Windows Home Server – Good or Evil?

If you're watching any of the news from CES, you've seen announcements about Microsoft's new Windows Home Server. When I initially heard about this, I was really excited, but when I started to learn more, my excitement faded, to be replaced with nervousness and even bitterness.

What changed my mind after my initial take, and will I ever come back to the Windows Home Server Camp?

First, let me catch you up if you haven't seen the announcements (links at the end of this story). The idea here is that Microsoft wants to own the home-NAS (Network Attached Storage) market. They understand that just as storage became a problem of critical proportions for businesses, it's also becoming a problem for homes.

This is true, and I applaud Microsoft for recognizing the problem.

To be fair, there are a handful of really, really nice features in this product, most of which are available elsewhere, but in true Microsoft fashion, are not available in an integrated platform that I could reasonably expect my parents, for instance, to operate. My favorite features:

  • Backup. Plug in the device, load a client on your windows PCs, and they get backed up.
  • Restore. (Makes sense, doesn't it?) Pop a restore CD into your lobotomized client and restore from the Home Server.
  • Media streaming. A good thing, but I'm not crystal clear on what breadth of client will really be able to use this.
  • Remote access. Get to your files, and even your desktop via the Home Server using your Windows Live ID.

Ok, so it's all good, right? What could I possibly be nervous about?

Let's start with the easy stuff.

  • Windows client. I suppose I should have seen this one coming, but it's still damned disappointing. There's absolutely no technical reason why this couldn't be an open platform. Despite the olive branch that Microsoft appeared to extend when they made their recent marketing deal with Novell, this is where the rubber hits to road, and there's nothing open about this platform. Maybe I'll be proved wrong before this thing releases. I hope so.
  • Live ID. Here's another winner. Why, oh why, do I need a Windows Live ID to access my files? Anybody? Buehler?? I'd be ok if Windows Live wanted to provide something like DynDNS support so Mom & Dad don't have to figure out how to configure dynamic address support. But please, please don't make this the only way to access my files. Given my earlier experience with Windows Live services, I'm cringing at the very thought of Microsoft holding my files hostage.

Now, some concerns that may be a little less obvious:

  • Network speed. Not mentioned in any of the press releases I've seen, the price of admission here is Gigabit speed, hopefully with jumbo packet support for quick file transfers.
  • "RAID is for bugs." I actually saw this in an interview with on of the product management people for this product! I'm not opposed to the idea of technical innovation  I really like what these guys are doing for backups, for instance, by storing each distinct file only once no matter how many PC's it's found on.  I really don't like the attitude that makes Microsoft feel they can completely discount the technical merits of RAID without explaining what they're doing differently. Read the datasheets, for example, on Infrant's X-Raid (below), and you'll be able to see precisely how they improve on RAID without throwing out the parts that work. Microsoft needs to come clean on this before I'm going to start uploading tax returns and baby pictures.
  • Adding external disks. This could be a really great idea, but again, I'd like to see some technical background. Specifically, I'm concerned about speed here. The "plug-in" support appears to be USB-based, and not SATA. Please, publish some benchmarks so I can be assured that I'm not going to slow my NAS to a crawl if I need to expand it.

It's early yet, and there's a while to go before we'll know the whole story. In the mean time, I really hope we see some more information not just marketing hype about the tech that makes this product go.

Related Links

Paul Thurrott's SuperSite for Windows: Windows Home Server Preview. This is, by far, the most complete breakdown of Windows Home Server I've seen so far. Read this article first if you haven't heard anything about this product.

Windows Home Server cures Digital Amnesia (sorry - Microsoft has since taken this site down). By contrast, here's Microsoft's marketing site for Windows Home Server (built in collaboration with HP and AMD). This site is long on fluff and sparkle, and very, very short on information.

Engadget : Windows Home Server. As always, Engadget is a great source of breaking news, and they're once again covering the big announcements well.

cek.log : Windows Home Server This is Charlie Kindel's blog. Charlie is the General Manager for Windows Home Server, and he plans to release some more info on Home Server soon via his blog. I'll watch this space for more news.

