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Whatever Happened to Windows Home Server?

A couple of Thursdays ago, I took aim at a handful of risky, uncertain or unproved technologies that I thought unworthy of your money. Another item could have made that list, if only I'd seen it get any attention this year: Windows Home Server.

This is a bundle of Microsoft software made for computers you hook up to your home network and then park in a closet or some other out-of-the-way location. Once configured via another Windows computer, a WHS machine collects your music, pictures, video and other files to share them with devices in your home (and, through a Web interface, any other Internet-connected computer) while also backing up your data.

This software debuted in late 2007; its most public support came from Hewlett-Packard, which introduced a line of MediaSmart servers made specifically for this version of Windows. They start at $550, before rebate, for a 500-GB model. Microsoft, for its part, gave Windows Home Server a big push at the January 2008 Consumer Electronics Show -- including a series of cringe-inducing "Stay-At-Home Servers" posters CES attendees could study while waiting in the show's endless bus and taxi lines.

But those marketing efforts, plus a series of tweaks and bug fixes (as documented on Microsoft's blog), don't seem to have gotten WHS much traction in the mass market. As far as I can tell, it's remained invisible to most consumers -- my only recent sighting of a WHS computer was a lone HP MediaSmart, seen collecting dust towards the back end of a nearby Circuit City a few weeks ago.

Only one reader has expressed any curiosity about WHS in e-mail to me. One other has mentioned buying WHS -- though he did have good things to say about it:

It is one of the few Microsoft products that works exactly as advertised. I bought the software (about $160). Installed it on an old PC. Installed a small piece of software on five PC's in my house. Closed my eyes and magically everything gets backed up daily.

Microsoft and HP spokespeople did not provide any sales figures, or even the usual, vague "we're pleased with this product's reception" comments. But a Nov. 3 story at the computing-business news site ChannelWeb suggests things can't be going that well -- Microsoft recently cut this software's price by a third.

The resellers quoted in the piece don't sound too positive about its prospects among home users, either:

Todd Swank, vice president of marketing at Nor-Tech, a Burnsville, Minn.-based system builder, was surprised by the move, given Microsoft's history of sticking to its guns when it comes to price.

Home Server continues to generate market interest, but the complexity involved in setting up the software has this far limited its appeal to tech-savvy users, according to Swank. "Everyone who uses Home Server loves it, but it just intimidates the hell out of home users," he said.

Have you bought a Windows Home Server device? Have you thought about getting one? Had you seen any mention of one before reading this post?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  December 2, 2008; 12:45 PM ET
Categories:  Windows  
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Comments

I am currently trying a trial version of the software. I also installed on an old computer, hooked it up to wireless LAN (even though that's not officially supported). It works like charm. But every once in a while, the server hangs and I lose network connectivity to it. Unfortunately, I have been too lazy to hook it up to a monitor and keyboard so I don't know if the entire OS crashed or just the network connectivity. Apart from that, it's a cheap backup/print server for home use.

Posted by: tundey | December 2, 2008 2:00 PM | Report abuse

Rob, just curious - have you ever tried using a Windows Home Server? You mention the product is unworthy of our money, but have you used it to restore the PC with all your photos and tax documents and applications after an irrecoverable hard disk crash, to its original glory just before the crash? I mean all those photos of your kids, the important documents and Excel spreadsheets that you spent months putting together? I did, and I beg to differ on your article. Home Server might not be a huge blockbuster success like say an iPod or Wii, but calling it unworthy is pure ignorance in my opinion. Thank you!

Posted by: Buzzz | December 2, 2008 3:35 PM | Report abuse

Hmm, it doesn't seem to solve a big problem. Sharing printers and hard drive space over a network doesn't seem revolutionary, although it might smooth out the process.

Posted by: JkR- | December 2, 2008 3:52 PM | Report abuse

I Beta tested WHS for Microsoft almost 2 years ago and have used it every since. It is genuinely "Set It and Forget It". With TB HDDs at $100+ and RAM at an all time low, It's a perfect fit with an abandoned "older" PC. Some problems with Vista clients, especially Vista x64, seem to have been resolved. For me it's cheap insurance for my family's 4 or 5 computers!

