Microsoft Drops Drive Extender from Windows Home Server

By now, you may have heard that Microsoft has decided to pull Drive Extender from it’s upcoming Windows Home Server V2 (codenamed ‘Vail’). Keep in mind that we are eight months into the beta of Vail. This is not some alpha product and this is not the start of the beta cycle. While WHS V2 was supposed to be out this year, that’s not going to happen at this point, but it’s still significant that we are eight months into the beta, and Microsoft is deciding to remove a key component.

Windows Home Server has a very dedicated following, and manufacturers such as Acer and HP have put a lot of effort and resources into supporting this market with appropriate hardware. Windows Home Server is aptly named – it’s a product targeted towards consumers, and it allows you to put together a small home server using either your own components or buying servers such as HP’s MediaSmart line, that allow you to add up to 4 hard drives. What attracts so many to Drive Extender is that it allows you to see all of those drives as one drive or one storage pool, while duplicating your files and providing some redundancy/backup capabilities that you wouldn’t have with just a single backup or a single drive (such as a USB drive). It also allows you to grow your storage as you need to. One of the really nice things, in addition to not losing data if one disk goes bad, is the ability to pull any of the disks out and read them in another system. It should be noted that that ability unfortunately was going to be removed with Vail, due to changes with Drive Extender, however the changes that necessitate the removal of that ability might have offset that decision. DE was going to become more robust with Vail.

With Windows Home Server, it’s easy to back up your laptops or netbooks or PCs to a central location, as well as provide an easy way to share files between systems. For those who make frequent use of laptops/netbooks, it is very handy to have a place to back your system up to over the network, and it provided some redundancy since the data was duplicated across two drives.

While there are other features that make Windows Home Server attractive, Drive Extender was a major selling point to many people – you didn’t have to be a server expert to put together a large mass storage system to back up your media, your laptops, etc. and it could easily be expanded in the future as you needed more space. Given the high resolution digital cameras and the move to HD video in the consumer market these days, space was becoming a lot more important than in times past. All of it was “out of sight, out of mind” so to speak – you didn’t have to be an expert to setup WHS, expand the storage, and make sure everything was backed up. While WHS had a rough start, it matured quickly into a great solution to a problem that wasn’t being adequately addressed in the past.

I’ve had a few days to digest the news, and it still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. After giving up on a similar solution from Apple, WHS was very attractive to me, and HP even supported Apple’s Time Machine solution, which was the best of both worlds – backing up Macs and Windows systems. I’ve used WHS in the past and currently have a WHS system I built that I’m using, but was looking forward to seeing what happened with V2/Vail and perhaps buying a pre-built WHS system, probably from HP due to the Time Machine support.

We first got word of this on the 23rd when it was announced on the Windows Home Server Blog, it was a shock, because Microsoft claimed that thanks to the availability of large drives, customers and partners gave feedback that seemed to indicate that DE was not necessary:

During our current testing period for our Windows Home Server code name “Vail” product, we have received feedback from partners and customers about how they use storage today and how they plan to use it moving forward. Today large hard drives of over 1TB are reasonably priced, and freely available. We are also seeing further expansion of hard drive sizes at a fast rate, where 2Tb drives and more are becoming easy accessible to small businesses. Since customers looking to buy Windows Home Server solutons from OEM’s will now have the ability to include larger drives, this will reduce the need for Drive Extender functionality.

That made absolutely no sense. Drive Extender was what made Windows Home Server so attractive to a lot of us. As you can see from that initial post from the Windows Home Server team, there are 148 comments from end users (before commenting was closed), and I would be surprised if more than 2 were positive.

It turns out though that Microsoft…I don’t normally like to use the term “lied” to us, but that’s what it certainly looks like. It’s also clear that they were trying to spin a story in such a manner as to give the impression that the WHS community gave feedback indicating that DE was not a necessity.

According to a story on the Windows Supersite blog by Paul Thurrott, customer and partner feedback was NOT the reason why DE was removed:

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.

“Drive Extender was a neat feature, but the implementation was off, and we discovered some application compatibility and disk tool problems related to its ability to correct data errors on the fly,” Microsoft general manager Kevin Kean told me. “We don’t want to give customers problems; we want to give them solutions. So ultimately, we decided that we needed to cut out Drive Extender. Removing Drive Extender will make file shares easy, and it’s possible to accomplish most of its features otherwise. For example, you use the server’s centralized backup or even RAID as an alternative to data duplication.”

So it was a technical problem with another product in the same family as WHS that caused the removal of DE, and not any kind of feedback from customers or partners.

Way to go, Microsoft management! You’ve now made it clear that we probably shouldn’t trust anything coming out of the WHS team!

Disappointed is a good way to describe how I’m feeling, although stronger words certainly fit the bill.

At this point, if you are still wondering about the wall of words above, then understand this: Without DE, there isn’t really a compelling reason for a lot of existing customers to either move forward and upgrade to V2 from our V1 WHS systems (which was going to be painful as it was). For new customers, there isn’t a really compelling reason to go with WHS rather than just buy a DROBO or another NAS (network-attached storage) system out there.

Terry Walsh at the We Got Served blog (covering WHS) fired off an email to Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, and received a response. Terry pointed out that for an existing WHS V1 customer, there “upgrade” to V2 ‘Vail’ was in fact a downgrade, since you are losing features.

Terry received a response from Steve Ballmer: Let’s look into it

I have a feeling that Ballmer realizes that it is a ‘crisis’ as Terry called it. This has generated an enormous amount of negative feedback towards Microsoft, even outside of the WHS community. My guess is that Ballmer was probably well aware of it by now. He’d have to be living in a vacuum not to be aware of it.

Do I think it’ll be added back in? Hard to say. I use it for backing up a laptop and a netbook and a lot of family photos, and don’t see any reason to stop using V1 and definitely do not see a reason to upgrade to V2. I think that if it’s not added back in, that the original post by the WHS team that kicked all of this off, that tried to tell us that it was, in part, based on customer feedback in regards to larger drives becoming available will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is to say, that with the larger drives, people will just hold out and then buy the largest they can find, and then move on, and move away, from WHS. This also opens the door to Apple expanding their Time Capsule hardware to something larger.