A (Non) Profitable Journey–Part 3

I migrated Swan Lake out of their Small Business 2011 environment into a new Server 2012 R2 environment built on top of Server 2012 R2 Hyper-V.  Swan Lake had purchased the server licenses and CAL’s through Tech Soup and it only made sense to make use of that licensing as we move forward.  I migrated them into Office 365 for email and all of the other features that O365 offers and then did the work to remove Exchange from SBS and then migrate to 2021 R2 and remove SBS from the environment.  There are lots of guides on the ‘Net that document the process, just keep in mind that you cannot simply turn off Exchange and/or SBS if you are moving to newer server software,you must properly decommission the lot or face grief down the road.

Microsoft has a couple of interesting options available in the server world to address the needs of smaller organizations as you move forward from SBS.  The offerings are Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials and the “Server Essentials Experience” Role for Server 2012 R2.  Both are designed to provide an easily managed server environment with baked-in links to Office 365, built-in web-based remote access to LAN and server resources and the ability to support Pro and non-Pro Windows clients on the LAN.  In fact, both are in essence the same collection of server and software tools packaged in different ways.

Server 2012 R2 Essentials is a single purchasable “SKU” (part number) that provides the server license as well as Client Access Licenses (CAL’s) for 25 users.  The license does provide for Hyper-V virtualization rights as you can use the license to provision a Hyper-V server that then hosts a single instance of Server 2012 R2 Essentials.  The Essentials management tools are installed as part and parcel of the server installation and the 25 user limit is enforced in the backend.

The “Server Essentials Experience” is a Role that you install on top of a regularly licensed Windows Server 2102 R2 installation much as you would install any number of other Server roles.  The role provides the same tools and functions as Server Essentials does, hence the term”Experience”.  However, the role does not impose user count limits nor does it impose any other limits such as requiring the FSMO roles to be housed on the server that holds the Essentials role.  It also does not require the server that has the role enabled to be a domain controller although the server certainly can be a DC.  What is required is that you have proper CAL licensing in place for all your users and/or devices as there are no CAL rights associated with the role.

What both versions of Essentials provide is a rich management and user experience that builds on and expands many of the features that made Small Business Server so attractive  for so many years.  The management piece consists of a specific GUI and associated tools:






Well, you get the idea.  Lots of tools, lots of choices and, if you noticed, lots of ways to link up to the Microsoft Cloud with links to Office 365, Intune, Azure Backup.  You don’t have to make use of those tools but if you do it’s nice to have the  management links integrated into your server console.  BTW, the screen shots above are from the server link on the Anywhere Access web page (the replacement for SBS’s Remote Web Access) and they are identical to the Dashboard links on the server itself.

When you install the full Server Essentials (the SKU) the setup process will make the server the domain controller (DC) for a net-new domain, it will set up centralized shared folders for all users and it will do a number of other things automatically (just like SBS did) to make the server “user ready” for client computer connection and user connection for the various services offered.  When the Essentials role is enabled on an already established DC it still creates the shared folders and other shared services but it is up to you as the admin to “close the loop” and make backend changes to suit your needs.  In Swan Lake’s case, as I had migrated all of their data and shared folders to the server from SBS prior to bringing up the Essentials role, the Essentials created folders were created in addition to the folders that were already in place.  As of this point in time I haven’t pulled everything together in one place just yet.



As you can see I have  published their previously shared out folder (the “Z” drive) while the other links (Users, Company, etc.) are empty.  I’ll get this sorted out down the road but it also point to the fact that there is flexibility built in to the tools as one size does not fit all!  The other thing to keep in mind is that the Essentials Role can be brought up on any member server within the domain, it does not have to be brought up on your DC.  Therefore, you can make a number of different choices about what folders and other data is published out through the Anywhere Access web page.

While all of the management tools are really nice to have I think the biggest value in Essentials or the Essentials Role is the ability to easily link through to Microsoft Cloud services.  Essentials acknowledges and embraces the fact that hybrid systems (part on-prem, part Cloud) are the new infrastructure reality for many organizations.  The links to the various services do their best to hide a lot of the complexity of the actual backend tool such as the Office 365 sync tool, DirSync and that is not a bad thing for those of you out there that aren’t “hardcore” sysadmins (I have seen my colleague, Stephanie, who is a whiz with the various O365 sync tools (DirSync, AADsync, AADConnect) practically weep with grief and frustration while dealing with the arcane complexities of DirSync).  In a future post I will detail the Office 365 management piece as I will be putting that into place for Swan Lake once I have completed a big cleanup job in their Active Directory.

So stay tuned!  Things are going to get really interesting!