Ah, it should have been different to this. When I think back to the first conversations I had with Microsoft about Windows Home Server 2011, or “Vail” as it was known back then, they were exciting times – discussions brimming with optimism, following the successful launch of the first generation of the platform. The v1 data corruption bug was in the past, and the talk was of new features that would allow Windows Home Server to build momentum from its early adopter phase into a more robust, more mainstream product. The move to the underlying Windows Server 2008 R2 platform would mean no more development on the legacy Windows Server 2003 OS, enabling better driver support and importantly, enhancing the opportunities for cross-collaboration with other development teams in Microsoft.
Fast forward 2+ years, and it’s fair to say the product that will ship at some point this year is a pale shadow of what Vail could, and should have been. Microsoft’s reorganisation to bring together the home and small business server teams, whilst undoubtedly sensible from a commercial perspective, led to an organisation that from the outside appears to be less nimble, less single-minded and less free to innovate. Vitally, it’s a team that has had to develop not one, but four products simultaneously, in the shape of Windows Small Business Server 2011, Windows Small Business Server Essentials 2011, Windows Storage Server 2008 R2 Essentials and finally Windows Home Server 2011. With a huge amount to deliver, it’s understandable that feature sets across the four SKUs would converge. And with three lucrative, well established business customers to serve, and one low margin, high risk consumer market to crack, it doesn’t take a genius to work out where the effort would be spent.
All this before we’ve even started a discussion about the removal of Drive Extender. The decision to remove Windows Home Server’s storage pooling technology undoubtedly delayed the release of the “Colorado” suite of products (Windows Small Business Server Essentials 2011 “Aurora”, Windows Storage Server 2008 R2 Essentials “Breckenridge” and finally Windows Home Server 2011 “Vail”) but that aside, with a four year gap between the release of Windows Home Server v1 and its successor, clearly Microsoft have had a mountain to climb getting Vail out of the door.
So, here we are at the start of the Windows Home Server 2011 era. Many of you have tried out the beta and release candidates, many have avoided the test release due to the Drive Extender debacle. But the question in most WHS v1 users minds today is whether they should consider upgrading to Windows Home Server 2011. As a WHS v1 user myself, it’s a question I’ve been pondering personally for the last three months, and being totally honest with you, I still haven’t made a decision. As I stated at the time, the loss of Drive Extender ripped the heart out of Windows Home Server, but the new edition retains a lot of new features (despite what you may think, Microsoft developers haven’t been sitting on their hands for the last four years). So, it’s time for an equation – do the new features in Windows Home Server 2011 outweigh the loss of Drive Extender? If the answer is yes, then I’m going to jump in. If not, then I’ll stick with v1 until it reaches end of life (scheduled for 2013) and review my options then.
(Obviously, WGS being WGS, we’ll be covering WHS 2011 either way, and there’ll be a couple of WHS 2011 test servers knocking around for reviews – but I’m talking about upgrading my “production” v1 home server.)
So, whilst I know many are still very upset at the loss of DE (and understandably so), let’s suspend that for a few minutes as we take an objective comparison between Windows Home Server v1 and WHS 2011, feature by feature to build the equation. Doing so will hopefully inform my personal upgrade decision, and may inform yours too.
One note before we get started – I’ve deliberately delayed publishing this comparison to allow the dust to settle around the DE decision and review the Windows Home Server 2011 Release Candidate, which should be feature complete. We’re also now aware of a number of third-party developments which flesh out the Windows Home Server 2011 story a little, and of course, additional third-party solutions may come to the fore at any time, so consider this a preliminary view with all of the information we have available at this time.
Let’s start with an easy one. Whilst Windows Home Server 2011’s pricing has yet to be announced, Microsoft aren’t going to give it away for free (unless you’re on an MSDN/TechNet subscription). Let’s assume for now that Microsoft go for a similar price to WHS v1 – around the $100 mark. That’s $100 you don’t have to spend if you stick with WHS v1, right?
