WHS and the victim of your own success!

If you remember from a couple (1) (2) of previous guest blog posts, Graham out in Vancouver was talking with Ron about using WHS as a very small office solution for centralized and easily expandable storage, centralized backup and remote access. This post came in with him musing on what the expansion possibilities could be for WHS and it's continued use as a quick and simple solution for SOHO business when SBS is overkill. Remember - WHS is targeted at home users and has a current limitation of being non domain joined as well as a limit of 10 users.

He does bring up some good points. What about you? do you think that WHS fits the smallest of small business?

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Graham Jones (Surrey, British Columbia)

Today I opened up the RSS folder in my Outlook and under the Windows Home Server team blog I found an article entitled “10 Computers & 10 Users”. Basically the article was inviting feedback about the 10 user limit for WHS, no doubt now that some future planning for the product is underway. PP1 is now released and the hopefully the “corruption bug” is becoming a faint memory. Seeing this request prompted me to respond. Having responded it occurred to me to reproduce some of it here since it reflects what are admittedly some of my personal “business oriented” views about the future of the product. I do have other thought about WHS as a media device.

The reason that I titled this blog “WHS and the victim of your own success” is because the demands for how some people would like to use the product in the future, I believe, have to some degree transcended some of the original thinking. It is good problem to have but a problem none the less when it comes to planning how to evolve and position WHS in the future.

Although 10 user accounts is enough for me personally right now I can see circumstances where this is inadequate. For example, where you wish to allocate remote user accounts to people who don’t have local user accounts. One workaround that has been suggested is that you create a generic account for remote users. This might be Ok for the home user but perhaps not for small business where you want to assign individual folder access rights. It is important to draw a distinction between PC's and users. This is already done via the CAL system as applied to SBS and Server 2003/2008 for example. Telling people that they can solve the 10 user limit by having more than one WHS doesn't fly for most people. To the target audience (home user or even small business [more on this later]) this represents a significant additional investment and complication. Microsoft must get their "head" into the appropriate "domain" space.

Terminology can be a problem and Microsoft often gets caught up in their own language. As part of Microsoft’s consultation with users about extending the 10 user limit they used the term “CAL” (not wishing to make the same mistake, CAL stands for Client Access License for those who may not know). CAL's don't mean a thing to the average person or small business owner. Why should it? So don't use it. Remember, get into the appropriate "domain" space before opening your mouth! It isn't difficult to come up with some other way/term to describe what you are permitted to do or not do. If it is largely a "consumer" product why not ask the consumer what terminology they understand and not bombard them with your own!!!!? In this case it can be made very simple. Microsoft have become too used to dealing with the complexities of "business" licensing. They absolutely must change their thinking now that they are in a different arena.

I see nothing wrong with the equivalent of a CAL's system (with different terminology) where additional users are purchased in blocks up to some stated maximum limit. This provides the maximum flexibility versus having different product SKU's with different user limits (one suggestion from Microsoft). Reality is that people often start out with certain expectations in mind only to find that they change for a whole variety of reasons. Why should this be different in this case compared to the same issues in the "business" domain? The real debate is "what is a 'sensible' maximum limit for WHS?". My personal opinion is that 25 should be the absolute maximum with purchase beyond 10 in either blocks of 5 or a onetime block of 15.

I fully understand that WHS started out as a consumer product that has now found a very useful "home" with some small business people. That is testimony to the unique features and benefits that it brings at a very affordable cost. I believe that this "area" has great potential to grow and that Microsoft should put specific effort into it rather than just perhaps accept "organic" growth. I know that the people in the Partner Program would be delighted to assist which is why many are very unhappy about WHS not being provided via an MSDN subscription or the Microsoft Action Pack! Yes, I know that it can be obtained by people in the Partner Program by contacting the appropriate person in Microsoft but I believe that it is viewed by some as an effort that shouldn’t be necessary and a failure by Microsoft to be totally supportive of the opportunities for WHS in the business environment. Telling them “but it is a consumer product” doesn’t cut much ice when people are looking for ways to expand their business and make a living.

I understand that Microsoft has a range of products and that there is a need to position them relative to each other. However, to simply state that SBS is where you should go "when you grow up" doesn't fly for most small business people. SBS is often total overkill in terms of the features and the management requirements that it entails for the vast majority of very small business owners and definitely for home users who would like more user accounts. If Microsoft insists on this approach it will only be seen as a "money grab" (we are talking significantly different $'s) or a refusal to accept that things have changed by the introduction of a product like WHS. It is always difficult to adjust to the perhaps somewhat unexpected outcomes of your own success.

