Windows Home Server - Worth It?

Microsoft will launch Windows Home Server this fall. A cut-down (a.k.a. simplified) version of Windows Server 2003, Microsoft targets Home Server towards home users networking multiple PCs. Orginally expected to be a turnkey "appliance"-like solution, it seems likely now that the software will be sold at retail as well, for end users to load on older or otherwise unused PCs, or even for system builders like ITS to load on new PC hardware. There are, however, some limitations.

Windows Home Server will offer some nifty features such as Drive Extender, which is essentially a software-based RAID implementation that mirrors files or folders. Microsoft promises users will be able to access files on their Home Server device remotely, via a special domain name and service Microsoft will provide. Some Home Server devices will include a "reset" button and/or built in 512 MB flash drive that can be used to restore the server to its "out of the box" state.

Microsoft also has a list of technologies not supported in Home Server. For example, wireless will not be directly supported, requiring users to at minimum run a patch cable to a wireless device, access point, or router, in order to share files over a wireless connection. Home Server cannot function as a gateway to the Internet, due to the reasonable assumption that home users with multiple PCs already have an inexpensive router that provides that function. To keep things simple, Home Server is not designed to use a monitor or keyboard. Instead, users will use a web browser to access and manage Home Server from another PC. Home Server also will not feature flexible power management controls. Microsoft also says Home Server cannot be used to upgrade an existing hard drive that has data on it, as that data would be deleted.

Our take is that consumers can generally use an existing PC to share files, and save several hundred dollars. If an easy-to-use appliance is desired, there are already many Network Attached Storage (NAS) devices that consist of little more than multiple hard drives and a network port. These devices are easy to set up and reliable.

The one wildcard is that Microsoft is promoting the design of "plug ins" to run on Windows Home Server that would allow hardware vendors or software publishers to add features to Home Server, such as media center features and online backup capability. Until some useful features are added, Windows Home Server is little more than an NAS device with a software license cost.

August 2007

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