Skydrive vs. NAS vs. Windows Home Server vs. Windows’ Shares

No, this isn’t a blog entry about comparing these options though someone would do the world a service by writing a good one.  This is a blog entry about the strategic realities of these four mechanisms for sharing and backing up data with both backward and forward looks.

When Microsoft’s David Vaskevitch was running around in 1993-94 making his pitch why the company should get serious about the Enterprise business he’d use an argument that started with data centers and got to the number of small businesses and branch offices.  There were many millions of places where at least one employee went to work every day, and each of them justified a Server.  And then, more quietly since this was nominally an Enterprise discussion, he’d add-on the opportunity for servers in the home.   It took 14 years for Microsoft to address the server in the home part of the vision with Windows Home Server (WHS), and the question that haunted it almost from the beginning was “too little, too late” or “too much, too expensive for the mainstream consumer”?

There is no question that WHS, now officially being discontinued with the release of Windows Server 2012, was a cool product.  It introduced a cool, though technically flawed, means of storage management called Drive Extender (dropped in the most recent version).  It has a backup/restore that really works for recovering from hard drive failure.  It provides network shared folders.  It allows for remote access.  It serves up multimedia via DLNA.  And it is a platform for third-party apps.

Sadly adoption of WHS was light from the beginning.  How much of this was because of the product itself and how much was because of the marketing strategy is hard to tell.  WHS was a relatively small project within Microsoft, not one that would have the marketing budget to buy its way into shelf-space at Best Buy, run TV ads touting its virtues, or license a theme song from the Rolling Stones.  It counted on a bootstrap marketing strategy wherein a very modest initial effort lead to enough adoption to justify vastly increased marketing effort.  “If you build it they will come”, but they didn’t.  At least not in enough numbers to justify increased effort.  The second major release, Windows Home Server 2011, was greeted not with renewed effort but rather with Microsoft’s major OEM partner HP dropping out of the business.  No other OEM stepped in to fill the void.  Even system builders stayed away (except, oddly enough, in the UK).  It was no longer a consumer product, but rather the low-end of Microsoft’s confusing line of (business) server offerings.  With the advent of Windows Server 2012 the most used functionality of WHS, as well as the more successful but still not a barn burner Windows Small Business Server, are folded into Windows Server Essentials.  And any notion of a consumer product, or of having servers priced for consumer use, abandoned.

From the moment that WHS launched it was under assault from a range of alternatives, none of which were as good as the package but all of which were more than adequate for their individual task.  Windows client had long had facilities for Shared Folders, and when Windows 7 added HomeGroups they really became easily managed by consumers.  Why set up yet another system in your house when you could easily designated one Windows PC to hold your shares?  You could even use Windows Backup, as mediocre as it is, to backup your various PCs to those shares.  Or why not buy a NAS (Network Attached Storage) drive, today a 2TB WD My Book Live is running around $150, and have a backup and share solution for perhaps 1/3 of the cost of an equivalent WHS server.  And then came the problem of Disaster Recovery…what happens to your data when a wildfire sweeps down into your city and burns your house to ground, as just happened in Colorado Springs?  You really want your key data backed up in the Cloud.  Remote Access?  Well there are numerous solutions, including multiple from Microsoft.

The cloud, of course, is the real game changer.  A few years ago David Vaskevitch and I were discussing the Cloud as an alternative to WHS (and WHS-like alternatives).  David, a very serious photographer, was thinking about how much data he generates on a typical trip and also how much a family with a newborn might generate in data from video.  Looking at broadband speeds he could quickly demonstrated the impracticality of backing up all this data to the cloud.  The thing is, David is somewhat of an outlier and video has not exploded to the extent he was considering at that time.  Few amateur photographers generate as much data as David.  Yes people take a lot of video, but their style has adapted to the Internet.  They take shorter clips and want to share them, not hour-long home movies that no one actually ever looks at.  They take a lot of photos, but most of these are for sharing on the Internet anyway.  So while there are some people who will have the problem that David demonstrated in terms of network bandwidth being inadequate for Cloud backup, the vast majority of consumers don’t generate enough data on a regular basis for this to be an issue.

Each of the four answers I mention to the problems of Sharing and Backing Up data have their advantages and disadvantages.  And many super power users use more than one.  Paul Thurrott, for example, uses the Crashplan cloud backup service along with WHS.  I haven’t switched to a full cloud backup service, but everything important has copies on some cloud service.  For example I recently bought additional storage on Skydrive and uploaded all our digital photos there.  Our PCs actually dual-backup to the WHS and to a NAS drive (purchased because our WHS has had hardware issues).  Grabbing the NAS drive is on our list of what to do in a wildfire evacuation, something much easier than figuring out how to take the relatively non-portable WHS itself.

