Why I’m Happy with Small Business Server 2011 Essentials

There are a number of improvements that have been made to not only the core OS that SBS2011 Essentials is based on, but there are a lot of improvements to the feature set that is Home Server and SBS Essentials. Also, while i may be happy overall, there are some downsides to this upgrade that I will cover in each section too.

The Web Server

There are a lot of improvements to the web server since… 2003. And most of them for the good.

To start off with, how the website is setup is so much better. Installing PHP is dead simple, and WPI actually works. It sort of worked in WHSv1, but you had to still manually setup things because the default website doesn’t inherit settings. This is a slap in the face to me personally. Years ago, Jim Clark and myself communicated with the IIS team (the team responsible for WPI) and explained the issue, and how to fix it (seriously, just apply to “Site 1” in addition to the entire server if WHS is detected).  I mean, that’s not difficult is it?  But they stopped responding to my emails entirely. Instead of saying that they weren’t going to support it, they just ignored us. Because obviously we have no voice in the community and no FUCKING IDEA ABOUT WHAT WE WERE TALKING ABOUT. Or at least, that’s how I felt. You’ll also note the irony here, as Nigel Wilks and I create an Add-In for Windows Home Server v1 to specifically install PHP properly. And it works great. But because of licensing and technical issues, we couldn’t include FastCGI, which means there have been no updates to it because v5.2 is the latest version that can be installed without FastCGI.

Hwever, even with FastCGI support on IIS6.0 (the web server on WHSv1), you still need a separate URL rewriter to get the “pretty permalinks”. What do I mean by that? Look at the title? See how there is no “index.php” or question marks or ampstands? That is because there is a URL rewriter module installed. And more specifcally, there is one built into IIS7.5 (the version all Server 2008R2 based OSes use) and it supports the Apache httpd mod_rewrite style of URL rewriting. Which means it works better with php packages (which I tend to like using more).

Did I mention that my site just feels snappier on the new engine? And it has better support for compression?

There is one caveat though. Backup and restore of the “meta database” isn’t as straightforward. There is no GUI to do it now, it is all done by command line.  Which means that I can schedule a backup of the database (that will not be included in the default “last ten changes” list) to happen any time I want! Which means, I have it scheduled to take a snapshot of it once a week, just in case something happens to it.

Drive Support

One of the best things about the update is the improved disk support. Heck, I could use a GPT disk as the system disk if I had the right hardware. And importantly too, it supports TRIM for SSD. Which means if I ever get a large SSD for the system drive (minimum 120GB), I don’t have to worry about it quickly degrading into uselessness. Also, Server 2008R2 (again, the base OS) has support for Advanced Format drives. That means no more re-aligning drives, or “jumpering” them, or horrible performance with them.  Which means 3TB or larger drives are not only possible, but usable.

But the one thing I lose from upgrading is Drive Extender. That is a big deal for me. I currently have 9TBs of data on the system (which a good chunk is duplicate data), so having an easy, reliable way to increase capacity is very important to me. Which is why I had tested out StableBit DrivePool prior to upgrading. In fact, it was a large part of why I did upgrade (thanks Ken, for the VM).  And I’m glad I gave it a shot. From my rudimentary testing (aka real world testing), it actually performs better than Drive Extender. I can write to the pool while watching HD video without it getting laggy. I had that issue with Drive Extender all the time, and it forced me to move anything that downloaded files outside of the pool. And even that didn’t always help.  I’ve not had a problem with that since I installed SBS2011 Essentials and DrivePool. In fact, for data that is duplicated, it is supposed to use “read striping” to actually increase read speeds! That is something that Drive Extender defintiely didn’t do!

Also, for those that are incredibly security paranoid (or just plain pirates), WHS2011, and SBS2011 Essentials supports BitLocker Drive Encryption. And not only does the OS support it, StableBit has support for it in DrivePool. It’s not an official option for DrivePool, but one of those “hacks” that they have listed in their wiki page. But you can encrypt all your data and not worry about others getting access to it! Yes, you will take a performance hit for encrypting the HDDs, but if you are security conscious (read: paranoid), then this is a great way to go.

Remote Desktop Gateway/RemoteApp

Hands down, one of the best improvements has been the handling of the dashboard (or “console”). Before, in WHSv1, the console was basically a custom Terminal Services (mstsc.exe) application. It added URL handling, and something similar for shares. But that was literally it. You could do almost the exact same thing by running mstsc.exe and setting a custom startup program. Also, the website used an ActiveX control to remote into the computers.

Now the server uses RemoteApp for the dashboard, which means it shows up much like a normal windows app running locally.  And looks much better that way (other than the lack of transparency), and seems smoother. And it can be resized!

The other improvement is that now, instead of using the TSWeb code for the “Computers” section, it uses Remote Desktop Gateway. This means that it doesn’t use the activeX control, and is therefore usable by any browser. Instead, it uses the gateway, and sets up the website for that purpose too. Which also means one less port to open.  It also means that you can use mobile RDP apps to connect to the computers, and server without opening up any other ports!

Performance

Well, not only is SBS2011 Essentials a 64 bit OS, it also supports up to 16GBs of RAM (maybe more, Microsoft is pretty hush on the actual max supported).  Which is definitely better than the 8GBs that WHS2011 supports, but MUCH better than the 4GBs that WHSv1 supports. Also. there were a lot of speed improvements done to Server 2008, and then to 2008R2. And it shows. Not only does the system boot in a fraction of the time, things load up much faster on the same hardware!

Additionally, I get much better file transfer speeds, which is in part due to better performance from the OS, and probably because everything is now using Windows 7 based technology.

Server Backup

But for me, the biggest improvement has to be the server backup feature. That was the one thing that really prevented me from using Active Directory more. If the server crashed, it meant reinstallation, and having to rejoin the client machines, messing up the existing profiles. Not something I really looked forward to. And normal disk imaging software just doesn’t work well for WHSv1.

But because of the update to a much more recent base OS (and the lack of Drive Extender), the built in Server Backup feature is a very nice option and works very well. In fact, it basically makes an image of the server while it’s still up and running.  And defaults to doing this twice a day!

Why is this great? Because it means that if you like to tinker with your server (like I do), then if you accidently break something, then it’s only a matter of rolling back to that earlier backup. And doing so is dirt easy. Not to mention that it is peice of mind!

Though, while Server Backup doesn’t support more than 2TBs basically, that’s fine for me. I have a 500GB HDD as my system drive. Actually, it’s two of them, in the Icydock MB982SPR-2S enclosures. It fits two laptop HDDs or SSDs, and can be set to use a RAID array for them. I only backup the system drive, and I let StableBit DrivePool worry about redundancy of important files.  It works well for me, and I’m very happy with the setup.

 The Downside

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all peachy. The biggest issue I have is that there isn’t anywhere near the 3rd party development for WHS2011 or SBS2011E. And the product suffers for it. There is a lot that could have been done, and the product could have been incredibly awesome, but Microsoft’s handling of the entire situation just didn’t sit well with the community. And the fact that they didn’t even TRY to reach out to us MVPs to smooth the rough spots of the release left a deep wound on a lot of us. WHSv1 had a Microsoft sponsored competition to create great add-ins for it, and some of the best ones released for it came out then. And more came out later, on the coat tails of that competition, I’m sure. It’s a shame that Microsoft screwed it up so badly that they basically killed WHS2011 before it was even out the doors!

Author: Drashna Jael're

Drashna Jael're

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