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What's New in Windows Home Server 2011


The latest version of Windows Home Server adds a lot of features--and subtracts a big one too.

By Joseph Moran

It's been a long time coming, but the next version of Microsoft's Windows Home Server is finally poised to make its debut this month. Formerly known by its "Vail" code name, Windows Home Server 2011 delivers a number of major improvements, not the least of which is that it sports 64-bit Windows Server 2008 R2 under the hood--a major step up from the 32-bit Windows Server 2003 that underpins the current version.

To be sure, WHS 2011 addresses most of its predecessor's biggest shortcomings, though not all of the changes are necessarily for the better.

Server and Client configuration

Microsoft has done much to simplify the process of getting WHS 2011--and the systems you'll connect to it--up and running. Upon completing installation, WHS 2011 provides a checklist of (and convenient links to) the initial configuration tasks that should be performed, such as configuring server backups, enabling remote access, and setting up file sharing and media streaming options. (To facilitate sharing and streaming, WHS 2011 supports DLNA 1.5 and can participate in Windows 7 HomeGroups).

WHS 2011's client software can now be installed directly via a browser, and both Windows and Mac systems are supported (the existing 10 user limit remains in place). A new client utility called the Launchpad delivers health alerts about the system and server (e.g. backup or AV software out-of-date) and gives users easy access to server data and features such as shared folders, backups, Remote Web Access (more on that later), etc. The Launchpad can also be extended to allow access to OEM server customizations or third-party software add-ins.

For administrative access to the server, the Dashboard takes the place of the current WHS Console utility and mostly mimics its predecessor's look and feel. Alerts can now be delivered through e-mail as well as via the client software, which makes it easier to keep tabs on network status when you're not connected to it.

Server Backups and Storage

One of the biggest strengths of the current WHS is its automatic backup of client PCs. Conversely, a big weakness is that a backup of the actual server itself must be manually initiated, and server backups only include client backups and the contents of shared data folders, not the operating system and configuration settings (such as user accounts, etc.). Thankfully, this is no longer the case in WHS 2011; server backups now include the OS files and server settings and they automatically take place twice daily--at Noon and 11PM, though you can customize both the frequency and timing of backups.

The biggest and most controversial change in WHS 2011 concerns how it utilizes storage space. Despite much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments by the WHS enthusiast community, Microsoft has seen fit to excise the much-loved Drive Extender (DE) storage replication and expansion feature from WHS 2011. This means that unlike its predecessor, WHS 2011 can't combine multiple hard drives of different sizes and types (e.g. a 1 TB internal SATA and 2 TB external USB/eSATA) into a single unified storage pool, and it also loses the Folder Duplication feature which replicates a folder's contents to another physical disk to protect against a disk failure.

The upshot of this is that managing storage in WHS 2011 now means dealing with drives individually and being cognizant of their capacity. Whereas adding a new drive to WHS2003 (say, a 1TB unit) simply increases the size of the storage pool by that amount, doing the same in WHS 2011 involves the creation of a new and distinct drive (i.e. one with its own drive letter), and then moving folders over from existing drives to take advantage of the newfound capacity. Microsoft provides a wizard that makes the task relatively painless, but even so, managing storage is a lot more work in WHS 2011 than it is under the DE model.

The other major consequence of the loss of DE, and by extension, Folder Duplication, is that the only way to keep a redundant copy of data at the ready is to use RAID, which in turn requires multiple disks of the same size and type.

It's worth mentioning that a number of third party developers are aiming to restore Drive Extender-like capability to WHS 2011 via add-in software, though efforts are still in the alpha and beta stages.

On the plus side, WHS 2011's Server 2008 provenance means that unlike the current WHS, it's fully compatible with Advanced Format hard drives (those that use a 4K sector size rather than a 512 byte sector), which are increasingly common and almost impossible to avoid at the larger disk sizes (i.e. 1 TB and up).

