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I'm Betting on Windows Home Server 2011

In an October 2010 Microsoft briefing, representatives of the Small Business Server team revealed to me that the company would be eliminating the Drive Extender technology from its entire "Colorado" server line, which includes Windows Home Server 2011 ("Vail"), Windows Small Business Server 2011 Essentials ("Aurora") and Windows Storage Server 2011 Essentials ("Breckenridge"). I don't want to overstate my reaction to this news, but suffice to say it brought the entire meeting to a halt for a good half hour, much to the bewilderment of my Windows IT Pro co-workers, none of whom (understandably) realized how devastating this was.

And I don't mean devastating generally, though it is, if you know and understand Drive Extender and its role in the current, outgoing version of Windows Home Server. I mean devastating to me personally, as I've come to rely on this technology as the basis for my own home technology infrastructure, and because I've been evangelizing and recommending Windows Home Server to others for years. Removing Drive Extender was the equivalent of driving a dagger right through the heart of the product. Indeed, my first question was whether that meant Microsoft was simply discontinuing WHS. (SBS 2011 Essentials and WSS 2011 Essentials seemed less reliant on Drive Extender and more reliant on the new add-in extensibility infrastructure.)

To their credit, the folks from Microsoft seemed genuinely confused by this question. But they told me, no, they were not discontinuing WHS. In fact, WHS 2011 would have an additional pre-release milestone (later revealed to be the release candidate, or RC) which would give customers a chance to evaluate a Drive Extender-less version of the product before the final version shipped. And, I was told on the side, Microsoft had some ideas for some minor functional enhancements to the product that wouldn't make up for the lack of Drive Extender necessarily, but would somewhat soften the blow.

OK, so WHS was safe. But this still left some major questions. Could I ever recommend a version of WHS in which Drive Extender was removed? Would I use such a product myself? And if not, what would I use instead of WHS 2011?

(For readers of this site who are current WHS users, there is of course another possibility: You can simply continue using the current version of the product, which does offer Drive Extender capabilities. I can't do this, personally, if only because of what I do for a living. For me, recommending or using WHS means the latest product version, WHS 2011, or going with something else entirely.)

I have to be honest. While I tried to adopt a public "wait and see" approach, my gut was telling me that WHS was finished and that I would never be able to use or recommend this new version. The issue here was simple: Drive Extender really was the heart of WHS, in my opinion, and that's largely true because of the way I use the product. That is, it's where I put all my stuff. My work stuff--meeting notes, and so on--and my personal stuff--photos, home video, the music collection, and more--are all on there. And thanks to Drive Extender's data duplication functionality, I'm never one hard drive failure away from losing something important. And thanks to Drive Extender's single pool of storage functionality, adding storage is seamless and simple.

Well, it was. Drive Extender, of course, is gone now, and will not appear in the final, shipping version of WHS 2011.

So with that in mind, I can now reveal that I intend to use WHS 2011 for my own home needs, replacing the original version of WHS (and, more recently, the beta version of WHS 2011). I also intend to keep recommending this product to others.

How is that, you ask? Before getting the Drive Extender issues specifically, let's step back for a moment and remind ourselves about why Windows Home Server is so special--is still so special--and is only about a hundred times better than the typical NAS (network-attached storage) box. Remember, WHS isn't just about storage, though it (still) handles that stuff wonderfully. No, the reason WHS is so awesome is that it does so much. It's the Swiss army knife of home infrastructure, in fact.

WHS: It's always been awesome

Wonderful Windows Home Server functionality that carries over, or is improved, in WHS 2011 includes:

Automatic, centralized PC backup. PCs that are connected to the server--using the bundled Connector software--are automatically backed up to the server every night. And this isn't a basic file backup, it's a full system backup, so you can restore individual PCs to specific points in time if required. This works for up to 10 client PCs.

Home network health monitoring. WHS monitors the health of all the PCs on the home network, optionally providing alerts to connected PCs so that admin-level users can address any issues immediately. This functionality is like the Windows 7 Action Center, but it applies to all PCs on the home network.

Digital music, video, photo sharing. As a home product, WHS has always made it easy to centrally store and share your digital media content across the home network to connected PCs and to devices like the Xbox 360.

Document (file) sharing. WHS also provides Windows Server-based file services, so you can access various document types from a central location.

Remote access to individual PCs and to the server. WHS provides various levels of remote access, including remote desktop-style access to individual PCs, web-based access to any shared folders on the server, and remote access to the WHS management console.

What's new in WHS 2011

So that stuff has all been in WHS for years. WHS 2011, as you might expect, includes some new capabilities. And again, before getting to the storage-related stuff, let's review of these improvements:

Automatic, centralized PC backup.  Now, as part of the server backup process, you can also backup your PC backups. So if you backup to external USB storage, you can now easily store your PC backups offsite too. Additionally, you can choose to "archive" backups for PCs that have been removed from the server (by uninstalling the Connector software). These archived backups are not included in the 10 client PC limit for WHS.

Digital music, video, photo sharing. WHS 2011 is now DLNA compatible out of the box, so there's no more need for third party add-ins to get a first-class media sharing experience. For you Windows 7 users, WHS 2011 also supports Home Group-style media sharing, and it can stream a much wider range of media formats, while also offering on-the-fly transcoding for those times when a client can't handle a particular format.

