Q&A: Windows Home Server Simplifies Digital Life for Families

REDMOND, Wash., Jan. 8, 2007 — During his keynote at the 2007 International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates unveiled plans to launch a new consumer product for families: Windows Home Server. Slated for availability later this year with the HP MediaSmart Server, Windows Home Server will allow families with multiple PCs to easily protect treasured images, music, personal documents and videos; centrally store that content; and access it from outside the home.

PressPass spoke with Steven VanRoekel, director of Microsoft’s Windows Server Solutions Group, and Maureen Weber, general manager, HP Personal Storage Business, to discuss how Windows Home Server and the HP MediaSmart Server hardware will provide a unique set of benefits for digital households.

PressPass: How will consumers benefit from Windows Home Server and HP MediaSmart Server?

VanRoekel: The quantity of digital information that consumers have today is increasing like never before. The prevalence of digital cameras, digital video recorders, MP3 players and other devices is creating massive quantities of information that is stored in these “islands” of data around the home. Usually, the person who takes the picture, downloads the music, et cetera, has that information stored on their PC, and if the hard drive fails or something bad happens, that information is effectively lost.

Windows Home Server and the HP Media Smart Server will help families with two or more PCs in the home connect those islands, providing a central place where they can easily store, access and share that information.

Windows Home Server will also come with a set of shared folders that are predefined for content such as photos, music, videos, et cetera – and customers will also be able to create their own folders. So for example, a customer could create a folder to which all tax documents would be backed up. They could then securely access those folders from the desktop of any computer in the house. Likewise, they could copy all their photos to the photo folder, all their videos to the video folder.

And Windows Home Server will automatically protect those treasured images, music, personal documents and videos by centrally backing up all the machines in the house as well. For example, if a parent or sibling accidentally deletes an important file or document, or a selection of photos of the newborn, customers will be able to easily recover those materials by accessing the most recent backed up file containing the original document or group of photos.

Weber: As Steven said, Windows Home Server connects data and digital media collections so users can access them all from any computer in their household. From a hardware perspective, the HP MediaSmart Server has elaborated on that scenario with HP Photo Webshare, a feature that enables consumers to securely share photos with friends and family directly from the server – and friends and family can likewise share their photos on the same Webshare. Photo Webshare also enables consumers to easily create separate albums so they can control how broadly any group of images is shared. Music lovers will appreciate the ability to centralize music from family members’ computers to the HP MediaSmart Server, even preserving playlists. Now family members will be able to access all the music from any computer in the house.

Not only does the MediaSmart Server provide greater convenience in organizing and accessing information, it also provides increased peace of mind by enabling users to back up all this information on a separate hard drive that sits inside the server. This complements Windows Home Server’s ability to automatically back up information. And because this drive is separate, it increases the security of the information in the event of any sort of hardware failure.

PressPass: What about accessing information remotely? Will Windows Home Server provide the same ease of use as services that allow me to store information on the Internet?

VanRoekel: Windows Home Server will enable customers to create a secure Web site from which they can log on to their Home Server and access or transfer information from any Internet-connected PC. For example, suppose someone takes pictures of their kids while on vacation, and the chip in their camera is getting full. They would then be able to pop the chip in to any compatible computer, upload the photos to their Windows Home Server from the road, make sure they’re backed up, and then empty their camera and take more pictures. Windows Home Server will also support the remote desktop features in select versions of Windows Vista and Windows XP, so customers can access their home PCs and applications as if they were actually sitting in front of them.

PressPass: What’s the set-up process like? Are there a lot of confusing settings, and is on-going maintenance required?

VanRoekel: We’ve done a lot of work to make Windows Home Server very consumer-friendly and avoiding any acronyms.

Consequently, customers will basically take the HP MediaSmart Server unit out of its box, plug in two cables – the power cable and a network cable that connects to a home router or hub next to the cable or DSL modem – and the unit will basically be up and running. Each copy of Windows Home Server will include a CD-ROM, which a customer will run from the existing PCs in their house to make it aware of Windows Home Server. The CD-ROM will run a wizard program that asks a few very easy questions like “What is your name?” and “What password do you want to use?” and different information about family members so it can establish who belongs on the network.

In terms of day-to-day use, by default the home server will automatically back up every personal computer in the home every night. Consumers will also be able to tell the server when to do a backup. For instance, if they upload some photos and then want to back up the machine at that moment, they will be able to do so.

