Now that Microsoft has announced the availability of the public beta of Windows Home Server Codename Vail, I wanted to share an overview to benefit both those of you that will be installing the Beta as well as those that don’t plan to install the Beta but are curious about what Vail delivers.
Remember that this is a beta product with no announced final release date, so what we are seeing today may not be what the final product looks like. Also remember that if you choose to run the Vail beta, you should only do so on a test system and definitely do not store your production data on it.
At first glance, Vail has a very similar feature set to Windows Home Server v1. The Home Server will back up your client PCs, you can easily add and remove hard drives to expand your storage, you can remotely access your files and computers from outside the home, and you can install Add-Ins to increase the functionality of your Home Server. While the basic features look and even feel similar to it’s predecessor, Vail has been polished, refined and improved in many ways, and delivers a few key new features that should provide a better experience for Windows Home Server users.
If you like the way Windows Home Server currently functions, I think you’ll be mostly pleased with the changes in Vail. However if you were hoping to see significant new features such as Media Center integration or the ability for Windows Home Server to be the only box that is always running on your home network, you’ll likely be disappointed. There are also a few key changes to Windows Home Server Vail that I think may be show-stopping issues for some of you. Please read on for all the details.
As a further reminder that this is a Beta release, Microsoft has an extensive list of Known Issues that I recommend you review before installing Vail.
Supported Client Operating Systems
The following home computer operating systems are supported by Windows Home Server Vail.
The Windows 7 Operating System
- Windows 7 Home Basic (x86 and x64)
- Windows 7 Home Premium (x86 and x64)
- Windows 7 Professional (x86 and x64)
- Windows 7 Ultimate (x86 and x64)
- Windows 7 Enterprise (x86 and x64)
- Windows 7 Starter (x86)
The Windows Vista Operating System
- Windows Vista Home Basic with Service Pack 2 (SP2) (x86 and x64)
- Windows Vista Home Premium with SP2 (x86 and x64)
- Windows Vista Business with SP2 (x86 and x64)
- Windows Vista Ultimate with SP2 (x86 and x64)
- Windows Vista Enterprise with SP2 (x86 and x64)
- Windows Vista Starter with SP2 (x86)
The Windows XP Operating System
- Windows XP Home with Service Pack 3 (SP3)
- Windows XP Professional with SP3
- Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 with SP3
New and Improved Features
There are number of new and improved features in Windows Home Server Vail that I believe will make a large number of you happy. Here’s a summary of some of these changes, I talk about some of them more later in the article, you can read more in the Getting Started guide, and of course explore Vail after you’ve installed it.
First, the client PC backup feature has been made more robust and so we should see less errors and erratic failures that we are used to in Windows Home Server v1. They have also added a computer backup archive feature, so that you can save off the backup of a PC that you wish to retire and not have it count as one of the 10 connected PCs. Vail also borrows a cue from the popularity of my BDBB Add-In and has a “Backup the Backups” feature, just like you can back up the shared folders. This is a welcome change, but means I’ll have to find a new Add-In to work on for Vail.
The shared folder backups can now be scheduled, and also include the ability to back up and restore the entire Vail operating system, which was one of the most requested features.
Drive Extender has been extensively worked on and claims to have increased robustness and control. One of the issues we saw with v1 was that failed or failing hard drives could cause significant issues with Windows Home Server, often leaving the user with no idea of how to repair their server. Here are the listed changes from the Getting Started guide, I believe they are important enough to call out specifically here.
- Allows you to remove the system drive from the storage pool to help increase the speed of the OS
- Automatically detects and corrects many silent hard drive data errors
- Allows you to remove a drive without server down time
- Offers improved drive health monitoring and alerting
- Makes data for duplicated folders available when a drive is missing without requiring you to remove the missing drive first
- Supports 60GB hard drives or larger, and up to 10 drives can be a part of the server storage pool
I imagine that last bullet point has several of you with your jaws hanging open. This is the first I’ve heard of a 10 drive limit in Vail, and if it is true I believe this is a bad idea and will be feeding that back to Microsoft.
One other concern point I have is that while drives can be viewed and added to other Vail servers, due to the technical changes in Drive Extender there is currently no way to access your data on your server hard drives should you need to. The drives are no longer formatted with NTFS and so your data is “hidden” behind the abstraction of Drive Extender. I’m hopeful that Microsoft will be able to create a utility or driver that provides access to your files for when you need access without building a new server.
