Microsoft's Entry-Level Cloud

Wayne Rash
One of the little-noticed announcements at the World Wide Partner Conference here was the introduction of the Aurora version of Microsoft's Small Business Server. While Microsoft also announced SBS 7 at the conference, Aurora might make the most difference for many small businesses. One Microsoft source (who I'm not naming since he's not allowed to talk to the press) said that Aurora was designed for businesses that already had e-mail elsewhere and didn't need SharePoint.

The previous version of SBS included Exchange and SharePoint, and many businesses were reluctant to buy the package when they didn't need so much of it. The SBS 7 version still includes those items, but Aurora doesn't. Instead, Aurora is designed for businesses that don't have an IT staff. The server still provides storage and print services, it works as an Active Directory domain controller (although it cannot join an existing domain), and it provides a new set of very flexible storage options. In addition, this is the first Small Business Server to specifically include its federated identity management into a cloud services option.

I looked at SBS Aurora at an intimate behind-the-scenes event at the International Spy Museum here in Washington, and spent more time with it later. What Aurora does is provide an easy to use shell for everything from user management to storage. You can add storage on the fly, you can create pooled storage nearly automatically, and you can back up attached clients and the server itself from a central console that the administrator can run from any PC. The server will work with Windows and Macintosh clients, although other operating systems including Linux aren't part of this release.

This new product isn't likely to convince existing users of the Small Business Server to switch, but it could well provide a path for enterprises that are struggling with the problem of managing servers and cloud computing access with little or no IT staff. You can see a video introduction to Aurora here.

While Aurora is currently limited to organizations with 25 users or fewer, I think it's a safe bet that some of Aurora's technology will find its way into products for larger organizations. The ability to add storage pools on the fly, for example, seems as if it would be very useful for companies of nearly any size. Likewise, you don't have to be an IT newbie to appreciate the simplified user management capabilities.

What remains, of course, is to see how Microsoft markets Aurora. Right now, it seems as if the partners that the company depends on to sell its products to business and government users are pretty happy with it. But as we've seen lately, Microsoft also has shown a tendency to launch a product only to let it languish.

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