The following is an article that I have been hoping I would not have to write, but the topic has been on my mind for several months now as I’ve watched the progression of events with Windows Home Server Vail and the Microsoft (Home and) Small Business Server team that develops it. I have been involved with Windows Home Server since June of 2006 when I was hired by HP to be the Integration and Test Engineer for development of the MediaSmart Server, and I’ve carried on my enthusiasm for this product through this site. Needless to say it is saddening and frustrating to have invested so much time and energy into a something that has such obvious value and to then watch it slowly be dismantled into a nearly useless shell of its former being.
With the just announced removal of Drive Extender from Windows Home Server, Microsoft has toppled at least one (arguably two) of the four critical foundation points of Windows Home Server – Protect, Connect, Organize, and Grow has become Connect, Organize, and partially protect. The client backup feature offers protection for the PCs in the home, but there is no longer any built-in mechanism to protect the data that Microsoft advises you to Organize on the server.
With the removal of Drive Extender, it is now upon the OEMs and system builders such as HP, Acer, and others to implement the storage expansion and data protection mechanism. Quality hardware RAID solutions are expensive, though I expect some manufacturers will come up with a nice configuration interface on top of a RAID solution, which will work fine especially for those of us that are more technically inclined. But I also expect that this recent development will add a significant additional technological hurdle for these companies, requiring more R&D investment which very likely means increased costs and schedule delays to a product that is already behind the schedule that many of us anticipated. And some manufacturers may choose not to make the additional investment required and abandon the Windows Home Server platform.
This latest blow has me thinking about what we’ve been seeing for the past few months from Microsoft. In recent weeks we’ve gotten announcements of new Small Business Server products that came from the Home Server, including pricing and rough availability estimates. These products go by the overflowing mouthful names of Windows Small Business Server 2011 Essentials aka Aurora and Windows Storage Server 2008 R2 Essentials aka Breckenridge. Yet Microsoft is strangely silent with any details about the availability or even the name of the next version of Windows Home Server aka Vail. Why would details on the close relatives of Windows Home Server be made available yet no word on Windows Home Server itself? The only positive indicator to this point is the last sentence of the Drive Extender removal blog post.
Target product availability is still H1 2011, and we expect to deliver a new beta without drive extender for Windows Home Server Code Name “Vail” and Small Business Server 2011 Essentials early in the New Year.
The remaining value proposition of Windows Home Server Vail lies in the client PC backup software, and the remote media streaming feature. The PC backup software works great, and to me that alone is worth the price of a license of Windows Home Server in my home. But the remote media streaming feature has too many limitations, unsupported formats, and bugs to make it a useful feature for many users. This leaves me with effectively zero motivation to upgrade from Windows Home Server v1 to Vail and means that after my trusty MediaSmart Server eventually bites the dust, I’ll likely run a home-built Windows Home Server (perhaps v1, perhaps Vail/Aurora/Breckenridge) strictly for the client backups, but will trust my data to a Linux based server utilizing some form of RAID.
These factors all combined have me questioning the viability of Windows Home Server v2 as a standalone product. The direction Microsoft has chosen is gearing the product towards the Small Business Server users of Aurora and Breckenridge and firmly leaving the home consumer behind. Making the critical data backup and protection features available in an easy way to unskilled consumers is no longer an objective of the Home and Small Business Server team.
What do you think, is this the natural evolution of a product that was arguably somewhat ahead of its time, or do you think Microsoft is slowly but inexorably abandoning the Home Server market?