Windows Home Server--The Drama Continues

Posted by: Stephen Wildstrom on February 20, 2008

My ups and downs with the Hewlett Packard MediaSmart Windows Home Server server. But the latest incident suggests Microsoft might want to do some serious rethinking of the design of this potentially very useful product.

The other day, the server icon in the system tray of my desktop was glowing red, indicating that the server had found a problem on the network. There’s nothing unusual about that, there’s always a problem, usually outdated virus definitions on a little used system, that the server wants to nag me about. But when I drilled down, I found a warning that the server’s backup service had stopped running. I tried the various suggestions offered by the help system, but before going for the nuclear option of deleting the server database, I decided to check with HP.

But after going over the problem with an HP engineer, it turned out that deleting the database was really my only option. Since I have the server running in a test environment, this wasn't going to cost me any data I couldn't easily afford to lose. But considering that reliably storing backup data is about the most important thing this server can do, I found the situation disturbing, especially since this is the third flaw to turn up in this product's brief lifetime that involved potential data loss.

It didn't get any better when I talked to folks on Microsoft's Windows Home Server team. They are going through diagnostic information generated by the server in search of a precise answer, but their best guess is that the problem stems from a disc drive failure the server suffered when it was new. At the time, I thought the failure had been handled perfectly when it notified me of the failure and quickly and easily integrated a replacement drive into the system.

It turns out things weren't so simple. The Windows Home Server only keeps a single copy of each backup, so the failure of a disk can damage the integrity of the backup. It's not clear to me why this failure did not show up as an error until several weeks later, but that only makes things worse: It means that I was merrily recording backups that were probably worthless.

A Microsoft executive says developers decided again redundancy in backups to conserve disk space. But this violates an increasing important rule: Storage is cheap, information is valuable. A few weeks ago, I picked up a 500 GB Western Digital Caviar drive, similar to those used in the server, for $115. At that price, there's no good reason not to use RAID mirroring, which would ensure duplicate copies of all files.

Microsoft says a software update due soon for the server with have a database repair feature that might have recovered the data in my case, though we will never know for sure. In any event, that's not good enough. If Microsoft and its partners expect this product to succeed, they are going to have to provide bulletproof data security.

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