WHS: Uh Oh, Microsoft Wants to “Improve” Windows Home Server

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There’s a big dust-up about a mammoth breaking change that is coming in the successor to Windows Home Server 1.0.

This week, the Microsoft team announced that the Drive Extender technology was being removed from the planned Windows Home Server 2.0, codenamed “Vail.”

The announcement on the Windows Home Server Blog was updated yesterday, 2010-11-23.  I think this is going to go down as the Microsoft Turkey Day event thanks to the proximity to the US Thanksgiving holiday, right up there with the famous Halloween memos.

This appears to be a problem of serving too many masters by a one-size-fits-all search whose solution serves no one, or at least not those of us who bought WHS because it was WHS, and not something else.

Here’s the key declaration:

“When we first started designing Windows Home Sever code name “Vail” one of our initial focuses was to continue to provide effortless support for multiple internal and external hard drives. Drive Extender provided the ability to take the small hard drives many small businesses and households may have acquired, and pool them together in a simple volume. During our current testing period for our Windows Home Server code name “Vail” product, we have received feedback from partners and customers about how they use storage today and how they plan to use it moving forward. Today large hard drives of over 1TB are reasonably priced, and freely available. We are also seeing further expansion of hard drive sizes at a fast rate, where 2Tb drives and more are becoming easy accessible to small businesses.  Since customers looking to buy Windows Home Server solutons [sic] from OEM's will now have the ability to include larger drives, this will reduce the need for Drive Extender functionality.”

There’s a serious non sequitur here about the size of drives being tied to the need for Drive Extender functionality.  If this is the actual reasoning, it reveals the degree to which the team is immersed in their own Microsoft-inward-checking reality.  It is also apparently the case that the implementation of Drive Extender had been changed dramatically and that is leading to difficulties that have been frustrating testers, based on the comments on the Microsoft Connect site where a beta-test issue is being raised in objection to the elimination of Drive Extender from successors to WHS 1.  [Is it really necessary for every maturing software company to be morphed into IBM as some sort of technological-hubris curse?  It is easy to suspect, in the absence of better transparency, that what may have happened is that changes being made to Drive Extender in moving WHS onto a Windows Server 2008 base have been FUBARed and this is how the team is extricating itself.]

The non sequitur is important to understand.  The ability to pool several drives into a single volume is not just about being able to scavenge drives from an obsolete computer.  In fact, the capacity of lower-cost, power-efficient drives increases so fast that it is almost always affordable to add larger new drives to a WHS to expand its capacity.  The specific appeal of WHS is that this can be done by hot-swapping.  Because of folder duplication on the file-server (i.e., the Drive Extender) part of WHS storage, there will be no loss of data, assuming it is not the system drive that needs to be pulled out.  A new drive added under Drive Extender management will be automatically included in the distribution of duplicated content, with the Drive Extender pool appearing to be a single volume (found as \\WHS: on my configuration, for brevity of path name) with the configuration and use of the actual drives in the pool completely invisible.   This is superb for consumer-level usability.

Whatever the complexities of getting this right as a technical and technology problem, this is unbelievably sweet for home and SOHO users such as myself who have far more interesting things to do rather than become a qualified IT system administrator and user support.

It is amazing how the need for Drive Extender is being dismissed in the Microsoft Home Server Blog post.  Notice that none of the important functionality of Drive Extender and the convenience for home and SOHO users is acknowledged.  It is all about drive size.

At first, because it wasn’t being emphasized, I thought that the announcement was about something different than the way duplication is managed and kept self-healing with hot swapping of failed or old drives for bigger new ones.  That led to my comment among the hundreds now on the Microsoft Connect site.   Those don’t have permalinks, so here is my text:

Posted by orcmid on 11/23/2010 at 8:11 PM

Although I voted up the request, I have mixed feelings about this.

I suspect that RAID would ensure that the WHS itself is backed up, and so would the backups be.
At the same time, it is seriously cool that the duplicated storage (essentially the file-server part, not the backup part) can be grown, hot-swapped, etc.

The [concern] that I have is that the upgrade from a WHS1 to a WHS2 is now more costly in terms of not being able to reuse drives from WHS1 to WHS2. Since I just ordered a 1.5TB SATA drive (since they are so cheap) as my 4th drive, this has me sad.

I'm also not sure about the [exterrnal] drives that I have that are used and formatted for backing up of my folder storage, rotated off-site periodically, etc.

So, if the upgrade is going to be essentially a throw one out and put a different one in, what am I getting for this that I couldn't get from a 3rd party NAS/file server with backup software on the clients? I don't use the remote access capability or the media stuff. I have the WHS 1 for providing a sustained backup regimen and a replicated, recoverable file system. This is a home server in a SOHO and household setting.

What I would rather see is a WHS 2 that has the backing up of backups and of the WHS 2 itself handled in some smooth way, such as having a boot image on an alternative drive that could be swapped in were the system volume to fail, along with ways to back up and recover the system volume, for that matter.

Maybe that's too much added complexity and simply going to RAID is the answer. In that case, I will be holding onto my WHS1 for a very long time.

As I read more of the comments, it became clear that the entire Drive Extender technology is what provides for the automatic duplication of files in the extended volume and the automatic healing when a drive must be removed and replaced because of failures or the need for more capacity.

But here’s how the abandonment of this feature is adjudicated in the next paragraph of the Windows Home Server Blog post:

“When weighing up the future direction of storage in the consumer and SMB market, the team felt the Drive Extender technology was not meeting our customer needs.”

Considering that there is a “single consumer and SMB market” is a serious problem.  I am also not clear who Microsoft thinks is their customer in this matter.

  Perhaps WHS is a flop as a consumer product and WHS is being retreated up to the SMB (Small-Medium Business) level.  Even thinking of SMB as a single market is a stretch, unless Microsoft expects their OEM and services partners to rescue this product with provision of integration and services for those SMBs who find that affordable.

ZDNet columnist Mary Jo Foley has an useful recap of the situation in her 2010-11-23 All About Microsoft post, “Testers riled by Microsoft decision to pull Drive Extender storage from ‘Vail,’ ‘Aurora’ servers.”

This is my current plan, as announced on the Workaround tab of the Microsoft Connect issue on the removal of Drive Extender:

Posted by orcmid on 11/24/2010 at 12:28 PM

Yes, it looks like the thing to do is:

  1. At some point when they become very inexpensive, obtain a second WHS 1 server (with minimal investment in included drives) that can be used as a standby for when my main WHS finally fails.
  2. Come up with workarounds for backing up the WHS itself (that is, the System drive) and the backup sets which are currently not backed up.
  3. Find a better way to backup the Drive Extended volume content that don't tie up the WHS for so long, making those folders inaccessible (or making the backup fail because of files locked for writing). I use my Drive Extender volume as primary file storage for many files that I don't want kept on any one of my desktop systems for capacity as well as sharing (and desktop failure mitigation) reasons.
  4. For functions that don't work well on the Drive Extended volume, such as streaming, development web server, etc., look at how easy or hard it is to also have non-Drive Extended volumes for special purposes on different drives.
  5. Be prepared for the day when some version of Windows comes along for which there is no WHS 1 Connector support.

I am (belatedly) expanding my use of my HP MediaSmart Server as part of retiring my currently-dedicated web-development laptop, Compagno, and staging around other obsolescence of tools and machines.  I am counting on WHS as I refine my blog and web development and deployment technology. 

The lack of a future for that WHS is going to have me revisit my contingency planning for that migration and anticipate potential obsolescence of the WHS.

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This page contains a single entry by Dennis E. Hamilton published on November 24, 2010 1:41 PM.

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