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In response to the recent trend of asking about features in Windows Server Essentials 2012/R2, as if they were part of the "normal" Server 2012/R2 editions (Standard or Datacenter), It seems like we could all benefit from a question about Windows Server Essentials, and how it differs from Windows Server (and establishing a couple tags for this variant of Windows Server).

So, having said that, what is Windows Server Essentials, and how is it different from the "regular" versions of Windows Server?

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First off, Windows Server Essentials is the replacement for Windows Small Business Server, which was discontinued/renamed with the release of Windows Server 2012.

Previous versions of Small Business Server were available with integrated versions of other products Microsoft offered commercially (MS SQL server, SharePoint and Exchange), and the required licenses included, however, this practice has been discontinued with Server Essentials 2012. In place of integrated Exchange, Essentials offers "integrated management" of an existing Exchange environment (on-premise or hosted, including Office365 hosted-Exchange).

Even without the included SQL, SharePoint or Exchange products, Server Essentials is a significantly different platform than the Standard or Datacenter editions of Server 2012. Microsoft has released a pdf comparison chart, outlining the feature differences between the various editions of Server 2012. Notably, Essentials is limited to 25 users and 50 devices (for which licenses are included, unlike Standard or Datacenter editions), has a much lower limit on RAM (64 GB vs 4 TB), must be set up as a domain controller, blocks certain roles from being installed (most notably Hyper-V and Terminal Services), and lacks some features, (most notably, Data Deduplication, Failover Clustering and Volume Activation Services).

To balance the restrictions of Server Essentials (and appeal to the product's "small business" target market), it comes with features that are not available on the other editions of Windows Server. A feature list for Windows Server Essentials 2012 can be found on Technet under the SBS blog area. It is non-comprehensive, and includes features available on all Server 2012 editions, but is a good resource for a high-level view of separates the Essentials product from Windows Server in general. Most visibly, Essentials, like SBS before it, comes with a simplified management and monitoring UI, called "Dashboard." Other particularly noteworthy features are integration with Microsoft Online Backup Service and the ability to backup up to 50 client machines, "Anywhere Access" (a collection of features designed to simplify and manage remote access to the server and domain), Office 365 integration (to replace the previous inclusion of Exchange and SharePoint), and new in Essentials, the ability to easily upgrade to a differnt edition of Server 2012 (Standard or Datacenter).

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Nice summary, HopelessN00b! I’d like to add the following, regarding the operation of two 2012 Essentials in parallel (which I wish I had known before I purchased two of them):

First: As you already mentioned, Essentials needs to be a Domain Controller, i.e. it must have the DC role installed and properly configured, otherwise it shuts itself down every 7 days. (If it’s installed but not configured properly it shuts down every 31 days.)

Second: There can be only one Essentials on your (discoverable) network. If you run another one on the same network they’ll find each other (via NetBIOS?) and one of them shuts down.

You can, however, run an Essentials side by side with an Windows Server Standard (2008/2012 doesn’t matter) without problems and even connect their Domain Controllers, as long as the Essentials has the primary DC role.

BTW: In my tests, it turned out you actually can connect two Essentials’ DC roles to one Standard DC without them shutting down each other, but as only one of them can have the primary DC role, the other one will shutdown itself within 31 days (as it’s not properly configured regarding the license requirements).

Of course, if you’d dig yourself through the whole Essentials licensing documentation, you’d find those information, but if you’re like me think »I don’t need all those Standard features, I just want a small server for XY« this could easily get you in the same trouble as I got. Hope this saves someone some days (and money, as there is no upgrade pricing from Essentials to Standard.)

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Good addition, though I have to ntipick something - it's one Essentials server per forest, not per network. You can add as many Essentials or SBS servers as you want to the network, they just need to be DCs on their own forests. –  HopelessN00b Mar 18 at 18:27

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