Unless you’ve been living off the grid, chances are you know that Microsoft has been putting out a stream of announcements over the last month. And if you are a trusted advisor in the SMB space, chances are good that some of those announcements will impact your business. In particular, the reaction to changes with the new 2012 server lineup has been quite strong.
Many SMB specialists are angry, as witnessed by comments to this announcement on the SBS Team Blog. You can read the post and the comments. There are plenty of people that were caught by complete surprise and are quite emotional about the decisions made and the new directions Microsoft is going.
Then there are the pundits and the prognosticators that saw some of these changes on the horizon. Karl Palachuk, for example, has said that these changes and Microsoft’s decisions aren’t about you. His insight is interesting and I encourage you to read this post on the subject. And while I agree with his logic, that can be a bitter pill when the ramifications will impact you and your business plans.
With all the changes and comments, I have been reminiscing and I’ve decided to put my thoughts into actions. Where some people have written about these SMB changes from a Microsoft perspective, and others have written from a partner perspective, I felt that there is an untold story and one perspective that is missing. And hopefully with this post, I can start that story. It will not be completed with one post. Nor will it be completed by me. But this is a call to action. A kicking off point. I write this in hopes that people will view these changes through a new lens and find new hope moving foward.
But each story must have a beginning, and this one starts in the late 90s with SBS 4.
What if I told you that SBS, as a product, were a failure? You’d probably call me nuts. You’d point to great sales, a passionate base, and plenty of evidence to its success. And while those are indeed successes in their own right, SBS as it was envisioned was a failure. Indulge me for a moment while I explain…
When SBS first was announced, it was marketed as a do-it-yourself server solution for a small business owner. It was, in part, intended to reach an audience that didn’t have a relationship through a traditional partner channel. In fact, existing partners felt like their business model was being threatened. Sound familiar? Microoft built a solution that they wanted to get into a new market. One where the small business owner was unwilling to pay for a technology advisor. The ads that were taken out, the venues that it was advertised in, and the message that was crafted was all about the non-technical user.
Of course that strategy was inherently flawed. Built on NT4, SBS could not hope to streamline the hot mess that was NT in the pre-Active Directory days. SBS 4 did not succeed at its primary goal; being a DIY server solution. Windows 2000 brought Active Directory with Group Policies, and with all of the added complexities they offered. SBS 2000 again tried to streamline it, but with an attempt to reduce the complexity came the unfortunate reduction in flexibility. Exchange 2003 was *finally* a first-class messaging platform, but with that newfound power came yet more complexity. Again SBS 2003 was given the task of reigning that complexity in, but it did so at some other expenses.
With each SBS revision, SBS became harder for a non-IT person to manage. At the same time, it became so customized and different from “standard” servers that enterprise or independent IT professionals also struggled to properly manage SBS. SBS became a product that required a specialty: SBS specialists were the only people who advocated SBS. How many SBS servers have you seen broken because someone tried to follow their “enterprise” ideas of best practices?
I’m not bashing SBS. While I had not particular love for SBS 4, it has grown into a robust and worthwhile product. When held to the standard of what the product’s original vision was, however, it never achieved that goal. It failed. How could SBS be so successful despite that glaring fact? The simple answer is that some wise people saw the potential of this product even though it was being marketed to the wrong audience. They gathered and shared ideas. They provided their own fixes and solutions to fill holes in the product. Some of those holes were, if we are honest, rather large and gaping. Books were written. Information was shared. Entire companies, such as SMBNation and SBSMigration.com were born. If you think that releasing SBS 2003 without a better migration story was a fairly significant oversight then you might want to take a moment and take an honest look at this beloved product.
If SBS, any version, were a truly perfect product, it wouldn’t need an SBS Specialist. It wouldn’t need people rallying around it. It wouldn’t need conferences, 3rd-party products, and user groups. It’d just…exist. The failure of SBS is also the reason for its many successes. And that isn’t a bad thing!
Therein lies the story I want to be told. SBS cannot credit its successes solely to Microsoft. It was a collective effort of thousands of voices that didn’t rely on Microsoft to tell them how to succeed back then. They paved their own path. I don’t want to sell Microsoft short either. It certainly helped that Microsoft had the vision back then to embrace this emerging community and encourage their success. And without that encouragement, things may have turned out quite differently. But by no means does Microsoft, nor any individual, deserve any credit either. It was a a group effort. It was the focal point and spark that created a community that has endured time.
So I will leave this post with these final few thoughts which I hope will inspire a new future.
SBS of yesterday was successful not because of the product. Nor because of Microsoft. But because of the commnity that was built around it.
SBS 2011 today is still a great product. If you attended one of the SMB MVP Community Roadshows, you may have seen how this product fits. Just because there is a new line of 2012 servers being released doesn’t suddenly make SBS 2011 less suitable. If it is the right solution, continue to embrace it!
As far as tomorrow goes…that future is unwritten. There has been a debate about the aging of the SMB community. In my opinion, the problem isn’t that the pool of talent for the SMB community is getting older, itis that the SMB community is struggling to engage in the younger talent. The new community is simply more versatile. They use iPads and Android phones. They run Macbooks and stream Netflix over Roku boxes. They are technically savvy, but haven’t dedicated themselves to one product. As the existing SMB community looks at the challenges that we see moving foward, finding ways to pull in those new voices can be beneficial. This is a challenge that the SMB community must meet and conquer.
And finally, if you are one that says you don’t have time to learn something new and this is killing your business; you don’t have to learn this stuff alone! The best communities are the ones that thrive on sharing knowledge. Let someone else take 2 months to learn about IPv6 and then teach you in two hours. In turn, take two months and learn Hyper-V and then teach them. Just as I feel that the SMB community is struggling to grab the interest of younger talent, I see a trend towards complacency in sharing knowledge. We need to come together, recommit, and re-assert ourselves to learning new technical skills, not just new sales strategies.
I look at the future and I see an environment that is ripe for a community revival. This is the shock to the system that I think has been long overdue, and I for one am excited to see what happens. I don’t have to agree with every Microsoft decision. Nor do I have to let Microsoft dictate the best solution for my customers. We can build our own solutions and we can hope that, like before, Microsoft will see the value of engaging the SMB community again and make that job easier. But as long as we look to a single vendor or product to solve all of our problems for us, we will leave our business at their mercy.
So go to national and regional technical conferences. Start learning new skills. Engage with your vendor sales reps. They talk to businesses like yours all over the country and while they clearly have a goal of selling their product, they also have insight and resources that you can leverage. Join an IT Pro group. If your local area is large enough, make sure it is SMB oriented. If there is no such group, start one! Each one of these suggestions is about engaging with your peers, not as competitors, but as colleagues who are facing similar challenges. My call to action for you is to revitalize the community roots that were always the TRUE spirit behind SBS. It is time we find that spirit again.
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