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For a long time now, if your customer wanted a small business suite, the only real choice was which of the various Microsoft Small Business Servers to buy.

If your customer didn’t want to pay Microsoft’s price or be locked into a Microsoft solution, well, too bad. For most practical purposes, Microsoft was the only game in town. With Novell’s LSBS (Linux Small Business Suite) 9, however, customers have a real choice again.

Yes, in recent years we’ve seen the Novell Small Business Suite 6.5 and the IBM Small Business Suite for Linux. Honestly, though, I know only a handful of people who’ve deployed Novell’s NetWare-based SBS (Small Business Server) and I know only two people who use IBM’s solution.

No, the only choice small businesses have had lately is to whether to stick with Microsoft’s SBS 4.5 or 2000, or buy SBS 2003.

And—let me be straightforward—Microsoft’s SBSes have been good server suites. I’ve used and deployed them myself, and as anyone who has read much of my stuff for long knows, I’m not a Microsoft fan.

What I really am, and what every reseller and integrator worth his or her salt should be, is someone who picks the best solution for his customer. For many years, Microsoft’s SBS was a good choice for small businesses. And, for that matter, it still is.

But Microsoft’s SBS has also always had its problems. For starters, it puts everything and the kitchen sink on one server. With the premium edition, that means you have to put both SQL Server 2000 and Exchange 2003 on one box.

Can you say system overload? I knew you could.

Additionally, Microsoft rates SBS 2003 as being good for up to 75 users. In my experience, however, it craps out at about 50 users.

There are also any number of server applications that require the full-up Server 2003 and won’t work well, if at all, with SBS 2003.

Last, but never least, at $599 list price with five CALs (client access licenses) for the standard edition FFP (final/full packaged product), and $1,499 for the premium edition FFP with five CALs, Microsoft’s SBS is not cheap.

Now, let’s look at the new kid in town: Novell’s LSBS.

LSBS comes with three server licenses. No longer do you have to stick all your service eggs in one server basket.

With three servers you also get a lot more flexibility with your deployments. For example, I like to dedicate one system to e-mail and Web services in small networks and put it in my network’s DMZ (demilitarized zone). That way I have only one server that’s directly vulnerable to potential attacks from the Internet. With SBS 2003, you can’t take this fundamental network security step.

Instead of Server 2003, LSBS runs SLES (SuSE Enterprise Linux Server) 9. SLES is rock-solid Linux. For e-mail serving, it comes with GroupWise 6.5; for directory services, it comes with Novell eDirectory 8.7.3; and for a Web server, Apache 2.0.

It does not, however, come with an integrated DBMS as does SBS 2003 Premium Edition. I can live without that since I’d rather pick my own DBMS in most deployments and SQL 2000 has never been one of my favorites.

LSBS also doesn’t come with ZENworks for client management, and I really wish it did. The clients are there, but not the server end of it. That’s a separate purchase item.

LSBS can also handle up to 100 clients. I haven’t tested it out yet to know if it’s capable of that. Still, with three servers and SLES’ better memory and processor management, I would think it should easily to be able to handle a 100-user load.

Like SBS 2003, LSBS also comes with five CALs. However, it also comes with five copies of NLD (Novell Linux Desktop 1.0). Thus, you get not only the CALs for the desktops, but the desktop operating systems as well.

Don’t think for one minute though that that means you have to use NLD or another Linux desktop. Your desktop users can also use XP Pro or Windows 2000.

Indeed, that’s one of the things I like about LSBS: You can use either your legacy desktops or the supplied NLD.

This extends beyond the desktop to the server level. With SBS 2003, you can use other servers. LSBS, however, will happily work in harness with other Linux or Windows server. In this way, it gives your customer not just more flexibility but scalability as well.

Michael Zepernick, president of Computer Integrated Services Co. of New York LLC, a Novell Inc. platinum reseller and a Microsoft Solutions Provider, has never liked small business servers of any variety. “I prefer to deal with the real thing.”

But, he said, LSBS has him thinking that he might just change his mind. “Since any software that will run on any version of SLES will work on LSBS, I won’t have to worry about paying attention to two different skeds or whether this application will run on the small business server,” he said.

“I’m going to give LSBS serious thought,” Zepernick said.

Click here to read about Novell’s Open Enterprise Server.

Finally, LSBS is just a good deal cheaper than SBS 2003. The base LSBS package is $475, or $252 for your customers who are upgrading from a competitive product. In this case, Linux Product Manager Brian Green told me that a competitive product is another server-based operating system.

So, for example, a customer upgrading from a peer-to-peer Win 2000 or XP Professional office set up wouldn’t get the upgrade price. But a customer who was moving from SBS 2003, 2000 or 4.5 would be eligible for the reduced rate.

For resellers, Novell is offering a package of training and sales incentives to make NLSBS an attractive alternative to Microsoft’s Small Business Server or Red Hat RHEL (Red Hat Enterprise Linux) ES, according to Troy Wilde, Novell’s product manager for small business solutions.

“Small businesses will benefit from this dependable, cost-effective solution that provides a greater choice of software and hardware, eliminating vendor lock-in,” said David Patrick, Novell’s vice president of Linux, Open Source and Platform Services.

You know something? I think the Novell guys are onto something.

Yes, LSBS doesn’t have all the same features as Server 2003 Premium Edition, but then it has ones that Server 2003 doesn’t have; and, depending on your customers’ needs, it may just be the better choice.

And in the end, isn’t that what it’s all about? Giving your customer the best choices possible?