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Windows Home Server Points Way to Next SBS

In December, Microsoft provided me with a lengthy briefing about Windows Home Server (WHS), codenamed Q, a consumer-oriented server product that Microsoft will ship in late 2007. I?ve been eager to discuss it ever since. However, I don?t think many Windows IT Pro UPDATE readers are going to be installing WHS at work any time soon, though it?s likely to be a be success at the homes of IT professionals and the friends whose purchases they influence. That?s because WHS doesn?t interoperate with Active Directory (AD) domains. But don?t be put off by WHS quite yet: A careful reading between the lines of the WHS feature-set can provide some insights into where Microsoft is heading with its other server products, including the next version of Small Business Server (SBS), which won?t ship until next year.

If you're not familiar with WHS, please refer to my preview for more information. The mile-high view goes like this: WHS provides three essential services, two of which, amazingly, are storage related. First, WHS provides full and automatic image-based backup of all PCs in your home (Windows XP SP2 and newer), effectively moving the unit of backup from the PC level to the household level. Second, WHS supports hot-swappable and, given hardware constraints, almost infinite storage increases. That means you can add external and external hard drives as often as you?d live and WHS will simply pool all that storage automatically, with no drive letters mucking up the interface. Third, WHS does provide the sorts of digital media sharing features one might expect of such a product.

A couple of other WHS properties stand out. First, it?s completely headless, and you couldn?t plug a keyboard, mouse, or display into the box if you wanted to. Second, it?s super-simple, almost comically so, and designed for normal people, not technology geeks. Third, and this one is truly amazing: Microsoft will allow you to buy WHS as standalone software, or you can buy pre-configured WHS servers from major server makers like HP and others.

So what hints does WHS provide for the next SBS version? Well, SBS is well renowned for its simplistic UI advancements, but WHS takes that to the next level, with two years of development aimed almost solely at ensuring that users are asked as few questions as possible in the clearest possible language. The big advancement I see here, however, is backup. Imagine a SBS product that provided WHS-like backup of every PC in the environment. Sure, you?d need a lot of storage space, but WHS uses Single Instance Store (SIS) technology on the server to keep down storage requirements. In other words, if every PC in your environment has an identical foo.dll file. SIS ensures that only one copy of that file is stored on the server. According to Microsoft, they?re seeing 15-19 TB of data backed up to just 300 GB or less of storage space on WHS server. That?s a revolution.

These backups aren?t static or monolithic, either: WHS customers will be able to navigate into point-in-time backups on the server using Windows Explorer and pull out various versions of files on the fly. Looking for that presentation? Did you want the version from December 15 or the updated version from January 8? You can copy them right to your desktop.

WHS also provides the beginnings of a whole-house PC health monitoring service, using the ?green badge of health? icon that should be familiar to many SBS customers by now. In both WHS and SBS, there?s a lot of work that can be done going forward to ensure that these smaller environments are as safe, secure, and up-to-date as possible, including such features as network quarantine, where out-of-date mobile systems are kept off the network until they?re up to speed.

With WHS, I?ve seen the future of SBS. And I think, if you look closely enough, you?ll see a lot to like in both products.

This article originally appeared in the January 16, 2007 issue of Windows IT Pro UPDATE.

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