Posted by: chrissidener | December 2, 2008 4:18 PM | Report abuse

A friend used it and initially had a bunch of problems with it, including corrupting all of the media that it was supposed to back-up and protect. Fortunately, he had backups of his media or the Windows Server experience would have been an unmitigated disaster. I spoke to him about it recently and apparently there have been some patches and updates to it and now it works pretty well and he's fairly happy with it.

From an environmental standpoint I am not sure it makes much sense to run an old computer 24/7 365 days a year just to backup your data, periodically serve you an MP3 or occasionally print a document.

If you have a lot of computers in your house, and you have a huge media library that can't comfortably reside on each computer (1 TB+?), and you use mainly notebooks rather than desktops where local backup can be easily accomplished more cheaply with a USB drive and some software, and your printer isn't already networked, then I guess this might be something to look at. But that is an awful lot of "and" there to get to a position where something like this makes sense.

Also, isn't a good NAS with RAID redundancy probably a better, cheaper option for most people who have some or all of these issues?

Posted by: teamw23 | December 2, 2008 5:01 PM | Report abuse

I'd never heard of it until I read this column. Sounds like a nice option for what to do w/ an old pc. But I'm not going to pay $160 for the software b/c I can't tell that it really does that much more than a properly set up home network does. Well, maybe it's easier to use than windows networking function, which is awful.

I'm not surprised the HP thing is a bomb. The only people that would buy it instead of using an old pc are people that don't know they can basically do it all themselves. And those people aren't the type to know about or want something like this.

Posted by: Booyah5000 | December 2, 2008 5:52 PM | Report abuse

I signed up as a Beta tester a couple of years ago but, when the software arrived, the documentation said only Windows XP and Vista were supported (as I recall). At the time I had only one XP machine, which wouldn't create much of a network, and wanted to also connect my Windows 2000 and Windows 98 PCs, so the Beta software still sits on the shelf. Now I have Vista on a desktop and a laptop, as well as the XP, W2K, and Windows 98 (for some really old apps) machines, and might try the production version.

Can anyone provide information on if and how well W2K and Win98 PCs are supported by WHS?

Posted by: daled43663 | December 2, 2008 6:59 PM | Report abuse

There is a great open source home server solution from www.amahi.org. Not only does it do backups and file sharing, but it works cross platform (with Windows, Mac and Linux machines) and provides a VPN for secure access to your home network from anywhere.

It also has a media server, shared calendar, and it is an expandable platform!

I suggest you (and your readers) take a look www.amahi.org

Posted by: fredsource | December 2, 2008 9:32 PM | Report abuse

I've tried the NAS solution with not much luck. Lots of problems and no backup most of the time.

WHS is wonderful and trouble free. It creates an IMAGE of each drive so they can be restored including the OS. Data is backed up either as a drive or a folder.

Finally M$ has eliminated concerns about drives. Just add a disk & WHS absorbs it. NO more drive letters running out of space.

It is one of the few M$ products that is truely worthwhile. NewEgg.com has it on sale for only $99.

I only hope M$ leaves it alone as it is nearly perfect.

Posted by: OldSoftware | December 2, 2008 10:26 PM | Report abuse

I looked into setting up a RAID NAS, installing WHS on an old PC, and buying an HP MediaSmart PC. I went with the HP for the ease - and it's nice and small but expandable enough for me. I bought it after the software settled down after the first major update (PP1). Besides true "setup and forget" backup, I use it as a fileshare on my network - I wanted to get all of my photos and music off of my main desktop so I could increase reliability. I am very happy with it. Besides the ease of use, the benefit over RAID is that the drives don't have to be the same size. It will take any drive at any time and distribute your files for redundancy. I've had enough hard drives fail on me, that I'm finally feeling relatively secure against that. The next thing I have to do is to set up a WHS plugin to do offline backup of the most important files.

Posted by: LazyTechie | December 3, 2008 8:30 AM | Report abuse

I purchased the HP EX470 a year ago. Got hit with the file corruption bug and shut it down until they fixed it 6 months later. Since then I have been using it and finding it to be a nice solution. It backups up my computers (I used it to recover one that had a HD failure) and allows me to access my data from my desktops, laptops, XBox360 and surprisingly my two DirecTV HD DVRs. It is a nice product that allows my wife and others easy access to pictures, etc without too much trouble.

