A Hands-on Look at Windows Server 2012 Essentials

Sunday Dec 16th 2012 by Paul Ferrill
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While Windows Server 2012 Essentials fails to include all the features in the previous Standard edition, does it offer enough to meet the basic server needs of most small businesses?

Microsoft's Small Business Server 2011 product was offered in two versions: Essentials and Standard. The Standard version is still available for purchase and is a combination of Windows Server 2008 R2 plus a number of other server products, including Exchange Server 2010,SharePoint Foundation 2010 and SQL Server 2008 R2 Express.

Small Business Server 2011 Strandard is targeted at small businesses with up to seventy-five users and can support applications requiring SQL Server 2008 R2 Standard with the purchase of the Premium Add-On.

Win Server 2012 EssentialsSmall Business Server 2011 Essentials, on the other hand, has been replaced with Windows Server 2012 Essentials and is targeted at a maximum of twenty-five users. It does not include any of the additional server products found in Windows Small Business Server 2011 Standard, although you could install any of those products should you so choose.

Windows Server 2012 Essentials does provide a number of new capabilities, including connectors to Microsoft's cloud services like Office 365 and Windows Azure.

Installation

One of the features you don't get with Windows Server 2012 Essentials is Hyper-V. You can, however, install it on Microsoft's free Hyper-V server, but you'll need to know a few things if you decide to go that route.

Windows Server 2012 Essentials - Fig 1Figure 1

If you take the default memory option of 512 MB you'll get a cryptic error message that the installation encountered an unexpected error (click on Figure 1 on the right). It needs a minimum of 2048 MB or 2 GB to install. That goes for dynamic memory as well, although you can set the minimum RAM to as low as 256 MB and Hyper-V will adjust down when possible (see Figure 2 below and to the right). Microsoft does specify 2 GB in the minimum system requirements, with 8 GB recommended.

Windows Server 2012 Essentials - Fig 2Figure 2

Windows Server 2012 Essentials expects to either be joined to an existing domain or to establish a new domain as part of the installation process. The installation process requires several reboots to configure the system for the first time.

After the second reboot you'll be given the option to do a Clean Install or a Server Migration. The Clean Install option is for when you do not have an existing Windows domain, while Server Migration implies you will be joining this machine to an existing domain. Choosing Clean Install will then prompt you for a domain name along with a computer name. Be aware that these cannot be changed after the fact.

The final pieces of information you'll be asked to enter are an administrator account name and password and a normal username and password.

Windows Server 2012 Essentials - Fig 3Figure 3

These can be changed later, if necessary, from the USERS management screen. With this information entered the install process should run to completion.

When the machine reboots for the final time you should see a screen like the one in Figure 3 on the left. The last screen you see will provide a link for client machines to connect to the server. This requires downloading connector software and joining the machine to the new domain. With that accomplished you'll have full access to automated backups, file history and remote access features provided by Windows Server 2012 Essentials.

Management

Windows Server 2012 Essentials comes with a feature called the Dashboard (see Figure 4 to the right) that provides all the management functionality typically needed by a small business administrator from a single interface. The Home page provides quick links to perform any of a number of initial tasks and to commonly performed actions.

Windows Server 2012 Essentials - Fig 4Figure 4

Across the top of the page are large labels including HOME, USERS, DEVICES, STORAGE and APPLICATIONS. Clicking on one of these brings up another screen with information and action links to do things like manage devices or users.

At the top right-hand corner of the dashboard, as seen in Figure 4, you can see a yellow triangle with an exclamation point in the middle and the number 1 with a box around it. This is the message notification icon and is an indication of warnings that an administrator should investigate.

Figure 5 shows the dialog box that will open when you click on the message notification icon. Using this type of visual indicator along with an action box helps lead a novice administrator through the steps necessary to take care of any potential issues that may arise. In this case, there are updates to the operating system available that should be installed.

Windows Server 2012 Essentials - Fig 5Figure 5

The STORAGE menu item displays information about the Server Folders and physical Hard Drives (see Figure 6). This is where you manage shared folders and physical drives. It's also where you launch additional tools to do things like manage Storage Spaces. The Client Computer Backups area on the Server Folders screen allows an administrator to see and manage backup files for any user on the system.

Windows Server 2012 Essentials - Fig 6Figure 6

Wrap Up

Windows Server 2012 Essentials provides all the pieces necessary to provide centralized file storage, client computer backups and remote access. The management tools are designed to make it easy for anyone to administer the system with a minimal amount of experience.

While the new Essentials release doesn't include all of the features found in the previous Standard edition, it does provide hooks to Microsoft's new cloud offerings. All that together makes for a solid offering that should meet the basic server needs of most any small business.

Paul Ferrill, based in Chelsea, Alabama, has been writing about computers and software for almost 20 years. He has programmed in more languages than he cares to count, but now leans toward Visual Basic and C#.

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