Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Review: Windows Server 2008 Small Business Server

Recently I've had the requirement to install and configure Windows Server 2008 SBS. Previously I've deployed 2003 SBS in varying settings and found it to be quite a nice little product. In more recent times though, I've gone the more segmented path of Windows Server 2003 plus Exchange 2003 separately and found that to be quite effective. For a small operation, however, SBS provides many features that are very helpful to the operator who isn't necessarily skilled in IT, nor has a great deal of time to set things up and play with them. Being a Sys Admin with the inclination and the time to play with it, here are some of my thoughts regarding SBS2008.

The management system for accounts and the like is very nicely set up for the none technical user. An application with common tasks is easily available and allows for configuration of most casual system changes to be made. I refer primarily to user and group (both distribution and security) creation, file and folder shares and backup configuration/testing. SBS2008, like it's predecessor has some nice daily reports that can be emailed to the Administrator or to a designated person and contain excellent information to keep an eye on the system. For example, this includes disk usage, backup status and the like. Very nice.

SBS2008 likes to take control of the network - it offers to be the gateway, DNS, DHCP, mail and file server all in one. I had problems with this on my network - I already *have* a gateway, DNS, and DHCP servers and it didn't play nicely together at all. In fact, the installation failed and I had to restart it again from scratch. This time I was a bit smarter and had the server plugged into a dummy switch. Once the initial install was passed, I added a virtual interface to my gateway and set the SBS server to point at it. This time it was happy, but by gum it wasn't the first time around. It automatically assigned itself the .2 IP address on the network (i.e. 192.168.0.2) and off it went from there. It did talk successfully to the gateway and once I reconfigured squid and my firewall, network traffic flowed as one would expect it to.

Something I learned from SBS 2008 is that you cannot set up mail addresses etc from within Active Directory, as you can in Server 2003 (not SBS) with Exchange. Also, security and distribution groups all had to be set up from the SBS system application. Not realising this, I created groups and used the Exchange Systems Manager to set up the email accounts and groups. These did not appear in the SBS system application. Oops! I'll have to revisit it and see if it's found them or not. Something else I learned - the HP ML350 I installed SBS2008 on is a very nice machine, but the HP setup disks - which cater for nearly every *other* version of Server 2008 - do not cater for SBS 2008. Damn! All those drivers and tools had to be installed after the fact - SBS2008 just would not work with the HP boot CD. Disappointing, but the ML350 was released before SBS2008, so you can't have everything I guess. That being said, the ML350 is quite a nice bit of kit indeed and highly configurable and affordable too. This one had a simple RAID1 mirror and everything ran flawlessly - as you would definitely hope it to in this particular setting.

Overall, I was impressed with SBS2008 and if needed I would happily deploy it elsewhere. I imagine that as one becomes more familiar with it, the ease of installation and configuration would certainly increase - I felt a bit confused at times and had to rely on trusty Google to get me through. At the very least, the problems I encountered were well documented by others. I must say though, the initial problem I had with the installation of the server failing was one that had been noted on the Microsoft webpages but no solution had been offered. If your SBS 2008 install fails - make sure it is the only thing on the network when you do the install - no other servers should be present if you want it to go smoothly. By all means migrate your AD stuff later, or even better (given that it is for Small Businesses) create a fresh new directory and build it in a pristine state for roll out. Also to be noted - it requires a minimum of 60GB of hard disk space for the C drive and a minimum of 4GB of RAM (!). Lucky RAM is cheap :-)

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