Remote Web Access

Remote access gets a fairly major overhaul in WHS2011. The server's Remote Web Access site can be customized with your own graphics, logos, and links, the layout can be changed by dragging components around the page, and you can limit which items are visible (e.g. shared folders, remote desktop access to computers, the Dashboard) to specific users when they log in. The UI for accessing remote content is easier to navigate; much less like a circa-2003 browser-based interface and more like Windows Explorer.

The most notable addition to WHS 2011's remote access repertoire is photo slide shows and audio/video streaming, which is provided through a very polished and attractive Sliverlight-based player. (When streaming music, for example, it displays a slick album art animation.) In the case of streaming video, files are automatically transcoded to an appropriate format and bit rate for optimal performance, though the quality you can achieve will ultimately depend on the power of your server's processor. (Four quality settings are available--Low, Medium, High, and Best.)

Although some existing WHS servers--most notably HP's MediaSmart devices--already have streaming capabilities courtesy of OEM customizations and add-ins, it's nice to have the feature out-of-the-box in WHS 2011, particularly for the benefit of those that build their own server.

How to Get WHS 2011

So how will you be able to get your hands on WHS 2011 in the coming weeks? Like the current version, it won't be available as a retail product, only as an OEM edition which lets you install it on your own hardware with 2 provisos: that the software is mated to that specific system you install it on, and you're on your own when it comes to support.

If you're looking for a server with WHS pre-installed, you won't have a lot of options, unfortunately. As of this writing, Acer is the only remaining domestic vendor that's announced plans to support WHS 2011; both Lenovo and HP have discontinued their existing WHS products and currently have no plans to release new WHS-based hardware. (In the UK, Tranquil PC is planning to release a WHS 2011-based server.)

Finally, it's worth noting that for there isn't going to be a downloadable eval version of WHS 2011, which is a real disappointment for anyone hoping to test WHS 2011 on particular hardware before purchase. According to Microsoft, license restrictions on included third-party codecs prevents the company from providing a trial download. Instead, Microsoft's offering an online eval, which consists of virtualized versions of the server and client that you can interact with freely.

It's been a long time coming, but the next version of Microsoft's Windows Home Server is finally poised to make its debut this month. Formerly known by its "Vail" code name, Windows Home Server 2011 delivers a number of major improvements, not the least of which is that it sports 64-bit Windows Server 2008 R2 under the hood--a major step up from the 32-bit Windows Server 2003 that underpins the current version.

To be sure, WHS 2011 addresses most of its predecessor's biggest shortcomings, though not all of the changes are necessarily for the better.

Server and Client configuration

Microsoft has done much to simplify the process of getting WHS 2011--and the systems you'll connect to it--up and running. Upon completing installation, WHS 2011 provides a checklist of (and convenient links to) the initial configuration tasks that should be performed, such as configuring server backups, enabling remote access, and setting up file sharing and media streaming options. (To facilitate sharing and streaming, WHS 2011 supports DLNA 1.5 and can participate in Windows 7 HomeGroups).

WHS 2011's client software can now be installed directly via a browser, and both Windows and Mac systems are supported (the existing 10 user limit remains in place). A new client utility called the Launchpad delivers health alerts about the system and server (e.g. backup or AV software out-of-date) and gives users easy access to server data and features such as shared folders, backups, Remote Web Access (more on that later), etc. The Launchpad can also be extended to allow access to OEM server customizations or third-party software add-ins.

For administrative access to the server, the Dashboard takes the place of the current WHS Console utility and mostly mimics its predecessor's look and feel. Alerts can now be delivered through e-mail as well as via the client software, which makes it easier to keep tabs on network status when you're not connected to it.

Server Backups and Storage

One of the biggest strengths of the current WHS is its automatic backup of client PCs. Conversely, a big weakness is that a backup of the actual server itself must be manually initiated, and server backups only include client backups and the contents of shared data folders, not the operating system and configuration settings (such as user accounts, etc.). Thankfully, this is no longer the case in WHS 2011; server backups now include the OS files and server settings and they automatically take place twice daily--at Noon and 11PM, though you can customize both the frequency and timing of backups.

