Windows Home Server has a small but fanatical fan base. Instead of playing to that fan base, Microsoft has been acting like WHS is not even a player on its team
The closest Microsoft ever came to making a product that developed its own fanatical user base — the kind Apple seems to produce every other day — was in 2007, when it released Windows Home Server.
Based on the industrial-strength Windows Server 2003, WHS filled a need among individual and small-office users with large number of files that needed to be kept organized and backed up on their home networks. WHS did all that, and added access to their home network over the Internet. Microsoft even created a software development kit, which helped savvy outsiders to make “plug-in” programs that added new features to the server.
The best part of WHS was called Drive Extender (DE), which allowed users to add more storage space by simply installing new drives of any size or type and clicking an option to include them in the storage pool. Drive Extender made them all appear as one enormous storage system.
Hewlett Packard's MediaSmart Server turned out to be the only Original Equipment manufacturer to jump on the Windows Home Server bandwagon. It was also the first to jump off Windows Home Server 2011.
Critics loved it (I among them), and WHS was embraced by a sizable — though not enormous —user community that verged on fanaticism and spawned a number of carefully maintained websites (among them HomeServerLand, We Got Served, a Facebook page and a page at Deciphered.net.)
Any normal software maker would give his eye teeth for the chance to encourage a fan base like this to evangelize the product.
But we’re dealing with Microsoft here, unaccustomed as it is to product loyalty.
So when the inevitable bugs showed up (this was, after all, version 1.0), Microsoft started to bobble the ball. A nasty bug that destroyed some users’ data was discovered in March, 2008, but it wasn’t until July of that year that some kind of fix was released.
WHS fans were perplexed and hurt, and until the problem was fixed, all they could do was issue warnings about it.
Microsoft calmed fans somewhat by announcing it was busy making WHS 2011, which would be built on a base taken from the commercial Windows Server 2008, and be a 64-bit version (the original WHS was a 32-bit system). Moreover, Microsoft said it was completely redesigning the Drive Extender code base.
Then Microsoft started to fumble the ball.
When Microsoft removed Drive Extender from Windows Home Server 2011, did it become a hot technology or one going down in flames?
In November, 2010, only a few months before WHS 2011 was due for release, Microsoft abruptly announced it was dropping Drive Extender from WHS, as well as from Small Business Server 2011 Essentials and Windows Storage Server 2008 Essentials, where it had also been installed. When a devastated WHS community pleaded for answers, Microsoft delivered a number of vague and hasty excuses, mostly on its Windows Home Server Blog, saying its market research showed that “Drive Extender technology was not meeting our customer needs,” and that DE was no longer necessary because disk drives were becoming massive and prices were falling. A later blog reported that “customers looking to buy Windows Home Server solutons [sic] … will now have the ability to include larger drives, [and] this will reduce the need for Drive Extender functionality.”
It might be fashionable to dismiss the “tyranny” of grammar and spelling, but the lack of proofreading and the typo “solutons” served only to emphasize the hastiness with which Microsoft was conjuring its reasons. So why trust it?
I tried my hand at finding out too. I asked Jonas Svensson, of the WHS team in Redmond, why DE was dropped, and he breezily dismissed my question by saying that “it was a compatibility issue.”
But incompatible with what? He wouldn’t say. My own theory is that if it’s a compatibility issue, Drive Extender might be facing a future elsewhere, perhaps as a feature in Windows 8.
That’s just a guess. I just know that when a company does something unpopular and employees issue a large number of reasons, none of them compelling, then conspiracy theorists bloom. And the first thing the theorists came up with was that Microsoft was going to kill the product. Well, perhaps “kill” is too strong a word — it might be more accurate to say Microsoft has lost interest in the project. And that amounts to the same thing.
Not finished fumbling, Microsoft then tried to throw the ball away.
WHS had been conceived as a product that would be available only by buying a server made by an original equipment manufacturer (OEM). Microsoft had only one major partner in this area: Hewlett Packard. HP produced the HP MediaSmart Server, a “headless” box (no monitor, keyboard or mouse) that was accessible only though a software console installed on all the networked computers.
And when Microsoft dropped Drive Extender in November, 2010, HP stomped out of its deal with Microsoft and instantly dissolved its MediaSmart Server division. HP issued no reason for its action.
At least HP has a global distribution network. Other manufacturers of WHS server hardware, such as Acer, aren’t as committed. As in Canada, they largely maintain only distribution centres in countries outside of the United States, and haven’t pushed the product much there.
So even with Windows Home server 2011 freshly released, you’ll have a hard time finding it in any form, hardware or software, in Canada. It’s not at Newegg Canada, Future Shop, Best Buy, PCCanada.com, Staples or Tiger Direct. CDW has it, but only the software. You have to supply the hardware and install it yourself. That basically kills the product.
Microsoft now seems to be running without a ball at all.