Although nobody wants to come right out and say it, it seems that to some extent Microsoft fears that WHS might become a very cheap way to buy most of Server 2003. Let's face it the "enthusiast" community will take this to its limits and maybe even a little beyond. These people represent a very, very small fraction of the potential customer base and most potential WHS purchasers in the longer term aren't the least bit interested or even know its origins. Besides the "enthusiasts" help to come up with ways that enhance the appeal of the product for everyone and you don't really want to suppress that. Witness the very active "add-ins" generation, both free and commercial. Including an SDK was a very smart decision. Adding a "wrapper" around the SDK to make it even easier to use (ie. lower programming knowledge requirements – yes, there is some personal desire here) would make it even better. I did manage to create a “very simple” test add-in but nearly broke my brain in trying to get my past developer experience from VB6/ASP to C#/.NET.

Basically, instead of sometimes appearing to be looking for a rational for "fighting" change, Microsoft needs to embrace it and use it to their advantage. By "opening up" WHS I believe that they stand to gain far more than they fear that they might lose. For those small business people who don't initially see the "SBS light" but later realize the need (not so much number of users per se but features, eg. RWW [Remote Web Workplace, which is a great feature], etc.), an easy upgrade path from WHS would be a very useful option. I have just been through an exercise something like this with my daughter-in-law because her law practice business has grown (again not so much in users) but in sophistication. She has moved her business to her home (office cost cutting) and all of her employees are now remote. Although she wasn't using WHS the circumstances are similar. I had to persuade her (and my hyper-critical, very computer savvy son who has no particular Microsoft allegiance – he even eventually said he thought SBS was a good product once he got to play with it and eventually did a lot of the install work. It was a good job that I was sitting at the time!) that SBS was now right for her (she had started using GoToMyPC with an XP Pro PC on her home based LAN for every remote user - not exactly very scalable and she wanted to go on growing her business!!) but she, and her employees, are delighted with the outcome, ie. new much more powerful ASUS server (good value), virtualization (sorry Microsoft but it was VMWare – a nice cheap solution is XP64 as the base OS to give the flat address space beyond 4GB and VMWare workstation), terminal services, collaboration via exchange, etc..

This all represented a considerable financial investment and in her case quite a bit of disruption because of her starting point. Microsoft needs to let people "go through this 'growing' and 'learning' process" and in the meantime support/gently educate them. The upfront “hard sell” for something which appears to the small business client to be too expensive and unnecessarily complex/feature rich simply doesn’t work. They might simply go with a different “cheap and potentially nasty” option only to regret it later. I believe that, properly positioned, WHS is a great opportunity to avoid that and at least get them partially Microsoft server “pregnant” with the hope that you can up sell them later when their business needs have changed!

Graham Jones

Comments (3)

  1. Graham Jones says:

    I came across this article on Philip Churchill’s MS WHS site about using WHS for business:


  2. Sean Kearney says:

    My personal opinion is that WHS could be a great addition TO a Small Business but for most of the sites I’ve dealt with (as low as 4).  Once you get into the cost of the hardward on a decent server, the O/S is moot. SBS 2003 for that size of network is usually only about 300 over the price.

    That’s not knocking WHS at all.  But for $300 more the ability to have RPC/HTTPS and push email really nails it for clients we deal with.

    The worst part is there is so MUCH of SBS 2003 left, I’m tempted (Oh so tempted) to see if it would be a DC and how much it would kill WHS in the process.  

    That’s one for the weekend … 🙂

  3. Graham Jones says:

    Sean, I am sure that you have more experience than I do in the SMB space. However, I doubt that we are talking anything like the same hardware cost when it comes to a typical WHS setup versus a commercial style server even for a small number of SBS users. In the WHS setup that I have in mind, WHS is not really acting as a true server, ie. central login, file server, etc.. Processing power and memory can be quite modest. It’s main value is idiot proof unattended backup, some use of central storage and possibly print server. It is basically a low to medium desktop with more HD space, which represents the major cost. With cheap non-ECC RAM and the falling price of HD’s a decent WHS machine can be put together for under $750 incl. taxes and software (2GB RAM, 2x500GB HD’s and room for 2 more HD’s). I cannot imagine an SBS based server being anything like as affordable as that [perhaps you will show me otherwise]. I recognize the technical advantages of SBS, which I acknowledged in my original blog, but that has to be seen as a clear benefit by the customer versus the cost. There may be only a $300 differential (is that really true for 10 users?) between WHS and SBS (I assume you mean basic) but what is the true differential cost allowing for setup (WHS is so easy), hardware, etc.?

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