AMD Positioning Itself For Home Server Market The HP product that's featured in Microsoft's announcement is an implementation of AMD's reference architecture for this product. AMD has an important toe-hold with this product, and I'd like to seem them succeed, if only to keep the processor market kicking with competition.

Infrant ReadyNAS+. Here's a glimpse of what this product looks like when it's built on open standards. I'm a big fan of Infrant -- until Home Server came along, I felt they were hands-down the class act in home and SMB-oriented NAS. You could also check out Buffalo, but Infrant strikes me as a bit more solid and mature.

Steve Lacey -- Hands-on with Infrant ReadyNAS Here's Steve Lacey's experience unboxing and setting up an Infrant NAS. This is the competition.

14 Replies to “Windows Home Server – Good or Evil?”

  1. Hey there. I’m CharlieHey there. I’m Charlie Kindel (cek.log is my Blog). I’m the General Manager for Windows Home Server… I hope that clears up confusion about who I am :-).

  2. Hi – you’ve got a spuriousHi – you’ve got a spurious quote char at the end of all the related links that’s causing them to fail.

    Cheers, Steve

  3. (I happen to work at(I happen to work at Microsoft but have nothing remotely to do with Windows Home Server, other than wanting to use one at home)

    From the Paul Thurrott article:

    “RAID is an insect spray,” he cracked. “With RAID, you must understand the technology, add disks in sets, and its hard to remove drives.” With WHS, storage is hot-swappable. You can plug in an 80 GB hard drive, for example, and configure it quickly with the WHS Add Drive wizard. When you want to remove it and replace it with a 500 GB drive, there’s a simple wizard for that as well.

    I don’t know a ton about RAID, but it seems pretty clear to me that modifying existing arrays (either adding or removing drives) is a problem with RAID–pretty much the only scenario that doesn’t require you to rebuild the array is replacing a failed drive with an identical one (at least with RAID 0 or 5), unless you are just talking about adding RAID 1 pairs. From this description, WHS allows you to use whatever heterogeneous collection of drives you have, and add and remove arbitrary drives without much trouble.

    Parts of what WHS offers don’t seem new (I’ve used LVM on Fedora, which worked well although it was far from friendly and doesn’t provide redundancy by itself), but for the target market, it seems pretty accurate to me that this has it all over RAID–if it works.

  4. Thanks, Steve. I edited myThanks, Steve. I edited my post in Word, and then pasted it in here — I’m afraid the second quote was garbled in the pasting. Thanks for the heads-up.

  5. Joe – I completely agreeJoe – I completely agree that traditional RAID is a technology that has some usability issues. I’m excited that Microsoft is trying to address them. My nervousness comes mainly from lack of transparency in terms of how the new file system is going to work. As a software developer, I understand how an underlying design affects usability and dictates operational parameters, and I’d like to understand these things before committing important files to this system.

    There are clear signs that the Home Server team “gets it” when it comes to reliability – I really like the idea of a “divorce-able offense”. That’s the right way to look at protecting this data; now, let’s start talking about how it’s going to happen.

    We all (us propeller-heads) understand RAID. I don’t yet understand how Home Server is going to achieve reliability, nor what the yield for new space will be (how much of each new drive will be available for storage), nor what the limitations of this scheme will be.

    For example, it stands to reason that if I have a 500 GB disk and a 100 GB disk, I’ll have something less than 600 GB available for storage, but how much less. If the 100 GB disk dies, it’s reasonable to believe that I won’t lose any data, but if the 500 GB disk dies, I will. What, then, are the guidelines for configuring disks such that I have a reliable platform? We understand all these things for RAID, but we don’t yet understand them for Home Server. We need to.

    One of the reasons I pointed out Infrant is that they do a very credible job of explaining what X-RAID is, how it differs from RAID, what the benefits are, and how it works. I get X-RAID. I like it. I’d store my photos there because I know what makes it tick.

    I’m not suggesting that Microsoft avoid innovating, I’m suggesting that if they’re going to ask me to store my wedding pictures on this thing, I’d like to understand why I should believe that they’re safe.

  6. This includes the serverThis includes the server editions of Microsoft Windows operating system itself, as well as products targeted at the wider business market.

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