There will always be a place for LAN-based shares and backups for some power users (be those computer power users or semi-pro photograhers/videographers), but the general market has peaked.  The trend, and it’s a strong one, is to put our data in the cloud.  When you take a photo on your Windows Phone it is automatically pushed to Skydrive.  Apple copied that and now a picture on your iPhone gets pushed to iCloud.  Most consumer email lives in Hotmail, Gmail, or Yahoo cloud stores.  The cloud is becoming a place where you can store, and even serve up, your music.  Streaming is already overwhelming local storage of commercial video, and user-generated video is increasingly stored in the cloud so it can be shared outside the LAN.  With both Google Docs, and Microsoft Office’s support for Skydrive, cloud storage of personal documents is becoming the default.

I know a lot of readers of this blog have their reasons why WHS was great, is great, and why it or a similar solution is still needed.  But anyone reading this is almost certainly part of the 1%.  99% of PC (and other computing devices such as Smartphone and Tablet) users will never adopt a WHS-style solution.  Most will not implement a LAN-based sharing, or backup, solution at all.  In fact, most don’t do backups at all despite decades of being urged to do so.  However many, perhaps most, are or will use cloud services for sharing and backing up data.

So goodbye WHS, RIP.  Those of us who love you will continue to run our servers until the hard-drive heads crash, the power supplies burnout, the memory chips generate parity errors, and Microsoft stops issuing security patches for your underlying OS.  But for the 99% your epitath will be “why would I want one of those?”

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24 Responses to Skydrive vs. NAS vs. Windows Home Server vs. Windows’ Shares

  1. Bob - former DECie says:

    Here’s another thing to think about when using cloud storage or backup: http://redtape.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2012/07/06/12583821-is-us-government-reading-email-without-a-warrant-it-doesnt-want-to-talk-about-it?lite?ocid=twitter
    I know it’s talking about email, but it would appear that there is a gaping hole in privacy laws here for both the individual and business.

    I do like the NAS solution for just the reason you mentioned; it’s a grab-and-go disaster recovery solution, assuming you are home when the need arises. Years ago, a coworker got a call at work informing him that the apartment building he lived in was on fire. Fortunately, the fire did not reach his unit, but it did suffer some smoke and water damage.

    • halberenson says:

      One difference with a Cloud backup service (vs simply storing files in the cloud) is that the backups are encrypted at the client. Neither the Cloud service, nor presumably the government (dark thoughts about the NSA aside), can read it.

      Putting government concerns aside, you really want to read the Privacy Poilicy of the site you store data on. Skydrive’s policy is “it’s your data, we have no right to it” while Google Drive’s policy is “Google owns anything you store here”. Why anyone would use Google Drive is beyond me.

      • Ville says:

        Google certainly has “it’s your data, we have no right to it” point covered in their policies. Please don’t push Microsoft’s FUD campaign which is simply utterly false.

      • Dan Neely says:

        Does Google’s policy actually say that; or is it another instance of the endemic problem where someone mistakes the set of rights needed for a cloud service platform to copy data from one computer to the next and to serve it to the web for an ownership grab?

        I’ve seen almost every major online site storing user data get accused of doing this by someone who misread/misunderstood the ToS; the sheeple running major tech blogs invariably report the erroneous report verbatim and are very quiet when they post a retraction after someone with a clue steps in. (Assuming they even bother to do the retraction/mea culpa update in the first place.)

  2. Anon says:

    I’ve got a tiny WHS and the full 125GB of SkyDrive. The main reason was for backing up photos (100GB+ of photos is taking forever to upload to SkyDrive btw). As soon as my photos one day does finish uploading I’m not sure what use I will have for my WHS. All my photos will be on SkyDrive and home machine and all my music (99% of it anyway) are available on Spotify.

    • Dan Neely says:

      How long would it take to recover your computer after an HD crash/major virus attack?

      Following an infection a few months ago I had WHS restoring my system from the recovery CD within an hour. (Most of the delay caused by having to figure out where to get the ISO in the first place.) The restore took about 16hrs for several hundred GB of data because I was limited to 100mbit ethernet.

      My last clean OS install took over a week before I had most of my major apps reinstalled and reconfigured to suite.

