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Microsoft Vail beta preview

First INQpressions Next Windows Home Server
Fri May 07 2010, 11:31

IT'S BEEN A LONG TIME COMING, but the 'Vail' revision of Windows Home Server is now available as a free public beta via the Microsoft Connect website.

It features major technical and cosmetic changes to both the underlying operating system and to the user interface.

If you’ve never encountered Windows Home Server (WHS), which launched at the end of 2007, it’s an operating system designed for network-attached storage (NAS) systems that offers automated image-based backup and restore, remote access and remote control, plus media streaming and shared data storage for networked Windows PCs. Mac clients are not supported, although some vendors have added in support for Time Machine.

The original WHS was based on Windows Server 2003 SP2, which is getting a little crusty now, but Vail leaps a couple of generations in one mighty bound and borrows the swanky new Windows Server 2008 R2 – in 64-bit only form - as the underlying OS. This means better integration with Windows 7-only features (such as Homegroups) and has also given Microsoft the chance to do a major rewrite of the innards of WHS. This first public beta still has many rough edges and a few ‘not implemented yet’ messages, but it’s good enough to get a good feel for what’s coming. There’s no indication yet about possible launch schedules.

Much use is made of Silverlight, and the entire client interface features much greater extensibility to allow more vendor customisation. An SDK is also available via the Microsoft Connect site. Support for DLNA media streaming has been implemented, and remote streaming of music, photos and videos is now possible via the Silverlight-based media player.

The core functions of WHS haven’t changed at all. Automatic daily image-based backups and remote access are still the key features, but much of the clunkiness has been written out of the remote administration console, now renamed Dashboard. Common tasks are accessed via another applet called Launchpad, which replaces the current WHS Connector icon. You’ve always been able to download the client software direct from the server, but the process is made easier via a special http:///connect URL. The PC restore process is almost identical, booting from a WinPE-based CD and accessing backup images over the network. A brand new wizard within the Dashboard makes restoring individual files and folders much easier, though.

The entire interface is a lot slicker and more novice-friendly than the frankly peculiar Console it replaces. Homegroup integration makes it easier to locate the shared folders on the server and, as with the latest Power Pack 3 update of WHS, these folders also integrate fully with Windows 7 libraries. The Windows Media Center archiving add-in is also carried over from the previous release, although the option to transcode recorded TV shows to various mobile formats has mysteriously disappeared.

System requirements remain pretty undemanding, at a 1.4GHz CPU and 1GB of RAM. Any type or size of drive over 60GB can be added as extra storage, but the main system drive (for the beta at least) needs to be at least 160GB.

What has really got the Vole’s message boards excited, however, are the major changes to the proprietary Drive Extender technology that provides WHS’ data protection and drive redundancy. It’s this RAID-like technology that caused a major setback to WHS when it launched, after it was discovered to be causing file corruption in some circumstances. Although long fixed, Drive Extender has never been quite what the engineers wanted it to be, and now that Server 2008 underpins Vail, use of the old Drive Extender was not an option.

The original version of Drive Extender was a file-based system plonked on top of NTFS. The new version is a block-based system sitting underneath NTFS, with files stored in 1GB ‘chunks’. In theory a single file can have its chunks spread across several drives, a bit like RAID, whereas at present (if duplication of shared files is enabled) entire files are duplicated. This has led to some concerns about resilience to drive failure.

While adding a lot of good features, such as real-time error correction, support for iSCSI and drives larger than 2TB plus better application compatibility now that the NTFS filesystem isn’t obscured, the new Drive Extender also prevents data drives being read by a non-Vail PC. At the moment, shared user files (but not backup images) from any WHS drive can be browsed and recovered simply by sticking it in any PC that can read NTFS drives, a feature viewed as an indispensable USP by many hardcore WHS fans.

There have been several calls from beta testers already for Microsoft to provide some sort of solution, such as a live CD that allows the drives to be read. Mark Vayman, Program Manager, Windows Home and Small Business Server Team, wrote in a forum post that a read-only file viewer might be considered in the future, but probably only after Vail reaches RTM.

In the release notes, it states that as well as an OEM pre-install as at present, “Windows Server ‘Vail’ will be available […] as a standalone software package for those who want to build their own systems”. Although OEM copies of WHS have always been available, if this means that a boxed retail version is planned that represents an interesting change. One of the problems with WHS v1 is that it requires Windows Server 2003-compatible hardware and drivers, which excludes an awful lot of commodity PC bits and bobs. Server 2008 has much broader hardware support, so Vail should be more attractive to DIY builders. The beta is also labelled in some screens as ‘Windows Home Server Premium’, hinting either at multiple versions in the pipeline, or a defunct marketing plan – but it’s easy to imagine a basic home version without remote access, or a small business version with less focus on media streaming.

Add-ins remain the route for third-party developers to add features and functions to Vail, and the new SDK plus enhanced extensibility should mean that there’s much more scope for differentiation between Vail systems. But at present, few vendors apart from HP have made much serious effort at customisation.

Vail looks to have a lot going for it, even in this rough form. Ignoring for the moment the technical issues surrounding Drive Extender, Microsoft seems to have sensibly resisted the temptation to build in non-essential features that could compromise core reliability. By concentrating on making it a backup and media streaming platform with a highly customisable interface, it could become much more attractive to manufacturers, although everything’s relative and there are still only a handful of WHS systems on the market.

We’ll definitely be following this one with a passable semblance of interest over the coming months. µ

Screenshots of the 'Vail' beta of Windows Home Server

vail-launchpadCommon client tasks are peformed using the new Launchpad applet

vail-dashboardThe Dashboard replaces the old Console for server administration

vail-dashboard-storageThe system drive can now be excluded from the storage pool, making for easier system rebuilds

vail-dashboard-homegroupWindows 7 integration now includes support for Homegroups

vail-media-streaming-photosA Silverlight-based media player allows web-based streaming of photos, music and videos

vail-remote-accessThe remote access web pages are brand new and written in Silverlight, with greatly enhanced customisation possibilities

vail-restore-wizardA wizard now guides you through restoring individual files and folders, although the full PC restoration process is little changed

vail-alert-viewerHealth notification is via a new Alert Viewer, which allows repairs to be initiated directly


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