Posted by: cg_ernst | December 3, 2008 9:16 AM | Report abuse

I hadn't heard of it before your article, but why would Microsoft go this direction when even offices are moving away from servers? With all of the computing technologies we have available in the "cloud," Microsoft needs to rethink its game. You can use Google Apps for free and get nearly all the same services the WHS would provide.

Posted by: cbr1 | December 3, 2008 9:31 AM | Report abuse

Maybe I got a lemon, but I tried it about a year ago and had many problems and sent the server back to HP. One of their "solutions" was to leave a folder as not password protected. Getting a networked hard disk did much the same at a much lower cost and has worked consistently.

Posted by: mdembski1 | December 3, 2008 9:36 AM | Report abuse

My brother, who is not a techie, has an hp Media Smart server and has had next to no problems setting it up or using it. A friend, who is a techie, has been using it since the early publicly available betas and loves it (he built his own using an older computer). He has it backing up 6 computers and he experiments a lot. He's needed to use it to restore some of his computers a number of times.
Recently Best Buy had the hp EX470 on sale for a short period of time and now they're sold out on-line at Best Buy, so there must be some interest in it.

Posted by: frank_s3 | December 3, 2008 9:43 AM | Report abuse

I've used WHS now for about 8 months. Bought a Dell GX270 on ebay for about $100, got the 3 disk set from MS, added a 250gb harddrive to the 270, loaded the server software on the 270, installed the local software on each of the 4 computers I wanted backed up (including a portable on a wireless network). No hassle setting up, worked as advertised. The only tickles at all were making sure the firewall (ZoneAlarm) allowed the access and the the login names to WHS weere properly set.
I had one of the units go BSOD on me, we still don't know why, Dell sent out the service guy, put in a new motherboard and I put in a new powersupply, up and running, pulled all the files over from the server and away we go. Worked like a charm.
I would guess the idea of a Home Server scaares the pants off the majority of computer users who also don't keep up their security updates. They just don't know or really care.

Posted by: Claypot | December 3, 2008 9:59 AM | Report abuse

I just built up a low-power machine to test out and run an instance of WHS @ home. All of the capabilities mentioned above as well as the ability to park my iTunes and photo libraries on a mirrored-drive system separate from my main computer(s) is very attractive. Are there other solutions out there that meet these needs? Probably. Is there an all-in-one solution that allows for extremely easy storage expansion (current machine is running with a 500GB HD and 3.5TB more planned), a media server, the ability to designate specific shares as internet facing, the ability to load anti-virus software directly on the NAS, the ability to remotely manage the NAS via PC or mobile phone, etc. etc.? With WHS there is and it has the potential to be great addition to my home computing environment.

Caveat: I am technically-oriented and I wouldn't recommend building up or recycling a computer and loading up WHS w/o the understanding that tutorials will need to be read, drivers downloaded and that some patience is required.

For the non-system builder, the HP MediaSmart offering is a very attractive device. Heck, it makes installing new hard drives as easy as pulling out a tray in the front of the device and telling WHS that a new drive is present. And for the adventurous, HP now supports upgrading the device's RAM [and CPU?] w/o voiding the warranty. There are a few very good tutorials on the web for performing that work, too.

Lastly, one of the things to remember with the cloud computing movement is that, yeah, these services are really cool, useful and sometimes create a true paradym shift. BUT if used exclusively for storage of one's work, are a big risk should a cloud server fail or a company simply turn off the electricity and shut their doors for good.

Locally stored or backed-up assets used in conjunction with cloud-based services is what I recommend.

Posted by: CB12 | December 3, 2008 11:18 AM | Report abuse

I've got a 90-day WMS promo sitting on my desk. I've nothing substantive to offer but felt compelled to say that this is one of the most helpful and (probably not a coincidence) least hysterical threads I've encountered. So, thanks to everybody. I'm motivated to dig an old box out of the garage, blow the dust off, and give WMS a shot.

