implementation: The out-of-the-box concept also makes for much easier installation and data migration, according to partners who have worked with EBS through Microsoft's Technical Adoption Program.

EBS Standard Edition: With five Client Access License (CALs) costs $5,472; additional CALs are $81 each.

EBS Premium Edition: With five CALS costs $7,163; additional CALs are $195 each.

At press time, EBS was scheduled to become available Nov. 12.

-- F.B.

One potential downside to EBS could be the same simplicity of deployment that's earning the TAP partners' praise. Easy installation, of course, could mean fewer billable hours. But balanced against that potential revenue dip are the promises of new customers and services. To a person, the partner-company executives interviewed for this article viewed their ability to move into the midsize business market as more than sufficient compensation for any reduction in hourly charges for installation. Another plus: that remote portal, which makes it easier and more efficient for partners to offer managed services to both existing and new clients. Says Endter: "Billable time may involve less actual hours to get the server up and running, but I can see a lot more hours in helping them utilize it fully."

Erik Thorsell, president of Success Computer Consulting Inc., a Minneapolis, Minn.-based Gold Certified Partner with a client base that's weighted toward SBS operations, sees EBS as just the thing to help his company move into bigger waters. "It's a huge opportunity to move into the lower midmarket sector," he says. "It will be a nice arrow in our quiver. It lets us have a repeatable process for deploying networks in our space and saves a lot of time and money."

Microsoft officials believe that some savings that customers realize from installing EBS rather than more expensive a la carte systems will be spent on other products and services, further enriching partners' bottom lines and client relationships.

"Lower licensing costs would allow customers to apply the savings to partner services, such as SharePoint customization, to allow better collaboration and document management," says Aanal Bhatt, who manages Microsoft's marketing and training efforts. "The partner ends up making more money because of the services, and customers gain improved productivity."

Bhatt also touts the simplicity of EBS, describing the product's "best practices out of the box" approach as another boon to partner bottom lines. "Because they can build a standardized product, it can lower costs at the same time," she says.

Despite all the positive feedback, some partners have reservations about EBS's all-in-one approach. "I have questions about the whole bundling of various products into one solution that's mandatory," says Stuart Crawford, vice president of business development for IT Matters Inc., a Calgary-based Gold Certified Partner specializing in computer and networking services.

Crawford uses the example of Microsoft's inclusion of Forefront security applications in EBS. He says his company would rather use a third-party antivirus solution, as it's done in the past. But EBS won't allow that practice. Crawford says he'd prefer a system similar to Microsoft's midmarket bundle product, which allowed partners to be more selective about adding or subtracting various solutions.

"I'd like to have the option to use another product with [EBS] or make other changes," says Crawford. He adds that, in his discussion with other partners, he's finding "mixed emotions" over the issue: "Some people are excited about EBS and others wish they could pick and choose."

While Endter sees mandatory bundling as an issue for some partners, he considers a tightly integrated, extensively tested solution a better option for partners than a constant string of customization projects.

Drawing the analogy of customizing a car for more speed, Endter says garage hobbyists had a long history of struggling to integrate third-party components, such as manifolds and carburetors, with production-line engines.

"This worked, but you wound up with a car that you always tinkered with and it did have some downtime," he says. "The history of servers has followed a similar path. We used to purchase just the server operating system and add third-party management tools. EBS is the first edition of a tightly integrated server solution. Remove any one of the components and replace it with a third-party component and you jeopardize the stability of the system."

Microsoft's Sider says EBS's all-in-one approach is designed to make deployment and management that much simpler and more efficient for partners. But he notes that it's also designed to allow partners to manage third-party applications through the EBS administration console. Several ISVs "are already making it possible for their applications to function as EBS add-ins," he says.

Endter says the timing of EBS couldn't be better. He tells of an engineering-company client that's been running Exchange 2003 for five years and is now looking for a sizable upgrade to meet its growth-related needs. Because of his experience with EBS, he's advised the client to drop its plans to go with an a la carte system and wait for the November release instead. In fact, "I think a majority of the [EBS] business will be the upgrade of current systems," he says.

