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1/23/2007
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Windows Home Server: Listening to My Inner-Geek

Earlier this month at CES 2007 Microsoft announced plans for Windows Home Server (WHS), a software product that provides backup, file sharing, and remote management capabilities for XP and Vista home computers in a single household. You can install the software on the hardware of your choosing or buy it from one of Microsoft's partners. HP will ship it in a product called HP MediaSmart Server.

When I first heard this my inner-geek went crazy. I had to find out more.

But shortly after reading up on the product I started thinking about how busy we were going to be until school is out for summer; basketball in the winter, softball in spring, writing this blog on the weekend, all those half finished projects still needing attention, etc. and all of the expenses that comes with these activities.

The services Windows Home Server provides are compelling: automated backup, restoration of individual files (even files going back several revisions), restoration of an entire computer, monitoring of all computers in the house, plus access and sharing from the Internet. In addition, it looks easy to use, as you would expect from Microsoft. The hardware is sold without a monitor and everything is managed from a PC in the house.

But, when you get down to it this is really being marketed as an old-school product, isn't it? I mean, it is a "server" but, for many of these features, you really don't need a server at all. For example, remote backup has been around for awhile, in some cases it is provided as a free Internet-based service. A good example of the innovation taking place with these services is CrashPlan, which provides backup services between friends' computers or you can pay for storage on CrashPlan's servers.

Granted, you could argue that many products don't really need a "server' per se but are sold that way nonetheless. But, even so, why couldn't this server run as a virtual PC? VMWare calls these virtual appliances (there goes that inner-geek again). Looking through their virtual appliance directory I found at least two projects that provide similar services as WHS, but are probably still for the hobbyist. I wonder if similar virtual appliances are now being developed as commercial products.

Now, don't get me wrong, Windows Home Server looks like an amazing product. The full PC backup and restore functions are especially innovative. But, as this home's chief computer administrator I have to balance a number of things before adding something like this to the mix, particularly the up front cost and the investment in my time (both of which have many competing priorities). In my opinion, if Microsoft is correct in their market assessment, we should see several competitive products popup shortly; if they aren't already here. Many of these will likely not require any hardware at all (or can use memory and disk already on computers in the house) and provide most of these services via a residential broadband connection. Their argument will be lower cost of start-up and fewer hassles since no hardware installation is required.

So let's tie this back to enterprise computing. I wonder why my reasoning for the products and services I use at home is so different from what is going on in the corporate IT world? For our home computer use I need services (as much as my inner-geek wants to do it ourselves), not products. But, in the corporate IT world this is often the last thing to enter the discussion.

Maybe this is because we don't want to risk using a small company for services that store our data offsite. But what if a large company provided cost effective services that met our needs? IDC's predictions for 2007 mentioned software as a service (SaaS) several times. Google, for one, may force this discussion soon with their Apps for Your Domain service. But IDC also predicts Microsoft and SAP will "shift their SaaS initiatives into second gear."

IDC is not alone in identifying the disruption SaaS will continue to make. Gartner's Tom Austin discussed it recently on their High-Performance Workplace blog. The tone of the post is blunt, asking: 'Is what we provide to our employees that special that when push comes to shove, you would rather see your firm lay off people instead of using free "Office from the Internet" services?' The discussion that followed in the comments brought up issues with privacy, compliance, and control.  To me, all of these issues are requirements that must be addressed by a service provider if they are to succeed. The as-is licensing of free services is a non-starter for many businesses. But, if a service provider is willing to meet these enterprise requirements and is less expensive than doing it in-house, why wouldn't a company do it? I wonder just how strong that inner-geek voice can be.

I am having a difficult time justifying the purchase of a home server product (from Microsoft no less) because of the numerous inexpensive alternatives and the commitment a piece of hardware takes. When will we see similar discussions about enterprise IT services? That time sure seems close to me.

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