HP has announced a computer system to be powered by the MicroSoft Home Server software. From the description, this is a networked PC with a big hard disk, so audio, video, graphics, and ordinary files can be stored on a central server in a local area network. There is some hint that this may be tied directly into features of other MicroSoft Windows operating systems.
The hardware itself is modest in its specifications: 1.8 GHz CPU and 512MB of RAM. A nice feature is four hard disk bays with sleds for easy addition and changes of hard disks in the system. As a server, it comes with a minimal set of ports: 3 USB, 1 e-SATA, and 1 Ethernet port.
What MicroSoft and HP offer with this system is the convenience of a pre-packaged, holds-your-hands solution for computer backup, media serving, and accessibility from the Web anywhere. They are charging $750 for a 1-TB model, or a 500 GB model for $600. Given the claimed ease of adding disk storage to the system, you’d be imprudent to pay the increment to get 1-TB; go to Newegg.com and buy a 500GB drive for a little over a $100 and add it to the system.
Back in 1998, I set up a home server based on the FreeBSD operating system. It provided central storage for files, interfaced with our Windows machines by Samba shares, ran servers to the internet, as well as serving as a router with NAT and firewall. This was before Linksys and others arrived on the scene with handy little boxes to do the basic routing for LANs through a internet connection. I used an old box with a 166 MHz CPU and, IIRC, about 64MB of RAM, and that worked fine. What was not provided was the dead-simple hook-up interface on the new stuff, which will make the new system useful for people whose lives haven’t included over a decade of professional system administration. I had to do some serious research to put all the pieces together on that first system.
We still use a FreeBSD server for our home LAN. It works on very modest hardware, and we can simply upgrade the box with whatever desktop machine becomes the next excess piece of hardware: shutdown, move the hard disk to the “new” system, and start it up again. So anyone who is modestly gifted with computer administration savvy can do much the same thing now with almost-free hardware, maybe adding the big hard disks for the job, and avoid the cost of the dedicated system being sold.
For those without the technical know-how or confidence, though, the MediaSmart server or equivalent from other sources may be something to consider. It costs as much as a low-priced laptop, though, which I think is going to limit the market for this sort of information appliance. When given the choice of buying infrastructure (server) or buying productivity or pleasure (new desktop or laptop), I’m thinking that many cash-limited families will go with productivity or pleasure.
Something I haven’t discussed so far is the bit about being able to access your data from the outside Internet via the Home Server. First off, this likely violates most user agreements that Internet Service Providers force upon users. This could be a hopeful sign, an indication that MicroSoft is taking a step toward empowering users, at least in the limited respect of backing their ability to use their own computers to serve their own data. Second, though, comes the doubts about security. Does MicroSoft Home Server come battened down such that you are the only likely person to be given access to your private data on your own machine? I haven’t seen this addressed in any review yet. Until such time as this is thoroughly vetted, I’d recommend any purchaser of these servers turns off outside Internet access. Assuming that the software allows them to do so… if not, then do it via settings on your router. If you are storing your financial data on this device, you definitely don’t want to be, essentially, inviting in identity thieves to help themselves to it.
Update: Thinking a bit more about this, I’d like to strengthen what I said above. I don’t think that this particular offering is going to do much at the price point stated. Consumers looking for a file server can buy Network Attached Storage devices at a better price point, or simple hard disk backup for about the cost of media plus $50 or so. I’m thinking that the breakover point between ho-hum sales and something that a whole lot of people will be willing to plunk down their money for will be somewhere between $150 and $200 over media cost, so for a 500GB Home Server system, around $260 to $310 total MSRP. The initial announced price is about double that. As it is, the system is competing with cheap laptops, mid-range desktops, prosumer digicams, video cameras, or flat-screen HDTV in the consumer’s budget. I think it is going to lose.