By now, most everyone knows that last week (just ahead of the World Wide Partner Conference), Microsoft announced the end of life for their Small Business Server product line. And last year, Microsoft announced the demise of the Small Business Specialist Certification. In near lockstep with each of these announcements, Microsoft named the successor offerings. SBS is replaced by Server 2012 Essentials and the Small Business Specialist Certification is superseded by the new Small Business Competency.
Now there is a huge buzz online and at the conferences about how unexpected it was to hear about the SBS end of life and how Microsoft doesn’t care about the community, that they are just money grabbing, and on and on. Several articles have already been posted attempting to inform people that these changes to SBS and the certification are not a real surprise if you have been at all plugged in or tuned in to the SBS and SMB communities. There is also the group that has been upset ever since the demise of the Small Business Specialist Certification was announced because it will be significantly more costly to get the new Small Business Competency. The truth is that these two closely related changes by Microsoft affect the same people down the line, largely the smaller service providers.
Before I get into the five most important things you need to know, I have one sad truth for you. This is not about you. You absolutely have to come to the reality that this decision by Microsoft, regardless of you, your business, channel, partners, or clients is not about you. Please do not take what I am about to say as anything but a reality check. I neither am Microsoft’s biggest fan nor am I somehow endeared to their solutions. I am just a business man and entrepreneur who follows opportunity.
Microsoft didn’t do this out of spite or greed (necessarily) or for fun. Microsoft is in fact a multi-billion dollar corporation who has a financial responsibility to their shareholders and their employees. They exhibit the ideal business model in that they are constantly trying to improve their product and expand their line into the emerging markets. They too are business men (and women) who are entrepreneurial and who follow opportunity.
I will supplement my statement that this isn’t about you by adding… and don’t make it about them! This is not about squeezing the little guy and making him run off as the end game. But I can guarantee you that if Microsoft can come up with a way to deliver their products and service them without an added layer of time, people and tasks, they will. Look at where everything about our industry is going: self-serve. One click and you have a web site, or server, or mail system. It would be irresponsible for you to not be doing all of these same things in your business at the appropriate level as well. Automate everything you can so you can focus on project work for your client. The best use of your time is helping them get their next big project online, so why not outsource the mundane stuff like updates, moves, adds and changes.
How many of you remember that Microsoft originally marketed Small Business Server to be a client installable and configurable solution? Anyone? They marketed this product directly to the business principals because their solution was supposed to be so straightforward that you, as a business owner, could open the box and install it by yourself in five hours. And that, my friends, is how we all got into SBS. The call comes in and you now have a new client because they have this thing installed and configured but nothing works. They of course have only one NIC and no modem but, “I’m sure it’s configured right.”
The opportunity was created because Microsoft thought the end users were going to be able to just install and maintain this product by themselves; that is why the SBS community is as big as it is. And these fantastic opportunities to write books and create migration solutions and support this entire product line is about to start over again, so be ready.
Microsoft is simply doing what businesses do - Redesigning their product line to meet what they believe the world will be tomorrow, and creating a support system to supply that product with qualified people. It does not matter if their prediction is right, it does not matter if they are gambling big and using their money and influence to steer technology. It will work or it won’t, good, bad or indifferent.
Now for the five most important things you need to know for your business and your clients.
One - SBS will still be around for a while
You have a huge responsibility to your clients not to panic or overreact. SBS did not die yesterday or last week. It’s not going to stop spinning on December 31, 2012. You have to be clear and concise in your communications with your clients that their servers and systems will not just stop spinning on some day in the not-so-far-off future. Even if you are one of the people who just now heard the news, you have to act like you have a plan. And you will have a plan.
This product will still be available on the shelf for almost another year, and through the OEM channel until the end of 2013. And support will be continued until at least 2020. That’s eight years from now. That’s two presidents and possibly some change (no pun intended). You have some time here folks to think and plan and communicate with your clients.
My advice and action would be to continue to sell this product like hotcakes if it is the right solution for my client. I might even buy a couple of box product for later. Also, knowing that I will likely get a free upgrade from SBS to 2012 Essentials on the purchase of any new server from HP and Dell, I wouldn’t give it a second thought to keep selling it. You have a year and a half of solid product sales where this solution is still possibly the best thing you could do for your client. Only then the clock starts ticking on this new server lifecycle, counting down to its end of life which is typically three years. That takes you right out to 2017.
Takeaway: Start a campaign to engage your clients and inform them correctly about the true longevity of this still-very-valid solution and the real implications for their long-term IT future.
Two - Architect for tomorrow today
Begin now to architect your solutions for tomorrow, if you have not done so already. I don’t care what it is. Servers running Microsoft or Linux, Andriod devices logging into desktops, SQL databases being hosted on Yahoo. Even if you don’t believe that the cloud is where the whole world will end up, you have to know what tomorrow looks like for your clients and for your business.
Many companies who have a cloud offering are only really worried about the cost gap created for special clients who either cannot or will not go to the cloud. Because SBS included Exchange and SharePoint, you will now have an additional product and cost for both of these solutions that used to be included. I disregard any other toys you think you will miss out on like remote access. That’s either free or cheap and secure from anyone.
I am not offering any of my own recommendations on how to solve this because over the next twelve months, there will be no end of viable, secure and cheap solutions. How do I know this? Because nature abhors a vacuum, and when the exact scenario that SBS used to fit so nicely into for so many people creates a void, technology will fill it and fill it fast. The most important question you can ask yourself and your team is this: Knowing what you now know, what would you do different for the next client solution?