Posted by: tims2 | December 3, 2008 11:46 AM | Report abuse

What I really want is this: (1) something that can archive to offline storage (2) something that can play music, video, photos on any TV in the house (3) something that can download media from the Web. I believe that Sony (in conjunction with a PC) comes close with something to do this, via the STR-DAxxxxES series. especially look at the DA6400ES (although very expensive at $2500 and it still needs a PC and will directly connect to only 2 TVs). A big problem with the HP solution was that it did not support 1080p, did not support BluRay, etc. Someone needs to come up with the RIGHT BOX at the RIGHT PRICE to create a truly home media hub.

Posted by: Bobthetechguy | December 3, 2008 11:57 AM | Report abuse

I currently own an HP media smart server with WHS. It has been great and very simple to use. I believe the problem is, no one has heard of the Media Smart Server or WHS. My brother who works for HP had never heard of it. It is a great tool that almost anyone could set up but if no one ever hears about it, no one is going to buy it. Some of the greatest products die because of lack of communication from teh makers. HP also had an incredible portable projector with built in surround sound. They stopped making it because no one was buying them. I did not know it existed until after they stopped production.

Posted by: Freedom17 | December 3, 2008 12:05 PM | Report abuse

I have one of the HP devices and have had it since product launch. I love it and it integrates with everything. I back up my PCs with it. My MAC can see it and iTunes plays my music from it. My Tivo can see it and play movies, music, & pictures from it. My 360 can see it and access all of the content on it. I initially purchased the 1TB model and am now up to 3TB and have never had any physical or software problems. The HP MediaSmart is possibly the one Microsoft item that can look good in a living room. I wouldn't be without it.

Posted by: cvogt1 | December 3, 2008 1:33 PM | Report abuse

I got the HP MediaSmart EX475 and have been using it for almost 2 months. I really like it. Not only does it back up all of the PCs on my network automatically, but I also put all of my music on it, and ripped my entire DVD collection to it.

For now, I'm streaming music and movies from it to my laptop and out to my receiver/TV via HDMI. In a few months, I'll build a dedicated home theater PC. I use the freeware MyMovies to manage the collection on the server and to integrate into Windows Media Center. It has a really nice interface, and I'll be able to control it via universal remote.

For anyone thinking of doing something similar, I would suggest getting the EX470, because it only comes with one hard drive bay full instead of two in the EX475, and they come with 500GB drives. That way, you can put in three 1TB drives for extra capacity. Once you start storing DVDs on it, your storage will be used up fast, especially if you are using redundancy. 3TBs total is OK for now, but if I continue to expand my movie collection, I'll eventually need to add on an eSATA storage device.

Posted by: NotAGenius | December 3, 2008 2:09 PM | Report abuse

Let's not forget that you don't need to buy a new computer. Any computer that you have will work with the WHS software.

It can use any various size HD which the RAID hardware cannot use. THis is a BIG plus.

I built a hot server without disk for less than $300. I had a bunch of disk drives that I loaded into it.

If you are a novice, HP probably has an asnwer.

Again, NewEgg.com has the software for $99. No, I don't have any interest in NewEgg.

Posted by: OldSoftware | December 3, 2008 10:26 PM | Report abuse

One note, (I posted earlier) if you use an old box as the server, you will need a DVD player in it to load the base server software. The client and recover discs are CD's.

Another note, you can go in and lift one file from a backup.
I had missed a Quickbooks company file which QB had posted in other than the c and data partitions on the crashed drive. Dragged it from the opened backup onto my current desktop, told QB where it was and, voila, had the company back! 9 months ago I would have just lost it.

Posted by: Claypot | December 4, 2008 7:59 PM | Report abuse

Rob,

I have been investigating getting a Windows Home Server for about 16 months. It is something I really want and need. But at first there were very few pre-build systems to choose from, then I could not tell if the iTunes server HP includes is exclusive to HP (it is not). And then there were the data corruption bugs last winter (which are a fixed now).

Throughout this whole period the one thing that really held me back more than anything was price. I do not have an old machine available to use (actually I do, but it is too old, an 11 year old Gateway 2000 Pentium II 300mhz with 382 MB RAM that I use as an iTunes and photo server now.) Anything more than $400 for something that sits in a closet takes a lot of explaining. There are systems in the about $450 range now and my wife understands the value. I will be buying something in early 2009.

I hope that MS does stick to it with this product.

