Windows Home Server Marketing Challenge

I’ve been thinking a lot about how big of a splash Windows Home Server is going to make whenever it makes it to market.  One interesting challenge that the WHS team faces is that its core function, if it’s done properly, is effectively invisible.  It’s true that it is very visible when you need it, but these times are few and far between.

Now WHS has other goals and other features.  The “Access all your files from anywhere” model is pretty cool.  Right now I’ve got it set up using DynDNS (pretty easy but not very consumer friendly), but it looks like by release time there’s going to be some sort of integration with Live Domains, so that this will be a simple set up.  Even this functionality can fade into the background though.  Honestly, since I set this up, I used it a couple of times, just to play around with it, but I haven’t actually needed that remote access.

Now there’s a ton of 3rd party concepts that I’m psyched about.  Home automation integration could be pretty cool, but probably limited to a small niche for DIY types.  If they can partner with ADT or something and get WHS slated as an option when a security system is installed, that would be sweet.

Hopefully the 3rd party market really heats up this space.  It looks like the SDK is going to finally see light in early April.  It’ll be great to finally see exactly how open the platform is to extension.

In the end, I think that WHS is going to be successful not so much as a product, but rather as a platform.  As a product it’s going to be adopted by enthusiasts, people with home-based businesses, and people who have been bitten by the lack of an executed backup strategy.  But as these folks bring WHS into their homes, and the third party solutions start to take off, I can see lots of compelling software products coming on-line so that the masses will want their own Windows Home Server.

Twitter – Universal Content Origination System

Chris Webb writes that he thinks Twitter is going to earn a place as a universal content delivery system.  My thoughts on this are a little different.  Reading his post it seems like he thinks it may become the default info aggregator for a bunch of folks.  It may in fact do that, but I think the more interesting thing is that it can be a unified point for individuals to generate and publish info.  Now I haven’t played with Twitter yet, but from what I’ve read, I could see it evolving into a mechanism for people to put as much of their lives online as possible.  The text-twittering that seems to be the bulk of the traffic now is really only for hard-core communicators who’s thumbs are glued to their BlackBerry or Smartphone (If you’re at your computer, what are you going to Twitter, “I’m sitting at my computer twittering”?)

Anyways, with the API, I could see lots of interesting things happening.  Verizon could offer to automatically twitter my location from the aGPS on my phone (hopefully with a convenient on/off feature).  I could have Flickr auto-twitter my photos.  After Microsoft hashes out their Tellme acquisition they could offer to autotwitter from a microphone (or my phone again) so that my voice comes through as text (and audio?).

Now this is an emergent area, and what it grows into is going to be very uncertain and organic for many years.  I’m hoping that some competing services pop up, and I’m also hoping that they choose to interoperate with Twitter.  All us old guys who remember the Mosaic browser (or gopher clients!) thought email was “the” new way to communicate.  IM was next, and I think Blogs and social networking sites like MySpace are just a pitstop on the way to whatever it is Twitter is going to grow into.  Like email though, their success is going to hinge on playing nice with others.

Windows Live MSN .Net Messenger Identiy Crisis

I was just having some trouble signing in to Live Messenger and decided to use that little “Server Status” link.  I was a little surprised to be hit with 3 different brandings for the same service in the span of a few seconds.


I know there has been some brand confusion in the land of MSN, but I’d hope that they could at least pick one and try to make things consistant.

Windows Vista dumped my profile, Windows Home Server brought it back

When I turned on my laptop this morning, Vista had evidently misplaced my profile.  My wallpaper was gone, messenger didn’t start, and my desktop was empty except for the default icons. 

Normally I would start digging, checking the event logs, looking in my profile directory on the hard drive, googling for similar experiences, etc., but not today.  Today I decided that this would be a great opportunity to test out Windows Home Server’s restore functionality.
I did a quick mental inventory.  Had I changed any important files since the backup from 3 nights prior?  Nope.  Did I have a reasonable “extra backup” if Home Server managed to fail on the restore and trash my disk?  Yup.  Ok, here goes…

I threw in the restore disk, rebooted, and waited.  And waited.  Really it wasn’t that long, but I’d think that distributing the restore disk on DVD might make this a little snappier.  Maybe include the restore function as an option on the Server install DVD, and include the CD in the pack for older machines without a DVD-ROM.

After the restore wizard started, it failed to find my Server.  I was pretty sure this would happen since I was living on the edge.  I was hoping to perform the restore over my WiFi connection, and nothing had prompted me to enter my WEP key yet, so I knew it wasn’t going to work.  I tried going down the path to manually find my server, but no-where is there an option to enter WiFi info, so I ended up going down to the basement to rummage for an ethernet cable.  I set up the laptop and plugged it to my router. (Suggestion for the WHS Team: If you’re going to require a wired connection for restore, then this should be explained in the Wizard.  Some people expect their WiFi to “Just work”.)

After this the wizard easily found the server and prompted me for my server password.  Next I was presented with the option to select which computer I was restoring, and then I could choose which backup to restore.  The times seemed a bit out of whack, so there’s probably a mix up in the time zone on my server.