Remote access. WHS remote access is now based on Silverlight, providing a higher-quality experience and, it should be noted, mobile device support. WHS 2011 also includes a new remote streaming feature that lets you stream media from your home server over the Internet, perfect for travellers like myself. You can also personalize your web-based remote access home page for a customized experience.

Windows Phone 7 support. WHS 2011 explicitly supports Windows Phone 7 devices via a new Windows Phone add-in, providing media streaming, phone-to-server photo uploading, and alert monitoring functionality. As a dedicated WP7 user, this is an area I'll be paying particular attention to in the future.

Mac support. WHS 2011 also explicitly supports Macs running Mac OS X, so you can configure automatic backups of these machines, run the LaunchPad on connected Macs, and utilize remote access.

Why Drive Extender will be missed, but is replaceable

OK, hopefully the above features demonstrate why WHS in general and WHS 2011 in particular are such compelling solutions for the home. There is, of course, one final hurdle, and that is the storage functionality which, in the original WHS version, was largely the dominion of Drive Extender. I've often discussed Drive Extender in terms of its individual features--data duplication and a single pool of storage--so it may be instructive to examine how WHS 2011 addresses these concerns.

Data duplication. In WHS v1, Drive Extender allowed you to optionally protect data from a hard drive failure by configure shares to optionally duplicate their contained data on two physical hard disks. So my strategy was simple: I loaded up the server with as much storage as it could contain--about 8 TB--and enabled data duplication on all shares.

In WHS 2011, Drive Extender is gone. What Microsoft has replaced it with is automated server backups, which occur every night, along with client PC backups. (WHS v1 included a too-basic server backup feature, but there was nothing automatic about it.)  By default, the server is backed up twice each day, but you can configure this to be more or less aggressive.

On the same hardware, I could then dedicate less than half of the storage to the server and the remainder to backups. The net effect is that my data is being duplicated across two (or more) physical disks, which is actually better than the situation with WHS v1. Yes, I could do RAID, but I'm not touching RAID. My feeling is that server backup will be enough. The only question is how much storage I'll need. Let's just say that 2 TB drives will continue to be the standard in this machine.

Single pool of storage. In WHS v1, all of the non-backup storage (and non-system disk storage) attached to the server could be configured as a single pool of ever-expanding storage, with no drive letters mucking things up. So if your Videos share was running out of space, you could just attach another 2 TB drive to the system, add that storage to the pool, and get on with life. It would be allocated to that share (and other shares) as needed, automatically.

In WHS 2011, Drive Extender is gone, and so is the notion of a single pool of storage. And that is too bad. But on the other hand, WHS 2011 now operates like a normal Windows box, like a normal Windows Server box in fact. So there are some additional and innate benefits to that as well.

For all but the most enormous of shares, however, this limitation (the removal of a single pool of storage) will never be an issue. The My Documents share, for example, which includes about 12 years of SuperSite notes and documents, occupies just 250 GB of space, for example. My entire photo collection--also dating back over a decade--is just 225 GB. My software vault? 180 GB. Music? 50 GB. The only data I have that is even close to approach the 2 TB limit of a single disk is, in fact, Videos. That currently occupies about 1.6 TB.

But you know: So what? I can easily break that into separate disks/shares, perhaps something like Videos and Kids' Videos. And for this eventuality, Microsoft did include an admittedly lame little tool called the Move a Folder wizard that automates the process of moving shared folders to a new location. And when those new 3 TB and 4 TB disks appear, as they will, this tool will help you get your precious data onto new storage hardware.

The point here is that storage is important, and while, yes, a single pool of storage is preferable, not having it isn't a deal breaker. It's not a deal breaker at all.

But wait, there's more

One other bit of information deserves some attention: With WHS 2011 (and the corresponding "Colorado" server products, SBS 2011 Essentials and WSS 2011 Essentials), Microsoft is opening up the product to a broad range of powerful add-ins that will extend the capabilities of the server in important ways. Yes, it's highly likely that most of the very high quality add-ins will initially target Small Business Server, and Microsoft has already demonstrated some interesting add-ins for SBS 2011 Essentials. But I'm betting that there will be some killer add-ins made available for WHS 2011 as well, and that the storage related add-ins will, not coincidentally, be the most interesting.

The add-ins I'm most excited about, of course, will target cloud-based backup solutions. I don't think I'll want to back up my entire WHS to the cloud anytime soon. But I would really like to get going with a solution that lets me get my documents and photos, in particular, off-site. And that is absolutely going to happen with WHS 2011.

So yes, I'm disappointed about Drive Extender, I really am. And yes, I've sweated this decision for months. But when the final version of Windows Home Server 2011 appears in the months ahead, I'm switching. And I'll let you know how it goes, of course. But I can tell you now that Microsoft's home server solution is still the best game in town, even with the removal of Drive Extender. And if you could stop crying into your beer, I think you'll admit the same.  And please, yes, I've seen the silly third party Drive Extender replacements that have been announced recently, so stop alerting me to their existence. I'd never trust my most precious data to an unknown like that. But I will trust it to Windows Home Server 2011. I recommend you consider doing the same.

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