In 2013, Microsoft discontinued its popular server offering for small businesses, Windows Small Business Server (SBS). As we explained in a previous post, “Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials Is Not Small Business Server,” Microsoft’s replacement for the entry-level server solution is at best incomplete (to put it charitably).

Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials does not include Microsoft Exchange or Microsoft SharePoint. Its built-in management capabilities incompletely rise to the challenges of the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) trend—and only if you pay for Exchange. It also only manages a maximum of 25 users or 50 devices. In short, it is not nearly as capable or full-featured as SBS.

Windows Server Essentials Might Not Be SBS, but It Is Still a Lot Less Expensive than Other Windows Server Options

With SBS no longer being an option for small businesses, it is hard to argue with the price point for Essentials. For business that chafe at the 25 users/50 devices limit with Essentials, all is not lost. There is a slightly more complex and expensive way to coax management for 75 users/devices out of Essentials. (Spoiler alert: it involves using Windows Server 2012 R2 Standard.)

Moving to the big leagues in a Microsoft product-centric IT shop outside of Essentials is expensive in two ways:

  • Licensing Windows Server 2012 R2 Standard or Datacenter editions is more expensive and requires dealing with Client Access Licenses (CALs).
  • Management for users, devices, and servers is not included and is not cheap either.

Moving away from underneath Essentials can be intimidating and expensive if you grow beyond 25 users or 50 devices. Fortunately there is a middle ground that bundles many of the benefits Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials without the expense of going whole-hog with a full Windows Server deployment.

Keeping the Essentials Party Going to 75 Users or 75 Devices

Essentials is not just an edition of Windows Server 2012 R2: it is a server role in Windows Server as well. That means that you can take a server running Windows Server 2012 R2 and turn it into a server running Essentials. While there can be some niche uses for this model in the enterprise, a big advantage for small and midsized businesses is that with Essentials running as a server role (as opposed to the stand-alone server edition) it can support up to 75 users or 75 devices.

Before we dig into the dark depths of Microsoft licensing too much more, let’s look at a quick comparison between Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials and running Essentials as a role on Windows Server 2012 R2 Standard:


Excuse Me, Did You Say “Virtual Machine”?

The trick to this licensing strategy is that the Windows Server 2012 R2 license comes with rights to also run Windows Server 2012 R2 on up to two VMs on that same server. (The Microsoft hypervisor, Hyper-V, comes bundled with Windows Server 2012 R2, so there is no extra cost for that.) In short, for the price of the one Windows Server 2012 R2 Standard license, you can install that on a server, set up a VM running it as well, and then downgrade that VM to be your Essentials server.

Windows Server 2012 R2 Standard comes with licenses for up to two VMs. So in addition to the VM that will run the Essentials server, you have another available to run an on-premises Exchange, SharePoint, or file server (or even a Minecraft server—that is, after all, now Microsoft too).

Great, but How Do CALs Work?

Welcome to the big leagues! In addition to the cost of licensing the server itself, you must also buy a license for each user or device that will connect to the server with regularity (as opposed to incidental connections to the server from the Internet, for example). CALs come in two flavors: user and device. A user CAL permits a single user to access the server through any number of devices. This is the operative CAL for this example. (Device CALs do the opposite: they permit a single device to connect the server regardless of the user on that device.)

Let’s run the numbers for a hypothetical company with 50 users running Essentials as a VM on Windows Server 2012 R2.

The Bottom Line for Your Bottom Line

So, about five time the price (USD 2,382.00 versus USD 501.00) for twice the seats, but it is still cheaper than doing a full-blown Windows Server deployment. (How much less expensive? Check out our next blog post where we do some price comparisons.) On the plus side, deploying Windows Server 2012 R2 Standard in your environment provides you with access to additional features like Workplace Join and Work Folders that are not available in Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials.

Price matters for your IT, but it’s not the only consideration—and depending on what you need your IT to do, it might not even be the most important one. Creative licensing can expand the number of users you can cover with Windows Server Essentials; this can be cost-effective, but it might not meet all of your growing IT needs. More complex solutions like Microsoft System Center 2012 R2 Configuration Manager can provide more and more powerful options for you when you are ready to make the investment.

Fortunately, Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials (either alone or as a server role) does not lock you into anything. There is a smooth upgrade path to Windows Server 2012 R2 Standard. In our next blog post, we’ll run some more numbers (so you don’t have to) to give you a sense of how tools like Microsoft Intune and Configuration Manager can fit into your IT growth plans.

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