After the furore at the end of last year of the removal of Drive Extender from Windows Home Server "Vail" and Small Business Server 2011 Essentials things have gone quiet in Redmond. The last few years have seen Microsoft advertising Home Servers all over CES, with its "Mommy, Why Is There A Server In The House" and "Home Server Feng Shui" campaigns, but this year there was nothing.
We did spot the tell-tale glow of a home server in a room in the Microsoft stand, but the real home server push at CES 2011 was Data Robotics', building on its new USB 3 devices and its sales and distribution deal with one-time Microsoft Home Server vendor HP. With the death of Drive Extender and its simple storage fabric for mismatched drive hardware, it seems that Microsoft has lost its edge in the growing SOHO storage marketplace – and if the rumours coming from some of its partners are true, the Windows Home Server team are themselves looking for a new home inside the Redmond campus.
So if Home Server is on the move, where should it go?
Certainly the enterprise-focused Server and Tools group is no place for a home-oriented media storage and backup device. It's just not targeted at any of its markets, and there's definite conflict between the needs of a three or four PC home and the large corporate network. The small scale Windows Home Server overlaps with Windows Small Business Server, Windows Storage Server, and Windows Server Foundation, with elements of all of them in one simple workgroup box. Workgroups just don't have a place in the Active Directory world, and struggle to get by alongside Windows 7's Homegroups too...
Thinking about it, there's one logical home for Home Server's software, and another for its hardware.
With Windows 8 offering system-on-a-chip support, and the need for lower power embedded hardware, there's a place for Home Server on the next generation of ARM-based low power storage systems. In fact, even without the ARM future, it's clear that Home Server should become a storage-focused SKU for Windows Embedded. That way hardware vendors would be able to pick and choose the features they want to install, whether it’s the management and back-up features, or the Drive Extender storage fabric. A low-end embedded storage OS would compete with the Linux platforms currently in use, and give Microsoft a clear storage roadmap driven by the Windows kernel.
HP was the Home Server's premier hardware partner, delivering award winning boxes that, well, just served. The trouble is, of course, that server hardware just isn’t glamorous and it's hard to market to a home audience –even with attractive blue LEDs – and HP has now dropped its range of Home Servers. So how can Microsoft make servers attractive to consumers? Perhaps it should take a leaf from CEO Steve Ballmer's CES 2011 keynote address, where he made a convincing argument for Xbox 360's role as the dominant living room media platform, and bring out an Xbox-branded Home Server.
An Xbox Home Server? Why not? That way it reminds users that they need storage for all their video and audio, and that it's something they need to rely on (especially to manage video and digital photographs, not to mention iTunes libraries). It might not make storage cool (as much as we'd like it to be), but it would both sell hardware and add use cases for additional features. With a plug-and-play approach to integration with Xbox, it would be relatively easy to extend it to the rest of the home, to Internet-ready TVs via DLNA, to PCs, and to Windows Phone devices too…