The Future of Windows Home Server

07Dec10

Microsoft’s recent announcement that the key Drive Extender feature is to be removed from the new version of Windows Home Server codenamed ‘Vail’ has resulted in much dismay within the community. Many commentators, including the vocal WHS user community itself, have started to question the future of this product. In this post I give my take on where I see WHS in the medium term and consider how it can fit alongside the “new dawn” of a Cloud Computing era.

How big is the Drive Extender issue?

Firstly, what’s all this about Drive Extender (DE)? Well DE is a really neat feature of WHS that pools all the hard drives in the system into one logical data drive. This means that you can throw in a mixed selection of hard drives of any type (USB, SATA etc) or capacity and the system enables you to see them as one. It also provides fault tolerance through data duplication which protects your data from drive failure. It is one of the major features of Windows Home Server (WHS). I would argue one of three, with the others being the client backups and remote access. Sure the product does much more than just that but it’s fair to say that all of WHS’s features are available in other products in some shape or form and the combination of these three features into one customisable platform made WHS stand out for me.

Microsoft’s announcement to remove DE from the next version of WHS code named Vail immediately removes a major reason to buy into the new WHS version and this has been evidenced in the recent twitter comments on the subject where a lot of people have stated their intention to not use ‘Vail’. Of course some of this is just anger at the fact that the feature has been removed (and the way in which it was announced) but still the fact remains that the product is a weaker proposition than it was before.

Personally I see this decision in both a negative and a positive light. Firstly I see this as a major blow to the uniqueness of the product and feel that it will suffer without this USP (Unique Selling Point). Also it’s important to remember that this is positioned as a product for the average PC user and DE made extending the storage capacity easy. The user doesn’t need to buy matching disks or configure RAID, they just pop in a new disk and it gets added to the pool. Without DE adding extra storage will presumably be a more complex task. In reality though how many “average” PC users would feel happy upgrading the hard drive on their WHS anyway. Whilst enthusiasts relish the chance to pop open the case many casual users would actually see their OEM produced WHS as just an appliance, and one probably already stuffed with several 2 or 3 TB drives providing a good chunk of storage capacity right out the box. They would not consider any upgrades to it other than replacing it when it gets full. In addition whilst the shared drive pool concept makes adding storage easy the ability to add additional storage as additional drives will still be there in the product as it is in any Windows OS. I don’t see this as a huge blocker to WHS adoption.

Folder duplication utilises the DE feature to ensure that the data is duplicated onto different physical drives within the logical storage pool. This in effect is ‘RAID like’ except that the data is duplicated over time and not immediately (although there is no way of retrieving previous versions of files). This provides an easy form of fault tolerance that, whilst being fairly easy to replicate yourself using other means, will probably never be as easy as ticking a check box. This is again more of an issue for the “average” guy than the PC enthusiast who is at home configuring RAID, although a simple file copy add-in or batch job is my preferred solution. I already run daily automated RoboCopy jobs to copy "’snapshots’ of my data drives to another drive to provide both fault tolerance but also versioned snapshots that I can restore if required. I have had to dive into my snapshots on several occasions to restore a previous version of a file that has accidently been deleted/modified. I prefer this solution over RAID as disk write to a drive in RAID is duplicated immediately even if its not what you wanted.

So, what’s the positive? Well let’s consider why Microsoft are removing it. They have said that it causes conflicts with applications installed on the Small Business Server sister OS code named ‘Aurora’. These software applications don’t play nicely with having a logical drive pool. I, as have many other WHS enthusiasts, have over time installed numerous applications onto my WHS (e.g Microsoft Team Foundation Server) and I always do so with caution due to DE. I am careful to  ensure that nothing I install utilises the DATA drive and I often refrain from installing software that I think might conflict. With DE removed this worry is taken care of, which is definitely a positive for me.

Does WHS fit in the Cloud Computing Landscape?

If we look to the future and assume that the Cloud Computing paradigm is here to stay the bigger question arises of what role would WHS play. I admit to being a Cloud advocate and I do share Ray Ozzie’s view of a “New Dawn” where  devices (not PCs) connect to continuous services hosted in the internet. In this vision the majority of people only use devices to connect to the internet (smart phones, tablets, TVs etc) and they are continuously connected to the web where their data is stored, analysed, processed and shared. The concept of having a local home server is almost alien as your storage will all be in the cloud. Backups won’t be required as data will be automatically synched and devices won’t need to be imaged for restoration as they will only be simple devices with sophisticated browsers. Sure PC’s will remain for advanced users but not the user majority. This vision of the future is not that revolutionary, it’s already happening, so fast in fact that the next version of WHS after Vail will need to be positioned within this connected world. People may cry that users will always want their data close by and local but that’s not true as over time they won’t even think about it as evidenced by early cloud services like Hotmail, Exchange Online etc.

This vision of the future relies heavily on a fast internet connection and related infrastructure which is slowly being rolled out across the developed world but this weakness perhaps provides an opportunity for the WHS’s of the future. The ability to synch to your local “private cloud” and use that as the hub for your home is probably a requirement of the future and a ‘server’ device could fulfil this space. Unfortunately so could other home based devices, such as the XBoxes, Google TVs and Media Centers of the future, and the single home device is the ‘holy grail’ of consumer electronics. The battle for the position as sole ‘provider’ and gateway to the continuous services of the future will be intense and whilst the current WHS offerings (V1 and Vail") are too weak to survive the battle, maybe, just maybe, their future off-spring will fit that gap perfectly.

Summary:

WHS has, unfortunately, always been a niche product which is a real shame as it is one of the best products to ever have come out of Redmond and one that deserves more credit. Microsoft have never promoted it and seem instead to be happy to use it as a experiment for newer technologies (like DE). This is obviously a dark period for the WHS product but the communities reaction to the DE news and the growing popularity of the platform means that I believe it it will survive in the short term.

If I were Microsoft I would look to extract the key features of WHS (i.e. client backup and remote access services) and convert them into add on applications for Windows. With DE gone there is little point in having a ‘Home’ sku of Windows Server. Sell Windows 2008 Foundation to OEMs with these WHS feature applications installed for them to put on their consumer devices. This would enable these features to be supported on Windows Client OS’s in the future too when it was profitable to do so. I would be happy to run a fully fledged supported version of Windows Server that comfortably ran all server based software but to which I could also install a Client Backup and Remote Access Services if I required them.

Will I upgrade to Vail? Good question. Currently I’m undecided. I will review it against other products when the time comes (Amahi on Linux, Aurora, Win Server 2008) but one thing is for sure – the removal of DE will not affect my decision but the strength of Microsoft commitment to the product will.

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