At the 2007 Consumer Electronics Show, Microsoft figurehead Bill Gates announced in his keynote speech a new Windows product, Windows Home Server. In retrospect that was a bad time to announce the product as it was in the critical period between Windows Vista having gone gold and being released at retail, so few people were interested in "that server product" as opposed to Microsoft's long-in-development successor to Windows XP. Since that point the Vista launch came and went, while there has been little noise from the Windows camp about Home Server.

If we had to sum up Windows Home Server in one word that word would be "strange." Even having gone gold and shipped to system builders and distributors, Microsoft has been strangely quiet about a product they're targeting for the consumer space - we still don't know quite when it will be for sale or at what price. The fact that it's even for sale unbundled with hardware, albeit only as OEM software, is itself strange as this was originally slated to be only sold as part of complete computers from the usual suspects among the computer vendors. Finally, as we'll see even as a product it's strange, and difficult to really come to terms with.

So what is Windows Home Server (WHS)? The name says it all and at the same time says nothing. At its core it's a server operating system designed for use in the home, a place that previously has not needed or been offered anything like a true server. That means that WHS really doesn't compare to any one thing; it's a backup suite, it's a file server, it's a network attached storage(NAS) device, it's a web server, it's a media hub, it's a computer health monitor, it's even a gateway for Window's Remote Desktop. In even trying to describe the product, we run into the same problem Microsoft does; it's one thing to describe a product as "X but better" but it's another thing entirely when we don't have anything to serve as a comparison.

Perhaps the easiest way to understand what WHS is, is understanding why it exists. Microsoft, never one to shy away from finding a way to sell another computer, has come to the conclusion that with the saturation of full computers and smaller smart devices in homes (where some households are reaching the point where they have two computers per person) that the time has come where not unlike a corporate environment households now need a server to keep everything in order.

But home users don't need the same kind of server that business users need. Home users won't be running or need to be running their own SQL server or email server, but what about centralizing the location of everyone's media files? Or a web server for letting the relatives see all your photos? Or a backup suite that actually backs files up somewhere else than to the hard drive of the machine in question? And how about something that doesn't require an MCSE certification to run? Over the last two years Microsoft has been once again retrofitting the Windows Server 2003 kernel (previously refit to serve as Windows XP Pro x64) to be the new server that can do all of the above.

The result of those two years of effort is a very interesting product that we'd consider the most interesting Windows product to come out of Microsoft since Windows 2000, and yet at the same time it comes with the quirks that are undeniably Microsoft. As we'll see WHS can offer a lot of value to the market Microsoft is shooting for, but can it overcome the difficulties of forging a new market, and fighting against its own deficiencies? Let's take a look under the hood of Windows Home Server and find out the answer.

The Technology of WHS
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  • mindless1 - Wednesday, September 5, 2007 - link

    Ok, but want kind of soft-raid "needs" windows? I've dealt with several different soft raid controllers and windows official "support" is not needed, except for a management utility application if desired, to show the state of the arrays. While the management utility could be used to rebuild arrays, assign spares, etc, (in some cases), this is only supplimental to what functionality is provided in any typical soft-raid bios.

    Remember, windows can be installed onto a soft-raided volume. Soft raid doesn't depend on windows. There might be something about WHS that I haven't considered yet that would be a limitation but in general I find the article's conclusion that "not supported" means "won't work" to be odd. I think it more like when a cable ISP tells you that your router isn't "supported" meaning you're just on your own if you do it, they make no guarantee your unique configuration will or won't work.

    Let me put it another way, I am wondering if anyone has any example of a soft raid controller that can't be set up prior to OS installation, it's a pretty manditory feature if you want that OS on the RAIDed volume. What remains is a driver support for the controller in windows but any product with a Win2k3 driver should work unless MS has gone and deliberately castrated WHS. Likewise with a soft raid management utility, unless it's using a fancy installer which refuses to install due to not identifying the WHS OS.

