Windows Home Server "Vail" Preview

I have been a user, and an unabashed fan, of Windows Home Server from the moment I first laid eyes on the code in 2006. The product was announced at the 2007 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and delivered to customers in 1.0 form several months later. Intended to be purchased exclusively with new home server hardware, Windows Home Server provides four basic features: centralized PC backup and restore, PC and server health monitoring, document and media sharing, and remote access. Over the intervening years, the product has been updated in fairly significant ways via three so-called Power Packs and an Update Rollup. But the underlying code--based on the aging Windows Server 2003 platform--has never changed.

[ You can find all of my Windows Home Server articles at the Server activity center. ]

With the next major Windows Home Server revision, codenamed "Vail," Microsoft's home server solution is finally getting a major overhaul. The system is now based on the latest Windows Server version, Windows Server 2008 R2, which comes with a host of platform improvements that will directly benefit home server users. Like R2, Vail will be made available only in 64-bit form, where the current version is 32-bit code. And it will build on some of the more interesting home-based technologies that Microsoft has since introduced in Windows 7, providing what appears to be a very compelling solution for a market that, frankly, has pretty much ignored Windows Home Server thus far.

This week, after years of silence, Microsoft finally provided its first public preview of Windows Home Server "Vail." This suggest that the company is preparing to ship the final version in time for the 2010 Holiday season--it was originally scheduled for a 2010 CES introduction, which never happened--via PC and device makers. Microsoft isn't commenting on the schedule yet, but there's plenty going on in this first public build. Here's what I've discovered so far about the Windows Home Server "Vail" public preview.


Understanding Windows Home Server

Before moving on to what's new in Vail, however, I'd like to quickly remind readers about some Windows Home Server nomenclature. The server is typically installed on a "headless" server--i.e. one with no monitor, keyboard, or mouse--so all of the work you'll do with that server occurs remotely, over the home network. While it's possible (and in some cases even required) to use Remote Desktop Connection (RDP) to interactively access the WHS desktop, Microsoft has instead created a special WHS console by which you perform most management tasks. This console is divided into tabs--Computers & Backup, User Accounts, Shared Folders, and Server Storage--each of which corresponds to some major area of functionality, and third parties are free to make their own tabs via the WHS add-in extensibility model.

The console also provides network health monitoring and, via a fairly convoluted Settings window, access to a host of other functionality around configuration, Media Center, remote access, add-ins, and more.

To interact with PCs your home network, you will need to install the Connector software. This software establishes a 1-to-1 connection between a PC and the home server (that is, you cannot "connect" a PC to two or more home servers) and allows the server to schedule backups, monitor the PC's health, and so on. From the PC, you will typically interact with your home server through the console, through file shares on the server, and via a remote access web interface.

What's new in Vail

According to the documentation Microsoft provided me with, Vail seeks to expand on its predecessor in four key ways:

Extend media streaming outside the home or office. The current WHS version provides in-home media streaming only.

Improve multi-PC backup and restore. WHS already provides excellent centralized PC backup and restore capabilities.

Simplify setup and user experience. Where most end users will never experience most of the WHS Setup routine--this is typically handled by PC makers--that's not really the focus here. What Microsoft is really referring to is the so-called "out of box experience"--those steps that the user has to complete to take a brand new home server and configure it properly--as well as the ongoing experience of using the home server. These are areas where significant work can be done: For various reasons, the current Windows Home Server console is woefully inadequate and not particularly friendly.

Significantly expand the development and customization tools for partners. In the current WHS product, Microsoft provides developer extensibility through an add-in model that is fairly limited. Based on advances I've seen in the extensibility models for Small Business Server and (the since discontinued) Essential Business Server, there's a lot of work that could be done here as well.

Hands-on with the Vail preview

We'll examine these areas in more detail in a bit, but the first thing you'll notice when you install the Vail preview is that a lot of the basics have changed this time around. First, the WHS console has been redesigned and updated, and renamed to the WHS Dashboard. It looks a lot like the SBS management console, actually, but if you're familiar with the initial WHS version, there aren't any huge surprises: It still features the same basic tabs, albeit in a different order--Home, Users, Computers and Backup, Server Folders and Hard Drives, and Add-ins--and uses the same awkward Settings window (now renamed to General Settings) for everything else.

Windows Home Server 'Vail' Preview
The Vail Dashboard.

And to answer what I know will be any WHS user's first question: Yes, the Dashboard window is resizable, finally. This erases what was surely the number one complaint about that horrible WHS console window.

You also still connect PCs to the server via the Connector software. This, too, has been updated to be a bit friendlier. You're prompted for a computer description (like "Paul's PC") during setup, which is new, and when that's completed, you'll see three icons on your desktop. Two--Dashboard and Shared Folders--are familiar. But the third, LaunchPad, is not.

Windows Home Server 'Vail' Preview
Default Vail icons on a connected PC.

LaunchPad is new to Vail and it provides a simpler, quicker-loading UI for common home server tasks like backup and remote access, as well as links for shared folders and the full Dashboard. That's a nice addition since the full console--excuse me, Dashboard--can take a while to load. And it's easier than right-clicking the home server tray icon which, in Windows 7, can be hidden anyway.

There's also an Alert Viewer interface, new to Vail, which provides a friendly and easier way to look at server-based alerts (a.k.a those things that cause the server to believe that network health is at risk). In the current WHS version, you have to manually load the console to see this information.

Windows Home Server 'Vail' Preview
The Vail LaunchPad and Alert Viewer.

