Microsoft Windows Small Business Server is hugely popular with businesses of up to 75 people - not to mention the resellers and service providers that often supply it. That's mainly because it offers a combination of Windows Server 2008 R2 and Exchange Server 2010 in one box at very good price. It also includes SharePoint Foundation 2010 and SQL Server 2008 R2 Express and, with the additional purchase of a Premium Add-On pack, it can support applications that rely on SQL Server 2008 R2 Standard.
But last July, Microsoft said Small Business Server 2012 would be the last SBS version and would remain available only in the OEM channel until the end of 2013. In reality, though, supplies dried up long before that. Dell, for example, announced in July that it would no longer be supplying SBS.
Many customers greeted the decision with dismay, with the first commenter on the Windows Server Essentials blog calling it "by FAR the biggest BONE HEAD (sic) decision Microsoft has made!"
Without Small Business Server, What Are Firms to Do?
So, where does this leave businesses that previously would have used SBS as their low-cost, all-in-one server solution?
Microsoft would like you to purchase Windows Server 2012 Essentials, the product it has positioned as a replacement for SBS. Essentials is quite a different animal altogether, though.
For one thing, it provides out-of-the-box support for just 25 users (and 50 devices.) If you have more than that, you must purchase the full-blown Windows Server 2012 Standard edition.
More importantly, one key attractions of SBS has been removed: Essentials doesn't include Exchange at all. For that functionality, you're expected to subscribe to Microsoft Office 365, use a hosted Exchange service or buy and run your own Exchange server on a separate physical box - all at an additional cost.
Why has Microsoft axed this popular product? Wes Miller, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft, says he believes that Microsoft was faced with a difficult decision: Continue to include Exchange in its entry-level server product or forge ahead with its strategy of moving customers to the cloud - and the recurring revenue streams that this strategy brings.
"SBS was traditionally pushed out by VARS and service providers who would put in a Dell or HP box with SBS. But what these guys were doing was not the model that Microsoft wanted," Miller says. "What Microsoft has done has upset customers (and VARs) - but Microsoft wants to push people to the cloud."
Microsoft is playing a risky game, Miller says, because plenty of other options available are aside from using Server 2012 Essentials plus Office 365 or hosted Exchange. These include using Google's cloud-based Google Apps service for the mail, calendaring and other functionality that Exchange provides, or a Linux-based server that runs an Exchange-like service as well.
Linux-based Small Business Server Alternatives Aren't Hard to Find
There are certainly no shortage of options. Popular Linux small business server alternatives include Univention Corporate Server, the Zentyal SMB Edition and Igaware Small Business Server, while Linux-based Exchange alternatives include Scalix, Sogo and Zarafa.
Many Linux small business server vendors bundle their software with Exchange alternatives - particularly Zarafa, which is seen as a very close alternative to Exchange - and are now specifically targeting small businesses that would otherwise have been obvious customers for SBS.
"These vendors are sensing that there's an opportunity here," Miller says. "The only question mark is whether small companies will be willing to try them rather than [do] what Microsoft is pushing them to do."
To successfully sway small businesses away from the Microsoft options, Miller says it's essential that end users can continue to use their Outlook clients. If users don't notice a difference, he says, "then ... these Linux-based, SBS alternatives can work."
SBS, Server 2012 Essentials Alternatives Typically Cheaper, More Efficient
According to Tim Sexton, sales director of Linux server vendor Igaware, many small businesses have little choice but to find a Linux alternative to SBS. It's not practical for them to move to a cloud-based solution, he says, because they lack fast enough or reliable enough Internet connectivity.
There are other advantages to moving to a Linux-based SBS alternative instead of Windows Server Essentials, Sexton says. There are no user limits, for starters, "so the solution is completely scalable." In addition, the cost per user is similar to Office 365, but the Linux-based options offer additional functionality and more efficient software, he says. "You can run on lower-spec hardware with just 1GB of memory, instead of a machine with 32GB."
Concrete supplier Express Minimix has moved to Igaware Small Business Server and Zarafa as an Exchange alternative. The company's staff accesses email using Zarafa webmail, Outlook clients or their mobile devices (using ActiveSync).
"I've used Exchange before, and switching to Igaware and Zarafa is a no-brainer. The software just sits there and does its job," says Express Minimix's Jon Gordon.
Doing a direct cost comparison is difficult, but Gordon points out that "Microsoft's support costs tend to be a lot higher." He adds that the entire system has also been far easier to maintain and administer than Exchange. "You certainly don't need Linux skills ... I do everything using the Web interface, and I'm not an IT professional."
There's no doubt that a cloud strategy makes a great deal of sense for many companies, even if it involves recurring costs. But if you're unwilling or unable to move to Office365, hosted Exchange or some other cloud-based solution, a Linux alternative may well meet your needs - and the needs of the IT specialists that used to resell SBS.
Read more about small business in CIO's Small Business Drilldown.