The company still insists that “Windows Home Server is part of a long-term vision by Microsoft to create a new platform for the home” (my italics) on its Microsoft Connect page (“Your feedback improving Microsoft products”).
In early July, scant weeks after its launch, Microsoft suddenly cut the price of WHS 2011; the U.S. division of Newegg.com is selling the software for $57.99 U.S. (CDW is asking $56.99 Cdn.). The price cut, which also came without explanation and too soon in the product’s life cycle for discounting, spurred intense speculation online about Microsoft’s pricing strategy — another hint that Microsoft is planning to deep-six WHS.
Why? Even without the Drive Extender, WHS 2011 is a superior product.
It comes with the usual features of the original server — such as daily home-computer backups, computer health monitoring, the ability to restore your computer after a crash or restore individual files or folders, acting as a print server, and is pre-configured with shared folders: Pictures, Music, Videos, Documents, Recorded TV and Users.
With WHS 2011 Microsoft added a number of welcome improvements. Remote Access is now based on Silverlight (similar to Adobe’s Flash), and allows remote streaming of your media through the Internet without having to download it first. It supports more codecs, which are the drivers that allow you to play different kinds of files. It allows you to customize your server’s online website, and makes a plug-in that gives you server access via your Windows Phone. And a “Move the Folder” wizard allows you to move your data from one server hard drive to another should a drive become full.
It even allows users to back up its shared folders to external drives, which can then be stored offsite should your home network succumb to Armageddon or some villain steals it. Want more storage? Add a hard drive to your server, and use the wizard that adds drives to the storage system in the Dashboard (which is what WHS is calling the old Console that was installed on your working computer).
And it includes compliance with the Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA), which ensures the server can play files on other DLNA-compatible devices, such as your TV, stereo or Xbox 360, all of which can automatically find your home server from within your network and then stream videos, music and pictures on demand from it.
A number of critics have wondered why we need Windows Home Server in the first place. After all, we can back up files to another computer, and our home networks are now good enough to use any old computer as a storage system. Moreover, Microsoft has seriously jumped on the cloud bandwagon, meaning we should use a cloud-based storage system instead.
But that way, we wouldn’t be able to monitor the health of our computers, we wouldn’t have an online website to control our home server — as well as the computers on the network — remotely, and you can’t back up and restore entire computers if your computer is acting simply as a network attached storage box.
The fan base has been shaken, so much that earlier this month (August, 2011), We Got Served started to talk about the server capabilities of Apple OS X Lion. Generally, though, the fans still love the Microsoft product, and at least two software manufacturers have been beavering away making plug-in Drive Extender clones aimed at WHS 2011. And judging by the chatter on their fan sites, they’re willing to either work around the problem or get one of those Drive Extender emulators.
It seems a shame that fans as loyal and dedicated as the WHS community would be cold-shouldered by Microsoft, when the software behemoth could have just as easily turned it into an asset.
Microsoft Windows Home Server 2011 Unleashed
By Paul McFedries
SAMS, 690 pages, $49.99 (U.S.), $59.99 (Cdn.)
A big drawback to Microsoft’s strategy of giving Windows Home Server to get original equipment manufacturers to make boxes for it is that the OEMs are saddled with the responsibility of issuing a manual. And the OEMs don’t really want to create a manual, which is an expensive thing to do.
When I got HP’s MediaSmart Server for WHS 1.0, the manual was little more than a quick setup guide. Of course, you could hunt for help online help, but the online version was thin and short on the complications you might encounter.
This was emphasized by the fact that when an OEM issued a WHS server, it was allowed to brand the software with its own logo, and to stuff other utilities into it, which usually came out as useless programs, what geeks call bloatware.
That’s where Paul McFedries enters the picture. A Toronto technical writer who has produced more than 70 computer books (and has enjoyed sales of more than 4 million copies), is the author of Microsoft Windows Home Server Unleashed, which is a guide beyond the imaginings (and ambitions) of Microsoft or any of its hardware partners.
The book starts off explaining everything from configuring the server to describing how the server handles a network. It covers topics such as maintenance and advanced tools.
It is properly illustrated with screen-capture images showing you how the process should look like, and sprinkled throughout the text are little bits of advice under headings such as Note, Tip and Caution. This is hand-holding, but it is welcome because it is in fact quite helpful and not condescending. Chapters end with a notation From Here, which offer logical destinations after the subject matter of that chapter, which do not always follow logically in the way the book is organized.
The book is meant for all users — beginners, intermediate and advanced — thanks to McFedries’ delicate hand in writing. He is a logophiliac — a lover of words. He collects and maintains a mailing list dedicated to new words or phrases he finds called Wordspy: The Word Lover’s Guide to New Words, which is also the title of a book that has collected his discoveries.
The combination of technical writer and lover of words makes for a writer who can deliver a manual in words that are precise, clear and entertaining. Microsoft Windows Home Server Unleashed is lucid and easy to read.
This book is not recommended reading for WHS users. It’s mandatory.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com