A look at Windows Home Server "Vail" (Build 7360)

Back in July of 2007, Microsoft released its first iteration of Windows Home Server (WHS). Over the three years that followed, Microsoft has updated the product with three Power Packs, each of which has provided significant functional improvements. And of course, some WHS partners, most notably HP, have also contributed to making WHS more usable and functional via a series of machine-specific enhancements and other add-ons.

Windows Home Server "Vail", the next major version of this product, will be based on the current generation Windows Server platform (Windows Server 2008 R2) and will share a number of features and capabilities with Small Business Server and Essential Business Server. Unfortunately, Microsoft has been tight-lipped about Vail and the quality of information we have today is lacking, to say the least. Fortunately, a recently leaked build of Vail – tagged build 7360 – has shed some light on what the WHS team has been working on.

Others have written quick overviews of this leaked Vail build. But while anyone can find a torrent, download, install and then make a quick YouTube video, I think I can provide something quite a bit more detailed… and useful. Using some home-baked tools I used for gathering information for "Windows 7 Secrets," I was able to mine Vail for its actual capabilities. Here’s what I have thus far:

New codenames
Vail exposes some interesting codenames, including a few even Mary Jo Foley hadn't heard of. Key among these is "Aurora," which appears to be a Small Business Server version that sits somewhere between WHS and the current SBS products (Paul’s SBS + cloud services dream solution?) and “Colorado,” which appears to be remote device related. (Windows Media Connect or DLNA-based devices, maybe?)

Update: Further evidence supporting the SBS = Aurora theory can be found on various sites, such as http://bjosbs.com/. (The site is registered to a SBS ‘softie apparently.) [thanks to Daniel K. for the tip]

New features
This version of WHS Vail provides two major functional updates, Homegroup creation/integration and media streaming. Both appear to be based on the same functionality that appears in Windows 7, and the media streaming feature utilizes a sweet Silverlight-based player, through its revamped remote console, that transcodes content of virtually any kind from what I can tell, on-the-fly. (I personally tested WMV, H.264, and XviD.)

New Dashboard
WHS Vail comes with a new dashboard, which replaces the awful admin console from the current version with a new normal window that appears to be the basis for similar dashboards in future versions of Windows Small Business Server and Windows Essential Business Server. This Dashboard is customizable, more so than previous versions, enabling server makers like HP to customize it with their own look and feel – color scheme, unique Home tab content, and more.

Add-in changes
Perhaps sensing that WHS add-ins can be the source for malicious and software, or otherwise just responding to complaints that some current add-ins seem to adversely impact the performance and stability of the server, Microsoft is making some big changes to how WHS interacts with these mini applications.

Some add-ins will be “Microsoft certified” and therefore known to be safe/good, while others will be digitally signed (or unsigned) and provided by third parties. Add-ins, of which will now also reside in an online catalog, will be version controlled, preventing the user from inadvertently writing over a newer version with an out of date version, and can support subscription-based services like anti-virus. Vail will also keep a watchful eye on add-ins, intervening when they crash, allowing a user to quickly locate the source of the problem. And, if I'm reading this right, WHS Vail will support the deployment of specialized add-ins to connected PCs as well, not just on the server.  (As in, install AV on the server and have it protect clients as well.)

Server health
In keeping with broader efforts across other Windows Server products, WHS Vail includes a number of server health technologies, many of which leverage the pre-installed PowerShell. It supports scheduled cleanups and backups of both clients and server and checks clients for both anti-spyware and anti-malware protection. While at work, Vail may find the need to generate an alerts or report, both of which can either be printed on-screen or emailed, much like the SBS product.

More to come?
With the TODO and DRAFT labeling littered throughout Vail’s interfaces and documentation, it’s impossible to know what Vail will really be. From what I’ve seen, however, it’s shaping up to be the easiest yet most powerful server solution in the home today. I’m particularly interested to hear more about changes in the way web site hosting worked, a feature supported very little in previous versions. (Perhaps that’s an area better left to a dedicated web server or newer cloud shared hosting solutions.)

Flickr Screenshot Gallery