      • halberenson says:

        I’ve had the same WHS experience, but nobody cares. I’ve also brought an iPad back from hard reset in an hour without help from a WHS. Which may further explain why WHS is irrelevent to most people. In a pure Metro world the experiebce will be like the iPad….

      • Dan Neely says:

        At least for the next few years though I suspect laptop/desktops where only the metro part matters for recovery purposes will be a fairly small minority. Maybe by Windows 9; although I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t true until Win10.

  3. Tim says:

    “Why anyone would use Google Drive is beyond me.”
    Actually, I use Google Drive and really like it. Perhaps I should be more concerned about their privacy policy. I tried SkyDrive about 6 months ago and didn’t find the file sharing as convenient as Google’s, but that might be because I didn’t spend enough time looking through the options. Also, the convenience of google drive being easily accessible when inside of my email (gmail) or calendar (google as well) is nice. I suppose I would be more tempted to use SkyDrive if I had my hotmail account open through the day, but hotmail long ago became my “willing-to-accept-junk” email address used when purchasing online and the like. (Side note on that – to me, hotmail just doesn’t feel fresh or have the cool or even professional factor like gmail. I’ve had my same hotmail address since ’98 or so, and even the name just seems old.)

    All that said – I should probably give SkyDrive another try again as I do spend most of my day working with MS software and really enjoy it.

    • Ville says:

      “Why anyone would use Google Drive is beyond me.” Actually, I use Google Drive and really like it. Perhaps I should be more concerned about their privacy policy.
      ___
      If you like it and it works for you, be happy. You might want to give SkyDrive a try every once in a while and who knows, maybe it works better for some things and Google Drive works better for others.

      But on the privacy front you really shouldn’t give too much weight to Microsoft’s blustering about its services being any different from Google’s. Google has very clear language in its Privacy Policy about how they do and do not use the data and it is in no way worse than e.g. SkyDrive in this case. It is quite simply a

      On the topic at hand… I’ve found the solution of a NAS + Cloud to be the one. NAS pools in lots of other locations and then offloads to Cloud for backup.

  4. Neil - Warwick, UK says:

    Consumer NAS’s killed WHS, which although loved my some, was a poor repsonse to Apple’s Time Machine.

    Zxyel 2Tb NAS at around £120GPP, or a more capablt Synology for £200GBP+.

    As with Time Machine, many rely on single drives, so their is some pain in-bound for many, but cross-backing up to other NAS’s (Synology’s X-backup is excellent), to backing your PC up to a friends using CrashPlan Free is another compelling solution.

  5. kahunapig says:

    Bummer! I’ve used WHS since the trial. I’ve used a cheap mobo and cheap SATA 500gb hd’s (up from 250’s). I’ve backed up to external TB drives and swap them periodically into a bank safety deposit box. Twice I’ve had to restore crashed computers at home. WHS backs up every [Windows] computer every night. It just works great. I can’t think that I will ever store my tax returns, and other important electronic papers on a cloud storage drive, but time changes everything eventually.

    • mister.teche says:

      I too have WHS 2011 on a 3-yr-old Dell Optiplex 745 desktop backing up on two external 2TB hard drives with one of the drives being swapped out of a bank safe deposit box; backups occurs nightly automatically. I have over 15 years of photos, home videos, music and documents totaling over 1 TB. It’s impractical to store all to the cloud–it will take too long and way too expensive.

      One major advantage to the WHS solution is the laptop backups. It took a little over an hour to restore one of my kids’ laptop that was infected with a worm. Restoring failed OS is definitely a time saver.

      Cloud storage is employed for sharing selected photos, videos and data I need access to regularly.

    • Rusty Stainless says:

      Do not rely on the cloud, I have made that mistake. I just found that I lost some tax files that were stored in Dropbox. DO NOT TRUST DROPBOX! Those files were, in a sense, being archived to help prepare my annual tax return. There is no reason that I would have opened them, let alone deleted them. But the problem is actually in understanding the best purpose of synced cloud vs a backup device. I came unstuck because the cloud is like a file server that doesn’t have backup. As soon as Dropbox axed my files (it has a very short recycle bin time, not much help) it then deleted them from my computer as soon as I opened it. I actually use Skydrive for all my photos vids and music. I will now be using a home back-up drive as well as the cloud. For convenience I will dedicate my old netbook to cloud file storage interfacing and connect an external drive for backup duties.

