What's the point of Windows Home Server?

Having a server at home is getting to be common - but you probably don't call it a server. You call it a PogoPlug or a Time Capsule or a NAS box or a network drive (or less likely 'that old PC I fixed up for sharing').
Written by Simon Bisson and  Mary Branscombe on

Having a server at home is getting to be common - but you probably don't call it a server. You call it a PogoPlug or a Time Capsule or a NAS box or a network drive (or less likely 'that old PC I fixed up for sharing'). It's first and foremost storage, so you don't have to remember which PC the photos are on when you want to see them on a digital picture frame, and backup for the netbooks and laptops and other computers that are in almost every home. It might let you connect the printer so you don't have to turn on the PC it's shared from every time you want to print. It probably shares your music library so you can use a digital media player like a Roku or a Sonos. It might run some software (BitTorrent clients that you want to leave on overnight for getting WoW patches, say). It might give you remote access to your files and media. You might not call it a server, but that's what it's doing. But it's rarely running Windows and equally rarely a server operating system - most of these devices are storage with added features rather than server features with added storage.

This is a space that Microsoft ignored for years, even when a third of its Small Business Server sales turned out to be into the home. When it stopped ignoring it, the market didn't quite notice - even when, after a couple of false starts, Microsoft brought out what was actually a superb home server system that did everything people needed, simply and effectively. It was better than RAID because you didn't have to match drives or replace all the drives to increase capacity or wait six hours for the array to rebuild after one drive failed (fingers crossed all the time that the stress of the rebuild didn't crash another of the drives) or even understand RAID types and levels. You just plugged in another drive to get more storage and another layer of redundancy.

The Drive Extender technology wasn't perfect - Microsoft had to do more engineering than they originally realised and when we asked the Windows Server team why it wasn't in SBS, when the Windows Home Server team told us that 30% of their sales were going into businesses, they said it wasn't quite robust enough for business data. Initial problems with applications that used block-level writes took too long to fix, blotting Microsoft's copybook somewhat. Once the fix was rolled out, Home Server turned out to be a reliable and dependable platform, and as long as you remembered that it was a storage fabric and not a drive, it worked well.

The storage aspect of Home Server wasn't the only useful feature: it also gives you backup and health monitoring for all your PCs, as well as printer sharing, media streaming and remote access - and about 100 specific addins for everything from BitTorrent to home automation. But Drive Extender was the thing that made Windows Home Server so useful and so simple to use - and unlike the nearest competitor, Drobo, it didn’t waste any extra space on 'unmatched' drives (put a 1TB and a 500GB drive in a Drobo and you'll get 500GB of space, not 1TB). And you didn't have to duplicate every folder; just the ones you wanted to be sure you had redundant copies of. All your CDs ripped losslessly? Protect the folder. But what about the downscaled copies of videos to watch on your phone? Maybe you can save space and if the drive they're on fails, you can recreate them when you need them. The thing is, you get to choose.

So why did Microsoft announce it was taking Drive Extender out of the next version of Windows Home Server - and will anyone still want to use it when they're getting a rather expensive NAS where the only unique feature seems to be that the storage will work properly with Windows 7 libraries and homegroups? Windows 7 doesn’t always let you add a folder stored on some NAS boxes to a library; I love libraries but I'm not sure how popular they actually are. Being able to stream media from Vail when we're on the road would be nice, but I can do that from a myDitto or a PogoPlug and again, I'm not sure it's something people would pay extra for. And given that Microsoft charges for the OS licence and that the processor needs to be powerful enough to run the Windows code, Windows Home Server systems tend to be more expensive - though rather easier to use - than the comparable storage size of Linux-based RAID and NAS boxes.

Microsoft originally suggested in the announcement that Drive Extender had been removed that you didn't need drive pooling because 1TB drives are so cheap and small businesses can afford 2TB drives, something we see as unbelievably short sighted (especially removing it from the Home Server platform making it near impossible to upgrade from the current OS to Vail). We currently have 4TB of storage in our SOHO Windows Server and 5TB in our Windows Home Server (which replaced a 2TB NAS) - and we know people who take a lot more digital photos than we do. Digital media of all sorts is exploding and streaming services don't mean everyone stops buying music or downloading videos. We're also seeing a sudden growth in the content creation capabilities in the average home or small office. A typical DSLR is now a HD video camera capable of filling a 16GB SD card in just a few days of normal filming – and with 3D capabilities just around the corner that storage requirement is just going to keep ballooning.

Eventually the team revealed it was having problems getting the new version of Drive Extender working - and plenty of beta testers complained about the complexity of the version they'd tried, which plasters drive letters all over the place. There also appeared to be issues with applications that had been written for NTFS struggling to run on the new extensible file system, making harder for OEMs and ISVs to deliver applications that would run on the new Windows Small Business Server Essentials systems. That last point seems a little odd, as Small Business Server Essentials doesn’t have to be the only server in a network, and there's no problem dropping in a more traditional Windows Server machine as a domain server for those legacy applications that need an old style NTFS file system.

The problem is that the Windows Home Server team - once it got absorbed into the Windows Home and Small Business Team and started concentrating on changing Drive Extender so it was robust enough to add to Small Business Server - forgot that what is was dealing with was a storage fabric, not a different kind of drive. It’s an odd mistake to make, too, as there's plenty of tooling in Windows Server for working with storage fabrics, with technologies like iSCSI standard components. It's odd that Windows Server can handle arbitrary network storage, and yet fail to work with Drive Extender technologies at a local level, when there's little logical difference between the two approaches.

Microsoft is often accused of taking one step forward, and two back, and that certainly seems to be the case here. Using Home Server (and Windows Small Business Server Essentials, and the upcoming update to Windows Storage Server) as storage fabric for file level storage is a no-brainer with Drive Extender. We'd agree that there might be issues relying on it for block-level access, which would rule out using them for databases, but that seems to be a stepping outside their design role as a file and print server. And hey, Microsoft probably wouldn't mind selling a couple of Windows Server licences along with a home or SOHO system.

So here's a modest proposal: Don't throw away Drive Extender. Instead deliver Home Server "Vail" and Small Business Server Essentials with a hybrid file system, where one drive letter is given over to a Drive Extender storage fabric and others are used for a more traditional NTFS system. That way you'll get the best of both worlds; a powerful extensible storage array with built in redundancy for critical files, and a standard file system for those legacy applications and those that need block-level access to disks. That way we get the best of both worlds, the old and the new together. Otherwise Microsoft might as well just cancel Home Server, and hand that growing market over to the folks at Data Robotics…

Simon and Mary


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