Next I was presented with a screen showing me options for the different volumes in the backup.  My first thought was that this is a stark contrast from the simplicity of the rest of the user interface.  IMHO the following screen should’ve been hidden behind an “Advanced” button:


One last chance to back out:

Then off it went.  The initial “Time Remaining” estimate was 5 minutes, and then over the next 15 minutes it slowly climbed to 46 minutes.  I had to leave at this point, so I’m not sure exacltly how long it took, but then I got home later in the day, it had finished.

  ->  ->

After I rebooted the machine, it went through about a half-hour of scrolling text on the screen about recovering orphaned files. 

This made me wonder whether the restore had actually been successful or not.  Usually a half hour of file-recovery related text scrolling on a Windows boot-up means your hard drive is toast.  Thankfully the machine booted right up after it finished.

I haven’t dug deep to make sure that the restore really did get everything, but so far nothing is missing, everything is working just like it was 3 days prior. 

Some minor wierdness that I experienced:  After rebooting, I received a warning about the previous shutdown being unexpected.  Now logically this makes sense:  If you restore a computer to a point-in-time where it was running, it’s going to think that it was shut down unexpectedly.  This might be a point of confusion for users who are less tech savy.  Second, my display settings had reverted to 1024 x 768 instead of their normal 1280 x 768.  I’m guessing this has something to do with Windows trying to recover from the “Unexpected Shutdown”, but I’m not sure.

All together it was a success, although I’m left wondering what Vista had done with my profile in the first place.  Seems kinda odd that I just used some beta software to recover from an error in the production Vista.  If it happens again I’ll dig a little deeper, but for this round it was fun to put Windows Home Server through it’s paces.

Wild Speculation – Longhorn Home Server?

Updated: Charlie Kindel has debunked my theory and stated that WHS V1 will not be based on Longhorn Server.

Since I like making the WHS team squirm, I’m going to make a prediction.  The fun thing about predictions is that when you get them right, you can call attention to them and point out your brilliance.  When you get them wrong, you can just let the quietly fade into history.

I predict that Windows Home Server will be based on Longhorn Server when it’s released.

My reasons are few and far between, but here’s my basis for this speculation:

  1. The release timeframe for both WHS and Longhorn Server appears to be “Second Half 2007”.  Releasing a product based on Server 2003 in the shadow of the Longhorn Server release might take away from the excitement around WHS.
  2. In the Channel9 video on WHS, Rory asked Charlie whether they had forked from Server 2003.  Charlie indicated that they hadn’t forked, and I think he said something about how the way that Windows Server is built allowed them to not fork.  The fact that this appears to be a modular addition to Windows Server should mean that it should play nice with Longhorn Server.
  3. There have been subtle hints about the possibility of clustering WHS boxes.  Changes in Longhorn Server enhance the clustering capability.   Reading through the Longhorn Server Highlights I kept thinking “That feature would be useful to WHS”.

That’s pretty much it.  Anything past that can just be chalked up to wild speculation on my part. 

Vista Drivers for CX2620 finally up on Support.Gateway.Com

Click here for the whole list  (I’m not going to link deep to each driver since they may get updated in the future.)

Drivers have been posted for:

  •     D20035-001-001.exe – Windows Vista SATA/Mass Storage Controller version: Intel     
  •     D20003-002-002.exe – Windows Vista Media Card Reader Driver version: TI
  •     D00411-001-001V.exe – Windows Vista Modem Driver version: Conexant
  •     VIWLAN.exe – Vista Wireless Network Driver version: Intel
  •     FP441.exe – Gateway Windows Vista Finepoint Driver version: 4.4.1
  •     D00367-002-001V.exe – Gateway Windows Vista Button Drivers version: 6.0.6000.0300
  •     2KXPVDock.exe – Windows 2000, Windows XP, Windows Vista Cable Docking Driver version:
  •     VIPVAUDIO.exe – Windows Vista Conexant Audio Driver version:
  •     D20006-002-001.exe – Windows Vista Touchpad Driver version: Synaptics

Update: The one driver in this bunch that I’ve really been looking forward to is the Media Card Reader.  I installed it tonight and my machine Blue Screened within 5 minutes.  This is the only Blue Screen I have EVER had with the RTM version of Vista.  So the device has been disabled for now….  Has anyone had success with this driver?

Windows Home Server – Work in Progress

Let me preface this by saying that I understand that this is a Beta product, and therefore I am neither surprised or upset by current shortcomings.  The team that is developing WHS seems to be on top of things and I’m confident that they will close the gap with future builds.  From what I’ve seen so far, the Beta would work great for 95% of people.  I’m just in the other 5% right now.


After getting word that I would be included in the beta, I decided to get a new box to run WHS.  This was mostly due to the fact that I cleaned out my computer graveyard a few months back, and could not manage to scrounge together enough pieces to come anywhere near the minimum hardware specs.  I ended up getting a Dell E521, with a Gig of Ram and a 250GB Hard Drive.  I purposely omitted the Keyboard, Display and Mouse, and just planned to borrow these items from my desktop machine in order to complete the install.

