A Tale of Two Home Office Servers

With Windows Server 2012 set to launch this week, I’ve been evaluating how or if I’ll be rolling out this product in my home office. In my case, this choice involves picking Windows Server 2012 Essentials -- basically, the replacement for Small Business Server (and some other products) -- or Windows 8 as a “home server” of sorts. This has become a curiously painful decision.

What’s currently running at the heart of my home office network is Windows Home Server (WHS) 2011. This product is based on Windows Server 2008 R2 and is decent in its own right. But WHS never really reached a mass audience. After a first release that was reasonably supported by server maker partners, WHS 2011 fell flat and I’m not aware of a single major WHS system sold with this release in the US.

The reasons for this are complex, but I’ll highlight two.

First, WHS was originally going to kick off a new era of storage technologies, thanks to its Drive Extender technology, which dispensed with drive letters while providing a single, ever-expandable and redundant pool of storage. Drive Extender made RAID look complex, balky, and hopelessly out of date -- because it is -- and with the “Colorado” range of servers -- WHS 2011, Small Business Server Essentials 2011, and Windows Storage Server Essentials 2008 R2 -- the plan was to start moving the technology up the food chain. Destination: mainstream versions of Windows.

Then, all hell broke loose. It turns out that Drive Extender wasn’t technically sophisticated enough to run on mainstream Windows servers, let alone client versions of Windows. It wasn’t compatible with major server applications, and Microsoft quickly decided it needed to be axed and replaced with something more sophisticated. That replacement wouldn’t arrive until after the Colorado wave of products, however.

Second, the very notion of a home server was always a tough sell, and with the world moving to cloud storage, this product -- already borderline niche -- became a lot less desirable. Many WHS installs, as it turns out, occurred in home offices and very small businesses, where the centralized PC backup functionality -- which is quite nice, by the way -- proved a key selling point.

So I wasn’t surprised when Microsoft threw WHS 2011, SBS Essentials 2011, and Windows Storage Server Essentials 2008 R2 into a blender and came up with Windows Server 2012 Essentials as a replacement for them all. Really, it’s kind of perfect. Essentials includes the Drive Extender replacement, called Storage Spaces, and it works well. Very well. It has the digital media sharing functionality from WHS. The centralized PC backup. The remote access, and more. It’s kind of an ideal home office and small business solution, aimed at those businesses that don’t and won’t have in-house IT staff of any kind. (Those that do should look at Windows Server 2012 Foundation, which is a more traditional but inexpensive Windows Server version.)

Essentials (like Foundation) will be sold primarily with new low-end server hardware bundles. This brings the product(s) in line with Microsoft’s other Windows Server versions: About 85 percent of Windows Server sales occur with hardware. It can be sold through partners, with bundled services, including Office 365 integration, so it’s a big ecosystem win. And it’s still the simplest Active Directory domain setup I’ve ever seen.

But what’s holding me back from using Essentials over, say, Windows 8 is that I don’t think average consumers or very small businesses will flock to this solution any more than they did to WHS. Though inexpensive by Windows Server standards (about $450 per license), it’s a lot more expensive than WHS, which can be had for under $100 these days. Frankly, we’ve reached the point where even a super-simple Server might simply be too much.

What a strange situation this is.

With most people using web-mail services such as Gmail, Outlook.com (nee Hotmail), and Office 365 these days -- along with their associated contacts and calendar management and other services -- on-site infrastructure is starting to look passé. (That’s even become true in larger businesses, though my focus here is solely on the high-volume, low-end side of the market.)

Basically, I feel like I’m never happy. When Microsoft started pushing the first WHS version, I told them they needed a small business version. Now that they have one, I’m starting to think they need to push the remaining on-premise services -- identity and user management, for example -- to the cloud. Maybe the next Essentials should come in a cloud version that could sit alongside Windows Intune (PC and device management), Office 365, and Microsoft’s  other online services. I mean, why even have a server?

This move toward simplification is in keeping with other trends we’re seeing in businesses of all kinds, as we embrace the consumerization of IT and essentially pick ease of use over complexity. Yes, we give up some power, some functionality. But simplicity is a slippery slope: Once you head down this path, it’s hard to stop.

I do love Storage Spaces, though.
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