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 - Monday, September 10, 2007 - link

    And if one drive in a raid5 goes corrupt, you can still accsess the data. That doesn't mean you can't mess it up to the point where additional recovery is needed, and its the same with WHS, you can stand to loose one drive, but no problems "bigger" than that.

    Thats not the point, the point is that for you to have "hot-spare-functionality" as you talk about on WHS, you still need to have that amount of aditional free space, so having that dta will cost you extra HD-psace, just as having a hot-spare will. Depending on usage, WHS will need more or less free space than a hot-spare drive will provide.

    You might think it's little point having redundancy on backups, i feel like it's worth it. If one doesn't feel the need for this redundancy, the duplication-system in WHS isn't that useful either (that if if you don't want to risk having all your data on a single machine).

    To repeat the point yet again, the system should be more flexible, there are of course quite a few people who don't need the extra functionality, but there is also quite a few that want's to have smething easy to set up, but still maintain some features and flexibility.
  • Gholam - Monday, September 10, 2007 - link

    Thing is, however, on first glance RAID5 is very alluring - on paper, you get great performance, high reliability, and minimal loss of usable HD space.

    However, in practice, it is far, far more complicated, expensive and dangerous - but your typical home user doesn't have the depth of experience to know that.

    Therefore, if you absolutely must have a RAID5 setup, just buy a controller, set up WHS on a single large volume and disregard its drive pooling features.

    As for myself, I'm currently planning replacing my system which is getting a bit long in the tooth to handle the latest games. It's an A64 3200+ on ASUS A8N with 3GB RAM and GF6800GT, housed in a CM Stacker case. So, since upgrading a S939 CPU is currently next to impossible, once WHS is available over here (Israel, supposed to arrive sometime in october-november) I'm planning to build a new system, and in this one, replace the graphics card with something passively cooled (7100/8400), stick in a bunch of drives (probably 4x500GB) and run WHS drive pool on it. I considered getting a hardware RAID5 controller, but after examining my options, dismissed the idea as too expensive - I can get 3-5 extra 500GB drives for the price of a decent RAID5 card with cables. With room for 12 HDDs in the case, 8 SATA + 2 PATA connectors on the motherboard and ability to expand via USB/Firewire, I don't see this system capping out anytime soon.
  • ATWindsor - Monday, September 10, 2007 - link

    I agree that raid5 has some pitfalls, but once (properly) setup, I think it's pretty easy to handle, just stay away from it until a drive goes down, and then replace it :)

    However I would still like to have it implmented in WHS, if needed under some kind of "advanced setup", one has to activate.

    Personally I use a 16-port-hardware-controller, with the same controller also in my off-sote backup-computer. It might be over the top, but I find it worth the convinience when i have well over 10 sata-drives, restoring from backup is a hassle, so it's nice to be able to handle a single drive going down without having to get everything from the backup, and you get added security aggainst file-corrption when the cache has battery-backup (and also, the preformance is good, but that is not so important, only nice :))

  • Gholam - Monday, September 10, 2007 - link

    16-port hardware controllers are nice, but I can't justify sinking $800+ into one, not on my budget.
  • n0nsense - Thursday, September 6, 2007 - link

    hm ...
    raid 5 corrupted ?
    search google for "raid 5 corruption".
    the only thing that real threat is 2 or more dead disks simultaneously.
    WHS redundancy duplicate files over several disks, which mean that you waste as much space as in mirror.
    advantages - different disk sizes.
    disadvantages - performance.
    hard to believe that some one will think to mix IDE SATA and SCSI disks for file server (actually i do mix as i have 2 mirrored 36GB SCSI drives @ 15k rpm for system 2 mirrored 500GB SATA drives for sensitive (in terms of redundancy) data and 250GB SATA drive for temp files, incoming, and other things that i don't care about).
    Once i used raid 5 of 4 74GB SCSI for about 3 years 24/7/365 with almost constant load, then it was replaced with bigger SATA drives when one of them died without loosing 1 bit of my data.
    more probably you'll put 2-6 really big (250-750GB) disks for such purpose. smaller will go to the boxes.
    you wont run dedicated box for less then 3 clients.
    so for the same space price you can set up hardware raid 1, probably get more performance (controller dependent), 0.0004% failure rate.
    depends on where you live, WHS price save (~180 USD) will give you about 2x250GB or 1x 500GB SATA drives + SATA to PCI card with RAID support.
  • archer75 - Thursday, September 6, 2007 - link

    Performance isn't a disadvantage here. All of your data is copied to a single drive at first. Think of it as a holding area. Data is then analyzed and moved off of that to where it needs to be. So as far as you are concerned you are only transfering to one single disk.
    The performance is good enough for me to stream a HD movie off of it. So it's good enough.

