[Guest Blogger] Microsoft takes the correct approach with Windows Home Server Power Pack 1


Just in case you missed it - Windows Home Server has an Release Candidate 4 edition of PowerPack.  Three big things in it for me - x64 home client connector software (a must for my x64 Vista boxes) file corruption bug fix (something that never affected me - even with 15000 photos stored, edited and rotated on server) and speedier filecopy to and from WHS from clients.  Like Graham,  I've been using earlier RC editions of this powerpack and it's been smooth sailing for upgrades and testing.

Graham has been doing a lot with WHS in the online and offline communities - I like his post below for it's frankness and to the point remarks. 🙂 Keep 'em coming Graham!  

Rick 
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Graham Jones (Surrey, British Columbia)

The Peanut Gallery

The long awaited public beta for WHS PP1 was recently announced. It is interesting to read the newsgroup/blog comments about the release. As is often typical, a lot of people want to be critical rather than complement Microsoft on their approach in being very diligent before releasing to the public. First of all we should note that the official release is PP1 RC4. Very few products go through so many RC cycles; a testament to how careful Microsoft have been. If it apparently takes “too long” to fix something in the “uninformed opinion” of the technical community then there is criticism and if something is released that breaks in short order then there is also criticism. To the “nay sayers” I say, “please make up your mind” or better still “simply stop complaining from the peanut gallery”. People’s energy would be better spent on testing the public beta so that we can get to the RTM release as quickly as possible as requested by Microsoft.

Private Betas

I have been part of the MVP beta program for WHS for quite some time now and as an MVP I am obliged to operate under NDA. Why do we operate under NDA? We can be privy to information, which if it became public knowledge in the wrong way could be very damaging to Microsoft, plus we may have access to some Microsoft Intellectual Property . This is not always a question of being “secretive” for the sake of secrecy. It is simply good business sense. Without the full knowledge of the facts there are those who have nothing better to do than “pillory” Microsoft. I am quite sure there are times that Microsoft would like to be more “transparent” and they constantly face the “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” dilemma. I even read the other day some people complaining about the “private” betas. Get real people! What do you realistically expect Microsoft to do? There is little point in releasing anything on a wider basis before there is a high degree of confidence.

Why are MVP’s usually involved in private betas? The answer is very simple. As a group they provide consistently high quality and rapid feedback to Microsoft, which is in part why they are MVP’s. A limited number of highly effective people from outside Microsoft, in addition to their “dogfooders” and NDA partners, is much more efficient. It is not a question of thinking that there aren’t people in the general technical community who don’t have the technical skills or interest to contribute. Those who are keenly interested get to contribute via the much wider public betas and ultimately their input is just as important because the more eyeballs on the product the better when it comes to confidence in the RTM release. These people would have to operate under NDA for private betas and that is not practical. Some of these people may ultimately become MVP’s.

The File Corruption “Bug”

The file corruption “bug” has certainly garnered a lot of negative publicity and has unfortunately “tainted” what I believe is one of the best products that Microsoft has produced in recent times. The bug was so obscure that it took Microsoft a lot of time and effort to even reproduce it. It is impossible to fix something if you can’t first understand it! They had people working over the Xmas period investigating it. I don’t think that you can be more serious about it than that. In my own case, and in the case of many other MVP’s, I have been diligently trying to “bust” it without success. I have deliberately ignored the precautions suggested by Microsoft, ie. don’t edit files directly on WHS. The only person that I have spoken to who claims to have had the problem was someone at the WHS Booth at EnergizeIT. I think that I would have had a better chance of winning the lottery! This in no way is intended to minimize the importance of the issue because even if only one person is affected that is one too many. I have read comments that the product was “broken” and therefore not touchable. That is a ridiculous stance to take because there was an easy workaround until there was a fix, by not editing files directly on the server. The workaround may have created some minor inconvenience but considering the other benefits of the product it is not too onerous. The other option of only using a single HD is a much less attractive option in my opinion since you lose the benefit of Shared Folder duplication. All other aspects of the product have worked just fine since RTM in my experience.