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Before digging into the software, let’s take a look at the hardware requirements. Depending on your current setup, upgrading to Windows Home Server may require you to purchase new hardware. Why? Two reasons stand out. The first is that like all recent Windows Server operating systems, Windows Home Server 2011 requires a 64-bit compatible processor. Now most modern processors fit the bill, but if you’re running an older home server, or if, like many, you re-purposed an ageing PC for home server use, it may be time to crack open the wallet.
Secondly, the march of time has led to Windows Home Server 2011 requiring more powerful hardware than its predecessor. If your v1 home server brushes Microsoft’s minimum specifications, again, upgrading is going to require some investment. So, for this comparison, I’m working on the basis that lower power, no investment required is better than having to spend money.
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As a result, we can clearly see that Windows Home Server v1 runs on older, lower specification hardware, and if you’re an existing v1 WHS user, you don’t need to spend any money if you don’t upgrade. So, v1 wins the Hardware Requirements comparison.
Let’s think about migration next. There is no easy method for upgrading from Windows Home Server v1 to Windows Home Server 2011 on the same hardware. Like all x86 to x64 operating system upgrades, it has to be a clean install. For the more technical amongst you (and let’s remember, WGS has a pretty technical readership), a clean install isn’t so much of an issue, but the migration path is exacerbated by the fact that you like have a huge amount of data sitting on your home server. Unless you’re happy to wipe off all of that data, you’re going to need to move all of that data on to an external hard drive or network PC, format your drives, install Windows Home Server 2011, then copy all of your data back again. It’s not a technically troublesome task, but it is inconvenient, and will take some time and consideration to ensure you don’t lose any data.
I fed back the need/opportunity for Microsoft to create some kind of migration tools to make the upgrade from v1 to 2011 more palatable over two years ago. I’m sure I’m not the only one to have proffered that feedback. Those tools do not exist, and I doubt whether they will do. So, again for comparison, we’ll work on the basis that no effort is better than a lot of effort, and that means staying with v1 wins the migration battle.
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We often think of Windows Home Server as an operating system – that’s not strictly true. It’s actually a set of features and services that sit atop of an underlying platform. In the case of Windows Home Server v1, it’s hosted on the wildly popular, if venerable Windows Server 2003, an operating system that is still supported by Microsoft when it comes to serious bug fixes and security issues, but is no longer actively developed. Increasingly, it will no longer be developed for – when it comes to operating systems, newer is often (but not always) better, and in the case of Windows Home Server 2011, sitting on the all-new Windows Server 2008 R2 Service Pack 1 means you have the latest and greatest underlying technology powering the platform. As an added bonus,a healthy chunk of that software being developed for Windows Server 2008 R2 is going to work with Windows Home Server 2011 (depending on the role requirements). Vitally, driver support for new hardware is much, much better in the new platform, and that includes support for high-capacity, Advanced Format hard drives. Chalk one up for Windows Home Server 2011.
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A difficult one to call. In its time, Windows Home Server v1 had reasonable OEM support from hardware manufacturers, with mainstream vendors such as HP, Lenovo, LaCie, ASUS and Acer selling home servers in major markets around the world. There was also a pleasing variety of models from low cost, single drive units through to 4 and 8 bay servers available. Today’s picture is a little different, and the number of vendors is definitely in decline. Dig around, though, and you can still find v1 hardware on sale. On the flip side, those same manufacturers have hardly been clamouring to support Microsoft’s new platform. To date, Redmond have only mentioned Acer and UK system builder Tranquil PC pledging any kind of support to Windows Home Server 2011, although conversations I had with LaCie at CES this year suggest they may also jump in with hardware later in the year. WHS 2011’s close kinship with Windows Small Business Server Essentials 2011 may present some hope for the platform, as we’re sure to see some of the major OEMs step up to participate in the small business market, but whether they’ll offer Windows Home Server 2011 as an installed option remains to be seen. If not, then a self-install may be an option for those desperate for OEM hardware. Microsoft remain tight lipped on OEM support for Windows SBS Essentials 2011 at this time. On balance, I’m calling this one a tie right now, but next year, WHS 2011 is likely to be the only game in town.
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