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Microsoft-IBM competition fuels SMB, midmarket channel opportunities

Microsoft's Small Business Server and Essential Business Server have been challenged by IBM's Lotus Foundations Start product. All three products offer considerable benefits for SMB customers' businesses, but how can solution providers decide which product best fits a given environment?

Competing small-to-midmarket infrastructure products from IBM and Microsoft have opened up new choices for customers and opportunities for channel partners in sales, deployment and managed IT services.

The products are designed to enable small and midmarket (up to a few hundred users) businesses to consolidate several network infrastructure devices on a single server.

Microsoft offers two products, including the well-established Small Business Server (SBS), which incorporates Windows Server, collaboration, email and email security on a single server. The newer Essential Business Server (EBS) is for midmarket customers and features three servers, including a dedicated security server, and sophisticated management system.

Microsoft expanded its offerings in late 2008 by consolidating management and server infrastructure for companies with up to 300 users -- SBS has a hard ceiling of 75 users.

IBM's Lotus Foundations Start provides similar capabilities spanning both small and midmarket companies in a hardened Linux appliance.

Introduced in the fall of 2008, Foundations Start is designed for every SMB scenario from a small dentist's office to a 500-user enterprise. IBM recently looked to ratchet up the competition with Microsoft by announcing that more than 1,000 Microsoft partners had become Foundations Start resellers.

The SMB server infrastructure lineups from both vendors offer streamlined and affordable management and security for customers, while providing remote managed services capabilities for the solution provider. The choices give flexibility to meet the needs of varied businesses.

SMB security

There are several security considerations that come with determining the appropriate product for a given SMB customer.

Both vendors' products include email servers -- Exchange from Microsoft, Domino from IBM; and both have antispam and antivirus filters.

The differentiation is in the architecture. While SBS includes its Forefront email security on the same Windows Server 2008 platform as the rest of the package, EBS is deployed on three servers (with the option for a fourth). One of these is a security server, so the Forefront email filtering and the included Threat Management Gateway (TMG) Web security and firewall can sit in front of the email server and the rest of the network.

This strong security architecture may not be of great consequence to small companies (those in security-sensitive sectors are among the exceptions), but midmarket companies with a few hundred employees or more will likely require this kind of architecture.

The design of Microsoft's architecture also means most spam never hits the Exchange server and offloads the antivirus processing.

IBM Lotus Foundations is a single box, but as a hardened Linux appliance, it offers some advantages that Microsoft cannot match. As an appliance with a Linux OS, it's inherently more attack-resistant. Foundations also reduces the need for regular "Patch Tuesday" activities that come with supporting a Microsoft product, not to mention out-of-cycle emergency patches.

Susan Bradley, CPA, partner and computer guru with the Fresno, Calif.-based accounting firm, Tamiyasu-Smith-Horn-Brun and author of the SBS Diva blog, said that with Foundations, customers' patching days might not be over completely, but they'll surely be less of a burden.

"You don't have to worry that SQL Server doesn't start because a patch didn't take," Bradley said. "You don't have the same patching regimen."

Threat Management Gateway (TMG), heir to Internet Security & Acceleration Server, has a built-in network firewall and Web security gateway. Gateway Web protection is becoming an essential security component, as Web-based malware has supplanted email as a primary threat vector.

While this may be good enough security for most SMBs, some will prefer more robust third-party firewalls and perhaps Web security gateway products or hosted services in front of their networks instead of the embedded firewalls of the IBM and Microsoft products. Solutions providers can service customers by choosing the right tools and, just as important, making them work with the IBM or Microsoft products behind them.

Especially with IBM, said James Sulfare Jr., owner of Chambersburg, Penn.-based Solinkit LLC, which deploys both SBS and Lotus Foundations Start for its customers. On the plus side, patches aren't an issue with an IBM firewall, but it's more difficult to integrate.

"You can put a third-party firewall in front Lotus Foundations Start," he said, "but it's designed to be its own security and integration gets complicated behind a firewall. Microsoft is a whole lot easier -- it's turnkey. You blink, and it's done."

Active Directory, management, virtualization and more

Perhaps the key consideration when considering an SMB infrastructure server is consolidated, simplified management --and that has security implications as well. For small shops, there's simply less to manage. Foundations and, to a lesser extent, SBS are turnkey products. For the smallest offices, either is a viable choice.

But as companies grow in size, server sprawl grows as well, as they add domain name system (DNS) and line-of-business applications, for example. If a company starts with SBS, it'll hit a wall at the 76th user, so working with the customer to plan a migration path to EBS or Foundations will be essential. The difficulty will depend on factors such as the complexity of the network and dependency on Active Directory.

EBS features a robust management tool, Systems Center Essentials (SCE). This tool manages everything across the Microsoft environment, as well as third parties, some natively (including desktop antivirus), some through an API. IBM is planning its own extended management capabilities through its Tivoli franchise. That will involve additional purchases, so customers may be advised to wait and see what costs and complexities this will add.

Active Directory is at the heart of a Microsoft deployment, managing authentication and access control settings of group and individual policy controls. Foundations has its own control mechanisms; they are not Active Directory-compatible. That's a big deal if Active Directory-dependent customers want to switch from SBS/EBS and Foundations.

"AD is the killer app," said Bradley. "If you really want to take the network to that degree where you are taking the time to fully utilize SCE, to really put its through its paces -- it's Microsoft, hands down."

It's not an either/or situation, though. Foundations, through VMware, and EBS, with Hyper-V, both support virtualization. So, Active Directory can be run on a Windows Server virtual machine on the IBM appliance, for example, or any Windows application that Foundations' Linux OS doesn't support directly. It also depends on how deeply ingrained AD is in the IT operation.

"Consider: What is the reason behind your use of Active Directory?" said Sulfare.

IBM also offers a built-in backup system, and Lotus Symphony, a suite of productivity applications that serves as a free alternative to Microsoft Office. That's of considerable value for companies that aren't wedded to Office or are less than eager to migrate to Office 2007. But the change-shock can be considerable.

"We migrated from Lotus 1-2-3 to Excel years ago," said Bradley, recalling that experience at her accounting firm. "People in my office would kill me if I tried to migrate to another spreadsheet package. It took us a good year to get productivity back."

Managed services opportunities

Both vendors are managed services-friendly, offering remote management capabilities, essential to solution providers who support clients remotely.

Microsoft's remote capabilities are held in particularly high regard, said Bradley, and that's considered a strong selling point.

In addition, Foundations is still young, and channel partners may struggle to work with it until it is fully supported by major managed services platforms such as Kasaya, Level Platforms and ConnectWise, Bradley said.

Yet the more complex the network, the more services customers will need -- integrating and consolidating servers, deploying virtualization, configuring applications that aren't natively supported, for example Foundations, as an appliance, tends to need less care and feeding, but that can have an upside for the solution provider as well.

"We don't have to charge larger support contracts," said Sulfare of Lotus Foundations engagements. "We make less on each customer, but numbers are getting bigger."

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