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My thoughts on the WHS Platform


usacomp2k3
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It is hard to believe that we are still on the first release of Windows Home Server. Sure, there have been 3 power packs, but these have largely been bug fixes or minor improvements. There has been little that has changed under the hood from when WHS was first announced in 2007. There are some integral areas where WHS could do better, but we are willing to overlook them because of the first-generation nature of the product. Now that Microsoft has been talking about WHS2, codenamed Vail, it is time to look a little deeper at what areas the second generation product needs to improve upon to be a more mature platform. I’ll also through some wants in along with the needs.

True Data Redundancy

It is great that you can turn duplication on to your shares, but what happens if your system drive dies? You are in a bad state. Unless you are using 3rd party tools, all of your backups will be gone. This means that if you have an old backup that you’d ever need data from, you are stuck. Or if you are like me and made a backup of Vista before installing Windows 7, you’ll never be able to get back that Vista data.

The other problem is that you might have many add-ins installed and customized configuration, such as extra users that access media using the website. When the system drive dies, you have to set all of that back up again. Not only is it time consuming, you are not likely to remember exactly how you had things set up in the first place. Joe Sixpack is going to be extremely frustrated by this process.

What WHS2 needs is the ability to have dual system drives. This could be setup in a master/slave type of arrangement, with the slave being updated in real-time to match the master. If the master drive was to be inaccessible upon bootup, the computer would automatically boot to the slave which would then become the master, and you could configure another drive as the new slave. This should alleviate any problems with any drive failing, be it a storage drive or a system drive.

Disk Performance Improvements

To be frank, data access from a WHS is slow. It is much slower than if the drives were attached via a simple NAS. This is partially to do with the way that Drive Extender is implemented. Most users will be reading data much more frequently than writing data, so WHS2 needs to improve read speeds and eliminate stuttering during reading. Stuttering is very annoying and is enough to turn away users from using the WHS as a media store. Even the most demanding content, a Blu-Ray rip, peaks at 40mbps (technically, the spec allows for a peak of 50mbps for less than 1 second, 40mbps max sustained, and 3d Blu-Ray increases this by 50% to 60mbps max sustained), which is a single-digit percentage of what modern day hard-drives can provide in throughput. One simple way to do this is to take advantage of the duplication. If the data is stored on 2 places, then have the ability to read from both places at the same time. This would effectively double the read speed, but, more importantly compensate for times when one drive might be doing something else. I’don’t know how the drive extender determines which drive to pull duplicated data off of, but it needs to do a better job.

The other option that should be included is to give the user the ability to set the importance of timely duplication. For my movies or music, I would be fine if it didn’t duplicate things right away, but maybe every night. That way the drive extender wouldn’t have to worry about duplicating the data as soon as it is copied to the WHS (and potentially interrupting other activities). This leads directly into my next point:

Scheduling Improvements

Currently, there are very few aspects to what a WHS does that are scheduled. Backups are pretty much the only one. However, there are many other areas where scheduling should be implemented. And I’don’t mean scheduling based on a specific time, but rather the ability to schedule in sequence. For example, my idea setup would be that at time X, the computers get backed up (say 1am). As soon as the backups are done, I would want for the WHS to move all recorded TV from the clients to the WHS Shares. When that is done, I would want to run an application that would scan those files for commercials, or maybe automatically transcode them to a mobile format. When that is done, I would want an antivirus scan to run. As soon as that is done, I would want the disks to be defragged. I think I make my point. There are other activities that could be done in here as well, such as backing up to the cloud, conversion of DVD .ISO’s to mkv’s, updating the web share with new photo’s/video’s, etc.

Some of these activities would need to run in some sort of order, but for many it wouldn’t matter. However, none of them should run at the same time. It is usually faster to run 2 disk-intensive activities one after the other than to try and do them both at the same time. This would also allow for WHS to continue to run on slower/older hardware. Many users see an improvement in system performance with upgraded hardware, but some of this is due to the inefficient use of resources by WHS. This is an area where WHS2 needs to improve.

System restores

While restores work well 90% of the time, 90% is far from 100%. For Joe Sixpack, troubleshooting those 10% of the cases can be impossible. The error messages are very cryptic, and even an experienced Tech-Head doesn’t always know how to get things working again. WHS2 needs to fix this. I now know that 95% of restore errors are due to drivers, but even I’didn’t fully understand that until recently. WHS doesn’t provide you the drivers you need to use the restore. They leave it up to you to get your own if they aren’t included in the restore CD. What WHS2 should do is maintain a folder for computer drivers, I’d suggest \homeserversoftwareRestore_Drivers. Then, everytime a computer is added, WHS checks to see if the storage and network drivers for the 32-bit Vista environment of the restore process, and if they aren’t, it either gets them automatically (using Windows Update maybe) or tells the user that they need to get them. That way, whenever you do a restore, you could copy the folder to a USB stick and WHS restore would use those drivers, and everyone would be happy.

Disk images

One thing that I’d love to see, and this is totally a want, is to be able to open a backup in a Virtual Environment. Using something like VMWare or Virtual PC, it’d be awesome to be able to open a backup virtually and then do things like look up an e-mail or a setting or something like that. This would probably need to be a read-only image, but that’s fine too. Maybe just storing the backups as a VHD would be step forward. I know that you can open a backup and access a file, but sometimes you can’t get when you need that way (especially program settings). I know, this is a want.