Along the same lines, many companies are looking to consolidate the scattered collection of servers they've added over the past years-a goal that EBS can help them achieve.

"You can move from five or six servers down to three or four," Endter explains. "With fewer servers doing more work, you save power, heat and lots of money in the long run."

All these superlatives aren't to say that partners won't have to hustle to market the new product. Several, including Rubin, are planning presentation events around the time of EBS's official release. Cocanower wants to draw on the TAP experience by offering a reduced-rate installation to a nonprofit, using the work as a case study for other clients.

"It shows our competence and has a feel-good component -- a win-win situation for everybody," he says.

Microsoft, of course, is helping promote the product as well. In March, the company held a public preview for partners featuring its new Window Essential Server Solutions product line, and Bhatt says the company plans to make on-demand demonstrations available as well. Microsoft is also developing the tools to allow partners to use personalized e-mail marketing.

Partners are preparing for the product release through both experimentation as well as specific training regimes. Success Computer Consulting has started tinkering with an EBS system in its lab as a way of familiarizing its engineers with the product. "It's important that they understand what it can do and what it can't," says Thorsell, the company's president.

Cocanower strongly recommends the same approach, including test migrations, to partners interested in selling EBS. "I can't tell you how beneficial it's been in our learning process," he says.

Microsoft offers a smorgasbord of programs designed to help partners estimate what to expect from EBS in terms of skills and investments needed. "It helps them identify those gaps," Bhatt says. "It shows them what they need to make sure their engineers are ready for."

Among those offerings: the online EBS Jumpstart Kit (which can be found at, designed to help partners thinking of adding EBS to their portfolio calculate both the costs of adding the program and the potential market in their area. The company is also offering EBS technical training and certification both online and at regional in-person seminars. Microsoft also planned to offer an "academy series" of a dozen webcasts available both live and on-demand.

EBS readiness efforts are being offered for both tech and sales personnel, Bhatt says. In both cases, she says, "the focus is to find out what the pain points are and help them design solutions."

It would be easy to be lulled into complacency about the ease of selling and installing EBS, so be assured there are plenty of bumps in the road to success. For one thing, selling EBS to midsize customers can generate new challenges for those used to working primarily with smaller businesses.

"With a smaller customer, you're likely to be sitting across the table from the owner who decides then and there whether to write a check," Cocanower says. In contrast, "the midsize business space has a budgeting process that makes the sales cycle longer."

Selling to a bigger customer also involves the participation of its IT department-a factor that may not exist in smaller companies. And, Endter says, IT staffers are the most likely to resist the product. EBS "is a hard concept for people who have always dealt with one box at a time," he explains. "Now all of a sudden, we've given them a system that's tightly integrated. That's a quantum leap for some IT staff."

Thorsell also cautions that some customers' IT staffers may also resist the EBS approach of out-of-the-box installation.

"When you hear about installation wizards, some people laugh it off," he says.

"For some techs, it's cool to know all the backdoor secret ways to do stuff. For them, 'wizards are for sissies.' But from a business standpoint, it really isn't good to make changes along the way."

Partners say the best way to court a midsize customer's IT team is to invite those skeptical staffers to a comprehensive demonstration of EBS's benefits. One big selling point is sure to be that secure remote portal, which eliminates a major IT department headache: the constant addition and subtraction of VPN numbers and codes traditionally used to protect the system.

Microsoft officials believe much of the potential for EBS's success depends on cooperation within the partner community-a community whose input, Sider emphasizes, contributed greatly to the product's development. Bhatt agrees. "This is definitely an epic moment for us," she says. "The product is a huge opportunity that has been validated by the partners. That's the validation we've been looking for."

About the Author

Fred Bayles, a Boston-based freelance journalist, writes regularly about customer service and other business issues. He is a former national reporter for The Associated Press and USA Today.