A Network For Mom And Pop

Microsoft's new server makes it easy to get a small business hooked up and online

Software makers are finally starting to get the message. If they hope to maintain spectacular growth, they must find a way to make their products simpler and more appealing to a broader audience.

The latest evidence for such a mindset comes from an unusual source, in an unusual product. While the usability of Microsoft products has been greatly augmented since the days when you had to be an expert to install Windows, the company has never been known for making simplicity a top priority. Windows' NT Server, for example, is daunting to install and configure, even for pros.

BackOffice Small Business Server (SBS) is a version of NT Server 4.0 modified to make network administration simple even for someone with zero training. The goal is to bring solid networking, along with cheap and secure Internet access, to companies or branch offices with as few as five computers.

Installation of NT Server is still a bit tricky, so Microsoft recommends getting a server with SBS installed, either by the manufacturer or by the dealer. I tested a Compaq Computer Prosignia 200 server with a 233 megahertz Pentium II processor, 64 MB of memory, a very fast 2-gigabyte hard drive, CD-ROM, and tape backup. It costs $5,000 with a 10-user version of SBS. Similar packages are available from Dell Computer and Hewlett-Packard, and other server makers plan versions. By itself, SBS costs $1,499 for a five-user setup, with an added $300 per five additional users.

On a regular NT Server, such routine tasks as adding or deleting users, changing file access rights, or checking logs requires the use of half a dozen baffling programs. SBS wraps all these administrative chores into an integrated, easy-to-use package that you run from the Internet Explorer browser. When the operator creates a new user account on the server, for example, he or she automatically creates an E-mail inbox and an Internet access account. The server then copies data onto a floppy disk which, when run on the user's computer, does all the work necessary to set up the machine on the network without further fussing.

SBS also vastly simplifies the job of providing Internet access. The server acts as a gateway to the Net for all the computers on the local network, eliminating the need for modems, phone lines, and Internet service provider accounts for each machine. What is more, it acts as a firewall to protect the local network from the Web. I tried CompuServe Sprynet, one of several ISPs that Microsoft has made pacts with for Internet access. The service offers 100 hours of connect time, 50 MB of space on its Web servers, and a custom domain name, such as yourbusiness.com, for $199 a month.

SBS includes most of the components of Microsoft's BackOffice suite of server applications. Exchange Server is a robust E-mail post office with support for group conferencing and shared calendars. SQL Server is an industrial-strength database manager. While this last is too complex for most small businesses to use directly, it is available for a variety of database applications, such as the heavy-duty contact manager GoldMine 4.0 from GoldMine Software.

Now that Microsoft has done the impossible by making the difficult simple for would-be network administrators, it should set its sights on making things simple for the rest of us. I would settle for a version of Windows that can install a printer without getting lost in the middle and requiring me to tell it where to find setup files. The BackOffice SBS has shown the way. Now, both Microsoft and its competitors should follow.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.