A Head Full of Windows Server 2008

Last week I attended a technical workshop on Windows Server 2008 at Microsoft’s Redmond campus, where I, alongside a gaggle of other tech journalists from all over the world, spent three days having my head stuffed with details about Microsoft’s forthcoming server revision and the tools that complement it.

Microsoft has done a lot of impressive work on Windows Server: faster networking, strikingly mature-looking server virtualization technology and administration interfaces for everything that beats the pants off the competition–both in GUI and command-line flavors.

Also impressive was the focus that Microsoft has begun to train on the midsize company market–a huge, currently underserved group that Microsoft defines as firms with 50 to 1000 employees, 25 to 500 PCs, and between 1 and 5 IT staffers.

Microsoft’s newly minted Windows Essential Business Server offers a very compelling answer to the question, “How can a midsize business consume all the same sorts of Microsoft core server products that a large enterprise might consume?” Here’s the rub: It seems to me that the new server is an excellent answer to the wrong question.

For instance, at the heart of Microsoft’s new midmarket server products lies Exchange, which makes sense, since every company requires e-mail services. However, rather than ask, “What’s the best way to deliver e-mail services,” Microsoft is asking: “What’s the best way to deliver Exchange?”

When you’re talking about organizations with between one and five IT people, does it really make sense for those limited IT resources to be spent on something as amenable to outsourcing as e-mail? Hosted e-mail can mean cheaper and more bountiful mailbox storage, anti-spam and anti-virus filtering that occurs up in the cloud, and more scalability than is possible from servers installed on-site at companies that may not even have server rooms.

What’s more, for many companies, remotely hosted e-mail services will be more reliable, as well. Windows Essential Business Server is meant to span three or four physical servers, but the product is not outfitted–as far as I can tell–to take advantage of these separate machines to provide failover for its e-mail and other services.

Fortunately for Microsoft and its midsize business customers, the company boasts more than enough technologies to enable these businesses to reach the best balance between locally run and in-the-cloud services. If a midsize business is lacking in server room security, for instance, they could turn to a hosted directory service with a local Read Only Domain Controller for speedy authentication.

For failover, Microsoft could draw on its new Windows virtualization technology to keep server workloads running across multiple servers both local and–taking a page out of Red Hat’s recently announced virtualization playbook–provide customers with the option of scaling workloads up into the cloud.

Microsoft is on the right track here, but they have to start thinking outside the shrink-wrapped box.