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Microsoft fills gap with server for smallest of midmarket firms

Microsoft's Essential Business Server is new, simple and makes a lot of sense. But how many companies need it?

Microsoft says it has new software that will make running a handful of key servers -- operating systems, email, security and database -- a heck of a lot easier than it used to be.

CIOs, meet Essential Business Server. Microsoft would love if you all started buying.

So why release software aimed at smaller midmarket companies with as many as 300 users? Why build a simple product that ties together multiple servers and allows administrators to watch over them all on one console?

"It's a gap in our portfolio, and it's really kind of a gap for the industry overall," answered Joel Sider, a senior product manager at Microsoft.

Microsoft and the midmarket
Microsoft's midmarket server comes together

Microsoft lays out midmarket plans
Directions on Microsoft lead Windows analyst Michael Cherry had a similar answer, albeit with a less tacit recognition of the riches at stake.

"I think that everybody looks at this midmarket," Cherry said. "I think it frustrates all of the companies. It just looks like it should be conquerable."

It's a gap that other large server vendors have been closing in on in recent months. Hewlett-Packard Corp. and IBM with their blade servers. SAP AG with its trio of midmarket-oriented ERP systems.

"You have these huge numbers of businesses, and conceptually you should be able to sell products into every one of them," Cherry said.

To do that, though, means making the most of sales and partner resources.

"I think there's been a real struggle as to how do you package something up so that it doesn't need a lot of presales, the customer can see what the value is in it," he added.

With Essential Business Server, now available as a release candidate and expected complete by the end of the year, Microsoft is banking that CIOs with small staffs will see value in hours and hassles saved.

The software lies across a series of servers and allows them all to be managed from a single console. Setup is meant to be quick and painless. It's "all-in-one, ready-to-go infrastructure," Microsoft's Sider said.

Standard Edition connects Windows Server 2008, Exchanger Server 2007 and a security server. Premium edition tosses SQL Server 2008 alongside that. Microsoft has lined up the standard hardware and software partners and is selling Client Access Licenses à la carte, as it already does with Small Business Server. The software requires 64-bit servers.

Sumeeth Evans, IT director at Indianapolis-based Collegiate Housing Services, said setting up Essential Business Server isn't as easy as flipping a switch. But it's as close as he's ever gotten.

"Overall, the deployment when we actually did beta 2 and release candidate 0 was surprisingly painless," Evans said. "It takes longer than a normal [Microsoft] Small Business Server installation, but that's probably because there's three servers that you have to install."

"It took us a while," he added. "It was a good, long weekend to get that accomplished, but once it was it was very detailed."

"Us" is Evans and the other two people on his IT staff. Between the three of them, they watch over more than 100 computers, many of which are remote. Add in the mobile devices and it's a lot of work for three people. But Evans said the single console for Essential Business Server has made it easier.

"I think [Essential Business Server] will allow us room to grow," he said.

"The console-at-a-glance gives you a glance at how your whole service is running," Evans said, specifically mentioning a tab that manages software license use.

I think they've done a good job of bundling the logical services together [but] solution providers or partners could have put together this kind of a system.
Michael Cherry
lead Windows analystDirections on Microsoft
Until just a few years ago, Evans could get by with a simple Small Business Server. But Collegiate, a full-service student housing company started in 1988, is growing, he said.

Collegiate Housing Services partnered with Microsoft to beta test Essential Business Server and is now using the release candidate. Cherry said he's just starting to install the software to test on his own. He stays a skeptic on any type of unified console idea, but he said so far he doesn't see any warning signs from Essential Business Server.

"I think they've done a good job of bundling the logical services together," he said, adding that "solution providers or partners could have put together this kind of a system."

But success for Microsoft here might not be based on whether Essential Business Server works, but whether it works for enough midmarket companies. Cherry pointed out that the midmarket comprises such a broad array of businesses with varying IT needs that it is hard to develop a winning product that can, and should, be used by everyone.

"That's what makes this kind of a devil of an area," he said. "Everybody wants to say these guys are all the same, but that's a dangerous assumption."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Zach Church, News Writer

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