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Vail Report: Next Home Server Gets Storage Right

This week, Microsoft delivered a public preview version of its next Windows Home Server product, codenamed Vail, giving the outside world a look at a product I was first briefed on over 18 months ago. Needless to say, I've been dying to discuss Vail, and not just for the obvious reasons. Yes, Vail is a big step up for consumers and the home market. But it also provides an interesting peek at technologies that will make a lot of sense for small businesses as well.

\[ Read my overview of Windows Home Server "Vail." \]

But then, WHS has always skirted an interesting line between home and work. And while PC makers haven't found much success selling something with the word "server" in its name to consumers, no such qualms exist as you move up the food chain.

I've argued before that some combination of Windows Home Server and Microsoft's hosted cloud services would make a lot of sense for many small businesses. Such a package would provide local storage, remote access to network resources, and automated, centralized PC backup, all courtesy of WHS, while pushing email, calendar, and contacts management where it belongs, in the cloud.

But that's not the focus of my ardor right now. Windows Home Server also includes some incredible storage technologies that I'd like to see replicated (ahem) across Microsoft's other client and server versions of Windows.

First up is a data duplication technology called Drive Extender that helps protect against drive failure and is incredibly simple to use. In WHS, files are shared through traditional file shares on the network (and beyond, thanks to the server's remote access capabilities). Drive Extender uses these shares to determine which data is duplicated. If you mark a share for duplication, WHS will ensure that all of the files in that share are written independently to two different disks. So if one drive fails, you won't lose your data.

Vail Report: Next Home Server Gets Storage Right
Windows Home Server "Vail" provides simple file duplication across two physical disks.

WHS offers another useful storage innovation: Any hard disk storage added to the server can be added to the storage pool, creating an ever-increasing space for users' files. Oddly, individual shares are also exposed as individual drive letters--I believe this is for ease of backup--but aside from this, Vail essentially does away with drive letters from the user's perspective. It's quite liberating, and quite a bit simpler in both scope and execution than enterprise-class solutions like DFS.

Where WHS falls short, from a storage perspective, is with server backup, especially to the cloud. Yes, Vail does offer some very basic support for backing up the server shares, but it's to external, local disks only, and it's a manual process. So if you're looking for offsite backup, feel free to regularly rotate those backup disks yourself and drive them to a different location. A solution that tied into cloud based storage would be vastly preferable. (Something akin to the Iron Mountain backup functionality in Microsoft Data Protection Manager 2010.)

Regardless, Vail gets the on-premise/cloud mix right, I think, and I'd be surprised if this wasn't pretty broadly deployed in very small businesses in tandem with some cloud-based email/PIM service. This assumes, of course, that Microsoft isn't cooking up a similar SBS offering, which would also make plenty of sense.

An edited version of this article appeared in the April 27, 2010 issue of Windows IT Pro UPDATE. --Paul

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