When my machine arrived and I sat down to install WHS, I realized that there was no where to plug my PS/2 keyboard into the E521, and my PS/2 keyboard didn’t come with the magic USB adapter.  Rather than paying through the nose for a overfeatured keyboard at the local Best Buy, I ordered a cheap USB keyboard from Amazon.  A couple days later I was ready to roll.
The install process was easy, and took roughly 1 hour to complete.  You can see an exorbitant number of screen pics here.  There was no real questions to answer, so I had nothing better to do than to sit there and click away with the digital camera.  The Beta install has way to many reboots, and could go quicker. I’m hoping they can address this with image-based install after development settles down a bit.

After the server installation was complete, I returned the cannibalized parts to my desktop, and set out to install the connector software on my Laptop.  This installation went smoothly as well.  I was eager to start a backup, so I ran the “Backup Now” option from the connector tray icon.  A while later, I absentmindedly closed the lid of my laptop, which puts is to sleep.  After waking the laptop up, I saw an error message that indicated that the backup had failed because the TCP/IP connection had been terminated.  Restarted the backup, and left the machine plugged in and open overnight so that it would complete.

The real test for WHS would come from my desktop machine.  This machine has a failing hard disk.  It has had 2 episodes of corrupted data (fixed by chkdsk/f).  I was excited about getting this machine backed up for several reasons. Most of the important data from this machine is being backed up via FolderShare, but it’s hard to know when you’ve captured everything.  Also, I don’t know if a disk error is going to corrupt files and then have the changes get copied through FolderShare.  The other reason is that a good backup to WHS would mean I could swap in a new hard drive and restore everything in short order.  To put this in perspective, the desktop is the machine that my wife uses.  It holds her data, her email contacts & archives.  Unless it’s in her Hotmail account, it’s on this computer.  In other words, this machine is at least 10 times as important as my laptop.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like WHS Beta 2 is going to save this machine.  At least not yet.

The connector software installed just fine.  Everything appears normal.  Since my Laptop was in the process of backing up, I figured I’d just leave the Desktop to start automatically overnight.  In the morning I checked the desktop and it was displaying an error about the backup failing.  A check in the event log shows a FileNotFoundException.  I figure that maybe the disk had choked again, so I ran it through another round of ChkDsk with all the options.  ChkDsk ran clean, without indicating any errors, so I started the backup again, only to have it fail in the same manner.

I’ve tried hitting this from a few different angles, but no matter what I try, I still get either the FileNotFoundException error, or a Volume Shadow Copy Service error.  I’ve filed a bug report and provided logs, but have not heard anything back yet.

I don’t want to whine too loudly because I know the hardware is going bad, but I do want to point out that recovering from errors gracefully should be a top priority for the WHS team.  By gracefully I mean that the software should probably alert the user to the problem, but then continue the backup.  In the case of the failing hard drive, it’s even more important to backup whatever files you can!  In the case of my laptop, interruptions in network connectivity ate the norm for WiFi, and I would guess that most of the target market is using WiFi for their home network.

Now that I’ve finished griping, I would like to offer some positive impressions.  Overall, the functionality is very simple to set up.  The user interaction required for the server and connector setup has been stripped to the bare minimum, and that is a good thing since less questions means less opportunities for mistakes.  The only interaction that stands out as possibly a bit difficult or error prone is the selection of a server password.  An option to save a generated key to a USB stick or burn it to a CD would be a welcome alternative (Sort of like the Wireless Network Setup Wizard in XP or Vista).  But remember or writing down one password is a pretty low bar to set considering the functionality that WHS provides.

The user interface is attractive.  The colors are an interesting mix of MCE and Vista stylings.  So far most things are pretty obvious and intuitive.

As soon as I figure a good secondary backup method, I’ll be moving a lot more of my files into the WHS Shared Folders.  I’m not comfortable trusting the family photo album entirely to the Beta software yet, but I’m going to keep trying to expand my habits to include WHS functions where I can.

I’ll include more thoughts, rants, etc. when I have time to pull together another post. If you are interested in getting in to the Beta, you can sign up for consideration, and there’s also a publicly accessible community forum site.

Windows Home Server, On pause

In a great convergence of events, my new Dell E521 showed up today, and my Beta 2 discs showed up in the mail.  I ordered the E521 without a keyboard, mouse, or monitor, and just planned on borrowing these from my desktop.

I hit a snag because although I have two keyboards on the desktop, one has a PS/2 connector, and the other is Bluetooth.  I went to plug in the PS/2 keyboard and found that there is no PS/2 connectors on the new E521. 

On a whim, I figured I’d try throwing the WHS install DVD into the machine and to see if there was some way to bootstrap the install.  My router doesn’t show the machine getting a DHCP address, and the Connector install can’t find the server either, so I think I’m out of luck on that angle. 

(It would be a great feature if the DVD would boot a basic remote desktop that you could hit, or if it would start something that the Connector could hook up to in order to do an install without KVM.) 

So, the Beta experience is on hold until I can pick up a cheap USB keyboard.