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Microsoft, HP Unveil Windows Home Server

HP's MediaSmart Server will be powered by an AMD processor and includes four hard drive bays and four USB ports for printer or external storage connections.

Microsoft's long-anticipated home server software will first appear on a Hewlett-Packard box sometime in the second half of 2007, the companies announced from the Consumer Electronics Show. But its success, an analyst said Monday, rests on how easy the home server is to use, not the length of its spec sheet.

"It's an intriguing idea," says Michael Cherry of Directions on Microsoft. "But its success won't be based as much on an analysis of the technical specifications [as on] how good of a job they do in packaging, and how easy it is to use."

On Sunday, Bill Gates, Microsoft's chairman announced Windows Home Server during a presentation at CES, the massive trade show in Las Vegas this week. "This is for homes where you've got either multiple PCs or Xboxes, the case where you want to have your storage available at all times to the different devices," said Gates. "HP will brand it as the HP MediaSmart Server, and it's the Windows Home Server software with their enhancements that will run on top of that.

"We think it's a category that can explode in importance," Gates added.

HP's MediaSmart Server is to be powered by a 1.8-GHz 64-bit Sempron processor from Advanced Micro Devices, includes four hard drive bays and four USB ports for printer or external storage connections, and comes in a box about 10 inches high by 5.5 wide by 9 deep. HP didn't disclose a ship date and hasn't set the storage capacities of the one or two drives that will ship in the enclosure. If all four bays are packed with 750-GB drives and all four USB ports used to connect to similar-sized external drives, the total storage of the HP server tops out at 6 terabytes.

HP did not commit to a price for the new hardware. Currently, it sells two Media Vault home servers at prices of $380 (300 Gbytes) and $550 (500 Gbytes).

The new server software is based on Windows Server 2003 code, not the upcoming Longhorn as earlier reported, says Steven VanRoekel, the director of Windows Server solutions. "That's the core, but we've added lots around it to make it easier to use." The software will not be sold to end users -- only to equipment makers and system builders -- so there will be no provision for turning a standard PC into a home server. The necessary client software will be available for Windows XP, Media Center, and Vista.

According to the InsideMicrosoft blogger Nathan Weinberg, Beta 2 of Home Server will release Jan. 22, while deadlines for Release Candidate and Release to Manufacturing editions are currently set as May 15 and June 22, respectively.

"We will have another beta in a few weeks," confirms VanRoekel. "And retail availability should be in the back-to-school-ish time."

The software will perform automated backups of all systems connected to the network, let users restore damaged PCs from the central storage device, provide remote access via a personalized (and free) Windows Live Internet address, and stream digital content to Xbox 360 game consoles or others Windows Media Connect-supported hardware. Non-Windows systems -- such as machines running Mac OS X or Linux -- will see the Home Server as a file server, and be able to access data on it via Windows' SMB (Server Message Block) file sharing protocol.

"Backups will be done by default daily," says VanRoekel, "but that can be changed by the user. The first time you run Windows Home Server, it does a full backup of all systems." From then on, backups are incremental, with only changed or added files stored on the server. "We've carried that notion across all the PCs in the house, so that if more than one PC has the same version of Office [on it], we back up Office only once."

Data files, says VanRoekel, are examined at the bit level so that if files with the same filename exist on multiple PCs, each is backed up only if they're actually different. "If you have the same photograph on two machines, but then edit one, we'll back up both."

Microsoft also will push the idea of easy expansion to potential buyers of Windows Home Server-equipped hardware, adds VanRoekel. On the HP MediaSmart Server, for example, users will be able to open a drawer to a bay and slide in a new drive while the server is powered up.

Directions' Cherry, however, emphasized that a realistic opinion on Microsoft's latest home entry won't be possible until the software's available for a look-see. "The spec sheets are all well and good, but you'll have to see how they actually built the interface," he says. "You'll have to get a sense of how much management someone in the house has to do to use it."

Like the recently released Zune, which competes with Apple's iPod, Windows Home Server's success will depend on an intangible factor. "The question for the Zune was whether or not it's cool. It's not whether it's cool for Windows Home Server, but whether or not it's easy," says Cherry.

"If they succeed in that, we won't care what it's like inside. In fact, the price won't even be that important," he says. "If early adopters say it's easy to set up, that will be enough."

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