Open Mouth, Change Feet

There seems to be something in the water at the campus at Redmond. That must be the reason why I cannot fathom some of the decisions being made in Microsoft at the moment.

The latest is today’s announcement from the Windows Home Server team that they will be dropping the Drive Extender technology for the next version of Windows Home Server (codenamed Vail) due to be released in 2011.

I just don’t understand the rationale behind this. As far as I’m concerned, it’s been a brilliant piece of technology that just worked, and has been the underpinning of why I bought version 1 of WHS in the first place. If a drive failed, I could just slot in a new one, and the system would automatically recover. The drives didn’t all have to be the same size (as in a RAID setup).

And now, Microsoft announce that they are dropping this for Vail, and claim that customers don’t want or need it. Hello, I’m a customer, and I want it… It was, and is, one of the major selling points of WHS.

Is the world going mad? Or is it just Microsoft?

Update 24 November 2010

Well there’s been quite an outcry from WHS users since yesterday’s announcement. So much so that the unfortunate Michael Leworthy felt it necessary to issue a second statement . Reading the two together merely underlines the title of my post, and serves to point out the disingenuousness of Mr. Leworthy.

Yesterday, for example, his reason for announcing the dropping of the Driver Extender technology was:

When weighing up the future direction of storage in the consumer and SMB market, the team felt the Drive Extender technology was not meeting our customer needs.

Yet today, clearly somewhat shocked, and yet knowing that the reaction was only to be expected he says:

Hi, it is a rough day for Vail, and I have been dreading today for a while as an avid Vail user myself. We know this is popular feature in regards to our home server product, and as such all expected that it would have created this type of outreach from our community.

Meanwhile, Paul Thurrot, over at his blog, probably reveals the real reason behind the dropping of the technology:

In a briefing last month, I was told that Microsoft and its partners discovered problems with Drive Extender once they began typical server loads (i.e. server applications) on the system. This came about because Drive Extender was being moved from a simple system, WHS, to a more complex, server-like OS )(SBS “Aurora”) that would in fact be used to run true server applications. And these applications were causing problems.

In addition, the Windows Home Server group now finds itself lumped in organisationally with the big boys: the Business Server group. So the business scenarios where the Driver Extender technology is showing shortcomings is overriding the simple fact that for home use by ordinary consumers, the technology works well and unobtrusively. Just which customers was Mr. Leworthy talking about when he claimed the “technology was not meeting our customer needs”?

I suppose that the writing has been on the wall for Windows Home Server since last week, when HP suddenly announced that it would be selling Drobo servers – a clear rival to HP’s own MediaSmart servers based on WHS. What’s the betting that HP will shortly announce the dropping of the MediaSmart Server line entirely?

(Update 1 December: well, that was an easy bet – HP has announced the dropping of the line, and the Windows Home Server team do their best “Crisis? What crisis?” impression)

I think it’s worth quoting a chunk from the post over at We Got Served:

Back in August 2008, Charlie Kindel, then General Manager for Windows Home Server at Microsoft outlined the guiding principles of Drive Extender, the spirit of which runs right across the platform “as a server designed for ordinary people”:

Windows Home Server storage system design requirements

  • Must be extremely simple to use.Must not add any new concepts or terminology average consumers would not understand. Simple operations should be simple and there should not be any complex operations.
  • Must be infinitely & transparently extendible.Users should be able to just plug in more hard drives and the amount of storage available should just grow accordingly. There should be no arbitrary limits to the kinds of hard drives used. Users should be able to plug in any number of drives.  Different brands, sizes, and technologies should be able to be mixed without the user having to worry about details.
  • All storage must be accessible using a single namespace. In other words, no drive letters.  Drive letters are a 1970′s anachronism and must be squashed out of existence!
  • The storage namespace must be prescriptive.In other words, our research told us that consumers want guidance on where to store stuff. Our storage system needs to be able to tell users where photos go. Where music goes. Etc…
  • Must be redundant & reliable. There are two components in every modern computer that are guaranteedto fail: fans and hard drives. Because they have moving parts,  Windows Home Server must be resilient to the failure of one or more hard drives.
  • Must be compatible.Compatible with existing software, devices, disk drives, etc…
  • Must have great performance.
  • Must be secure.
  • Must enable future innovation. Both the amount of storage consumers are using, and capacity/$ are growing at Moore’s Law like rates (while nothing else really is). This creates a discontinuity in the industry and an opportunity for innovation. The storage system must operate at a higher level of abstraction to enable rich software innovation (file level vs. block level).

These guiding principles remain as valid today as when they were coined. Unfortunately, with yesterday’s announcement, Microsoft has simply torn them up.