Takeaway: Get innovative and get informed. Get plugged into the communities and user groups so you know what solutions are coming out and being tried. Warning! You will have to filter for the useful information and not all the pouting and whining about the devil and the demise.
Three - Follow the leaders
Follow the leaders in the industry to find the best long-term solutions overall. If you are not in tune with the SBS community and SMB space, you have to get in tune. Find the rainmakers and prophets. I have some links at the end of this article pointing to SBS relevant content, and links at the end of this section to the people I refer to. These people are connectors to other resources and mavens of the exact solutions you will need to make up your new offerings.
This may even include actually listening to Microsoft as they progress forward with their plans. Do you know that Microsoft is not done with their surprises? They gave you a warm-up at every presentation for the last six months that, “There will be some big changes over the next fifteen months.” Well, they started chanting that only about six months ago, so do yourself a favor, keep listening for more fun and interesting changes.
I suspect it will be a while before a product that fills a niche as well as SBS did comes along. Finding the right solution or combination of solutions will require learning, testing, validation and client acceptance. In today’s IT industry, it would be ludicrous to try to solve this with no outside help. I believe the IT industry will solve this as a whole and adopt a sort of norm package. But it will take a while, and the more you participate in the communities, the more you will be able to feel the certainty that you have a solid, repeatable and reliable solution when the time comes.
Takeaway: Get plugged in to the community. Find these top people and companies:
Harry Brelsford, SMB Nation: http://www.smbnation.com
Susan Bradley, The SBS Diva: http://msmvps.com/blogs/bradley
Karl Palachuk, Small Biz Thoughts: http://www.smallbizthoughts.com
Jeff Middleton, SBS Migration: http://www.sbsmigration.com
Amy Babinchak, Third Tier: http://www.thirdtier.net
Wayne Small, SBS faq: http://www.sbsfaq.com
Note: These are just my favorites and who I know will be on top of SBS EOL as it moves forward.
Four - Certification becomes Competency
Understand and evaluate the total value of the new Microsoft competency. If the previous certification and logo meant something to you and your clients before, and had value, then you need to seriously consider if this new competency and accompanying Silver or Gold logo will too. Yes, there is a cost difference and some requirement differences, but only you can decide if this has value to you and your clients, and if it does, then just do it. The Small Business Specialist goes away as of the middle of next year, so you do need to have a training track in place.
Do not be misled into believing that you now are required to have two employees who are certified. A single-person company can attain the Silver level Small Business Competency. However, the exam requirements have doubled to two exams. In my opinion, what actually makes this an easier pass than the SBS exam is that, depending on which you select, the two tests combined are not as tough.
There are other added items such as the requirement to pass the licensing overview assessment. Passing the license assessment should be as easy as passing the primary requirement for the Small Business Competency, the business-focused small business assessment. All online and open book so to speak. If you are new to a real Microsoft competency, you need to know that you will have to document no less than three client implementation, deployment or maintenance scenarios. Trust me when I say this should not be the hardest thing you do all year.
As mentioned previously, Microsoft has replaced the SB Specialist Certification with a full-fledged competency; therefore, there will be a logo change. The most important client-facing changes start with that neat little baby blue logo, which clearly distinguished you as different from other partners, going away. You now will sport the exact same Silver or Gold Partner competency logo, depending on your participation level. This alone may be one of the biggest factors in your decision to pursue this competency. I know it meant something to me to sport the logo, and I will miss it dearly, but others won’t give it a second thought.
Cost is going to be the biggest factor for all companies involved. Microsoft has set the Silver Competency fee at $1850, with a special discount down to $999 for any company who fulfills requirements by December 31, 2012. I did not check the price on the Gold Competency, but all I can say is, “Ouch!” To tally it all up, you have no less than one more exam cost (unless you already have two qualifying exams), plus the competency fee of $999 (or $1850 if you wait until after December 31, 2012).
Please note that I am not an expert on the Microsoft certifications and competencies, but I did do some homework as this change affects me as a consultant and an author on SBS Migrations. So if I have anything here incorrect, please do forgive me. There is much more to the competency, including changes to the software and number of licenses you have access to. For your reference, I have included a link to the Microsoft Partner Small Business competency requirements site.
Takeaway: If you believe this competency is important to your business and has value, in all that you get access to including software, you need to get a plan together now. Decide how you will meet the requirements, including financially, to get it in place. But resolve yourself not to lament over this thing. Once you have made the decision, then it is just the new cost of this tool. And if you chose not to pursue this competency, also do yourself a favor and don’t look back.
Five - Get help if you need it
I don’t care if you are a small company or a large company; if you’re not sure how to proceed in any aspect of what I have laid out here, from tomorrow’s solution to certifications, get some help. I did state earlier that you need to get plugged in and get educated and find the connectors and mavens. But at the end of the day, if you need guidance, then call on someone who has answers for you. Obviously I offer my services as a coach and as a consultant, but there are others out there who will be specifically focused on solving the SBS gap issue, and they will also be offering their consulting, services and solutions.
When it comes to Microsoft licensing and competency, few will be able to help you more than Microsoft. But when it comes to the hardware and software options, realize that some very innovative companies are building new solutions every single day. Get trained in those new products so you know how they can help you and how you can implement them.
Takeaway: There is a huge opportunity here for all those who can get up on this wave and ride. If you need help, get it. No success ever happens by itself, and no successful person succeeds solely based on their own efforts.
How ironic it would be if, in a year’s time, no one is even saying, “Exchange server,” instead we are back to just saying, “mail server.”
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