  6. Sander says:

    I have a WHS 2008 and it’s terrific. Bought it for a steal too. Just a week ago or so I actually had to recover my main desktop because windows update borked the system. It would no longer boot and no tricks I could find allowed me to recover. A couple of hours later I had my system recovered. Magic. The backup software is the killer app. The flawless network shares are a close second. I had a different NAS before it and there would always be problems with shares going away or generally not working. Not so with the WHS.

    Such a relief that all my computers are backed up, even those used by my wife and kids. All our photos and videos and other shared files in one location, redundantly stored. The photos and videos I sync back to my big desktop with synctoy just because that’s where the real value is.

    In addition I backup the entire WHS regularly on 2 hard drives that I swap. I use a free backup plugin for that, forget what it’s called. While one drive is in the WHS, the other is far away from it. Unlikely both will burn at the same time.

    I tried doing backups with USB and eSATA drives and it was miserable. You have to remember to plug the darn thing in and eSATA has a nasty habit of corrupting drives and volumes. I don’t trust it anymore. Went wrong too many times on too many drives with too many machines. LAN based backup is where it’s at. GigE where possible, fast wifi elsewhere.

    I don’t know what I’ll use when this little server dies and I can’t resurrect it. Oh, it runs mediamonkey as my DLNA server and uploads weather data too.

    • mister.teche says:

      I have a similar setup as you and it works great–particularly MediaMonkey as my DLNA server (i have a huge music collection).

      If the server dies, I can always purchase a used Dell Optiplex 7xx on ebay for dirt cheap then restore the server image. I had to do this once before.

      • Sander says:

        Yeah, I also run MediaMonkey as my DLNA server as the one that came with the server was pretty terrible. I still haven’t quite found the idea media management solution that keeps all your playlists and other config on the WHS while being DLNA compatible. In other words I want to create a playlist on my laptop and have my Sony BD player recognize it without having to export the playlist first. I guess we have some ways to go here. I don’t play music that way very often so it’s not a big deal for me, just a casual wish.

        On a different note I had to recover a laptop just this weekend. My parents are visiting and I had them use one of my W7 lappies with a guest account. Somehow they managed to wedge the OS. It booted but you could no longer logon (endless ‘welcome’ with spinning icon’). WHS to the rescue with a restore.

        Really, I wouldn’t know what to do without this thing. There is plenty of room for improvement but for the cost (peanuts) it’s hard to beat. At some point I’ll have to upgrade to a newer version but for now this will do just fine.

        Oh, the one thing I really want is snapshotting or even better, file versioning. The WHS protects against single media failure but it doesn’t protect against ‘oops’ failure unless you are religious in your external backups.

  7. fleon888 says:

    @halberenson – But you didn’t have your iPad with all your apps, all your photos, all your *stuff* within an hour. With all your customization, etc. I don’t know about you , but configuring just MS Office the way I like it (from scratch) takes at least an hour. That’s why I’m seriously going to miss my WHS. Daily, image backups.

    • halberenson says:

      But I mostly did. Apps, all re-downloaded from App Store. Photos and other personal objects was all in the cloud and didn’t need to be downloaded except for the lock screen. Settings was the big problem. And over time this situation will just improve. Settings, for example, are moving into the cloud too.

  8. One thing that isn’t clear is whether app settings and data within Windows 8 will backup to the Skydrive cloud. It’s all well and good to do a ‘PC Refresh’ that brings back all your apps but if they’re all vanilla again, that’s a major deal breaker and makes it no different than an old-school drive format. One thing Apple has done very well with their devices is backup – iTunes backs up everything, including app settings and data. Often the only thing you’ll need to re-enter are passwords, but everything carries across if there is a device failure or complete refresh. If Windows 8 and WP8 do the same thing, I’ll be very pleased indeed.

  9. Pingback: Skydrive vs. NAS vs. Windows Home Server vs. Windows’ Shares | NAS Guide

  10. patrick rose says:

    Sander’s synopsis of his storage and playback system with restore and backup solutions that work seamlessly across mac and windows platforms and being totally off the cloud for vital things and everday needs is what I would say about my setup using
    whs v1 with complete playback to tv, stereo, dacs, ipads etc thruout the house at moments notice. The recent articles in NY Times regarding server farms plus someone else having my data makes me convinced that I too will wait till this acer aspire 341 dies. For me it will be like hanging on to XP. Await being convinced that the cloud is a seemless, asseable or essential to my needs as a home enthusiast, like all others who strive to blend in seemlessly the computer and all the bells of whistles of having access to ones choice of data., at a variety of sources. Regarding Ipads they too work seemlessy with the data on a widows home server.Serving weather data also.

    BRGDS,
    patrick

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