At the 2007 Consumer Electronics Show, Microsoft figurehead Bill Gates announced in his keynote speech a new Windows product, Windows Home Server. In retrospect that was a bad time to announce the product as it was in the critical period between Windows Vista having gone gold and being released at retail, so few people were interested in "that server product" as opposed to Microsoft's long-in-development successor to Windows XP. Since that point the Vista launch came and went, while there has been little noise from the Windows camp about Home Server.

If we had to sum up Windows Home Server in one word that word would be "strange." Even having gone gold and shipped to system builders and distributors, Microsoft has been strangely quiet about a product they're targeting for the consumer space - we still don't know quite when it will be for sale or at what price. The fact that it's even for sale unbundled with hardware, albeit only as OEM software, is itself strange as this was originally slated to be only sold as part of complete computers from the usual suspects among the computer vendors. Finally, as we'll see even as a product it's strange, and difficult to really come to terms with.

So what is Windows Home Server (WHS)? The name says it all and at the same time says nothing. At its core it's a server operating system designed for use in the home, a place that previously has not needed or been offered anything like a true server. That means that WHS really doesn't compare to any one thing; it's a backup suite, it's a file server, it's a network attached storage(NAS) device, it's a web server, it's a media hub, it's a computer health monitor, it's even a gateway for Window's Remote Desktop. In even trying to describe the product, we run into the same problem Microsoft does; it's one thing to describe a product as "X but better" but it's another thing entirely when we don't have anything to serve as a comparison.

Perhaps the easiest way to understand what WHS is, is understanding why it exists. Microsoft, never one to shy away from finding a way to sell another computer, has come to the conclusion that with the saturation of full computers and smaller smart devices in homes (where some households are reaching the point where they have two computers per person) that the time has come where not unlike a corporate environment households now need a server to keep everything in order.

But home users don't need the same kind of server that business users need. Home users won't be running or need to be running their own SQL server or email server, but what about centralizing the location of everyone's media files? Or a web server for letting the relatives see all your photos? Or a backup suite that actually backs files up somewhere else than to the hard drive of the machine in question? And how about something that doesn't require an MCSE certification to run? Over the last two years Microsoft has been once again retrofitting the Windows Server 2003 kernel (previously refit to serve as Windows XP Pro x64) to be the new server that can do all of the above.

The result of those two years of effort is a very interesting product that we'd consider the most interesting Windows product to come out of Microsoft since Windows 2000, and yet at the same time it comes with the quirks that are undeniably Microsoft. As we'll see WHS can offer a lot of value to the market Microsoft is shooting for, but can it overcome the difficulties of forging a new market, and fighting against its own deficiencies? Let's take a look under the hood of Windows Home Server and find out the answer.

The Technology of WHS
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  • ATWindsor - Sunday, September 9, 2007 - link

    All NAS-boxes have horrible performance. (at least all I have seen). It hardly seems fair to use benchmarks from them, when this is a "Proper" computer, there are plenty of benchmarks from software raid 5 run on "real" computers to find, see this for instance:

    http://www.tomshardware.com/2004/11/19/using_windo...">http://www.tomshardware.com/2004/11/19/...appen/pa...

    MDADM is as far as i know even faster, hower for whs it would likely be built on the software-raid of win2003.
    Reply
  • Gholam - Sunday, September 9, 2007 - link

    All NAS-boxes have horrible performance.

    Wrong. Proper NAS boxes have superb performance. Look at NetApp FAS270 for example. Of course a FAS270 in a typical configuration will run you in the $20,000-30,000 range.

    That Tom's Hardware test is running a 2.8GHz CPU. http://www.pcpro.co.uk/reviews/121499/tranquil-t7h...">This WHS box is running a 1.3GHz VIA C7, for example.

    Also, WHS is designed to be easily and transparently expandable by end-user using external drives. Please show me a RAID setup of any kind that will work in a mixed ATA/SATA/USB/FireWire configuration with drives of varying sizes.
    Reply
  • ATWindsor - Sunday, September 9, 2007 - link

    Ok, all consumer NAS-boxes then, I thought that much was implicit. It doesn't matter anyway, the point is that your comparison to a box like that isn't very good when it comes to "proving" that software-raid automatically has bad performance.

    A lot of boxes with WHS will be using a CPU that is better than a 1.3 Via, if the hardware isn't suited for the job, then you just don't run a software raid5, it's that easy.

