Microsoft on Monday suddenly and unexpectedly released a public preview version of the next Windows Home Server (WHS) software, codenamed "Vail." The software, which has been in development for almost three years, has had a quiet gestation, and my last official Vail briefing dates back some 18 months. And while the software giant remains mum on a number of Vail-related topics, including the expected release date, this week's public preview suggests it will ship in time for the 2010 holiday season.
"Although we're still in the midst of development work—and things may change—we can say that Vail includes feature improvements in four key areas," Microsoft's David Berkowitz wrote in a blog posting. These include "extending media streaming outside the home or office, multi-PC backup and restore, simplified setup and user experience, and expanded development and customization tools for partners."
As expected, Vail will be available only in a 64-bit version as the code is based on Windows Server 2008 Standard R2, which is also 64-bit only. The system will be sold only via new home server hardware, as with the previous version, Microsoft says.
I've published a quick preview of the Vail public preview, highlighting new functionality like the Vail Dashboard and LaunchPad, the Alert Viewer, homegroup support, easier PC and file restore, improved media streaming and remote access, and more. What's missing, at least for now, are the promised Media Center and Live Mesh integration pieces. It's also unclear how Microsoft will respond to customers that wish to upgrade.
While my testing of the Vail public preview hasn't revealed any unannounced new features per se, Microsoft's comment that the product would be built on "both on-premises and cloud technologies" has raised some eyebrows. For now, there are few obvious cloud linkups in the software beyond an Apps Store-like "Online Add-in Catalog" that will advertise new and updated WHS add-ins and the ability to remotely stream content from the home server over the Internet.
Microsoft also appears to be repositioning Windows Home Server with this release and is now targeting very small businesses as well, an overdue move. Whether this change will result in a branding change remains to be seen, but the product is currently branded as "Windows Server codenamed Vail" instead of "Windows Home Server codenamed Vail," suggesting a name change is in the works. Furthermore, it appears that Microsoft will offer both Standard and Premium versions of the software, though only the Premium version is available as part of the preview release.