    What I suspect is that MS simply disabled the OS integral raid functionality which would be used with drives NOT in any kind of raid controller (soft or hardware), raid configuration. If this is the case, someone will probably hack it to regain that functionality, and it might not even be anything more than a registry change needed.
    Reply
  • leexgx - Tuesday, September 4, 2007 - link

    the idea if WHS is to be easy to use Reply
  • ATWindsor - Tuesday, September 4, 2007 - link

    And? The simple functions can be easy to use, while at the same time having more advance features available if one turns them on.

    Reply
  • leexgx - Tuesday, September 4, 2007 - link

    i assume thats what the add-ons are for later on when thay get made

    if an hdd failes or is about to on WHS it auto start balancing to an other disk thats Online and ok there is allways two copys if its turnd on (duplication)
    not not sure how to degrade an disk but i assume it try and move the data off it i know it will if you remove the problem disk Useing WHS connector as its part of the wizard when removeing disks

    the idea of WHS is for users who have limited lerning curves (Plug in expect it to work basicly)

    nothing stopping you from making RAID 5 on WHS but it not work correctly in WHS connector
    Reply
  • mindless1 - Wednesday, September 5, 2007 - link

    The problem is that it is not real-time mirroring, since it waits until later to make the second copy, odds are you would end up losing something if a drive fails.

    I don't understand when people claim the idea here is "easy". What's so hard about plugging in two hard drives, entering a bios menu and assigning the two to an array? That's an order of magnitude easier than becoming accustomed to a new OS, setting it up. If the idea is just plug it in and expect it to work, then you will NOT HAVE that redundant second copy of the data you're implying is sufficient. These are fairly important features on a fileserver, and then if you want dynamic virtualized volumes that would be yet another feature so you can pick what you want to do, just like it is now with other windows versions where it is easy if you just accept the defaults, most basic config., but you don't have to accept the defaults.
    Reply
  • leexgx - Wednesday, September 5, 2007 - link

    if

    as windows home server its an little lame that you cant use the Boot drive on hardware RAID 1 (boot disk for some resone Cant be SCSI drivers){Sata in raid or IDE RAID} as if the boot disk fails thats an big problem as there is no redundancy for it

    it more likey work after windows has been installed but its gettings WHS to Boot off an raid array after its been ghosted over all i can see is getting the driver to load up

    quote:

    To lose data 3 conditions would have to be met:
    1. Have to lose primary drive in WHS

    nope its stored on other disk that has been duplication as long as it has all ready been done if not you lose any new data thats just been put on (it have to be with in last 10secs to 1 min if it was an small file) unlakey that happen

    you can take the disks out and mount them as each disk uses norm NTFS file system just needs an drive letter putting on
    Reply
  • tynopik - Wednesday, September 5, 2007 - link

    > as windows home server its an little lame that you cant use the Boot drive on hardware RAID 1 (boot disk for some resone Cant be SCSI drivers){Sata in raid or IDE RAID} as if the boot disk fails thats an big problem as there is no redundancy for it

    that is an annoyance for recovering the WHS, BUT if you were duplicating data, your data is still safe on another drive

    > nope its stored on other disk that has been duplication as long as it has all ready been done if not you lose any new data thats just been put on (it have to be with in last 10secs to 1 min if it was an small file) unlakey that happen

    it was very difficult to follow what what you're saying, but i think we both have the same understanding of how it works

    note i said ALL 3 conditions have to be met
    i agree losing primary drive alone will not mess up duplication, UNLESS condition 2 is ALSO met
    condition 2 is what you said, it fails before it had a chance to copy to the secondary drive, which i agree is very unlikely
    Reply
  • tynopik - Wednesday, September 5, 2007 - link

    > The problem is that it is not real-time mirroring, since it waits until later to make the second copy, odds are you would end up losing something if a drive fails.

    1. it doesn't wait that long, you wouldn't lose much
    2. odds are you won't lose anything

    don't forget this is the BACKUP system, even if the BACKUP fails, your primary should still be ok.