    I don't see how the WHS storage-pool is incompatible with raid as a concept, a raid-array presents itself as a single drive, more or less, wich can be merged into the storagepool if one feels like it.
    Reply
  • Gholam - Monday, September 10, 2007 - link

    Infrant ReadyNAS NV+ is a consumer level NAS. However, it's built on an SBC running a 1.4GHz Celeron M ULV, and in actual testing outperforms many self-built systems. On the other hand, it also costs over $1000 without drives. Reply
  • ATWindsor - Monday, September 10, 2007 - link

    The benches I have seen points to a read-performance of 30 MB/s give or take lets say 10 MB, thats hardly good performance, it doesn't even outperform a single drive. One can easily build a software raid with several times better speed. Reply
  • Gholam - Sunday, September 9, 2007 - link

    WHS is made to run on low-power, low-end and old hardware; calculating parity blocks in software is bad enough on a modern desktop CPU, an old PIII/800 or a VIA C3/C7 (present in some OEM WHS box implementations) will get murdered.

    In addition, recovering data from a failed RAID5 array is quite difficult, requiring specialized (and expensive) software as well as user expertise. Recovering data from a failed WHS box with duplication is as simple as mounting the drives separately.
    Reply
  • ATWindsor - Sunday, September 9, 2007 - link

    The raid will not fail before two drives goes down, if that happens in WHS, you still need to run recovery-software and hope to get out data. WHS will be run on diffrent kinds of systems, even the cheapest of CPUs today are pretty powerful. More than powerful enough to get reasonable spped on raid5. Why limit WHS in this way? That is exactly the problem I'm adressing, the lack of flexibility, the reasoning that all WHS-users have the same needs, I think a pretty large number of WHS-machines wich poeple build themself will have performance several times higher then a P3@800, if not most. Reply
  • Gholam - Sunday, September 9, 2007 - link

    The raid will not fail before two drives goes down

    Oh how I WISH that was true. Let me give you a recent example I've dealt with. HP/Compaq ProLiant ML370G2 with SmartArray something (641? don't remember) running a 4x36 RAID5 array, Novell Netware 5.0. DLT VS80 tape backup drive. Worked for 4 years or so, then the tape died. Took the organization in question 4 months to buy a new one, LTO-2 - which means they've had 4 months without backups. Downed the server, connected the new tape, booted - oops, doesn't boot. Their "IT guy", in his infinite wisdom, connected the tape to the RAID controller, instead of onboard SCSI - which nuked the array. It didn't go anywhere, the controller didn't even report any errors, but NWFS crashed hard. They ended up rolling back to 4 months old backups because pulling data out of a corrupt RAID5 array would've cost several thousands.

    I work for a small company that specializes in IT outsourcing for small and medium businesses - basically shops that are too small to afford a dedicated IT department, and we give them the entire solution: hardware, software, installation, integration, advisory, support, etc - and I've got many stories such as this one. We also deal with home users, but not as much.

    This said, I don't consider RAID5 a suitable for home use, at least not yet. It's too expensive and dangerous - mirroring files across a bunch of drives is cheaper and easier. Also, as far as I understand, when a drive in WHS drive pool fails, it automatically syncs protected folders into free space on remaining drives, so the window where your data is vulnerable is quite small. RAID5, on the other hand, will be vulnerable until you replace the drive (which can take days or even weeks) and then until it finishes rebuilding (which can also take a very long time on a large array). You can keep a hotspare, but then you'll be eating up another drive - in case of 4 drives, RAID5+hotspare eats you the same 50% as RAID1/RAID10 - while WHS mirroring makes your entire free space function as hot spare.
    Reply
  • ATWindsor - Sunday, September 9, 2007 - link

    Hardly a very plausible scenario for a home user, of course a RAID can go down if you mess it up, but you can just as easily mess up non-raided drives to the point that running recovery-software is needed, when it comes to normal drive-failiures two of them have to die.

    If you only need 2 Drives worth of storage, you might as well mirror, but when you need for instance 10, it adds up, but drive-cost, electricity PSU-size and physical size (especially if you want a backuo-machine in adition, I would never keep my data on only one computer like that). If the syncing is going to work,you also need to have at least a disk of usalble free space, so you basically need to "waste" a whole disk on that to if you wnat to get hot-spare-functionality.



    Reply
  • Gholam - Monday, September 10, 2007 - link

    Hardly a very plausible scenario for a home user, of course a RAID can go down if you mess it up, but you can just as easily mess up non-raided drives to the point that running recovery-software is needed, when it comes to normal drive-failiures two of them have to die.

    Not quite. WHS balances data between drives, so if one of them becomes corrupt and one of the copies of your protected data is gone, you can still access it on the other - no extra tools required, just mount the drive in a Windows system. You will only lose it if both drives become corrupt simultaneously.

    If the syncing is going to work,you also need to have at least a disk of usalble free space, so you basically need to "waste" a whole disk on that to if you wnat to get hot-spare-functionality.

    Again, not quite. Since you protect the data on a per-folder basis, your free space requirement depends on the actual amount of data you're keeping redundant, not the total, and there's little point in wasting redundant storage on backups - they're redundancy in and of themselves.
    Reply

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