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Windows SBS 2011 Essentials and Windows Home Server 2011 Release Candidate Preview

Since getting the bad news about the cancellation of Drive Extender from the "Colorado" family of Windows Server products--Windows Home Server (WHS) 2011 ("Vail"), Windows Small Business Server 2011 Essentials ("Aurora"), and Windows Storage Server 2011 Essentials ("Breckenridge")--I've been in a weird holding pattern. For years, I've been using and advocating WHS, since that product's early beta versions actually. But Drive Extender was a key WHS technology, one that was going to be a core part of the other Colorado server products. But now it's gone, thanks to server application compatibility problems. And readers have asked me, again and again, what they should do.

My advice, so far, has been to wait. When Microsoft announced the Drive Extender cancellation late last year, it said that it would be offering pre-release versions of the Colorado servers in January 2011. And I was told, rather subtly, that Microsoft would be offering some sort of storage improvement in these servers. This improvement wouldn't completely replace Drive Extender, but it would at least partially offset the disappointment.

Today, I can reveal that the release candidate (RC) versions of the Colorado servers are now available, and publicly too. And I can reveal that Microsoft's bone for those who miss Drive Extender is a combination of two things, a new storage feature called Move a Folder and a coming bit of documentation that will make RAID setups on WHS and the other Colorado products less painful.

I'll discuss the former in a bit of detail below, but before getting to that, I do want to address the central issue that was raised when Drive Extender was originally cancelled. And that is, will Windows Home Server 2011 (and yes, that is the official name of "Vail" now) be worth the wait? And if it's not, what do I recommend for those who were previously considering moving to Vail? What will I be using in my own set up at home?

These are important questions. And sadly, my answer is still the same: Wait. I will need time to more thoroughly evaluate the storage changes in the Colorado servers to determine if Move a Folder is really all that compelling compared to the stunning features that were lost with Drive Extender. Unfortunately, Microsoft only provided me with the code for the Small Business Server 2011 Essentials RC, and then only a day before the public release. I won't get access to the public RC version of WHS 2011 until the public. So I'll need to wait myself.

With that out of the way, I can only offer a cursory overview of what's new in the RC versions of the Colorado servers. And I can discuss this Move a Folder feature and provide a few quick thoughts on that. But a full understanding of these RC versions, especially for the storage functionality, will have to wait until I've had some time to sit down and really use the things. And I certainly do intend to do that.

What's new in the Colorado RC versions?

The Colorado servers include two new products, Windows Small Business Server 2011 Essentials (SBSE), and Windows Storage Server 2011 Essentials (WSSE), as well as the second generation version of WHS, called Windows Home Server 2011. Each are based on the same codebase and utilize much of the same technologies, including a Windows Server 2008 R2 base, an integrated management console, and so on. And each focuses very squarely on the small business market or, in the case of WHS 2011, the home and home business market.

With the RC version of these products, we're seeing the true focus of this product line for the first time, and that's for the add-in functionality that provides third parties with a standardized way to target these products with additional functionality. These add-ins can provide on-premises functionality, to improve the capabilities of the products on the local network, or cloud integration functionality, to extend the products to cloud services.

Microsoft showed reviewers some very interesting add-ins that were only hinted at in the past. An Office 365 add-in will allow an employee to manage the company's Office 365-based infrastructure directly from the management console, and will enable single sign-on capabilities between the local domain and the Office 365 services. A Windows 7 Professional Pack add-in will automatically configure Offline Files and Folder Redirection on connected clients and provide checkbox security templates for all PCs in the domain. A separate Windows Phone 7 add-in for each server, each customized to the server tasks specific to each product, will allow users to view alerts, trigger PC backups, reboot the server, and perform other actions from their phone. And Microsoft also showed off other add-ins, created by third parties, related to power management and cloud backup.

Microsoft also announced the licensing terms, though not the pricing, for the Colorado servers. SBSE does not require any client access licenses (CALs) but will instead by licensed for use with up to 25 PCs. A Premium Add-on for both SBSE and Windows Small Business Server 2011 Standard (the more traditional SBS product) will allow customers to purchase a second server with Windows Server 2008 R2 Standard (including Hyper-V, RDS Application mode, and other features) and SQL Server 2008 R2 for Small Business at a vastly discounted price. (And you can purchase it multiple times if required.)

From a usage standpoint, the removal of Drive Extender has driven some changes to the management console UI in all products. Where the Server Folders and Hard Drives area used to have three tabs--Summary, Server Folders, and Hard Drives--now there are just two--Server Folders and Hard Drives. (The Summary tab graphically displayed the now-gone DE-based storage pool.) And on the Server Folders tab, there's no longer a Duplication column because, well, duplication is gone now (it was part of DE). And on the Hard Drives tab, the console displays NTFS volumes instead of physical disks, and lists the remaining space available, since this is a now a concern. (That is, storage is no longer pooled so you'll need to know how much space is available on each volume.)

Oh, and there's this funky new Move a Folder feature, which works in tandem with the also-new Format a Hard Disk Wizard. Let's take a quick look at those.

Move a Folder: What it is, how it works

OK, so now you've got this server, and it's got whatever shared folders set up. But you want to add some storage in the form of an internal hard disk. Once the disk is installed, the Colorado (SBSE, WHS, WSSE) management console will fire an alert noting that one or more unformatted disks are connected. (Before DE was killed, the disk would have instead appeared in the Hard Disks tab of the Server Folders and Hard Drives area, allowing you to add its storage to the storage pool.) But rather than forcing you to figure out how to use Disk Management, the console now offers up a simpler and friendlier Format a Hard Disk wizard. This wizard does what you think it does, utilizing the NTFS file system, and automatically assigning it the next available drive letter. The newly formatted disk then appears in the Hard Drives tab as expected.

But when you add storage like that, you're typically doing so for a reason. Maybe you had a Videos share that was getting a bit low on space. So you want to add a new 2 TB hard drive, let's say, as explained in the previous paragraph, and now you want to move that Videos share to the new drive. In previous Colorado server betas, this would have been unnecessary, thanks to DE. But in most Windows Server versions, this would require making a new folder on the new disk, manually copying the contents over, changing the share, removing the original folder, and, if necessary, then changing the server backup scheme to include the new location.

In the Colorado RCs, this is a bit simpler. You can use the new Move a Folder wizard to move a folder and its associated share to a new location.  To do so, simply select the folder in Server Folders and then click Move the Folder under Tasks. The Move a Folder wizard appears, of course, letting you choose a destination (or, optionally, it can recommend a location based on available storage). It will then move the folder and its contents, only deleting the original when various consistency checking tasks are complete.

OK, it's simple enough. But it is enough? Clearly, this little nicety is no replacement for Drive Extender. There's no data duplication, for example, and the lack of a storage pool will be sorely missed. But I've only played with this in the SBSE 2011 RC release. I need to see what it's like in WHS 2011 as well.

Looking ahead

While I have already installed the RC version of SBSE 2011, I need to get the new WHS 2011 RC up and running as well. Going forward, I'll provide a more formal review of these Colorado products, of course. But I'd also like to answer those remaining, nagging questions. By removing Drive Extender, did Microsoft effectively neuter WHS 2011? What will I be using for my own home environment going forward? And what do I recommend for you, those who have used and appreciated WHS for years? Stay tuned: It's gut-check time.

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