[Guest Blogger] Windows Home Server by Graham Jones

Graham Jones (Surrey, British Columbia, IT Pro)

I have been chatting on and off with Graham about a project he's working on as well as listen to him lament about Hard Drive woes. This post came in the inbox late last night and I was happy to read that Graham as decided to spruce up his home network with a beta install of Windows Home Server (WHS). I've been using it now since it was made available internally a while back and I can say that it has come a long way.

My wife no longer bothers to ask me where the files are, where the most current pictures of the kids can be found and if the server is turned on for the printer in order for her to print. What she doesn't know is that I will be able to look like a SUPERSTAR if her laptop blows up and she looses all her data. Unbeknownst to her, I've been backing up her entire system (well - ok, deltas managed automagically by WHS) every night for the last 3 months.

Have a read... If you are interested in more about Windows Home Server - stick around at lunch on one of the 5 city stops of Future of your Server Room... You might just see a little video I shot called "Future of your HOME Server Room". For those cities not on the tour - I will post a streaming link to the video when the other streaming links go live.

Rick Claus
IT Pro Advisor

Back in February the HD gods were not on my team and I wrote about the benefits of the new backup and restore tool in Vista a couple of times here. Via a comment regarding one of these blogs, Bob Robinson suggested that I take a look at Windows Home Server (WHS). I had heard of it from when it was codenamed “Quattro” or "Q" but hadn’t really got around to finding out more. Eventually, spurred on by Bob’s positive comments and encouragement from others, I finally signed up via the MVP beta program about 6 weeks ago. For those of you who aren’t particularly familiar with the product you can get a good introduction via Paul Thurrot’s article.

My purpose is not to regurgitate the WHS features per se but to give my thoughts about WHS as a product. Thanks Bob! I am really glad that I made the effort to try it out. Besides it gave me an excuse to build another box with my wife’s blessing (very important consideration). I like building PC’s. First of all it is clear that whilst great progress is being made (all of my bug reports have been handled very promptly and efficiently) there is still some way to go. A visit to the WHS forum will quickly show you the level of interest in WHS and the many ideas that are already springing up about where people would like the product to go in the future.

At this point it is mainly enthusiasts and “techies” who are involved and it is very easy to forget the primary target audience, the home user. So it is hardly surprising that people would have Microsoft morph WHS into something else. This is not wrong but more of a reflection of the wider benefits of some of the underlying technology. I view WHS as really being 3 products in one; a “no touch” backup device with redundancy (like RAID 1 but it doesn’t use RAID), a central storage device with an option for redundant storage and a possible centre for digital home entertainment. The home digital media sector has huge potential and everybody will be scrambling for a piece of that pie. When it comes to the average home user KISS really does apply. Having used WHS for a little while it is clear that Microsoft have done a good job in this regard but only time will tell whether it is good enough. There are still lots of VCR’s out there flashing “12:00 AM”.  However, the professional user can gain access via Remote Desktop if they wish. There is also now an SDK and a lot of 3rd party add-ins are expected.

A number of hardware vendors, including HP, are very interested in selling a packaged solution. For it to be successful in the average home, from the “backup device” standpoint, it will literally have to be an “appliance” that you take home, plug in and largely forget about. There are a number of “one touch” solutions out there now and there will need to be a “selling” exercise to convince people why the WHS backup solution is better, especially if it turns out to be more expensive. In fact, long before we get that far there is an education exercise to convince people why they should care anyway. I don’t know what the stats are but I can imagine that a very large percentage of the general population don’t do regular backups or backups at all. Even us supposed pro’s aren’t always as fastidious as we should be, which is one of the reasons I like WHS. I am happy to leave the hassle to some “device” so that I can focus on other things and have some comfort that my labours are not at major risk. I interface with “regular” users through my teaching of Office and I often hear tales of woe when to their amazement their HD has failed. “I was told that it had a 5 year warrantee” they say. Clearly there is much work to be done in educating people to protect them from themselves!

Regarding the new backup and restore technology that has been developed for WHS it is hardly surprising that the technical community are clamouring to know whether it will be implemented elsewhere such as in the small business space. When I say small business I don’t necessary mean in SBS. There are a lot of home businesses and businesses with a few employees (WHS handles up to 10 PC’s) who don’t need or want Exchange from SBS for example because it makes sense for them to use an ISP. On the other hand they definitely need a hassle free backup and restore environment and the storage increase flexibility that WHS offers. In fact, in this sense it doesn’t really make sense to call it Home Server. The situation becomes a little different if we consider WHS as a central storage device. Even if you opt for the redundant storage capability this storage needs to be backed up since redundancy only helps uptime in the event of HD failure and not absolute data loss. This, of course, applies to the potentially large collection of digital media that you may have painstakingly collected for streaming to PC’s on the network. You might be asking “what happens if you get a HD failure wrt the backup system”. Any local data and the OS is still available on the PC’s and the system basically rebuilds itself after the HD is replaced. The chances of coincidental HD failures is pretty small.

In summary, I am very excited about WHS and where it might go in the future. However, I am still unclear how it is proposed to backup the central data storage bearing in mind that it must meet the KISS principal if it is to be successful in the home.


Graham J.

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