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Analysis: Microsoft's SMB Partners Grapple with Changing IT Landscape

SMBs are clinging to outdated Microsoft products but also adopting new and unfamiliar technologies, according to partner attendees at the IT Pro Conference 2012.

NEW ORLEANS -- Change is coming quickly to some corners of the small and midsize business (SMB) technology market and all too slowly to others, according to attendees of the IT Pro Conference 2012.

Held June 8 and 9, the conference brought SMB-oriented resellers and solution providers together with more than two dozen leading authorities on SMB technology for two days of free-flowing discussions. Microsoft products were a frequent topic of conversation.

For example, many conference goers said tight budgets and continuing economic pressures have their customers clinging to outdated implementations of Small Business Server (SBS). In fact, almost everyone at the conference had at least some customers still using the 2003 edition of that product.

"There's no pressure from the customer to get off SBS [2003]," said David Nickason, an SBS expert who's also CFO and network administrator at Dibble & Miller P.C., a law firm in Rochester, N.Y. "It's rock-solid."

However, a few weeks after the conference, Microsoft announced that SBS 2011 Standard would be the last version of that product.

Aging deployments of Office 2003 and Windows XP aren't uncommon either, attendees reported. That had presenters like Susan Bradley worried about what happens when Microsoft stops supporting those products, as it's slated to do on April 8, 2014. "I'm going to have Windows XP in the office that day and after," said Bradley, a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional and a CPA and network administrator at accountancy firm TSH&B of Fresno, Calif.

Getting Windows XP users onto Windows 8 should be a top priority, several speakers at the conference stated, and not just for support-related reasons. Microsoft's forthcoming OS is dramatically more secure as well, said Jay Ferron, principal at Interactive Security Training LLC, a security consultancy based in West Haven, Conn. Users will also like the faster boot speed, better power management and multitouch interface of Windows 8, he predicted.

Bradley was less sure. Getting used to the new Windows 8 Metro interface is likely to require more time than some TSH&B employees are willing to invest, she fears. Even Ferron conceded that convincing SMBs to upgrade to Windows 8 could be a hard sell.

Yet even though many SMBs are sticking with older Microsoft products, change is afoot in the SMB marketplace. Some companies are replacing PCs with more affordable and durable thin clients, often running the Linux OS. Others are making greater use of Apple products such as the MacBook Air and iPad, as well as smartphones and tablets running the Google Android OS.

Learning to support all those devices, however, won't be easy for IT providers accustomed to operating in a Windows-only world. "It's not going to be pretty and it's not going to be painless," said Cliff Galiher, a Microsoft MVP and chief consultant at Common Ground IT Consulting, in Missoula, Mont.

Rising SMB demand for cloud-based solutions is also forcing partners to master new skills and new business models. Firms that once made their money administering servers and apps must now find other ways to serve clients, observed Jeff Middleton, host of the IT Pro Conference and founder of SBSmigration.com, a New Orleans-based provider of SBS-related tools and training services. "We need to get used to not self-managing everything," he said.

Indeed, partners who resist the transition to cloud computing do so at their own peril, warned Kevin Royalty, managing partner of Total Care Computer Consulting of Centerville, Ohio. SMBs are increasingly clamoring for cloud solutions, he said, and partners must be prepared to say "yes" to those requests or face the consequences.

About the Author

Rich Freeman is a Seattle, Wash.-based freelance writer specializing in business and technology.