Digging into the Dashboard, some new capabilities emerge. These include:

Server backup. This isn't new to Vail, but it does include some new functionality, including the ability to backup non-data entities, like the home server OS partition and your PC backups. Those are nice (if necessary) additions, but it's downhill from there. Server backup requires an external disk drive for some reason, which is fine, but I'd like to see a way to backup the home server over the home network or even to the cloud as well. And unlike with the internal shared drives, which utilize a unique storage-sharing and data duplication scheme, there's no storage automation for server backup; you're expected to rotate drives "each night" and handle the off-site storage yourself. This is a surprisingly archaic requirement in my opinion.

App Store. OK, they don't call it that, but they should: Vail will be accompanied by a Microsoft online store for Windows Home Server add-ins. It goes by the unfortunate name "Online Add-in Catalog" and is accessible via the Dashboard. It will function like Windows Update, providing you with automatic updates for installed add-ins, and can optionally advertise when new add-ins become available. As an aside, WHS v1 add-ins will not work in Vail. Instead, as hinted at above, Vail will utilize a new extensibility model. (And a software development kit, or SDK, is part of the preview download.) Vail add-ins no longer require the convoluted install process that dogs current WHS users. Now, you can install add-ins to the server from one of your PCs.

Homegroup support. Vail natively supports Windows 7 homegroups, so if you are using one or more Windows 7-based PCs on your home network, they will be able to seamlessly connect to server-based content. (Microsoft added a prototypical version of this functionality in Windows Home Server Power Pack 3 late last year, and this appears to work similarly.)

Windows Home Server 'Vail' Preview
Vail servers can create and join Windows 7 homegroups.

Shared folders. Windows Home Server has always supported shared folders, but in Vail there is an interesting change that I assume is related to server backup: Each shared folder gets its own drive letter. From a user's PC, of course, nothing has changed: You will continue to access these shares as you always have. But in the original Windows Home Server version, all of the shares were accessible via a rather obscure path in the file system (D:\shares) only. My guess is that auto-adding drive letters just makes them more discoverable.

Windows Home Server 'Vail' Preview
Vail shared folders are mapped as drive letters.

Easier restore. Via a Home Computer Restore CD, you can restore your PC to a previous point in time via a simple wizard. Vail also integrates with Previous Versions to offer individual file and folder restoration, also to different points in time.

Improved media streaming. Windows Home Server has always offered basic media streaming capabilities, but third parties like HP have also always replaced that functionality with more compatibility solutions (Twonky Media in the most recent HP MediaSmart Servers). Now, Vail offers fully compliant DLNA-based media streaming capabilities, which simply means that the server will work automatically with a very wide range of PC-based software, video game consoles, set-top boxes, and other devices. And for you Windows 7 users, Vail-based media can be pushed around the network using Play To.

Improved remote access. While WHS offers a way to access the files on your home server via a web-based interface, it offers (to put it charitably) a pretty shabby UI. This has been significantly updated in Vail, and the web-based remote access interface is now quite nice, and the share access looks much more like a native Explorer look and feel. There are slideshows for music and a Zune-like "Now Playing" screen too. That's right: You can access your media remotely, using your home server as an Internet-based content hub. The possibilities here are very exciting.

Additionally, there are remote web site customization capabilities and, get this, even a mobile version of the site for you iPhone users.

What's missing

You may have heard about Microsoft's plans to integrate Windows Media Center into Windows Home Server. That doesn't appear to be happening if the preview code is any indication, but I can at long last confirm the rumors: When I was originally briefed on Microsoft's plans for Vail--way, way back in September 2008--I was told that Vail would be a major product update that would integrate these two products into a "headless home server with TV acquisition capabilities." The goal was to make Windows Home Server work better with Media Center via the PP2 and PP3 releases and then to integrate them into a single product with Vail.

I was also told at that time that the WHS team was working very closely with the Live Mesh team to integrate those technologies and, sure enough, at PDC 2008, Microsoft did show off Mesh/WHS integration. That too, has yet to come to pass, and I don't see any evidence of that work in the Vail preview.

Requirements

Windows Home Server Vail requires a PC or PC-style server with a 1.4 GHz 64-bit-compatible microprocessor, 1 GB or more of RAM, and a 160 GB (or higher) hard disk. As is always the case with Microsoft software, these minimums are indeed minimums, and with Vail specifically they are notably higher than the requirements for the original WHS version. I'm testing Vail on a 64-bit Athlon-based PC with 4 GB of RAM.

Vail works with Windows XP (SP3, 32-bit only), Vista (SP2), and Windows 7 clients. Well, most clients. It's not compatible with Windows XP Tablet PC Edition (any version) or Media Center Edition (prior to 2005 with SP3), according to the release notes. Connector setup no longer requires a Connector CD or software share; you just hit a web site on the server, which makes plenty of sense.

What doesn't work, of course, is upgrading. Microsoft does not support in-place upgrades between 32-bit versions of Windows and 64-bit versions of Windows, and when you consider the appliance nature of a home server product, it's somewhat understandable that little effort would be made here. That said, I'd like to see some kind of data migration path, or even the ability to repurpose old home server drives in a new home server.

Moving on....

There is so much more going on with this preview, but I wanted to get this article out there and provide a taste of what's ahead for those that can't or won't install such an early version in their own environments. I'll be using the Vail preview going forward and will report back if and when I discover any additional information of value. But it's clear even at this early point that there are some exciting changes coming. I just wonder if Microsoft and its partners will ever be able to get over the "server stigma" and be able to convince a mainstream market that, yes, what they really need is a server in their home. This perception, I think, is the only thing really holding back Windows Home Server.