Windows Home Server kicks another own goal

Synchronising data between multiple computers is difficult and dangerous, which is why we get software to do it these days rather than attempting to manage all the file movements ourselves. But making the assumption that the software knows what it's doing can in itself be dangerous.

Synchronising data between multiple computers is difficult and dangerous, which is why we get software to do it these days rather than attempting to manage all the file movements ourselves. But making the assumption that the software knows what it's doing can in itself be dangerous.

I was reminded of that when this week Microsoft admitted that a problem with Windows Home Server meant that anyone using the platform on a system with multiple hard drives was at risk of seriously screwing up their data.

Adding insult to injury, a fix for the problem is at least three months away.

Windows Home Server -- essentially a platform to allow a single central system to backup and monitor multiple PCs in the home -- has already had something of a chequered history, being delayed somewhat following its announcement in a blaze of hyperbole at CES 2007.

I noted in a recent Snorage column that market watchers aren't convinced there'll be much demand for such solutions for a while.

Any demand that does exist is likely to be somewhat dampened by Microsoft's revelation of the latest Home Server bug.

To quote Microsoft itself: "When certain programs are used to edit or transfer files that are stored on a Windows Home Server-based computer that has more than one hard drive, the files may become corrupted."

Adding to the embarrassment, most of the programs in question confirmed to cause problems are themselves from Microsoft, including its OneNote and Photo Gallery applications and the most recent incarnation of Outlook. Other applications on the suspect list include iTunes and Thunderbird, though Microsoft is having trouble replicating the problems reported by users.

In its knowledge base posting describing the problem, the company is at pains to play down its impact. "Microsoft is aware of only a very small percentage of users who have confirmed instances of this issue and believes that most users are unlikely to be affected," the note reads, adding: "Windows Home Server-based computers that have a single hard drive are not affected by this issue."

That's a tad deceptive, given that the ability to add extra drives was one of the key selling points of Windows Home Server right from the start. "You can simply connect a new hard drive to Windows Home Server as your storage needs increase," notes the reviewer's guide for the product.

Not now you can't.

Microsoft has known about the problem since December, but it's only this week that a deadline has been set for a bug fix that might solve the problem (essentially caused by a failure to synchronise the applications in question with Home Server's own internal processes). Unfortunately, that's going to be June at the earliest.

In the meantime, "users should use Windows Explorer or a command-line tool to copy files to and from the Windows Home Server-based computer". So much for convenience. Microsoft claims that the built-in backup applications aren't affected, but believing that claim sounds risky, to be honest.

The overriding lesson of all this -- and one which is even more applicable in corporate environments -- is that the risks of deploying relatively new software are considerable.

While someone has to beta test complex software environments, production systems aren't the place to do it. Certainly that's something to bear in mind if you're thinking about Windows Server 2008, Microsoft's other recent contribution to the data management fray.