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Windows Home Server versus Linux or BSD

Last year whenever people asked me what to use when building a home server, I'd tell them to use Linux or FreeBSD because there was absolutely nothing from Microsoft under a few hundred dollars.  There was no way anyone would spend a few hundred dollars on Windows Small Business Server so Linux or FreeBSD was their only choice.

Last year whenever people asked me what to use when building a home server, I'd tell them to use Linux or FreeBSD because there was absolutely nothing from Microsoft under a few hundred dollars.  There was no way anyone would spend a few hundred dollars on Windows Small Business Server so Linux or FreeBSD was their only choice.  With Windows Home Server on the horizon, Microsoft might just steal a piece of the home server appliance market from Linux.

The typical consumer isn't ready to become a Windows or Linux server administrator but many consumers find themselves in the position of being the de facto home IT administrator.  Windows Home Server is Microsoft's server entry in to the home network and it tries to solve two key problems in the modern multi-PC home - storage sprawl and PC backup.  It has the potential to radically change the mid- to high-end home NAS market because it offers some key features such as:

  • Fast cluster-level incremental backups equivalent to full backups
  • Bare-metal client recovery (restore a PC with a bare hard drive)
  • Single instance storage (duplicate files don't waste space)
  • Previous versions (file journaling with Volume Shadow Copy Services)
  • Remote Desktop gateway (multiple PC support)
  • Media streaming with Windows Media Connect
  • Print server with auto-driver loading

Beneath the hood of Windows Home Server is a customized version of Windows Server 2003 R2 and Microsoft Data protection Manager which supports the features mentioned above.  Windows Home Server takes these advanced enterprise features that enterprise IT administrators have become accustom to and packages them in to a consumer friendly product that will either be bundled in to a packaged appliance or sold as an OEM "System Builder" software product. 

Unlike Windows Home Server, a typical NAS (Network Attached Storage) device doesn't have space-saving single instance storage feature and it doesn't offer you the advanced backup solution.  Single instance storage means if multiple users have a copy of the same file stored on the Windows Home Server, it will pretend to have multiple copies of the same file but only store it once.  This is especially useful when you have multiple Windows directories being backed up and all the files are the same.  [Update 1:15PM - RSYNC is a tool that can do delta copies for Linux for fast file replication.  There are some graphical shells that can make this work in Windows too.]

The vast majority of computer users never backup because it's complicated and slow.  Worse is the fact that most backup solutions can't be used to recover your computer from a failed state and you have to manually load Windows before you can restore your data.  Windows Home Server tries to alleviate these issues with extremely fast backups and full PC recovery.  Backups are performed incrementally at the cluster level but this is as good as a full backup.  This means if a large 4 GB PST (Outlook mail file) is slightly changed, only those clusters that have changed are copied to the Home Server and not the entire file.  The other problem facing computer users is what happens when their computer crashes and won't boot up, a virus savages their computer, or their hard drive dies?  The bare-metal recovery boot CD will boot up a computer with a blank or corrupted hard drive and put that PC in to its last good state saving the user a trip to the repair shop which usually don't recover configuration, applications, or data.

The file journaling feature is a common feature of Windows Server 2003, Windows Vista, Windows Home Server, Linux, or FreeBSD.  Apple will be adding this feature with OS X Leopard.  File journaling is a feature where a file that's accidentally or maliciously changed can be reverted to a previous healthy state.  Windows Home Server extends this feature to all computers in your home network (including Windows XP) and is said to even support the "Time Machine" feature in the delayed Mac OS X Leopard.

The Remote Desktop Gateway feature is not a new feature and you've always been able to tweak your router and computer with your own DDNS to support remote desktop access.  The problem is that the process is way too geeky and complicated for the typical user so Home Server tries to make this simple.  That means you don't need to configure multiple port forwarding or registry changes and Home Server users get a free live.com DDNS (Dynamic DNS) name.  Free DDNS is also nothing new but Microsoft is trying to make the entire process more integrated.

The Windows Media Connect feature allows your XBox360 to pull multimedia streams from your Windows Home Server.  While this may not be a killer feature, it caters to the XBox360 market which is substantial.

The printing capability in Windows Home Server isn't something that's talked about often but it is a key differentiator.  Anyone who's tried to set up a TCP/IP printer or install a printer driver knows that it isn't something your typical computer novice wants to deal with.  Corporate users on the other hand have had it easy when they can simply browse to a Windows Print Server and install a print queue and driver with two clicks.  There are no IP addresses to look up, no drivers CDs, and no searching on the Internet for printer drivers.  With Windows Home Server, you click the print queue on the server and it loads everything for you in a matter of seconds.  [Update 5/20/2007 9:25PM - Reader Dietrich showed us this link on how to get this functionality from Samba and CUPS.  Thanks Dietrich!]

When it comes time to make a decision for hardware makers and do-it-yourselfers, Windows Home Server offers a compelling feature set.  Microsoft will offer two licenses; an "embedded" version for appliance makers and a "system builder" version for do-it-yourselfers.  The "embedded" version will be offered on devices that sell in the $500 range so the software license is probably close to the cost of Windows Vista Home.  Pricing info for the system builder edition isn't available yet but it will probably be somewhere between the price range of Windows Vista Home and Premium OEM ($80 to $130).  Not everyone will care about these differentiators in Windows Home Server and they'll be happy to get Linux or FreeBSD for free, but the combination of integration and unique features will probably sway a lot of buyers.

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