Microsoft ‘Aurora’ ideal server for smaller shops

I recently touched on the future offerings for Microsoft Small Business Server(code-named Aurora) and promised that I’d dive deeper into the Aurora offering once actual code became available.

I’ve now had the code for the better part a week and have been toying with this new cross-premise offering, which is meant to allow small businesses to stay focused on their core competencies rather than becoming technology experts or spending a smalll fortune to hire IT experts.

The idea behind Aurora is that a small business with 5 to 25 PCs should have the same high-end solutions that larger businesses use but without all the complexity (and cost) typically associated with such an intricate IT infrastructure.

Microsoft Small Business Server was as easy to install as Windows Server 2008 R2. It allowed me to install in a virtual machine, but it required me to have a 160GB disk. The installer automatically breaks your disk into volumes, then creates drive letters for users, client computer backups, company, and shadow copies.

The SBS Dashboard

Once Aurora was installed, all the typical tools of a Windows Server were available, which I liked. For example, I could go into Active Directory Users and Computers to create my users and make all sorts of property modifications on those accounts. However, in wanting to understand how a small business would benefit from using Aurora, I had to avoid the big-boy Windows Server tools and go instead for the SBS Dashboard.

Personally, I love eye candy. I love the ribbon interface in Office. I love that SharePoint has picked up on it. And even though the Aurora dashboard isn’t a ribbon per se, it’s close enough in concept that I give it a thumbs-up for ease-of-use. I’d like to see this same concept applied to all of Microsoft’s admin tools, which are so outdated with the MMC console look. The Dashboard is awesome all around; it’s customizable through an SDK, but initially, you have the following tabs:

  • Home: Simple shortcuts for getting started with common task links like adding users
  • Users: Where you can add up to 25 user accounts. You can define which folders a user has access to and to what degree
  • Computers and Backup: At-a-glance information about systems that have been joined to your server using the Connector software. You can see if there are any warnings or alerts that relate to your system and what you need to do to correct these. You can also ensure backups are being cared for with that system
  • Server Folders and Hard Drives: Where you manage your server’s hard drives and shared folders. If you have two hard drives in the system, you can select Enable Folder Duplication, which allows for two copies of the data to be stored, one on each drive
  • Add-ins: Your Microsoft or third-party add-ins. I didn’t see any just yet, so we will have to stay tuned on that space

You can also see alerts, server settings, and help from the Dashboard.

Working with user accounts

It was quickly apparent that the server side wasn’t the end of my testing; I needed to see what it took to get a client up and running. So I installed Windows 7 Ultimate and set up a new user account (creatively named UserOne), then followed the direction for the client setup. I opened my IE browser on the client after the installation and typed in http://servername/connect. This allowed me to install the Connector software; this was a bit uncomfortable for me because I typically like to join the domain manually, and now I had this software doing it for me. Once the connection is made and the system reboots, you can log in; Launchpad is also now available for use by your users.

I liked the simple Launchpad. It’s a quick way to access shared folders, initiate a backup, or access Remote Web Access features. Remote Web Access (which wasn’t enabled by default; I had to go back to the server, go to the Dashboard, and open up Server Settings to turn this on) allows your users to access your server remotely through a Web browser. You may have to do some tweaking on the router to ensure you have the proper ports open and so forth, but the wizard walks you through the steps nicely even if you are a novice. If you don’t feel like working through all the Remote Web Access settings, like the router, domain name, and website configuration settings, you can turn on Remote Web Access and try to access it through a local client, rather than a remote client.

What I really liked about the Remote Web Access is that you can set it up so that a user can access shared folders and documents. Or if you configure it on the users’ accounts, they can make a quick click to a remote desktop session for their work systems. For administrators, you can even make the Aurora Dashboard remotely available.

I played around with the backup features and found these to be just as easy to use (and schedule) for both the server and the client systems. You can configure a client retention policy as well for daily, weekly, and monthly backups. To back up the server, you will need to have a backup destination drive in place to configure the settings; at least one external drive must be attached.

Monitoring features were easy to work with as well. The Alert Viewer dialog box shows you all the systems for your environment, including your server, and lets you know what is needed to resolve any given alert.

So far, so good

I can’t yet give Aurora a formal thumbs-up, since it’s not yet shipping and some details remain to be worked out. Pricing is a key undetermined aspect, for example. Also to be seen is how the hosted offerings will fit in, although it’s obvious that the Connector tool will make it all work just fine, if my experience with Microsoft’s Hosted BPOS offering through a similar single-sign-on floating dialog box is any guide.

But a thumbs-up is likely in the end; I found, even in this early code release, the installation and configuration of all key aspects of the server to be smooth, and the interface is a polished. I liked all the elements of the Connector and Launchpad client-side pieces, especially the ability to reach out and quickly remote connect to a computer directly through the Remote Web Access options.

It makes a lot of sense to take the more difficult aspects of SBS (like Exchange and SharePoint) and make those hosted solutions that tie in to your SBS under a cross-premise offering. Now that I’ve seen the on-premise side to this offering, I look forward to seeing the full deal in the near future. You should too.

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Source: Infoworld

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