Tomorrow, Microsoft will release its second functional update to Windows Home Server (WHS, see my review), called Power Pack 2 (PP2). PP2 follows WHS PP1 (see my review), of course, which shipped last July. Like that release, PP2 is a combination of new features as well as the types of bug fixes and other updates that we've come to expect from Service Packs (SP2). But unlike PP1, PP2 isn't a major release. Instead, it focuses on a few key improvements. I've been testing various versions of PP2 since late 2008 on my product home server, and it's a testament to this release that it's never caused any issues at all.
To put PP2 in perspective, it helps to understand that the WHS team is marching to the same beat as the wider Windows Server group at Microsoft, and as such it plans to stick to the same major, minor, major, minor release cadence that Windows Server promises. "Sometimes to be nimble, we need to ship two minor releases between major releases, however," Microsoft's Todd Headrick told me in a recent briefing. So PP2, codenamed Snoqualmie, is the second of two interim WHS releases that follow the major initial release of the software. The next release after PP2, then, will be a major software revision. I can't say much about that at this point, but it's not due until next year.
While PP1 addressed some major new functional updates and included the fix for the infamous data corruption bug--which Microsoft's hardware partners have verified to me affected literally only a handful of customers--PP2 is all about address hardware partner requests. So in addition to the features I'll highlight below, it adds support for the Italian language (in addition to the currently supported Chinese, English, French, German, Japanese, and Spanish languages), improves the SDK for developers, and vastly simplifies the day one experience (what used to be called OOBE, or out of box experience), reducing the number of steps a new user has to complete from 23 to 13. These features won't help existing customers, of course. But they do make the software more viable for those that have not yet made the leap.
In addition to these changes and the expected bug fixes, PP2 includes improvements in two key areas, remote access and media sharing. Let's take a look.
One of WHS' best features is remote access, which lets you access your home server while outside of your home network. The software supports a number of remote access scenarios: Accessing the home server administration console, accessing your shared folders (via the web with a custom URL), and remotely controlling connected PCs in your home network that support this functionality.
WHS remote access is wonderful when it works. The problem is, it relies on certain UPnP functionality that isn't available in all consumer-oriented network routers. And if you have an unsupported router, you're basically out of luck: Microsoft supplies documentation for configuring things manually, but it's a lot of work is too technical for many people.
In PP2, remote access has been improved. First, the Remote Access section of the admin console's Settings window has been subtly simplified. That's juststuff: A bigger improvement has been made to the underlying router detection and configuration code. Now, there are new initial configuration and repair wizards to help you get up and running. And for those times when the wizards just don't work is simpler, WHS PP2 provides troubleshooting guidance oriented around those common issues that often prevent this feature from working.
Another key change will mitigate an issue I've actually experienced: You configure remote access and it appears to work fine. But when you try to access your home network from the road, you can't connect. Now, a new Connectivity Diagnostics Service runs from the web and tests your connectivity from outside your home network. That way, you'll know if remote access really works. Smart.
PP2 includes two media sharing improvements. The first concerns Windows Media Center, while the second more broadly affects anyone wishing to share WHS-hosted media files.
Windows Media Center fans naturally like to use this environment to enjoy digital media. But if you've set up a Windows Home Server as the center of your home network, there's no way to automatically "see" the content on the server from within Media Center. To overcome this, many Media Center enthusiasts have manually created shortcuts to WHS-based network shares so that they can more easily access their media. This works, of course, but it's a manual process and beyond the skill of most average users.
To address this need, PP2 includes a new feature called Windows Media Center Connector that automatically adds the contents in your server-based Music, Photos, Videos, and Recorded TV folders to the appropriate locations in Media Center. You are prompted to install this software the first time you run Media Center after having installed PP2 on a connected home server.
As you might expect, this functionality extends (ahem) to Windows Media Center Extenders (MCXs) such as the Xbox 360, allowing you to stream WHS-stored content to TVs around your home. (When I asked how this worked from a network topology standpoint, I was told that--as expected--the content streams all the way from the WHS to your Media Center-based PC and then to the Extender. This means that you should ensure that each of these machines is connected via wired networking or, in the case of the Extender, with an N wireless connection.) You can all grant folder-by-folder permissions (Full, read or none) to Extenders as a group, but not on an Extender-by-Extender basis.
Finally, PP2 also adds streaming support for MPEG-4 media formats, including H.264 video and AAC audio files. This support includes meta data so that MPEG-4 content appears correctly in the Media Center Extender environment. This functionality is important because MPEG-4 is fully supported by many Extenders, including the Xbox 360. (It's also supported in Windows 7, and though Microsoft will of course not officially support this OS until the final version ships, I have verified that PP2-based MPEG-4 streaming works as expected with Windows 7.)
Availability and pricing
Windows Home Server Power Pack 2 is a free update for all WHS users. It will be made available only via Windows Update, so if you've configured Automatic Updating, you should get it automatically. That said, you can manually try to trigger the install by remote desktoping into your home server box beginning on March 24, 2009 and using Windows Update. PP2 will not be made available as a standalone download, and you will need to have previously installed PP1 before PP2 will be offered.
The first release is English only. Chinese, French, German, Japanese and Spanish are currently scheduled to be available before the end of April.
In related news, MSDN subscribers will soon be able to download WHS. Opening up this software to its developer community makes a lot of sense, because the market for WHS add-ins is starting to flourish. Microsoft announced at CES in January 2009 that there were about 70 add-ins available, but that number has already jumped to over 100, and the arrival of WHS on MSDN should jumpstart another generation of development.
Windows Home Server Power Pack 2 (PP2) has been a long time coming in many ways, but it improves the first-generation WHS experience in appreciable ways and sets up the platform for what I assume will be broader Windows 7 compatibility in the next update. As a free update that will automatically be applied to most WHS installs, PP2 offers two important and useful improvements over the initial shipping version of WHS. I'm especially happy about the Media Center integration because it rewards those who have bought into Microsoft's digital media ecosystem.