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

    Surely the backup client can be disabled (On one of the two)? I would be very surprised if 2 WHS systems can't coexist given a configuration change if you just wanted to avoid the wasted redundancy of having both make backups. That is, unless MS had deliberately chosen to prevent the two from getting along. Reply
  • ATWindsor - Tuesday, September 4, 2007 - link

    Does it souppert proper raid, like raid 5 for instance? That fits my use a bit better than this duplication of files. WHS looks interesting, but seemingly a bit to primitive to be honest, seems to be missing quite a few more or less nescessary features. Reply
  • Rolphus - Tuesday, September 4, 2007 - link

    The choice of OS should be entirely separate to RAID considerations. Software RAID5 is a bit of a waste of time, seeing as any performance advantage over just mirroring the data would be more than offset by software parity calculations. I don't see any reason why a BIOS-level RAID system (as supplied by many high-end and server motherboards and add-in cards) wouldn't be supported by WHS; Windows 2003 Server supports any RAID level you care to throw at it. Reply
  • mindless1 - Wednesday, September 5, 2007 - link

    Most people won't care about parity calculation overhead, it's not as though the system is being used like a PC or workstation, that's practically ALL the system would be doing besides sitting idle, particularly given the rough spec of a 1GHz or more processor which is not at all needed just to serve files. Maybe with GbE, you might want a 300-400MHz processor to keep networking performance good but on a system that old you'd probably be bottlenecked by the PCI bus before anything else. Reply
  • yyrkoon - Wednesday, September 5, 2007 - link

    What is wrong with software RAID, if that is all the system does(server storage) ? In my book, implementing *any* so called server OS *needs* to have at least RAID1, and should have RAID5 in software. If not, there is not realy reason to stop using WinXP Pro, with a few registry hacks tp bypass the RAID5 limitation.

    Anyhow, why pay for something that is lacking when you can get an OS that does it for free, or another earlier version of windows that will do it with a few hacks, and yu're already familiar with.

    As I said in an earlier post, I used WHS for a few days several months ago(early beta program), and did not like what I saw. So . . .
    Reply
  • ATWindsor - Wednesday, September 5, 2007 - link

    Software raid5 can have very good performance, modern computers are fast, besides the main consideration is not wasting so much space, if you want to have som security for your files, you get by on loosing 1/4 insted of 1/2 of the space.

    The main advantage off WHS is the whole storage-pool-setup, I hope they implment somethin similar in w2k3.

    Reply
  • Gholam - Sunday, September 9, 2007 - link

    I tested software RAID5 on an nForce4 SLI motherboard (DFI LanParty nF4 SLI-DR) with Silicon Image 3114 chip and 4x WD 500GB drives. Reads were in 11-14MB/s range, writes sub-10MB/s, and CPU load was near full, on an Athlon 64 4000+. Reply
  • ATWindsor - Sunday, September 9, 2007 - link

    Try to test a proper software-raid, instead of the inbuilt nforce-crap, just because you tested a poor solution doesn't make all solutions bad.

    Reply
  • Gholam - Sunday, September 9, 2007 - link

    It's not nForce, it's SiI3114, nearly ubiquitous on higher-end motherboards of that era, as well as present on many lower-end PCI cards. Building RAID5 on an "affordable" solution from Silicon Image, Promise and such will give you exactly that kind of performance, as well as guarantee a high probability of data loss due to driver/firmware bug. In order to run RAID5 you need a proper controller from Adaptec/LSI Logic/3Ware, and that costs big bucks. Reply
  • Ryan Smith - Tuesday, September 4, 2007 - link

    It only supports proper RAID if you can configure it all in the BIOS. Any kind of softRAID that needs Windows' help isn't supported. Basically it needs to appear as 1 disk to Windows. Reply

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