Well, it's here.

As you probably know, Microsoft last fall dropped a bombshell on its faithful Windows Home Server (WHS) users: It was cancelling the Drive Extender technologies behind much of WHS' best functionality, leaving a huge question mark about the future of the product. This cancelation led to a delay of the next product version, codenamed "Vail" and now known as WHS 2011, from late 2010 to early 2011. Microsoft said that it would provide an updated, pre-release version of WHS 2011 in January 2011, however, a release that would show what a Drive Extender-less WHS version looks like. And on the side, I was told that this pre-release version would offer at least some form of concession to those missing Drive Extender. Nothing major, but something.

That pre-release version, the release candidate (RC), arrived this week. And as promised, it provides a number of changes related to storage, since that was the functional area previously targeted by Drive Extender.

Are these changes enough to satisfy the complaints about Drive Extender?

No, they're not. But that doesn't change the fact that WHS 2011, while somewhat less of a home run than the previous WHS release, is still a solid product. And while I'll save my overall impressions of WHS 2011 for the final review, I'll at least remind people now that WHS was always greater than the sum of its parts. And even with the data duplication and single storage pool features missing from this new version, WHS 2011 delivers a lot of useful functionality: Centralized backup for all connected PCs as well as the server itself, centralized media sharing, networking health monitoring, and remote access to all connected PCs, the server, and the server's content, the latter occurring through a nice web interface. And let's not forget the new piece de resistance: The enhanced extensibility model through which add-in providers can significantly enhance the capabilities of the home server. This is a seriously useful solution.

And even from a purely storage-oriented standpoint, WHS 2011 is no slouch. This is a full-featured server OS that can be expanded to the physical limits of your hardware, providing much more storage than a typical NAS. And that storage, again, is friendly to the Windows PCs on your home network, thanks to HomeGroup and standard Windows Media-based sharing features, and remotely accessible when you're away from home.

With that bit of perspective out of the way, let's take a look at the RC version of WHS 2011, see what storage enhancements Microsoft is offering in lieu of Drive Extender, and start to think about whether it makes sense to adopt this solution, either as a replacement for a first-gen WHS server or in a new install.

Storage changes in WHS 2011 RC: Something old, something new

While Microsoft clearly planned to deliver an RC version of WHS 2011 at some point, the RC we see today is, effectively, an improvisation, given the sudden decision to kill Drive Extender part way through the product's development. As such, most of what we see in the RC is unchanged from the previous pre-release delivery. The difference is that Drive Extender (DE) is gone, as are any UI elements that referred to this technology. So where DE provided a single pool of storage that would automatically grow whenever a new hard drive was added to the server, Microsoft included new feature--called the Move Folder Wizard--to move data around semi-seamlessly when you add a newer, larger hard drive to the WHS server. And where DE provided data reliability through a redundancy feature that ensure that all files were stored on two physical disks, Microsoft offers up two solutions, though it's a mix of new and old technologies. The new one is a protection feature that prevents stock, pre-defined shared folders like Photos, Videos, and so on from being permanently deleted: If you do delete such a share (and thus its contents), WHS 2011 will let you get it back. The second, older feature it's now reemphasizing is Server (and PC) backup, along with Previous Versions (Shadow Copy), which lets you restore older versions of data files.

Obviously, the new stuff bears some attention.

Move a Folder wizard

The Move a Folder wizard--which Microsoft still has trouble identifying correctly, with its documentation often using "Move Folder Wizard" or "Move the Folder"--really is as simple as it sounds.  You add a new hard drive to the server and wish to move a shared folder--say, Videos--to the new drive, perhaps because it offers more storage or better performance. What's nice is that the entire process is automated. You select the folder you wish to move in the WHS 2011 Dashboard and then click Move the folder under Tasks. In the wizard that runs, you select a new location (the new drive) and then click Move Folder.

OK, it's pretty obvious. But what happens behind the scenes is what makes this tool so useful. Move a Folder creates a new folder on the target drive, fills it with the contents of the older folder, runs various consistency checks to ensure that the copy is perfect, changes the network share for that folder for you, and only then removes the original. To users of the server, nothing has changed, aside perhaps from the additional available storage or enhanced performance.

What this tool doesn't provide is a real answer to the essentially unlimited space offered by Drive Extender's single pool of storage. Yes, you could add a 2 TB drive to the server and essentially dedicate it to your video collection. But that's still a limit. And if you do hit the 2 TB limit someday, you can't expand the storage capacity of the Videos share anymore, unless there are bigger disks available at that point. Instead, you'll need to create a new share, also for videos. It would work. But again, it's not as seamless as what we had in WHS v1 with DE.

Pre-defined folder protection

As WHS fans already know, WHS comes with several handy network shares--Documents, Music, Pictures, Recorded TV, Videos, as well as Client Computer Backups--preconfigured. You're free to make your own, too, and even delete the preconfigured ones. But in a nod towards reliability, Microsoft has added the ability to resuscitate a deleted preconfigured share, so if you hit Delete too quickly, you can go back into the Dashboard, find the share (under Server Folders) and choose Recreate the missing folder. Like Move a Folder, it's simple and well intentioned.

But like Move a Folder, WHS 2011's data reliability story isn't as good as it was previously. Under this new scheme, users will need to dedicate additional storage to Server Backup instead of redundancy, and this will most likely lead to increased storage needs for most people. Backup is not the same as redundancy, of course, and while there are some advantages to the accessibility of older versions of files in a true backup solution, I'd rather have true redundancy than local backup. Ideally, there'd be a remote (cloud-based) backup solution on offer as well. (I suspect third parties will meet this challenge, however.)

Final thoughts

I know a lot of people are looking for advice here. What I can tell you, at least, is what I'm doing. For the time being, I'm going to keep my original WHS box with the previous pre-release version of Vail while I evaluate the WHS 2011 RC on a separate physical server. (The pre-RC install will time-out in March, so I'll need to figure something out by then.) What I'm interested in watching is how much storage is required for Server Backup, so I'll throw some data on there and attached a second disk dedicated to backup. And then I'll see how it works. I may also play around with PC backup, which is something I'm not currently using through WHS.

I'm not happy about the Drive Extender removal, of course, and I'm not suggesting that what I see here in the WHS 2011 RC makes up for it. But I still love the simplicity and well-rounded capabilities of this product, and there are some big advantages to just moving the server up to the more modern Windows Server 2008 R2-based underpinnings. I'd have liked to keep an HP or HP-style small form factor server as my home server, but that will most likely not be the case. Which is fine: PC-style towers are cheap, easy to find, and reliable too.

Microsoft tells me that the final version of WHS 2011 will ship in the Spring, which I take to mean before mid-year. Given the RC, which appears stable and refined, my guess is that it could happen a lot sooner than that.