One market that Ubuntu has yet to crack is that of the SoHo server. Millions of office workers all over the world send email via, print through and save documents to a Microsoft Windows Small Business Server. But is Ubuntu ready to compete head-on against SBS? The current answer may not thrill Ubuntu fans.

Many SoHos have a physical host in their office with enough space for storing documents from their desktop, a simple backup solution and net connectivity including a firewall and access controls. Some use external hosted services providing similar features. This sounds like an ideal market opportunity for Ubuntu Server Edition.

But is it?

Most of these small businesses have no dedicated IT personnel and minimal computing expertise. For many the graphical administration tools and integrated nature of SBS are essential for them to use the computer as a tools in their businesses. With few additional skills to be learned, and simple admin tools the office worker can get on with their job, and worry less about their IT infrastructure.

There are prices to pay with this setup however. Microsoft SBS is a crippled product, with some functionality unavailable until the user pays for the premium edition. In addition users are required to purchase expensive Client Access Licenses for each device that connects to the server. There is also of course the additional aggravation and cost involved in managing viruses, mal-ware and spam, all of which can enter the company network via email or the Internet connection provided by the office server.

Calling for Ubuntu

Ubuntu has a great untapped opportunity here. With a vast repository of highly-configurable software requiring zero license fees, low resources and minimal ongoing administrative workload, it really is possible to replicate a Microsoft small office server with one running Free software. Or is it? The big headache is making it easy. Sure, any system admin worth their salt can install a SAMBA file and print server, configure an iptables firewall and provision email that is protected against spam and virus attack using Ubuntu.

But can the customer administer it?

For many years the Unix based system has been setup and maintained by the careful editing of configuration files and management of obscurely named programs and services. This is fine for the archetypal bearded geek, but more often beyond the level at which an office worker with average computing skills is prepared to go. They have better things to do than learn the intricacies of LDAP and PAM integration, SAMBA protocol versions and greylisting. What they need is a drop-in replacement for SBS in the same way that the desktop user has a drop in replacement for XP in the form of the Ubuntu Desktop.

The prospective small customer has alternatives to Ubuntu and they _will_choose them if Ubutnu doesn't come up with the goods. It's trivial for an office worker to configure Google Applications for Domains  to provide hosted email, document storage and instant messaging, with no configuration files needed. Similarly it's not too painful to install and setup a Windows box to provide those services to a small office - whether it's setup optimally is another matter. We need a high quality, robust, secure and easy to use graphical administration tool for these people.

We have two options already in the form of Webmin and eBox.

Unfortunately Webmin has been missing from the Ubuntu repository for some time now for resource and packaging reasons. Is it now time for it to return from the cold and save office workers from the command line perhaps. eBox - a relative newcomer to system administration is in the standard repository and it's going in the right direction in terms of ease-of-use. However it doesn't yet have the breadth of features seen in Webmin and isn't as polished as competing products such as Microsoft SBS and Google Apps.

Ubuntu Easy Business Server


Back at the start of 2007 Ubuntu Easy Business Server was heavily discussed at the Ubuntu Developer Summit in Sevilla, Spain. It was envisaged that UEBS would be the 'new webmin', with a new set of tools to make the setup and maintenance of small business servers a breeze. Unfortunately it seems resources have been diverted within the Ubuntu project, and as a result nothing has been seen of the brand new suite of tools since. Instead eBox was pulled into the repository as the admin tool of choice.
Perhaps in the next development cycle, starting after the release of 8.10 we will see more love given to simple administration tools for Ubuntu servers.

I certainly hope so, but I'm not holding my breath.

WorksWithU Contributing Blogger Alan Pope is the point contact for the Ubuntu UK LoCo, and a prominent voice in the global Ubuntu community.