Another positive Drive Extender feature is that Previous Versions can be enabled in Vail, which is a nice improvement over v1. This allows you to keep historical versions of changed files on the server, in case of accidental or unintended changes. You will need to manually turn this feature on to use it, however, as it is disabled out of the box.
Finally, DLNA Streaming and “PlayTo” are now supported by Windows Home Server Vail which delivers an improved media streaming experience to the Xbox 360 and other media streaming devices in the home. Vail also provides HomeGroup support which is included in Windows 7 and simplifies the process of sharing files and printers on a home network.
Now we’ll take a look at what the new user interface looks like, and examine the Remote Access and streaming features of Windows Home Server Vail.
Client Installation and Setup
We have full guides on how to either manually or automatically install Vail onto your MediaSmart Server as well as your own server so be sure to check those articles to see what the installation process looks like.
After the installation completes you are ready to join your client PCs to your Vail server. This process is now completely web based instead of requiring a Client Install CD, which means you perform the installation and configuration simply by pointing your browser to http://servername/connect. This will download a small file to run on your computer that joins your PC with your Vail server.
In my case, I still had the Connector software from my Windows Home Server v1 installed on my client PC, which Vail detected and required me to uninstall. After uninstalling v1 I restarted the client install and proceeded through the steps.
Having the ability the add a description for your PC is a nice touch for identifying each PC that you join with your Home Server. As you can see I’ve stressed the importance of this particular PC.
The rest of the installation should be familiar to current Windows Home Server users. You can choose to wake the computer for backups, participate in the Microsoft feedback program, and then the actual join with the Home Server occurs.
At the end you are left with three shortcuts on your desktop and a system tray application giving you access to the Launchpad, Dashboard, and server notifications.
In addition to the system tray icon and Shared Folders desktop shortcut that was included in v1, Vail now includes a client Launchpad application. The Launchpad gives you access to the Home Server features running on the client PC, such as the ability to see Recent Backup status, Backup Now, and the Server Health Notifications. An interesting new item is the “Remote Access” item that launches a browser to your servers Remote Access URL, and will be handy running on your laptop when away from home.
Add-In developers are also able to add their own items to the Launchpad to extend the functionality of Windows Home Server.
The Server Console has been renamed in Vail to the Server Dashboard but should be familiar in layout to users of Windows Home Server v1. The Home tab has basic instructional information.
The Users tab allows you to add, edit, and view the users configured with your Vail server. The Add User feature allows for a little more fine-grained control of user permissions.
The Computers and Backup tab gives you access to the joined client PCs as well as the exciting new Server Backup features that allow you to backup up the Operating System of the server to protect against system drive failure, schedule automated server backups, and even backup the Client PC Backups (I guess they took a hint from the popularity of my WHS BDBB Add-In ). In the below screenshots I’ve attached a 1.5TB USB drive and designated it as a Server Backup drive, and am now configuring the server to back itself up.
The Storage tab allows you to add and remove drives as either Storage or Backup, as well as configure the shared folders. One noteworthy item is that the individual Users shares are no longer created by default. If these were valuable to you then you’ll have to manually create them yourself. In the first two shots you can see that Duplication is unavailable because I only have a single drive in the server.
A nice feature is the ability to name or add a label to your drive when you install it. You’ll likely want to use a more descriptive name than I did.
Another nice feature is that Vail now automatically enables duplication on your shared folders after additional drives are added.
The Add-Ins tab will give you access to any installed Add-Ins. We’ll see how long it takes for the community add-ins to begin showing up.
The Settings tab is simplified and my understanding is that Add-In developers will no longer be able to add their own settings tab. One area I’d like to see improved is the configuration for Media Streaming. Currently in Vail, streaming provides access to all media types in each share. This means that my music album art appears in the Photos stream, which is incredibly annoying. I mention this more in the Remote Access section later.
The Remote Access configuration has been improved so that you can choose to manually configure your Remote Access. This is useful if your router doesn’t support UPnP, or if you prefer to manually forward ports. You can also add your own custom images and links to the Remote Access pages.
Finally, the Alerts tab allows you to view the health status of your home server.