Update 25 November 2010

The outcry continues. However, every now and then, someone comments that Microsoft are doing the right thing, because all we need is RAID in place of the Drive Extender technology. Clearly, not only are such people techies who simply don’t appreciate that Windows Home Server is intended for the home, to be used by non-techie consumers, but they haven’t appreciated the very real advantages that DE technology has over RAID.

To illustrate these, it’s worth quoting in full the comment by LarryA from the MediaSmartServer.Net blog:

After reading all the comments on this subject, I’m beginning to wonder if some of the people suggesting that RAID is a good replacement for WHS or how WHS isn’t reliable have ever used WHS. I have used WHS from the very first day it was available from Amazon and have never had a corrupted file. Also there are some features of WHS that RAID doesn’t provide. A few examples:

WHS backs up only one copy of identical files from multiple PCs. This saves a ton of space and backup time.

WHS backs up only those sectors that have changed. Again a savings of a ton of space and time. After the first backup of a PC, the daily backup for my 5 PCs is less than 10 minutes each.

Because of the first two automatic features I mentioned, I have about 20 terabytes of backups stored in only 2.6 terabytes of disk space. I have about 17 backups of each of my 5 PCs.

I can choose to duplicate a folder for extra security by a single click. I can undo duplication with a single click.

My WHS started with a single 500-GB drive and now contains drives ranging in size from 500-GB to 1.5-TB for a total of 4.78-TB of space available.

I can start a backup prior to installation of new software with two clicks and have to wait for less than 10 minutes for it to complete. On at least 2 occasions I’ve had to restore a PC because of a bad installation.

I don’t have to do anything to manage any of these features. Installation could not be simpler and my HP WHS takes up a tiny little bit of space under my desk.

I don’t know of any existing system, RAID or otherwise, that has all these features. If anyone knows of one I would like to hear about it.

And oh yea, I will never store my data or backups in the cloud!!! I’ve been a programmer in the financial industry for more than 35 years. So I have lots of experience with the internet, clouds and networks, all of which have been hacked.

Without DE WHS is a dead product. Microsoft take your cloud and RAID solutions and stuff’um!! Screwed by Microsoft again!!

Amen.

Oh, and one other thing. I see lots of comments in the blogs from people thinking that the Drobo FS product is a replacement for WHS. As far as I can see, it is no such thing. It’s primarily intended as a data store, not as the complete systems store concept of WHS. Yes, it does give you the storage pool concept of WHS, but that’s the end of it. It will not:

  • back up only one copy of identical files from multiple PCs. Instead, you will end up with multiple copies of the same file, one for each PC.
  • back up only those sectors that have changed in a file. Instead, even if only one bit has changed in the file, the whole file must be backed up. No intelligent storage here.
  • be able to roll back to a complete backup snapshot taken earlier in time, without the need to take up additional storage space to actually hold all those multiple backups.
  • be able to restore a PC with a working image with one click, if the PC has a failure.
  • act as a DLNA media server out of the box. You have to add a third party application for this.

Update 27 November 2010

I can’t resist just pointing out that over at the Microsoft Connect (tagline “your feedback improving Microsoft products”) forum devoted to Windows Home Server, the responses from those of us asking Microsoft to put the DE technology back into the next version of WHS versus those who are saying that Microsoft should not is running at approximately 80-1 90-1 93-1 95-1 97-1 in favour of restoring DE to WHS. At the moment, it’s 3273 3602 3908 4088 4281 votes in favour of the restoration versus 44 against (as of 2 December).

Nonetheless, I wouldn’t mind betting that Microsoft will simply go ahead and ignore this.

I was watching the presentation that the unfortunate Mr. Leworthy gave at the recent TechEd conference held in Berlin earlier this month (i.e. just before the news broke about the removal of DE). Two things struck me:

  • He didn’t mention the automatic duplication of selected data across drives at all – whereas in previous TechEd presentations, this point (which depends on DE) would have been highlighted.
  • He made the point that the most requested feature for the next version of WHS was the inclusion of Media Center functionality. However, he said, it wasn’t going to happen, despite the requests.

So I take from that that despite the outcry over the dropping of DE from the next version of WHS, Microsoft will almost certainly blithely ignore it and carry on as if nothing has happened. Which rather gives the “your feedback improving Microsoft products” a cynical air worthy of typical marketing-speak. What a surprise.

About Geoff Coupe

I'm a British citizen, although I have lived and worked in the Netherlands since 1983. I came here on a three year assignment, but fell in love with the country, and one Dutchman in particular, and so have stayed here ever since. On the 13th December 2006 I also became a Dutch citizen.
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8 Responses to Open Mouth, Change Feet

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