The biggest and most controversial change in WHS 2011 concerns how it utilizes storage space. Despite much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments by the WHS enthusiast community, Microsoft has seen fit to excise the much-loved Drive Extender (DE) storage replication and expansion feature from WHS 2011. This means that unlike its predecessor, WHS 2011 can't combine multiple hard drives of different sizes and types (e.g. a 1 TB internal SATA and 2 TB external USB/eSATA) into a single unified storage pool, and it also loses the Folder Duplication feature which replicates a folder's contents to another physical disk to protect against a disk failure.

The upshot of this is that managing storage in WHS 2011 now means dealing with drives individually and being cognizant of their capacity. Whereas adding a new drive to WHS2003 (say, a 1TB unit) simply increases the size of the storage pool by that amount, doing the same in WHS 2011 involves the creation of a new and distinct drive (i.e. one with its own drive letter), and then moving folders over from existing drives to take advantage of the newfound capacity. Microsoft provides a wizard that makes the task relatively painless, but even so, managing storage is a lot more work in WHS 2011 than it is under the DE model.

The other major consequence of the loss of DE, and by extension, Folder Duplication, is that the only way to keep a redundant copy of data at the ready is to use RAID, which in turn requires multiple disks of the same size and type.

It's worth mentioning that a number of third party developers are aiming to restore Drive Extender-like capability to WHS 2011 via add-in software, though efforts are still in the alpha and beta stages.

On the plus side, WHS 2011's Server 2008 provenance means that unlike the current WHS, it's fully compatible with Advanced Format hard drives (those that use a 4K sector size rather than a 512 byte sector), which are increasingly common and almost impossible to avoid at the larger disk sizes (i.e. 1 TB and up).

Remote Web Access

Remote access gets a fairly major overhaul in WHS2011. The server's Remote Web Access site can be customized with your own graphics, logos, and links, the layout can be changed by dragging components around the page, and you can limit which items are visible (e.g. shared folders, remote desktop access to computers, the Dashboard) to specific users when they log in. The UI for accessing remote content is easier to navigate; much less like a circa-2003 browser-based interface and more like Windows Explorer.

The most notable addition to WHS 2011's remote access repertoire is photo slide shows and audio/video streaming, which is provided through a very polished and attractive Sliverlight-based player. (When streaming music, for example, it displays a slick album art animation.) In the case of streaming video, files are automatically transcoded to an appropriate format and bit rate for optimal performance, though the quality you can achieve will ultimately depend on the power of your server's processor. (Four quality settings are available--Low, Medium, High, and Best.)

Although some existing WHS servers--most notably HP's MediaSmart devices--already have streaming capabilities courtesy of OEM customizations and add-ins, it's nice to have the feature out-of-the-box in WHS 2011, particularly for the benefit of those that build their own server.

How to Get WHS 2011

So how will you be able to get your hands on WHS 2011 in the coming weeks? Like the current version, it won't be available as a retail product, only as an OEM edition which lets you install it on your own hardware with 2 provisos: that the software is mated to that specific system you install it on, and you're on your own when it comes to support.

If you're looking for a server with WHS pre-installed, you won't have a lot of options, unfortunately. As of this writing, Acer is the only remaining domestic vendor that's announced plans to support WHS 2011; both Lenovo and HP have discontinued their existing WHS products and currently have no plans to release new WHS-based hardware. (In the UK, Tranquil PC is planning to release a WHS 2011-based server.)

Finally, it's worth noting that for there isn't going to be a downloadable eval version of WHS 2011, which is a real disappointment for anyone hoping to test WHS 2011 on particular hardware before purchase. According to Microsoft, license restrictions on included third-party codecs prevents the company from providing a trial download. Instead, Microsoft's offering an online eval, which consists of virtualized versions of the server and client that you can interact with freely.


For more help, check out the PracticallyNetworked Forums.

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