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?”