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Replace Windows Home Server ... With Windows 8?

While Windows Home Server fans such as myself are stressing over the possibility that Microsoft will cancel this solution, it occurs to me that the future needn't be so uncertain: Windows 8 provides virtually all of the features that make WHS special, while overcoming the issues that made a server in the home a nonstarter for most.


I've been a fan of Windows Home Server since I first heard about the product and a user and advocate since the first beta. The latest Windows Home Server version, WHS 2011, sits at the heart of my home network and stores, protects, and shares the terabytes of personal and work-related data I've accumulated over the years. It is central to everything I do, computing-wise.


And yet.


It's fair to say that Windows Home Server has never taken off in the market and with the two sucker punches the platform received leading up to the release of the latest version--HP exiting the market and Microsoft killing the beloved but flawed Drive Extender technology--WHS is, at least, facing an uncertain future. Many feel that Microsoft will abandon WHS and that the current version is the last.


I don't know about that. And I will say that should Microsoft release a WHS 8 product, based on Windows Server 8, I'll happily adopt it and continue forward. But if they don't, we all have some choices to make. And one potential outcome, oddly enough, is Windows 8.


(The others are simply using Windows Server 8 or Windows Small Business Server 8, though such products won't be accessible or affordable for typical users.)


This isn't as crazy as it sounds. Step back for a moment and think about how much easier it would be to manage a Windows 8 PC on your home network than it is to manage a server that, by definition, is supposed to be headless and appliance-like, and not meant to be upgraded. A Windows 8 PC would be a known quantity, and far less foreign or unfamiliar to home users. It would make sense, be acceptable, in ways that a server just never will be.


But those who use Windows Home Server, of course, will be unswayed by such arguments. They know how good this product really is. But that's fine, since I can explain how the major features of Windows Home Server are also provided in Windows 8. And maybe, just maybe, you'll start thinking a bit differently about the makeup of your home network as a result.


Data redundancy and single pool of storage


Windows Home Server: The original version of Windows Home Server included a cool feature called Drive Extender that provided two key features. First, the ability to aggregate storage from different hard disks of varying sizes and types into a single pool that could be accessed as a single unit, without the need for drive letters. And second, optional data redundancy whereby data was automatically written to and synced across two physical disks to protect it should one drive fail. Drive Extender was removed from Windows Home Server 2011 because of compatibility concerns. So the single pool of storage functionality was lost, while redundancy occurred, if less automatically, via automated server backup.


Windows 8: In Windows 8, Microsoft includes a feature called Storage Spaces that provides Drive Extender-like data redundancy and storage pooling functionality. But the ways in which Storage Spaces improves on Drive Extender are almost too numerous to contemplate. The redundancy is better, supporting two-way mirroring, three-way mirroring, or two-way mirroring with parity. You can have multiple pools, and multiple spaces within those pools, each of which provides a normal and compatible drive letter, and each of which utilizes the normal NTFS file system. Storage Spaces is better, easier to use, and more flexible. It's everything that we had with Drive Extender and more.


Centralized PC backup and restore


Windows Home Server: While Windows 7 offers an excellent Windows Backup feature, Windows Home Server centralizes this functionality by providing multi-PC backup to the server. This includes both image-based backups, in which the entire PC is backed up so it can be fully recovered later, and incremental backups, with file- and folder-based recovery options.


Windows 8: With Windows 8, Microsoft has completed reimagined how backup works. First, a new feature called Push Button Reset provides a full system recovery in just minutes with options for a clean, factory-fresh wipe and one that retains user settings, data, and Metro-style apps. A second feature, called File History, provides a Previous Versions/Time Machine-like functionality in which documents and other data files are backed up, over time, providing a versioning history so you can recover not just the files, but any version of the files that was saved over time. File History, amazingly, can be centralized and even combined with Storage Spaces, providing an overall functionality that is very close to WHS's centralized PC backup. The only thing that's missing is that you will need to reinstall any classic Windows applications after the fact. But Windows 8's backup functionality is superior to that in WHS in one way: It doesn't require that each client installs a separate and annoying Connector client.


Centralized PC and server health monitoring


Windows Home Server: Windows Home Server includes health monitoring, both for the server itself as well as all of the connected PCs.


Windows 8: I'm not aware of any centralized home network health monitoring in Windows 8. That said, this feature required you to install the annoying WHS Connector client on each PC, and its notifications were a bit much.


Document and media sharing


Windows Home Server: Windows Home Server provides shared folders for documents, music, pictures, recorded TV, and videos, and of course you can arbitrarily share other folders as needed. With WHS 2011, homegroup compatibility was added as well. Windows Home Server also provides native Windows-style media sharing functionality that works with compatible devices, including Xbox 360s.


Windows 8: You get exactly the same folder sharing and media sharing capabilities in Windows, of course, and the same homegroup sharing support.


Remote access


Windows Home Server: Microsoft's home server solution provides a decent web-based client for accessing home documents and media, and you can remote desktop into the server if needed for other purposes.


Windows 8: On the client, Windows 8 provides simple remote desktop support for the local network, and you can of course use remote desktop from anywhere if you install the free Windows Live Mesh, part of Windows Live Essentials. But for those wishing to access Windows 8 PC-based content while away from home, Microsoft will soon offer a SkyDrive app that provides, among other things, a new Remote Fetch feature. This, combined with free solutions like LogMeIn Hamachi (VPN) and LogMeIn (remote access, including FTP-like file access and remote desktop), supplies all of the functionality we currently get with Windows Home Server.


Final thoughts


I don't know what Microsoft plans to do with Windows Home Server. And while I really do hope that there's a Windows Home Server 8 release coming, one that will bring Storage Spaces support to this solution, I realize I'll be OK if that never happens. For me, the choice will be difficult between Windows 8, Windows Server 8, and Windows SBS 8. But for most consumers, Windows 8 will be an ideal choice as the center of a home network, and I can imagine users keeping a single desktop PC around just for this purpose, adding storage as needed. It makes a lot more sense than a home server, really. And that's even more true when you realize how Windows 8 is doing such a great job of replicating almost everything that was right about WHS while easing the issues that made that solution undesirable to most. It's something to think about, even if you are a fan of WHS.

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