What’s going on with Windows Home Server?

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Those that know me personally and/or have discussed management of home media with me will know that I’m a big user and supporter of a few media-orientated technologies/services. One of them is Microsoft’s Windows Home Server (WHS), both in its original form and the updated Windows Home Server 2011.

For the record, I use WHS 2011 at home, migrated from an original Home Server installation.

My WHS2011 installation sits at the center of my media home, serving video and pictures to all of my media ‘outlets‘. I use the term ‘outlet’ because it is a term I have recently been introduced to that makes a lot of sense. But what is a media outlet? An outlet, quite simply, is anything that I use to consume my media regardless of its physical location, platform or type of device. I mean anything within my home like my Xbox360, bedroom Raspberry Pi Media Center or even remotely like my laptop or Galaxy S2 Android phone (Which I stream the same media to when I’m out).

When it comes to WHS, I’ve added to its capabilities and explanded it through a multitude of 3rd party applications, plug-ins and add-ons available online, and here lies one of the issues surrounding WHS; The feature set.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I think WHS is a feature-rich product for a home user, providing integrated backup, remote access, sharing, data redundancy… etc, but that last one (Data Redundancy) is a somewhat sore point on the history of WHS. A year ago I wrote a short article on this very blog where I touched upon a subject regarding the Drive Extender feature of the original WHS product being removed from the new WHS2011.

Some background on ‘DE’
If you’re not familiar with WHS or Drive Extender (DE) in particular, you can read more about it here, but the basic point of Drive Extender was to provide anyone the ability to ‘pool’ together multiple physical hard drives for the purpose of data redundancy. In other words, if a drive died, you could replace it and carry on. Why was this a big deal? Well, it made reliable data redundancy accessible to the average home user, and not just Enterprise companies using elaborate RAID setups.

For the record, yes, you can use RAID at home but lets be honest… Its overkill, inflexible and expensive requiring capital investment.

Where is this going?
Let me try to put this honestly: Windows Home Server has an uncertain future. Why is this? Because they need to re-capture the feature set that made the original WHS so popular.
Yes, that primarily means Drive Extender! Is DE ever coming back? No, however, hope is not lost in the form of ‘Storage Spaces’ in Windows 8. For a more detailed look into Storage Spaces I suggest you check out an informative, if lengthy, explanation of Storage Spaces here on the ‘Building Windows 8’ MSDN Blog.
If you don’t want to read all of that, I can tell you that the fundamental idea behind Storage Spaces is more or less the same as it was with DE; That data redundancy should be easy and flexible for the home user. This is a big claim and and even bigger problem to provide a solution for, as DE proved when attempts were made to port the much needed and brilliant but flawed technology to WHS2011. To put that in perspective, Ed Bott of ZdNet discussed this issue here when he spoke to WHS2011 dev Michael Leworthy, who stated “We were worried that we might find data error issues.”. This is clearly a problem, because if this is to be implemented, it needs to be done correctly. You cant have people losing their lovingly collected and irreplaceable photos of their kids, which they will never be able to recapture. Conversely, when a data corruption bug was discovered in the original WHS, this was not fixed for 7 months until WHS Power Pack 1 (Read more on this on the technet blog and elsewhere). This is clearly a lesson learned scenario for Microsoft who got caught with their pants down.

All of that aside and getting back to the subject of Storage Spaces, this appears to be DE on steroids.
Firstly, it appears that they managed to overcome some of the behind the scenes issues with DE and secondly, they managed to make Storage Spaces filesystem integrated, which is a huge development. In the first DE, it was very much a manual process (for the DE process not user) to balance drives, and the actual ‘pools’ were managed via folders, which meant that it was a very literal solution. In other words, there were pointers and place-holder ‘tomb stone’ files all over the place, and it was admittedly very messy. Issues arose from this where tomb stone files could not be released, causing files to not replicate among other things. I know of people who suffered with this on their WHS servers even though I never personally experienced it, and it made the whole solution annoying because you had to babysit the server and worry about your data.
With Storage Spaces, the whole thing is been wrapped up into a virtualised disk, and this disk is presented to the file handler and explorer processes as a hard drive. Great! When working like this, you can do anything with it like backup to it, restore from it, install programs on it, etc.

So in conclusion
The only problem with all this multi-drive file replication bliss is that it is in Windows 8, not in WHS 2011… And this is why I think WHS has an uncertain future. This raises a few questions in my mind:
-Do Storage Spaces require Windows 8 core to run, will it run with the ‘older’ kernel in WHS 2011?
-If this is compatible, is WHS 2011 going to get a Storage Spaces update, like a Power Pack update?
-If this is not compatible, will it be released in the next version of WHS?
-Will there even be a next version of WHS, or will Microsoft quit the hard sell?

There appear to be very little news from the MS camp on this, and I’m hopeful, but a little sad about the grim prospects of WHS.


Next time:
I’d like to talk about another feature of Windows 8, called ‘File History’.
Something that Microsoft hopes will automate your backup woes…

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