Remote Access Features
The Remote Access features have been significantly updated in Vail, and Microsoft has now built-in many of the features that differentiated the HP MediaSmart Server from other Home Server offerings. Your Media is now completely accessible from anywhere on the internet, thanks to the new Remote Media Streaming features.
The initial login is familiar with Windows Home Server v1, and provides access to the Server Console as well as Remote Desktop sessions to any PC that supports RDP and has it enabled. Unfortunately the ActiveX control that provides RDP access was out of date and required me to download a new version (and then reboot my PC) before I could utilize this feature. There is also access to upload and download files from the shared folders.
The music streaming is one of my favorite features, as I like to listen to music on my headphones while at work. The interface is very attractive, and usable even with relatively large libraries. I have over 7,000 tracks in more than 500 albums, and the browser was able to load the album art fairly quickly. Music streams started within a couple of seconds and there is little to no delay between track changes.
The user interface is very similar to the Windows 7 Media Center experience, with scrolling album covers in the background.
The Music Streaming experience is more attractive than the current offering from HP, however the “beta” state of Vail has shown itself and I am experiencing issues with playback where tracks randomly stop playing and skip to the next. I’ve not yet determined if specific files cause this or if it is a more common issue.
Video streaming is also included and features on-the-fly transcoding of files on the server. This means that when you start to stream a video over the web interface, your server will automatically convert it to a resolution and format that streams well. This does require some decent horsepower from your server’s CPU so if you plan on using this feature you may want to take that into consideration when deciding what hardware to use.
Streaming videos from my home has never been very important to me, I just don’t seem to have the interest or need to watch the videos stored on my home server while away from home. I did perform some testing, and unfortunately this feature also has some issues. My Recorded TV shows wouldn’t play (apparently unsupported file formats but they appear in the Remote Media display) and more importantly my home video 720p AVCHD files in MP4 container from my digital video camera wouldn’t play their normal widescreen aspect ratio and are instead squished which ruins the experience of watching the video. Interestingly enough the thumbnail image that is generated shows the correct widescreen aspect ratio. I also found that my test .mts files, which are another common digital video camera format, weren’t able to be played by the streamer even though the Getting Started guide claims to support them. The mkv files that are so popular for storing ripped movies are also not supported. Of course WMV files all worked great, including a sample 1080p version of Terminator 2 that have for testing.
In all cases the playback began quickly and the transcoding seems to work well. I did experience many lockups of Internet Explorer during my testing, while Chrome and Firefox seemed more robust.
One of the biggest frustrations for me is that all my media is mixed up (combined) when displayed by the Vail media streamer, meaning that my Album Art from my Music share is showing up in the Pictures stream. I find this to be quite annoying and it makes the Photo streaming feature pretty much useless. I’ll be advocating very strongly for more configuration options for media management in the shipping version of Vail.
The photo slideshow feature is pretty much what you’d expect and worked fine in my light testing. I’m not sure how useful this will be given that a Remote Access user account is required to access the photos.
There is a lot of excitement about what Windows Home Server Vail will deliver as a second generation operating system. Even though Windows Home Server v1 had it’s warts and issues, it is a popular product that serves us very well at protecting our data and making it accessible wherever we are. Vail improves on these features in many ways, however I have some significant concerns that I’m hoping our feedback as beta testers will convince Microsoft to make some changes.
Here is what I want to see changed in Vail as it exists today:
- Don’t restrict us to 10 hard drives. There’s no good reason to do this, especially on a “Premium” labeled SKU and when v1 supported 32 drives.
- Make Vail storage disks readable on non-Vail computers, just like they are in v1. This has been a much needed feature in the current version, people’s systems do fail and they need to feel confident that their data is safe
- Make the Media Streaming more configurable, I really hate having my album art mixed in with my photos.
- Keep improving the Remote Streaming experience. It’s fairly buggy right now, and I’d like to see improved media support for Recorded TV and other video containers such as the extremely popular MKV. There is also the need for real widescreen aspect ratio support as currently that doesn’t seem to work well for many files.
Finally, be sure to submit bugs on Connect, and make sure Microsoft hears what you think of Vail and how it is working for you. Post in the comments or the forums to share what you think about the new and changed features in Vail, as well as your experience when you run the Beta.