According to Microsoft, there are probably more than 22 million small and medium-sized businesses in the United States. These businesses employ more than 50 percent of private workers and create more than 75 percent of U.S. jobs. Those numbers aren't small or medium by any definition, which explains why Microsoft plans to invest more than 10 billion dollars in research and development over the next five years to pursue the small and medium-sized business (SMB) market.

The recently released Windows Small Business Server 2003 (SBS 2003) is available in two flavors. The Standard edition includes Windows 2003, Microsoft Exchange, and Microsoft SharePoint Portal Server and costs $599 for a five-client license—additional Client Access Licenses (CALs) are $60 each. The Premium edition adds SQL Server, FrontPage authoring, and Microsoft Internet Security & Acceleration Server to the package and costs $1,499 for a five-client license with additional CALs available for $100 each. These prices are significantly lower than what a business would pay if it purchased all the components separately. SBS 2003 requires at least a 300MHz processor, 256MB of RAM and 4GB of disk space—requirements similar to those of the previous release, SBS 2000. Microsoft recommends a 550MHz processor and 384MB of RAM for the Standard Edition and 512MB of RAM for the Premium Edition. Of course, SBS 2003 requires you to install the software on one machine, which limits scalability, but it's a small business server, so that limitation shouldn't be a problem. Typically, minimum recommendations are enough to get by, but barely. However, most target companies should easily be able to run the products on a single- or dual-processor machine if they add more memory to those minimum configurations.

I remember the early days of Microsoft BackOffice Small Business Server and the first incarnations of SBS. Microsoft marketed the products included in the BackOffice suite as easy to use and integrate, but for all practical purposes, the products required separate installs. I haven't used SBS 2003, but all the reviews I've read rate the installation process favorably. Microsoft says the product's wizards let a small business get the entire package up and running in less than 15 minutes.

A small business's needs are different than the needs of larger organizations. Dedicated IT staffs are rare and dedicated technology specialists (e.g., someone who focuses solely on SQL Server) are almost unheard of. Small business IT professionals don't have the time or inclination to figure out how to make products work together and typically use only the features that are easy for them. Microsoft might be able to appeal to the SMB market if the company can offer a package that attracts the typical small-business jack-of-all-trades IT professional and can do it at an attractive price. However, Microsoft will need to cater to the educational needs of those do-it-all IT professionals. Microsoft has a technical resources page on the SQL Server Small and Medium Business home page, but none of the content is geared toward the special needs of an SMB professional.

Interestingly, Microsoft announced plans for solution "blueprints" to let Microsoft and partners sell turnkey SMB solutions that meet a particular need. I'm not aware of solutions that are shipping based on these blueprints right now, but it will be interesting to see what develops. Microsoft is branding this program "IT Solutions for Small and Medium Business," and the announcement might unleash a lot of creativity in the consulting and software-engineering world. I suspect we'll need a few years to decide whether the SMB movement is another way for marketers to package server technology or the beginning of a new way to serve the technology needs of the world's small businesses. To learn more about this topic, visit the SQL Server Small and Medium Business Resource Center at http://www.microsoft.com/sql/smb.