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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  • Gholam - Sunday, September 9, 2007 - link

    Cheap motherboard-integrated controllers corrupt and outright lose RAID arrays all the time due to driver bugs, and performance is atrocious. I won't trust a RAID5 array to anything that costs less that $500, and for that price, you can just stick a few extra drives for duplication. Reply
  • n0nsense - Sunday, September 9, 2007 - link

    I did with LSI MegaRaid 500 with 128MB cache (originaly come with 32).
    I found it in second hand store for 50$ :)
    actually you can buy new one scsi320 for ~300$
    as for sata, there is IBM ServerRAID 7t, HP, adaptec and other controllers for ~300$
    starting price of 150$ for 4 port SATA II controllers.
    Personally, i prefer raid 10, but the problem is were to put the disks.
    i already have 5 and only 1 empty slot left. (3x5.25 reserved for future water cooling)
    Reply
  • n0nsense - Sunday, September 9, 2007 - link

    I did with LSI MegaRaid 500 with 128MB cache (originaly come with 32).
    I found it in second hand store for 50$ :)
    actually you can buy new one scsi320 for ~300$
    as for sata, there is IBM ServerRAID 7t, HP, adaptec and other controllers for ~300$
    starting price of 150$ for 4 port SATA II controllers.
    Personally, i prefer raid 10, but the problem is were to put the disks.
    i already have 5 and only 1 empty slot left. (3x5.25 reserved for future water cooling)
    Reply
  • Gholam - Sunday, September 9, 2007 - link

    A 5 year old controller that you pick up at a second hand store is not something that I - or an OEM - can base a line of products on. A new RAID5 controller which is not built by Promise or Silicon Image will run you $500+ - the ~$300 solutions are ZCR cards that are basically addons to $500+ motherboards. ServeRAID 8s costs around $700, HP P400/256 nearly $600, well over $800 for P400/512. A bigger case to store extra drives - or a few external USB/Firewire/eSATA enclosures - will run you much less. Reply
  • tynopik - Friday, September 7, 2007 - link

    > power outage is not on option when we talking about some kind of server.
    don't tell me, that UPS is something you don't use.

    1. ups is not something most home users will use, you have to design assuming it won't be there
    2. even if you do have ups, what happens when the batteries die? often the only warning you will get is one day the power flickers and the system shuts off. do you replace all batteries every 2 years whether they need it or not?
    3. even if you meticulously maintain your ups, the internal power supply can still go bad

    > hardware problems will do the same to your system and its really does not matter what you running inside.

    NOT TRUE

    ntfs by itself is fairly fault tolerant. you yank the power you might lose a file, but everything else is fine

    raid5, you yank the power you might lose EVERYTHING

    that is why WHS file duplication is far safer and better

    > of course i can give you examples of corporate Data Centers with 0 data loss, but we are talking about home.

    of course i said it works if you're using ENTERPRISE LEVEL HARDWARE everywhere. Good raid cards start at $300. A $150 motherboard with onboard raid doesn't even begin to cut it.

    > let's organize it from worth to best.
    > no raid
    > soft raid
    > raid 1
    > raid 1+0 or 0+1.

    there is no such thing as 'best'
    there is 'best for a particular set of requirements'

    maybe your requirements are such that your best looks like that

    my best would like
    soft raid
    raid 1
    no raid
    raid 1+0 or 0+1

    (that's right, i would rather have no raid than 1+0 or 0+1)

    > This press machines working at full load non stop 24/7/365. Year @ IT department, no problems with raid.

    congratulations, you are one of the 70% who didn't have problems with their raid last year. Are you confident you won't be one of the 30% next year?

    > for not very advanced user i will recommend Debian box with Bacula to manage backups, syncing, share etc.

    not very advanced users aren't going to have a clue about Debian
    not very advanced users are going to be setup up raid properly
    Reply
  • n0nsense - Sunday, September 9, 2007 - link

    Any UPS have connection to computer and will shut it down properly when configured to do so.

    As for controllers. I was surprised to find that almost all integrated raid controllers (including my), actually software and not hardware. So need to admit you were right about it. (I spent few hours to transfer my disks to Promise ST150 TX4 and rebuild the raid).

    NTFS is the best in Microsoft's world. but since we can't run Windows on ext3 or reiserfs, or Linux on NTFS, we can't actually compare them in real world benchmark. Theoretically, NTFS is inferior. Actually any modern FS of all desktop systems is good enough.

    So we still at the same point.
    I agree with you that WHS is good for redundancy (if you enable this option) where you don't want to use real raid controller with "small" price tag.

    But I just can't see justification to use it. Compared to alternatives it does not have something spacial enough to pay extra 180 USD. Yes I know that for most of users, Linux is something horrifying. But we are not talking about them, but about the WHS and alternatives. in this case about raid.

    by the way, i'm very curious. what raid 1+0 or 0+1 did to you ? :)
    that remind me to answer. shut down will cause you to lose open/unsaved files in any scenario. but it can also damage you entire HD. raid 5 will give you better redundancy then SINGLE disk(single data instance). but when duplicating, raid 1 is the best.
    Reply
  • n0nsense - Thursday, September 6, 2007 - link

    nForce (i'm not sure, but i think there is intel's chipset based MoBos with raid 5) raid still better in terms of stability, redundancy and performance then any soft raid.
    think what will happen if your WHS will crush unrecoverably.
    how will you restore your data ?
    Reply
  • n0nsense - Thursday, September 6, 2007 - link

    Hello, if you have important things that you don't want to get lost or corrupted by some virus or anything else, do your self a favor and check
    http://www.debian.org">http://www.debian.org
    http://www.ubuntu.com">http://www.ubuntu.com
    or any other user friendly distro.
    you will find a way better solutions for home (and not only) server.
    more exactly you'll find OS capable to be everything with more then proven stability and security.
    and yes, it will work inside your MS environment. as for file server (and this is main purpose of home server), you will find much better performance.
    You may want to extend it to be your media server. means really distributed one. server with tv card and clients on other boxes.
    Reply
  • tynopik - Thursday, September 6, 2007 - link

    > as for file server (and this is main purpose of home server)

    no, the main purpose of WHS is backup

    if your main purpose is just a simple file server then yes, WHS probably isn't for you
    Reply
  • mindless1 - Saturday, September 8, 2007 - link

    Absolutely not. A server is not backup, it would be a very foolish thing to keep your back as an online windows box. Reply

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