Microsoft today announced the immediate availability of the Windows Home Server 2011 “Vail” Release Candidate to the general public – the first build of the platform released following Microsoft’s controversial decision to strip the product’s core storage technology, Drive Extender.

The removal of the technology reduces the suitability of the platform for Windows Home Server’s target consumers. Key features including the ability to create storage pools from a variety of hard drives, as well as redundant data protection, both present in the currently shipping version of the product, have now been removed. Users will subsequently have to rely on more complex technologies such as RAID, external backup or other third-party solutions to offer the data protection required for the digital media stored on Windows Home Server 2011. Check out our look at life without Drive Extender in A Fresh Look at Storage in Windows Home Server 2011 “Vail”.

Following Microsoft’s announcement in December regarding the removal of Drive Extender, thousands of existing Windows Home Server owners have threatened to abandon the platform, or refrain from upgrading. OEM support for Windows Home Server 2011 also appears to be minimal, with only Acer and system builder Tranquil PC pledging support late last year. Microsoft’s announcement did not mention any new hardware manufacturers seeking to offer Windows Home Server 2011-based solutions, and there’s silence as regards existing partners LaCie, ASUS and Lenovo. The industry at large may well be watching carefully to gauge user reaction to the Release Candidate.

Storage aside, Windows Home Server 2011 offers a number of improvements over its predecessor. The product sits atop Windows Server 2008 R2 SP1, the very latest edition of Microsoft’s server platform, which offers greatly improved driver support, as well as the ability to backup the server itself – both key missings from the Windows Server 2003-era first edition of WHS. Elsewhere, remote web access has been greatly improved with a new widget-based user interface plus support for mobile devices, whilst a Silverlight-based media streaming application also ships with the platform. Support for Apple Mac OSX computers is available for the first time (although Time Machine support remains broken from our initial testing) and a new Launchpad client application will offer fast access to Windows Home Server 2011’s key features.

However, the removal of Drive Extender has left a rather nasty taste in many prospective user’s mouths and with an ever improving range of competitive offers in prosumer storage from the likes of Drobo, Netgear, Synology, LaCie, QNAP and others the question remains whether Microsoft have made a grave error in killing Windows Home Server’s core differentiator. Whilst Redmond will be glad to close the door on Vail development, the community will now look to OEMs and third-parties to see whether integrated or after-market solutions will be made available to restore the storage magic of Windows Home Server.

The new build is available to download now from Microsoft Connect.

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