Posted by: timothywmurray | December 4, 2008 10:50 PM | Report abuse

@timothywmurray: OfficeMax recently the EX470 available for $299. Your 16 months of patience is paying off.

Posted by: cvogt1 | December 5, 2008 8:52 AM | Report abuse

Set up WHS at a branch office of my Charity. Got messed up with the file corruption bug.

I was able to use the workstation restore.

One laptop failed to restart. I was told everything except for e-mail was stored on the WHS. The emails were critical.
The drive could not be read in another machine. 100% data loss.
Bought and installed a new harddrive. Connected to the network, booted from the WHS recovery DVD.
Recognized the computer name. Found 8 backups. I selected the newest date.
About 2 hrs later everything was back to normal.
All settings, applications, emails, accounts/passwords.
It was as though nothing had changed.
Except the failed drive was 80 gb, new drive was 100 gb.
So now we had gained 20 gb spare drive space.

Last week a 250 Gb USB drive failed. Lots of errors, lots of corrupt files.
Installed a 250 Gb internal drive, spent 2 days trying to have windows remove the problem drive.
Power off, unplug the problem drive. Restart, remove "Missing drive".
Everything back to normal.
My workstation backups are corrupt. Working on that. It wont let me connect the work stations.
I should have everything ship shape next week.
For a Microsoft product it is amazing.

I am also looking at www.amahi.org.
If it can do half of what WHS can do I am switching.

Posted by: Chainmail | December 5, 2008 11:11 AM | Report abuse

Unworthy? I guessed you don't believe in Insurance then. I was recently infected with a trojan spyware that couldn't be removed by anti-virus and wasn't willing to pay for a spyware removal program. Thank goodness I've got WHS and in less than 2 hrs restored my PC back to its non-infected state. I swear by this product. You no longer need to remember doing a periodic manual backup which was a pain since I've got 5PCs at home. You'll learn to value it when you needed it most!

Posted by: Hunter7th | December 5, 2008 8:49 PM | Report abuse

M$ rep gave us a copy of WHS pre SP1. Installed on low power AMD based system (45w dual core CPU) 80+ P/S 2 x Green drives 640 & 500 GB plus 3 laptop drives of various sizes, all SATA, no optical drive. Moved 20k MP3, 200+ movies and recorded TV plus odds & sods of photos and data. Turned on dupe feature on selected folders, installed client software to enable backups, love the
de-duplication feature that comes with drive extender, cuts down on space for backups. Also have D Link DSM-520 (wired) media player, saw the WHS straight up and plays content with no problem, also tried Windows 7 with WHS, works a treat. Replaced 2 NAS systems with this server. Having babbled on about WHS if the rep had no passed on a free copy I would not have bothered based on original price and data corruption bug pre SP1. Now M$ are looking to do 2 versions, a Basic and Advanced, Right there is the Kiss of Death.

Posted by: man_friday | December 6, 2008 6:22 PM | Report abuse

"Whatever Happened to Windows Home Server?"

Proof indeed that techno-geeks really need to get a life. This could literally be a headline in the Onion.

Posted by: xSamplex | December 8, 2008 9:33 AM | Report abuse

Buzzz expresses my sentiments exactly (I've quoted Buzzz's comments below). Rob, you are way off the mark here. Just set Windows Home Server up in your house and you will begin to understand how much easier it will make your life if you, your spouse or one of your kids looses a file or has a complete failiure of their computer from a hard drive crash. Use and learn... don't stay ignorant of the benefits and continue to show it :).

Quote from Buzzz follows:
Posted by: Buzzz | December 2, 2008 3:35 PM

Rob, just curious - have you ever tried using a Windows Home Server? You mention the product is unworthy of our money, but have you used it to restore the PC with all your photos and tax documents and applications after an irrecoverable hard disk crash, to its original glory just before the crash? I mean all those photos of your kids, the important documents and Excel spreadsheets that you spent months putting together? I did, and I beg to differ on your article. Home Server might not be a huge blockbuster success like say an iPod or Wii, but calling it unworthy is pure ignorance in my opinion. Thank you!

Posted by: Buzzz | December 2, 2008 3:35 PM

Posted by: gch1 | December 9, 2008 10:13 AM | Report abuse

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