Over on the official SBS blog is a recent post about why small business owners choose to run Microsoft's Small Business Server. The surprisingly brief post (I was expecting something a little more in-depth, even if it is essentially a marketing piece) does have some good points about how SBS does provide value to small businesses for a reasonable cost. If nothing else, it should be somewhat thought-provoking for those IT Professionals who sell and support SBS for their SMB customers.
At the bottom of the post are links to OEM sites for Dell and HP who are running specials in September to significantly lower the entry cost to get a Small Business Server box into a customer site. I think it's great that both Dell and HP are working wtih MS to address some of the cost concerns that there have been surrounding the SBS 2008 product. On the Dell link (and I can speak more directly to the Dell line as my business is a Dell reseller) there are two servers listed, and with the OEM SBS 2008 Standard included as part of the package, the pricing does look really attractive. I have deployed SBS 2008 on a T300 for a client, and it has worked well.
I do have some concerns about the packages as listed, and since MS has linked directly to that site, there seems to be an implicit endoresement of the configurations listed. That also concerns me. In practice, many of us who have been working with SBS 2008 since before its release have realized that while SBS 2008 will install into a box with 4GB of RAM, the performance of the server is generally horrible until you put at least 6GB of RAM in, and my own personal preference is to put a minimum of 8GB, and that's only if you have very few users. The T100 (the lower priced of the two options on the page) also does not have any fault tolerance for the disks in the server at all in the listed configuration. Sure, you can add RAM to the configuration, and reconfigure the drives, but it adds to the cost and you have to really know what you're wanting to do with the box to know how to configure it. I personally don't like the T100 for an SBS server because it's limited to 2 drives, and I personally like to have a hot spare in my servers (great extra protection for relatively little cost) and have found that SBS 2008 really performs a lot better if the Exchange and Sharepoint databases are on separate spindles from the main OS, which means a pair of mirrored drives, which is also not possible in the T100.
The configuration of the T300 is somewhat better, in that a mirrored drive configuration is present and it has a faster quad-core CPU over the slower dual-core CPU of the T100, but it's still listed with only 4GB (although the T300 can expand up to 24GB whereas the T100 is limited to 8GB max). I like the T300 as an entry-level server, but I'm putting quite a bit more into it for even basic installations to guarantee some reasonable level of performance out of the box.
I'm afraid that this push to the low-cost entry-level SBS server by Dell and HP is ultimately going to lead to the same problems we saw when the same type of promotions were done with SBS 2003. Over the last 6 years, I've run into so many "servers" that were entry-level Dells that did not have the correct hardware configuration to really run the server well, and a lot of unhappy customers as a result. I'm afraid that if someone picks up the T100 SBS configuration listed on the Dell page, they will be: 1. unhappy with the performance of the box; 2. unprotected by backups (the configuration includes an RD1000 drive in the box, but that drive cannot be used by the built-in SBS backup software); and 3. in a dangerous data protection configuration with the lack of fault-tolerance on the drives by default.
I'm afraid that with this continued push to position SBS 2008 as a DIY system (folks, it's not - if you've spent time supporting SBS 2008 for others, you know what I'm talking about) and implied endorsements about the Dell configurations listed that ultimately MS is going to get a huge black eye over this product. I hear from a LOT of IT Professionals how much harder SBS 2008 is to sell as a solution to customers. While I haven't had real trouble selling SBS 2008 into places where it makes sense and has significant value for the customer, I'm also not selling configurations like what Dell has listed on the page. And ultimately I think pushing that kind of configuration is a bad idea.
I still think that SBS 2008 is a good product. But only if it's configured correctly. I am running SBS 2008 in production in my office on 3.5-year-old hardware that falls just below the specs listed for the T100 (save the RAM, I've updated to 8GB there) and it's incredibly sluggish. I have a client that's a 15-employee operation running a T300 with two quad-core 2.5GHz CPUs and 12GB of RAM, and their system is running well for now, but they haven't really started using Sharepoint or e-mail to the degree that they will, so we'll be updating the RAM in that system when they do start ramping up those operations.
But the way the Microsoft blog post is worded is going to drive non-technical people over to the Dell or HP web sites and they'll look and say "dang! I can get an SBS 2008 server for under $1300? where's my credit card?" and order a server that is completely inappropriate for their environment. This is not good for the target market for this product, it's not good for IT consultants in this space, and ultimately I think it's not good for Microsoft. SBS 2008 is NOT a DIY product, and I really wish Microsoft would stop trying to push that message. Instead, push the message that SBS 2008 is a great product, but work with an IT consultant to make sure you have the proper equipment to run SBS 2008 so you have a benefit for deploying the solution instead of a nightmare. Otherwise we will continue to see underpowered hardware making a good OS look bad and undermining a solution that otherwise makes great sense for the market.