Weber: Steven really touched on the ease of set up for both the hardware and software, but one other thing I’d mention is the ease of expanding the size of the MediaSmart Server’s storage capacity. As a consumer’s cache of data and digital media grows, they’ll want to continue adding additional storage. The MediaSmart Server includes four bays for additional hard drives, as well as four USB ports for external hard drives and/or printers. Adding a hard drive doesn’t require any tools, doesn’t call for connecting any cables, and the server doesn’t need to be powered down at all. So consumers will find that maintaining the server and an appropriate level of available storage will be virtually painless.

VanRoekel: I should also mention that Windows Home Server will include an innovative piece of technology that alerts the customers on any of the PCs in their house when the server is about to reach its storage capacity. The customer can then buy another hard drive and drop it into the system. When a customer installs more than one hard drive in the server, the Windows Home Server will also automatically back-up user-selected shared folders, such as the ‘Photos’ shared folder. Our team of developers jokes about losing family photos such as those of a newborn as being a “divorceable” offense, so having such pictures – or any other information – automatically backed up onto a second drive inside the home server will certainly be a valuable feature.

PressPass: What opportunities exist for industry partners to extend Windows Home Server? How does Microsoft anticipate partners will benefit?

VanRoekel: Essentially, there are two ways that industry partners will benefit. Our great hardware partners like HP are taking the foundation software that is Windows Home Server and building a great platform around it. As Maureen mentioned previously, from the standpoint of product usability and fit and finish, Windows Home Server will make it possible to easily add storage. And HP, along with AMD, Inventec, Quanta Computer and other hardware partners, will do their part to build on that. On the software side, we’re working with a lot of partners to determine how to extend Windows Home Server to unique scenarios for the family and for the home. HP’s Photo WebShare is one example of such solutions, and we’re looking at others as well.

In terms of the potential for future development of third-party applications and opportunities for partners, I think the sky is sort of the limit once you have a device in the home that’s always on and is supported by the rich platform of the Windows ecosystem.

Weber: The HP MediaSmart Server – and extensions such as Photo WebShare – are examples of how HP has worked with Microsoft in the past to build on the Windows platform. Consumers can expect to see additional such features in the future that take advantage of Windows Home Server. Towards that end, HP has “future-proofed” the MediaSmart Server to work with future hardware and software products and meet consumers’ needs as they evolve.

PressPass: How will Windows Home Server tie in with Windows Vista and the other products in Microsoft’s connected entertainment, connected experiences visions?

VanRoekel: Windows Home Server will help customers make the most of Windows Vista’s enhanced capabilities for accessing, creating, finding and enjoying digital entertainment. And because Windows Home Server is an always-on device, customers will also be able to store all the music from their Zune media player, stream that music and other digital media to devices in the house, such as the Xbox 360 sitting in the den, or third-party products that play streaming digital media stored on a customer’s home server.

Windows Home Server will also build on some of the security and systems back-up features in Windows Vista. Windows Home Server will centrally report the health status, of all Windows Vista machines in the home.

In the system tray in the lower right-hand corner of the Windows desktop, Windows Home Server will alert the home administrator when, for example, their son has turned off the virus protection on his PC, or a daughter hasn’t accepted Windows Updates on her machine, or a husband or wife hasn’t backed up their machine in a certain number of days. Windows Home Server will warn users of such events and tell the household administrator what actions to take.

When a computer begins performing poorly due to spyware or the existence of applications causing performance issues, Windows Home Server will also allow the administrator to restore any PC running Windows XP or Windows Vista to a previous point in time, simply by popping in a disk and telling Windows Home Server to take that computer back to the day they set it up the way they liked it. Not only will the administrator be able to do a complete restore of a given PC, but they will also be able to recover individual files and folders from any of these backups of their home PCs.

As I mentioned earlier, customers will also be able to easily add an internal hard drive or connect an external USB or FireWire hard drive to Windows Home Server to increase the amount of storage for all of their photos, music and videos.

Customers can also connect a printer to Windows Home Server so they can print from any PC in the home.

PressPass: Why should consumers use Windows Home Server instead of an existing home network or data back-up solution, such as an external hard drive?

VanRoekel: Windows Home Server and complementing hardware such as the HP MediaSmart Server will provide consumers with an advanced solution out-of-the-box, which will go well beyond what a simple network or today’s data back-up solutions do. Windows Home Server will be incredibly simple for customers to set up and use. With Windows Home Server, families will be able to easily share and access data around the home or on the road, and create an integrated solution for storing data, backing-up computers, and monitoring the health of each computer on the home network. Families will be able to add computers and storage to Windows Home Server as their needs grow and change.

Windows Home Server also provides virtually unlimited opportunities for third-party products and solutions that address needs specific to the different ways that Windows Home Server is used and the changes that will come with the continued development of digital media.