Drive Extender and the Future of SBS and WHS

By this point, you've all run into that kind of Apple user: The self-righteous, Apple-is-the-solution-to-every-problem kind of boob who boasts on a plane about how their $3,000 MacBook Pro purchase solved all the problems they had with their previous laptop, a several-year-old Dell. These people can be obnoxious, but you have to give them credit for one thing: They've got the love, and they want to spread it, for better or worse.

Some other technological products trigger the same kind of rabid, fanatical evangelism that Apple's do. Not many, but some. TiVo, for example. Linux, still, in some quarters.

In the Microsoft world, there are even fewer examples of such products, and while Apple partisans like to pretend there are like-minded people on this side of the fence, that's not strictly true. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure there are Microsoft diehards out there. But they're not exactly pushing their agenda on the world like the Apple guys.

With rare exceptions, that is. While Microsoft's most popular products are rarely the inspiration for love or worship, some products do cross that line. The Xbox 360 is an obvious example, but there are other Microsoft products that are as notable for their usefulness and technical excellence as they are for the simple fact that very few people actually use them.

I'm talking about Windows Media Center and Zune. And I'm talking about Windows Home Server (WHS).

I'm also talking about myself, in a way, because I, too, believe these products are far better than most people realize, and I'm not above telling others about, even when they don't ask.

Windows Home Server has had a special place in my heart, if you will, since before even the first beta release, and when I heard Microsoft was working on such a product, I knew it was going to be interesting. In fact, Windows Home Server has been at the center of my own home office-based infrastructure for more than a few years now, and I've come to rely on it for a number of things, including remote access to my data, media sharing within the home, and so on.

But the reason Windows Home Server was special, really, was because of a technology called Drive Extender. This provided two key features to the product: Data redundancy and a single pool of ever-expanding storage.

The data redundancy bit means that you could ensure that any files stored on the home server were replicated across two physical hard disks. That way, if a hard disk failed, you wouldn't lose the data. As important, this feature wasn't hard to set up or configure, as is RAID. You just checked a box in the admin console and the files were duplicated.

The second feature meant that each time you added a new hard disk to the home server, it could be configured as part of the server's storage pool. Again, with just the checking of a single box, the hard drive's storage would be added to the server storage pool, with no drive letters to muck things up. It was simple and elegant, and it just worked.

The reason I'm discussing Drive Extender here, however, is that Microsoft had grand plans for this technology. It was going to appear in various Windows Server and Windows client products over time. Less vaguely, it was going to form the basis of two other Windows Server products, which were originally due this year: Windows Small Business Server 2011 Essentials (formerly codenamed Aurora) and Windows Storage Server 2011 Essentials (formerly codenamed Breckenridge).

Alas, this isn't going to happen now. With the move to more traditional Windows Server products, Microsoft and its partners began testing server applications on top of Drive Extender and some, sadly, did not work properly. After spending much of this year trying to work around this issue, Microsoft finally decided to cancel Drive Extender, removing it from the next version of WHS ("Vail") as well as SBS 2011 Essentials and Storage Server 2011 Essentials. (If you want to learn more about this decision, please refer to my blog post, When Bad Things Happen to Good Technology: RIP, Drive Extender.

This is tragic for a number of reasons, but mostly for WHS, since existing server data redundancy and storage technologies aren't exactly server friendly. On the SBS and Storage Server side, of course, we can expect Microsoft's partners to deliver solutions appropriate to those markets.

WHS being what it is, of course, there's been a lot of "seven stages of grief" stuff going on, and while an online petition demanding that Microsoft bring back Drive Extender has garnered thousands of signatures, let's be serious: That isn't happening. And while a widely circulated email from Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer pledging to look into this situation touched off yet another illogical round of hopeful possibilities, I have to reiterate: Drive Extender is dead.

Many have written in to ask for advice and about my own plans for the future. I'm looking to the promised January beta of WHS "Vail" to see what a Drive Extender–less WHS looks like before making any decision, and I recommend that you do as well. Plus, Microsoft could surprise us: The uproar over Drive Extender has been so serious, I'd be surprised if the software giant didn't throw us some kind of workaround at least. (I discuss one third-party possibility in my blog post, How to Save Windows Home Server: Vail + Drobo.)

If you're looking ahead to SBS 2011 Essentials or Storage Server 2011 Essentials, I think these products are going to shine most obviously when bundled with new server hardware that is backed by vendor-specific storage solutions. These may be based on RAID, or similar technologies that aren't as out of place in the server market as they may be at home.

This is all well and good, but two questions remain. One, why is it that Microsoft hasn't been able to advance a next-generation storage platform since the 1990's? Previous storage initiatives like the Object File System (OFS, part of "Cairo") and WinFS have come to nothing as well. And two, what are the few remaining Microsoft fanboys going to crow about now? Windows Home Server was one of the software giant's rare wins in the "hearts and minds" department. Now it's just a giant question mark. 

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