Microsoft dumps Drive Extender from Windows Home Server, effectively neuters product

Microsoft seems determined to send the Windows Home Server project straight into a coffin.

Microsoft seems determined to send the Windows Home Server project straight into a coffin.

I never really saw the point of Microsoft's Windows Home Server (WHS). The problem wasn't so much the idea, which was sound, but identifying the market. Who were these home users who were going to buy servers? Sure, a market existed in the Small Office/Home Office market, but I doubt that it was a big market. Why buy a "server" when there are plenty of cheaper and easier to use backup and storage appliances available. Anyway, Microsoft knows best ...

... then it came to light that WHS suffered from a bug that could cause data corruption. This bug was identified in March of 2008, but it was July before there was a proper fix (something that went beyond just hoping that the data would be safe). That kind of time delay between discovering that a server OS has a data corruption bug and delivering a fix understandably erodes peoples trust in the OS.

The fix was delivered, and people who had invested in a WHS system were once again happy.

In the meantime, Microsoft has been busy working on WHS V2, codenamed "Vail" (yes, that rhymes with "FAIL") Fans of WHS expected this to be like WHS, only better. Yesterday those dreams were shattered when Microsoft announced that it was removing a key function from the OS - Drive Extender.

For those of you not familiar with the product, Drive Extender is a file-based replication system that offers easy storage expansion (plug in a new drive and away you go), multi-disk redundancy, and a single folder namespace free from drive letters. In short, it meant that home users didn't need to become storage experts to add and replace drives in their WHS. Or to put it another way, it was WHS's killer feature.

But now it's gone. This from the Windows Home Server blog:

When we first started designing Windows Home Sever code name “Vail” one of our initial focuses was to continue to provide effortless support for multiple internal and external hard drives. Drive Extender provided the ability to take the small hard drives many small businesses and households may have acquired, and pool them together in a simple volume.

OK, it was useful.

During our current testing period for our Windows Home Server code name “Vail” product, we have received feedback from partners and customers about how they use storage today and how they plan to use it moving forward. Today large hard drives of over 1TB are reasonably priced, and freely available. We are also seeing further expansion of hard drive sizes at a fast rate, where 2Tb drives and more are becoming easy accessible to small businesses.  Since customers looking to buy Windows Home Server solutons from OEM's will now have the ability to include larger drives, this will reduce the need for Drive Extender functionality.

I fail to see how the availability of larger drives means that Drive Extender is no longer a key feature. Drives are bigger, but people have more data. Removing this feature and relying on OEMs to offer RAID simply doesn't make sense.

When weighing up the future direction of storage in the consumer and SMB market, the team felt the Drive Extender technology was not meeting our customer needs.

Really? In what way exactly? Nothing said in that sentence makes any sense to me. The only reason that I can see for Microsoft to pull Drive Extender from WHS is that there's some issue with it and in order to keep to a development schedule the feature has to be pulled. Microsoft has some very smart people working for it, so the idea that "it can't be done" just isn't worth considering. That said, "it can't be done in the time given" or "it can't be done based on the available budget" does make sense.

It also makes no sense for Microsoft to claim that customers don't want this feature when quite clearly the comments to the blog post, and over on Microsoft Connect make it pretty clear that they do want this feature.

In a second blog post on the Windows Home Server blog, Microsoft further stomps in its own mud puddle by backtracking [emphasis added]:

Hi, it is a rough day for Vail, and I have been dreading today for a while as an avid Vail user myself. We know this [Drive Extender] is popular feature in regards to our home server product, and as such all expected that it would have created this type of outreach from our community.

That's quite a switch from the previous post:

When weighing up the future direction of storage in the consumer and SMB market, the team felt the Drive Extender technology was not meeting our customer needs.

Which is it?

The comments on the blog post make it very clear that Drive Extender was a killer feature. Here's a selection:

So you'll be cutting the price of the product in half correct?  I mean, you know removing this key feature/selling point is going to cause the price of the hardware to skyrocket.  I could care less about the SBS 2011 Essentials or business servers...I bought WHS for my home.  I'm upset, the WHS team has not delivered what the Windows Home Server community has wanted from the beginning...enhanced support/integration/port of Media Center and SkyDrive.

...

Noooo :( the folder duplication was the feature I liked more! Now how can I set up a software duplication only for specific folders?!? I do not want to RAID all drives it takes too much space!

...

"Target product availability is still H1 2011".  This means nothing to me now.  My great interest in Vail has just evaporated.  Drive Extender is the great feature of Home Server, and what my personal data storage is based around.  I have loved owning my WHS but unfortunately without DE I will be looking for other products now.

...

Well, thank you for the update on Vail.  You have now made my decision between Vail and a Drobo easy.  Since you removed probably the best feature of Windows Home Server, Drobo is an easy win.  It will keep my pictures and other files safe in expandable storage.  Vail just became a hassle and the features it offers do not offer nearly enough to balance out this failure.  The biggest reason for a home server is for storage and that storage has to have the ability to be increased over time as storage requirements increase.  Configuring RAID is simply a bad solution.  If it was a good solution, it would already be popular.  This is a sad day for consumers.

...

You know, you REALLY could have done a better job with this announcement.  This raises so many questions, and people are left to assume the worst.  Especially when you say "drives are big and cheap these days" and throw RAID out there.  What?  It makes it sound like whoever is in charge of WHS nowadays doesn't "get it" at all.  I'm hoping that somehow things are not as dire as they seem, but I'm really concerned about the future of WHS now.

...

I'm sorry, but at the moment this strikes me as a slap in the face as a longterm WHS user. And the stretching of the facts is just breathtaking and worthy of spin doctors at their finest:

If a drive fails, I can't just replace it and carry on? I'm stunned and disappointed. Time to look for another non-microsoft solution, perhaps.

And these are WHS fans speaking out here! Not Apple of Linux fanboys.

So long WHS ... Maybe this is what happens when you choose a codename for your project that rhymes with FAIL.

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