Microsoft today unveiled its plans for a range of new Windows Server 2012 product lines, but there was no room for a dedicated Windows Home Server refresh. Instead, the company’s small server lines have been merged into a single product SKU – the $425 Windows Server 2012 Essentials. Home users wishing to migrate to a Windows Server 2012 product will be required to upgrade to Windows Server 2012 Essentials, as the new entry level Server SKU available to the public.

The move to sunset Windows Home Server was confirmed by Microsoft today, buried in a FAQ datasheet accompanying the Windows Server 2012 Essentials announcement:

Q: Will there be a next version of Windows Home Server?

A: No. Windows Home Server has seen its greatest success in small office/home office (SOHO) environments and among the technology enthusiast community. For this reason, Microsoft is combining the features that were previously only found in Windows Home Server, such as support for DLNA-compliant devices and media streaming, into Windows Server 2012 Essentials and focusing our efforts into making Windows Server 2012 Essentials the ideal first server operating system for both small business and home use—offering an intuitive administration experience, elastic and resilient storage features with Storage Spaces, and robust data protection for the server and client computers.

Q: How long will customers be able to purchase Windows Home Server 2011?
A: Windows Home Server 2011 will remain available as an OEM embedded product until December 31, 2025, and will remain available in all other current channels until December 31, 2013.

The datasheet continues:

Windows Server 2012 Essentials is the latest version of Windows Small Business Server Essentials. It is a cloud enabled first server with an intuitive user interface. It can run on physical servers with up to two processors and has been designed for small businesses with up to 25 users.

Windows Server 2012 Essentials incorporates best-of-breed 64-bit product technologies to deliver a server environment well-suited for the vast majority of small businesses. The product technologies include:

  • Windows Server 2012 operating system
  • Data protection
  • “Anywhere” access
  • Health monitoring
  • Workload flexibility
  • Extensibility
  • Add-ons for many small business solutions, including a connector to Office 365

Customers can use Windows Server 2012 Essentials as a platform to run critical line-of-business applications and other on-premise workloads. It can also provide an integrated management experience when running cloud-based applications and services, such as email, collaboration, online backup, and more.

The removal of Windows Home Server from Microsoft’s Server range is a disappointing, but inevitable move. Launched by Bill Gates with a fanfare in 2007, the original release of the product set out a bold, innovative vision for an easier way to store, share and protect users’ data – hiding the complexity of traditional server administration. Notable features included easy remote access configuration, user account and shared folder management and powerful storage pooling courtesy of Drive Extender,

Initial interest from OEMs was strong, with HP, Acer, Fujitsu and ASUS leading with new, headless, multi-drive form-factors. Developers too jumped on board the platform with over 100 dedicated Windows Home Server add-ins released by 2008.

Adoption was slow, however, despite distribution in major retail stores around the globe. High ticket prices and a proposition that was difficult for front-line sales people to explain held the platform back from mass volume. Although not without its problems in execution, the platform remains much loved by tech enthusiasts. Windows Home Server v1 reaches end of life in January 2013, when support for the platform will be withdrawn.

Windows Home Server 2011 (codenamed “Vail”) initially looked set to give the platform an additional boost with a move to an underlying Windows Server 2008 R2 platform and new media features. However, structural changes at Microsoft led to the company attempting to develop the product simultaneously with two small-business focused SKUs, utilising the same codebase – Windows Small Business Server 2011 Essentials and Windows Storage Server 2008 R2 Essentials – a move that significantly stretched resources and diluted focus.

Problems in development led to the resulting release limping out of the blocks, poorly equipped to tackle the ever changing needs of end-users, now armed with smartphones, tablets and clouds. There was little to differentiate Windows Home Server 2011 from its predecessor. Time Machine-style backup and restore, Windows Media Center integration and Live Mesh/Skydrive support were all slated, but failed to materialise. But it was the removal of the platform’s core storage management feature (and mishandled corporate communications around that decision) that quickly alienated the Windows Home Server community. OEM and developer support dissipated, and Microsoft subsequently sold Windows Home Server 2011 at a bargain bin price.

An unfitting end for a brave attempt to move the Windows platform forward.

Windows Home Server 2011 reaches end of life in 2016, but since the product has seen little feature development since release, we would anticipate future development to be focused purely on major bug fixes and security updates.

Going forward, whilst there may no longer be a dedicated Windows Home Server product, much of the platform’s intent has been subsumed into Windows 8 development. On the client side, improvements in backup and restore and new storage pooling functionality via Storage Spaces owe much to Windows Home Server – in spirit, if not in architecture. Windows Server 2012 Essentials is set to retain the easy dashboard management UI we saw in Windows Home Server, and Storage Spaces appears too  – although future migration to that product by Windows Home Server community will  undoubtedly be highly dependent on price point. Windows Home Server 2011 is currently listed at Newegg at $49.99 – a sizeable distance from the $425 Windows Server 2012 Essentials.

Over the coming months, WGS will look closely at both Windows 8 Client and Windows Server 2012 Essentials to help you decide your next step. Our “Building a Windows 8 Home Server” series has just kicked off for those interested in moving to Windows 8, and as Windows Server 2012 Essentials progresses towards release, we’ll give you the lowdown there too. You can expect to see us refresh our Apple OS X Lion Server series too later in the year, with the release of Mountain Lion Server.

In the meantime, let us know your thoughts on today’s announcement and what you’re planning as your next step.