At the 2007 Consumer Electronics Show, Microsoft figurehead Bill Gates announced in his keynote speech a new Windows product, Windows Home Server. In retrospect that was a bad time to announce the product as it was in the critical period between Windows Vista having gone gold and being released at retail, so few people were interested in "that server product" as opposed to Microsoft's long-in-development successor to Windows XP. Since that point the Vista launch came and went, while there has been little noise from the Windows camp about Home Server.

If we had to sum up Windows Home Server in one word that word would be "strange." Even having gone gold and shipped to system builders and distributors, Microsoft has been strangely quiet about a product they're targeting for the consumer space - we still don't know quite when it will be for sale or at what price. The fact that it's even for sale unbundled with hardware, albeit only as OEM software, is itself strange as this was originally slated to be only sold as part of complete computers from the usual suspects among the computer vendors. Finally, as we'll see even as a product it's strange, and difficult to really come to terms with.

So what is Windows Home Server (WHS)? The name says it all and at the same time says nothing. At its core it's a server operating system designed for use in the home, a place that previously has not needed or been offered anything like a true server. That means that WHS really doesn't compare to any one thing; it's a backup suite, it's a file server, it's a network attached storage(NAS) device, it's a web server, it's a media hub, it's a computer health monitor, it's even a gateway for Window's Remote Desktop. In even trying to describe the product, we run into the same problem Microsoft does; it's one thing to describe a product as "X but better" but it's another thing entirely when we don't have anything to serve as a comparison.

Perhaps the easiest way to understand what WHS is, is understanding why it exists. Microsoft, never one to shy away from finding a way to sell another computer, has come to the conclusion that with the saturation of full computers and smaller smart devices in homes (where some households are reaching the point where they have two computers per person) that the time has come where not unlike a corporate environment households now need a server to keep everything in order.

But home users don't need the same kind of server that business users need. Home users won't be running or need to be running their own SQL server or email server, but what about centralizing the location of everyone's media files? Or a web server for letting the relatives see all your photos? Or a backup suite that actually backs files up somewhere else than to the hard drive of the machine in question? And how about something that doesn't require an MCSE certification to run? Over the last two years Microsoft has been once again retrofitting the Windows Server 2003 kernel (previously refit to serve as Windows XP Pro x64) to be the new server that can do all of the above.

The result of those two years of effort is a very interesting product that we'd consider the most interesting Windows product to come out of Microsoft since Windows 2000, and yet at the same time it comes with the quirks that are undeniably Microsoft. As we'll see WHS can offer a lot of value to the market Microsoft is shooting for, but can it overcome the difficulties of forging a new market, and fighting against its own deficiencies? Let's take a look under the hood of Windows Home Server and find out the answer.

The Technology of WHS
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  • Iketh - Sunday, September 16, 2007 - link

    My current computer will be my file server/backup device in the future. My question is will WHS take advantage of 2gb of ram or should i make use of it in my new system and just throw a 512 or 1024 single channel stick in this one? Reply
  • FrankM - Thursday, September 06, 2007 - link

    Had this idea for a time, posted it at various forums, and now I see it implemented - glad to see that this feature made it to implementation. Reply
  • LoneWolf15 - Thursday, September 06, 2007 - link

    quote:

    Many RAID controllers however aren't supported in spite of the availability of drivers due to WHS's unique method of handling disk drives.


    I found this out testing the Beta and RC. Using a Foxconn nForce 6150-chipset board, even with BIOS support for RAID 5 and drivers, I couldn't get it working. MS blamed it on the drivers, but essentially said "Why would you want to run RAID 5 when Windows Home server does (yada yada yada...)?"

    I know darn well why I want to run RAID 5...because some of my media files are important enough that I don't want to lose them, and RAID 5 is a far more secure way than WHS' methods. I really wish MS had worked harder on this part, because it makes deciding between purchasing WHS and staying with my 25-CAL copy of Win2k3 Server Enterprise (gotten at an MS conference) a much harder decision.

    I want Windows Home Server, eventually. I'm just not sure I want the first version.
    Reply
  • tynopik - Thursday, September 06, 2007 - link

    > RAID 5 is a far more secure way than WHS' methods

    how so?

    i believe in the real world you will find this is not the case (unless you're using truly enterprise level hardware everywhere, and no nForce RAID is NOT enterprise level)
    Reply
  • n0nsense - Thursday, September 06, 2007 - link

    nForce (i'm not sure, but i think there is intel's chipset based MoBos with raid 5) raid still better in terms of stability, redundancy and performance then any soft raid.
    think what will happen if your WHS will crush unrecoverably.
    how will you restore your data ?
    Reply
  • tynopik - Thursday, September 06, 2007 - link

    > think what will happen if your WHS will crush unrecoverably.
    how will you restore your data ?

    pull the drive out
    stick it another system
    copy files off

    what will happen if your raid5 gets corrupted? how will you recover data?

    pull out all drives
    send to data recovery specialists
    pay $$$$$
    Reply
  • ATWindsor - Sunday, September 09, 2007 - link

    If one drive die, you just replace it, other problems can mostly be fixed by the controller/software rebuidling the stuff, and if not, raid5 has a more or less standard way to be implmented, so you can easily use recovery tools. If that fails, you can always fall back to your backup.

    That beeing said, I do agree that onboard-raids are crap, I would much rather use a "pure" software-implementation, like mdadm or win2k3s implementation. Mobo-raids have had a horrible track-record data-security-wise.
    Reply
  • Gholam - Sunday, September 09, 2007 - link

    Win2K3S costs about $750 OEM with 5 CALs, is considerably more difficult to administer than WHS, and does not include the backup client developed specifically for WHS.

    No linux-based implementation will give you SIS (Single Instance Storage) which will, in a typical home usage scenario, save you far more space than RAID5 over RAID1 could ever hope to.
    Reply
  • ATWindsor - Sunday, September 09, 2007 - link

    Yes, win2k3 is an entirely diffrent product, but I don't see why that makes the need for software-raid5 in WHS any less. If anything you are arguing for implmenting software-raid5 in WHS. It's built on win2k3 and should be able to make a raid the same way w2k3 can. Reply
  • Gholam - Sunday, September 09, 2007 - link

    As an example, you can look at Intel SS4000-E NAS. It runs Linux kernel 2.6 with software RAID5 as one of the options on an Intel IOP80219 processor clocked at 600MHz. Read performance on a 4-drive RAID5 caps out at 12MB/s on large files at 6MB/s on small files; write performance is approximately 7MB/s and 1.5MB/s respectively. Reply

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