    If you are running a RAID array with constant usage for years then it seems WHS is not marketed for you.
  • n0nsense - Friday, September 7, 2007 - link

    it's right, but even at my home with only 2 users, i can see much more load on disk performance.
    restoring something, can be done @ 30MBps or @90.
  • tynopik - Thursday, September 6, 2007 - link

    > the only thing that real threat is 2 or more dead disks simultaneously.

    you're naive

    power outages (either from power company or blown power supply, controller errors, driver errors, there are a ton of things that can mess up RAID5. RAID5 is very fragile in the sense that if you mess up just a bit of it's structure, the entire thing is shot.

    > 0.0004% failure rate

    did you read that article i posted? try closer to 20-30% in the real world (now that doesn't necessarily mean data loss, but problems nonetheless)

    > disadvantages - performance.

    for backup this isn't really an issue
    plus when copying between computers you're going to be limited by your own harddrive

    i need to backup a bunch of laptops (which don't contain raid obviously) daily so WHS is definitely NOT going to be a bottleneck
  • tynopik - Thursday, September 6, 2007 - link

    here's what i pulled from ONE thread">

    "I have had these drives configured as a RAID 1 array ever since I built the computer.

    I built this system 15 months ago, then 10 months ago I experienced a severe RAID failure (i.e. I lost all my data). "

    "I have exactly the same problem on my Asus K8N (NForce3) mobo."

    andy b
    "I also have the identical problem."

    "I'm going through this exact problem right now"

    "I don't think I have very good news for you all. Windows does SEEM to be running ok, but I have a bunch of little quirky problems. When I brought Outlook up for the first time, it said my mailbox was corrupted, so I pulled that from my backup. Word had a problem with the Norton said it's settings were corrupt and reset to the defaults. And who knows about the stuff I haven't seen yet.

    So, I'm reluctantly coming to the conclusion that I need to reformat and re-install. I'm also thinking about pulling an old IDE drive from one of my spare parts computers to use as a backup drive and backing up my full system weekly and my data daily. The sad part is, that's why I bought a MB with RAID 1 capability, so I wouldn't HAVE to do this."

    "it happened to me for the third time this morning"

    "So frustrating to lose my computer for a couple hours every week or so to rebuild my friggin' hard drive (when it doesn't even really need it!!!)"

    "I've had this happen 3 times now with 2 different versions of the drivers."

    "i saw this raid drive split thing once."

    Mile Hy
    "Guess what...Over the week end I got the infamous red message about the Raid degrading."

    "Same problem here, today"

    "The same thing just happened to me"

    "I also got blasted by this mysterious raid degraded bug last week for no apparent reason."

    "have the same issues on my machine with an ASUS K8N"

    "Had same problem flasing red degraded."

    "I am getting the red flashing "degraded" message from NVidia at boot."

    "now i have this problem also....degraded data"

    "Over the past few months I have had 4 instances of nvraid dropping 1 drive"

    "the first test trying to copy data from the raid to the external firewire drive resulted in not 1 but 2 drives dropping out."

    notice that last line, copying data to an external firewire drive caused TWO drives to drop out. If he had had that in RAID5 that would have been disastrous.
  • n0nsense - Friday, September 7, 2007 - link

    funny, but we are arguing about almost everything.
    of course there is a lot of problems and failures.
    the 0.0004% about raid1. 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.
    hardware problems will do the same to your system and its really does not matter what you running inside.
    of course i can give you examples of corporate Data Centers with 0 data loss, but we are talking about home.
    and you can build cost effective system that will do the same.
    let's organize it from worth to best.
    no raid
    soft raid
    raid 1
    raid 1+0 or 0+1.
    about forums. you will not find many happy user of raid there. Simply because they don't need until they have a problem.
    My SATA raid build on build-in controller which is part of Asus P5N32-E SLI, based on Nvidia 680i chipset.
    Indigo (part of HP) with about 1000 press machines monthly out, using integrated intel's matrix storage controllers for raid (1 and 0) (they use standard HP wx4000). This press machines working at full load non stop 24/7/365. Year @ IT department, no problems with raid.
    the big problem is moving raid array to another type of controller (new MoBo for example).here soft raids have big advantage.
    again the main question is "Shall you or shall not pay 180 USD for WHS"
    for not very advanced user i will recommend Debian box with Bacula to manage backups, syncing, share etc.
    You will have fully functional machine where file/backup server can be the only task, or it can be only one of other features like gaming machine, workstation, mail server, ftp server(not fake server ), DNS, DB server (yes, there is a use for it at home. for example media library of Amarok can use it ), media server and media center, web server, and stream server. You will not limited by MS greediness, but by your need and will.
    all of it or even more can run on single box when we talking about home. it was time that i had 7 computers at home for only 2 people, now it's only 2.5 (can't call P II 400MHz 186MB ram laptop computer, but it perfectly extends media and internet to balcony for nice Saturday breakfast with sea view).
    i do like some MS products like Office, but when it come to OS, DB, servers, use real one.

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