Why removing “Drive Extender” from the next Windows Home Server is bad product management

29 11 2010

Yeah, I should have posted at least once more this year.  But I guess it takes something of epic frustration to prod me into re-prioritizing my schedule right now.  Removing a technology called “Drive Extender” from Windows Home Server is just the right move to get my fingers on the keyboard again.

Let me explain why…

Through a series of weird coincidences, I happened upon the necessity to consider purchasing a “real” Windows Home Server box from an OEM.  My current “Frankenstein’s Monster” box I assembled many years ago (after all, Frankenstein was the doctor, not the monster) is probably a liability.  I keep feeding it drives, and it keeps running.

For all of you out there who have businesses of some sort, the end of 2010 means the last opportunity to spend some money on capital assets (i.e. shiny toys) and write them off.  Because everyone is soooo scared that taxes might change in 2011, CPA’s are telling people to spend money this year as though a great plague is upon us and the only way to slake its blood lust is to feed it cash.

It’s like written permission

So when you get this letter from your CPA and you look for toys to buy, you start thinking about all the non-sexy stuff that you worry about at 2AM when you can’t sleep.  My Windows Home Server is one of those items.

The problem with buying in 2010 is that “Vail” (aka the next Windows Home Server version based on Windows Server 2008) is just about ready.  It runs only on 64 bit hardware (which, oddly enough, my current box can do).  However, very few of the current WHS offerings on the market are 64 bit machines, and zero of them mention anything about upgradability to “Vail” when it comes out.

There are, in fact, people bravely running the current Vail builds on the HP Mediasmart boxes.  So that gave me some hope.

What’s that Drive Extender tweet all about?

As I am researching the 64 bit WHS offerings over the weekend and their ability to get going on Vail, I notice a flurry of tweets out in the twit-space about “how could Microsoft kill Drive Extender in Vail?!”

And I thought to myself… “certainly they don’t mean that thing where I can add a new hard drive to the box and WHS says ‘I see a new hard drive… should I make it part of the storage pool?’… I mean, that would be insane!  That’s what WHS is all about!”

Yup.  That’s what they meant.  Microsoft has decided to KILL Drive Extender because they believe that the available storage options are cheap enough, big enough, and available enough to render the utility of Drive Extender moot.

And, Microsoft believes that vendors will offer a HARDWARE RAID solution to the problem of replication.

Then I see that HP Mediasmart boxes are listed as “Discontinued” on B&H Photo’s web site.  Then NewEgg’s stock goes on fire sale over the weekend (and I miss it).

Something bad is happening.  Many fear Vail will never see the light of day (you have to head over to connect.microsoft.com to see that), many fear that OEMs will never make new hardware to support Vail, and others fear tax increases.

Why Drive Extender is critical to WHS

There are 3 reasons why Drive Extender is a critical component of WHS / Vail and its removal is terrible product management:

  1. Drive Extender lowered the barrier of entry to both consumers and OEMs.  Who knows how an OEM will implement a RAID solution.  Or if they will.  Will you have to buy drives of all the same size and manufacturer?  Will you have to buy the machine pre-populated with drives?  My dad could buy the HP box with one drive, and add new, bigger drives as they became available and benefit incrementally because Drive Extender was a core component of the product.
  2. Drive Extender let me decide WHICH files were important to replicate.  Maybe it wasn’t perfect, but I could choose which folders were important to make redundant, and which weren’t.  I just don’t care if my Recorded TV is duplicated.  So, I don’t want it taking up 2x the space on my drives!
  3. Microsoft will have introduced an opportunity for inconsistency across different hardware manufacturers.  Today, storage is storage in WHS boxes.  All consumers need to worry about is how many drive bays they’d like.  With Drive Extender gone, consumers may also have to choose what kind of replication to buy.  This is a choice that my parents, or even I would probably screw up.

Apple fans are very smug about how their “Time Capsule” and “Time Machine” product (which, incidentally, does not allow one to travel back in time) look and function.  Until I point out to them that they get 1 and only 1 hard drive.  That drive goes out, and where are they?  Admittedly, WHS does a LOT more than a Time Capsule and, it’s a different product.  However, automatic drive replication was a huge differentiator that even Apple people could admit was a good idea – even if it came from Microsoft.

Why was I waiting for Vail?

Honestly, there were basically 2 reasons I was waiting for Vail.  One was that Windows Server 2008 is so much better with Power Management, I had hoped that I could have my hardware take advantage of the CPU throttling etc.

The other was (perhaps another questionable product management decision… but I know why they did it, but it just hurts my brain) that I can no longer use Windows Live Mesh on my Windows Home Server.  That one really really hurts me.  Sure, I like backing up to “The Cloud”, but I’m a photographer.  I do work from multiple locations.  I would like to be able to Mesh files back to my WHS box and then move them out into one of my duplicated shares for safe keeping.  5GB in the cloud isn’t good enough for me.  It’s nice, but I need to get back to real storage.

So yeah, that’s what I was waiting for.  Live Mesh to me was a very very important part of my infrastructure.  Its elimination in Windows Live Essentials 2011 hurt pretty badly.  I had hoped to find a workaround for it, but have yet to uncover one.  So I resigned myself to waiting for Vail.

Now I don’t know if I should wait for Vail – or even if Vail is worth the hassle.  If I have to configure real RAID or re-buy all my drives to do hardware RAID, then I should just admin a real server.


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