Managed IT

Which Windows Server is Best for Your SMB? WS 2012 vs. 2008 vs. Azure

Which Windows Server is Best for Your SMB? WS 2012 vs. 2008 vs. Azure

by Brian Norton - September 1, 2015

After a 15-month extension, support for Windows Server 2003 officially ended in July 2015, leaving many SMBs wondering what to replace it with.

Nearly 10 million WS 2003 servers will have to be shut down, have their data and apps removed and be re-deployed on new servers. This server migration will be challenging enough for large enterprises with dedicated IT departments.

For small-to-midsize businesses (SMBs) with fewer resources, the task of a server upgrade may seem overwhelming. An assessment by a trusted managed services provider (MSP) — one who understands your company’s core mission — is a good place for an SMB to start the process.

Your MSP needs to understand both how your business operates, and its culture. Matching the right server with an SMB entails many factors such as the size of the enterprise and the number of users, budget constraints, and license fee costs.

The entire migration takes time and planning, but here is an overview of each of these three server options available to replace Windows Server 2003:

  1. Windows Server 2012 Standard and R2
  2. Windows Server 2008
  3. Microsoft Azure

Windows Server 2012 Standard and R2

Windows Server is a Microsoft brand name for its enterprise servers that began with the release of Windows NT in 1993. Windows Server 2003 was released in April, 2003 and it was more scalable and delivered better performance than previous Microsoft enterprise operating systems (OS). However, Microsoft ended its extended support, including security updates, for WS 2003 on July 14, 2015.

WS 2003 evolved into Windows Server 2008 (released in February, 2008). That system was succeeded by Windows Server 2012 in September, 2012, which was then updated in October, 2013 to Windows Server 2012 R2. I think this technet link, which highlights 2012 R2 features, does a nice job outlining specific differences between WS 2012 standard and R2. Many are technical and of little interest to anyone other than IT personnel (such as your managed services partner). The R2 revision is highly recommended for anyone on 2012 (or anything earlier).

From an operations standpoint, some of the biggest changes from standard WS 2012 to 2012 R2 are:

  1. Integration of Office 365 support
  2. Inclusion of Microsoft’s security program Windows Defender
  3. Changes to the graphical user interface (GUI) like those featured on the Windows 8.1 operating system

Virtualization Improvements

Both versions of Windows Server 2012 have significant improvements over WS 2008. WS 2012 is better able to integrate virtualization, i.e. the creation of virtual, software-driven desktop computers via its Hyper-V feature. This includes a big update to Windows PowerShell, a task automation and configuration management framework. (Also check out the 5 benefits of server virtualization.

These enhanced virtual machine management capabilities give WS 2012 the ability to better deal with disaster recovery, increase bandwidth speeds, handle encryption, and increase data storage capacity. Microsoft designed WS 2012 with the cloud in mind and its cloud-based platform Azure runs on Server 2012.

Windows Server 2012 is offered in two licensed editions: Datacenter or Standard. Datacenter and Standard are licensed according to the number of processors used. Windows Server 2008 offered two other versions, Essentials and Small Business, which were licensed per-server with limits on the number of user accounts. Deciding which version is right for your business depends on the size, structure and nature of the enterprise. 

Windows Server 2008

What if your organization is not using WS 2003, but has the later Windows Server 2008 R2?

Windows Server 2008 was built from the same code base as Windows Vista, and it shares much of the same architecture and functionality, including most of the technical, security, management and administrative features of Windows Vista. However, Microsoft says here that mainstream support for WS 2008 has ended and, it will only provide extended support for WS 2008 until 2020. That makes now a good time to start planning for an upgrade to WS 2012.

The main reason most enterprises say that they are sticking with Windows Server 2008 for now is hardware compatibility. Because Windows Server 2012 runs only on a specific type of microprocessor (x64) it may require a hardware upgrade. Also, some organizations running WS 2008 Essential or Small Business are staying with them. However, most organizations running WS 2008 plan to eventually migrate to WS 2012 standard or R2.

Microsoft Azure

One alternative to a hardware change is Azure, a cloud-based platform described on this Microsoft Website. The benefits of switching to the cloud include:

  1. Fewer hardware maintenance issues
  2. Less storage needs
  3. Minimizes management of backup requirements

However, it must be noted that some regulated industries, such as healthcare or financial services mandate that data be kept behind its own physical firewall. Cloud-based systems may not be best for enterprises that must have constant access to data (latency). If broadband connections are lost, then data stored in the cloud may become temporarily unavailable.

If you are not in a heavily regulated business, Azure may be right for your enterprise. It provides both platform-as-a-service (PaaS) and infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) for building, deploying and managing applications and services through Microsoft’s global network of hosted data centers. Azure provides great flexibility and scalability in building websites, creating virtual machines (VM) and developing applications without having to make complicated code changes.

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