    To lose data 3 conditions would have to be met:
    1. Have to lose primary drive in WHS
    2. (1) would have to occur in the narrow window between when it being copied to WHS and a duplicate is made onto another HD
    3. Have to lose ANOTHER drive in a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT system (the one the file was originally on)

    personally i would be more worried about the time between when a file is created/modified on your system and it is copied to WHS in the first place.

    Assuming backup runs at night and you create a file in the morning, that's almost a whole working day of exposure when the file is in ONLY one place

    > What's so hard about plugging in two hard drives, entering a bios menu and assigning the two to an array?

    having to limit yourself to the lowest common denominator of your drives

    let's say you have a 200gb, a 200gb and a 400gb drive and you put it in a raid, you're wasting half the capacity of the 400gb. With WHS you could store a full 400gb with duplication.
    Reply
  • mindless1 - Thursday, September 6, 2007 - link

    Are you joking? I don't know what you think passes for reliable redundancy, but the idea that you're playing "odds" and then relying on a client not failing to keep your fileserver stores intact is crazy.

    This isn't a "backup", this is a "server", which for many people will be more important than their clients.

    Let's say you don't put a 200GB, 300GB and 400GB in a Raid, since you seem to be trying hard to cause a problem then thinking WHS would bail you out of ineptitude. The only thing hard about a server is when people make excuses not to use the time tested proven reliable strategies then try to excuse it with examples of bad choices. It is a very trivial thing to set up a home file server, far far quicker and easier than even a typical desktop WinXP system tweaked for a particular user's preferred environment. Trying to suggest there are problems is a sign you just don't understand this.

    For lower cost, any system can be made into a fully redundant fileserver that is more reliable, not in beta OS state, and has more storage until there is at least $360 more spent on drives. This 360 figure comes from 2x the initial $180 projected price of WHS.

    WHS will be a good option once 3 things are addressed:

    1) The price is too high for the small increase in functionality over what can be added as freeware or very low cost add-on to Win2k or XP.

    2) WHS matures more. I didn't run anything mission critical on any MS OS when it first came out, that would be foolish for an important fileshare. That it is derived from Win2K3 bodes well for it, but the very features being suggested as important by some, are the very features that are new enough to still have some beta-release related issues and need patched later.

    3) It is limiting in user choice of configuration. As OS is not supposed to tell you what to do, rather enabling you to do what you want to do.
    Reply
  • tynopik - Thursday, September 6, 2007 - link

    > This isn't a "backup", this is a "server", which for many people will be more important than their clients.

    if your only/main purpose in getting this is as a server, then yes, perhaps WHS isn't for you

    it's most powerful/compelling feature is it's backup system. sure it can do other things, but if you aren't using that then there's not a whole lot of reason to use it

    just because backup of clients isn't a big deal to you doesn't mean it isn't a big deal to others

    just because WHS doesn't meet YOUR needs doesn't mean it's stupid, it just means it's not for you

    for me backing up clients is very critical and WHS looks like a godsend

    oh really?

    please tell me where i can find a backup system as flexible and powerful as this at no cost

    > For lower cost, any system can be made into a fully redundant fileserver that is more reliable, not in beta OS state, and has more storage until there is at least $360 more spent on drives.

    tell me which free system provides ALL of the following features and i will gladly jump on board

    - autocombine all physical disks into 1 volume
    - disks can be any size
    - disks can be added or removed at will
    - yet still have physical redundancy of files on different drives
    - automatically save single instance of identical files/blocks to reduce space wastage
    - automatically preserve previous versions
    - do live imaging of windows systems that can then be restored from bare metal with just a boot cd and a network connection

    sure parts of it can be duplicated for free, but do tell how you would setup something that does ALL that

    (just as a quick aside, a basic server just sitting there is going to waste a TON of space backing up multiple windows systems from all the redundant files. Oops, there goes all your extra space)
    Reply

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