Better DLNA support

This one is totally obvious, but if Microsoft wants to really be the storage hub for content to be consumed around the house, it needs to build in a good DLNA server, including transcoding. It can’t leave it up to 3rd party developers to make apps. It also needs to jump on this soon before it is too late and everyone has resorted to semi-functional 3rd party apps. It should also require OEM’s to include SHED support to accelerate transcoding, again allow for lower-specced boxes.

Power Usage

For a device that is going to be on 24/7, there needs to be better power usage. Being able to turn off disks when not in use, supporting SpeedStep, these are just a few areas. Windows 7 is great about doing this, and again, for a machine that is on 24/7 in a user’s home, it is important to use as little power as possible. Maybe they could start with 100% reliable sleep support (I haven’t been impressed so far), and the ability to allow for wake-ups by more than just magic packets. It should wake up anytime the web is accessed, a device accesses the shares, a DLNA player communicates with it, etc. Maybe sleep isn’t the answer, but a very-low-power idle sta'te. Either way, it needs to happen. In my house, we are at work during the day, and so that is 10 hours that I don’t use the box at all. Well actually I do because I’m always remoted into it via Live Mesh, but other than that, the device isn’t used. Also, when I am asleep, the box doesn’t need to be online unless it’s running through its list of nightly processes as detailed above.

VPN

I want WHS2 to have VPN support built in. It could use IPsec/L2TP; Windows 7 includes this client for this by default. When you connect a new computer, it should setup this option. It makes so much sense. When I’m away from home and want to access data on my network, there should be an easy, built-in way to do this seamlessly, without having to use a web page.

Others

I would want WHS2 to include Zune and Live Mesh by default. I really want Media Center to be built-in, with the ability to host extenders. They should offer this as a pay-for upgrade; I’d buy in a heartbeat. I know many other people would too. While this is a topic for another day, they should use DLNA and RVU to serve as the extender platform, which would allow for many more devices to work as extenders, not just the xbox 360. Once Managed Copy rolls around, it only makes sense that you could use your WHS as the storage for your managed copies.

Conclusion

Windows Home Server is a great product, for being first generation. However, it is getting very long in the tooth, and the more I use it, the more I see the limitations. It looks like it is being updated soon, but I have my own opinions about what should be included in this update to bring it to modern day, and even a little beyond.

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Cool stuff, thanks AJ.

I like this point among others,

If the data is stored on 2 places, then have the ability to read from both places at the same time.
I never thought about this. it makes sence.
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Yeah that's a RAID 1 optimization which was also not built into early implementations until someone pointed it out, and after that people wondered why nobody had thought of something so obvious.

@usacomp2k3: Something to add about disk performance and availability. I have had two data drive failures in the past, and that process really needs work. Yes the data is protected, and I just needed to remove the drive, but I was using USB connected drives in those days and it was painfully slow. 48 hours of having no access to the shares, in the first place, why do the shares go down throughout? I can understand an initial scanning phase where no new files should be added and confusing the scanner, but demigrator is perfectly capable of running duplication in the background while the shares are up. That just makes no sense to me to have them down for that long.

And if I don't have time for a long outage just then and want to use what's still working, that doesn't quite work too. I had read errors piling up because any file with its primary copy on the failed drive could not be read through normal access methods. I had to manually locate the secondary copy in the c:/fs/*/shares/ or use a tool like Conflict Resolver. This again makes no sense because the secondary copy is there and perfectly readable. WHS just can't find the file without resorting to a remove drive process.

Ok that's all I have to rant about. Actually no, I have more, but this one irked me the most. Like you said, it's a good concept and a good product but being v1, it will have its issues, and I just want to see it get better with v2.

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roddy,
I would like to hear your experience with Conflict Resolver, I haven't heard anyone's reaction to that addin. It did have a bug on claiming large files were corrupt, but had since then been updated.
Start a new post, please.

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I should point out that i no knowledge of what is going into WHS2/Vail beyond the vagueness we've seen around the 'net. It's probably too late to change course of anything, not that they'd listen to my opinion directly anyway. Heh.

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I agree that I would like to see some major changes in WHS2.

The first thing I want changed is a way to restore the home server primary drive. I recently had to replace my system drive. I was forced to use the instructions on replacing a system drive from www.mediasmartserver.net . This process has 27 steps and is not for the novice. The whole process took me a little over 4 hours to complete. There has to be an easier way to replace a system drive! I really don

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Well for VPN, with so many people having laptops, wouldn't you like to play your media/content from anywhere in the world that has network access? Also you could run backups from other locations. You could even have off-site computers backups easily, like maybe a family computer. Or you could configure a family member to be able to view pictures and such from their location without using a web share.

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Hi usacomp2k3,

I have setup VPN connections to my WHS when the need has arisen. This has been mostly when I have had the need to connect my server to a vendors system to give them access to resources within my system. I help a local mom and pop ISP with their maintenance. This worked very well.

There are a couple of good article on setup VPN connection on the We Got Served Wiki. I have used the article posted here http://wiki.wegotserved.com/index.php?title=Create_a_VPN_Using_Your_Windows_Home_Server

I have also used a Linksys VPN router to connect outside users to a WHS box for a friend

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The problem with hardware is you have to then buy the hardware. I agree that it is the preferred, but for home users, buying specialized single-use hardware isn't that likely. For a router, you won't be able to keep as current as you would buying a $50 D-Link router every couple years.
The reason that I say it should be included is that the good are already there. Win Server has RRAS, which would be the basis for a software VPN. It would also be simple to configure and be able to tie in with a single set of user credentials.

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