Let’s just suppose that if the file corruption “bug” hadn’t come to light for a long time, people would have an entirely different attitude. We are fortunate that indeed it did shortly after RTM. Microsoft have worked very hard and diligently to try and solve it. We can all wish that it had taken less time to fix but you can easily understand Microsoft’s desire to test, test and test again. I do believe that it has been fixed but nobody is going to make assumptions without an extensive public beta program. In fact, WHS had a very extensive public beta prior to RTM in part because of the novel aspects of the product. One could even argue that it was ill luck that the problem was not discovered then or even through internal testing. It demonstrates the very obscurity of the issue. Had it been discovered prior to RTM it may have delayed things but the last 6 months would have been very different! There would have been the inevitable comments about more missed deadlines. What do you want, a product that works or something that you can complain about?

There are those in the “peanut gallery” who would argue that it should never have happened in the first place. It would be nice to think that software development has advanced to the point that we are producing “perfect” software and that extensive testing would reveal all of the major problems. What is not readily appreciated is the complexity of what is behind the storage system for WHS and the lofty objectives that go with that. WHS is often compared to NAS which is usually based upon RAID. Although it does backup the desktop it is not NAS. It does an automatic daily image backup and, if necessary, an easy restore. Further it does not have RAID’s limitations when it comes to adding additional backup storage. As part of testing I have added and removed both internal and external (USB and eSATA) HD’s of a wide variety of sizes without incident. I have not had to even think about backing up my 5 home PC’s for the past 9 months which for me is well worth the “price of admission” on its own!

DB Backup and Restore

The other complaint is the removal of the WHS DB Backup feature from PP1, it having been announced at CES in January. Like others I am disappointed to see this go but I do understand why. Certainly Microsoft need to be more astute when it comes to making announcements. A “feature” is not a feature until it is delivered. The technical community constantly forgets the “Home” in Windows Home Server. I have reminded people about this multiple times on various newsgroups and blogs. It is intended to be a consumer product. Therefore it must be very easy to use and require no technical knowledge. DB backup and restore was part of the early PP1 private betas. Although I didn’t personally have any problems some important issues were reported. So why was it dropped from PP1? The answer is very simple. At this point Microsoft could not guarantee that it would work under all foreseeable circumstances ie. it needs to be “bullet proof”. Do we need another file corruption bug issue? Like a hole in the head. To take on “bullet proofing” DB backup and restore would have significantly delayed PP1 which was already much later than hoped. Barring some unforeseen showstopper, it is not that it cannot necessarily be tackled in the future. It is simply not the right time or circumstances. Interestingly, those complaining are likely the people who could probably easily take care of it themselves by other means. For example, a manual approach is described starting on page 23 of the Microsoft white paper, WHS Home Computer Backup. This white paper is well worth a read to get a feel of the backup system as a whole.

The Upside

Apart from addressing the “infamous” bug, Microsoft has taken the opportunity to add many new features and improve others via PP1 making an already good product even better. Let’s try and focus on the upside for a change. Some of the highlights can be found at We Got Served.

Cheers

Graham J.

Comments (3)

  1. ye110wbeard says:

    Graham.

    Just wanted to say Love Home Server!  Got my workstation and laptop plus the kids systems ALL backed up on there now.  

    One of the nice features I found Home server had was it automatically centralizes the PC statuses.  (IE: Joey’s computer has no Antivirus!)

    One of the drawbacks I found (Guess I should have read the recommended setup) was if my main drive is say a 160 gig and I add a 320 gig later; the system recognizes the whole lot but limits the share space (as far I can tell, can’t find a setting to change it) to the physical space of the original drive.  Mind you, backup seems to take the allocated space readily.

    I’ve got PowerPack Beta1 on there now as well, same results.  

    But this centralize backup / remote access is "WOOOOOHOOOOOOOO!"

  2. ye110wbeard says:

    Another little thing to note about Windows Home Server.  Cool thing.

    (No surprise on the technical side and probably on the ‘unsupported features’ list) but enough of the core was left behind in Windows 2003 SBS, you can add your own internal DNS server, DHCP as well.  Just nice really.   Putting printers hosted onto the Windows Home Server also allows you to run them with Windows XP/2000 drivers in case there is no Vista 32 bit driver (Doesn’t provide a 64bit resolution, but a nice addon).

    Turning on Shadow copy works too.. (And helpful if you lose a file on the Home server)

    🙂

  3. Anonymous says:

    If you remember from a couple ( 1 ) ( 2 ) of previous guest blog posts, Graham out in Vancouver was talking

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