Friday, May 16, 2008

Backup feature surprisingly removed from Windows Home Server refresh

Testers of a forthcoming service pack for Windows Home Server were the first to discover that a feature they'd come to rely upon had been removed from the product -- as it turns out, intentionally.

One of Windows Home Server's key features is the ability to perform manual or automatic backups of the entire contents of hard drives of PCs in a home network -- a consumer-centric version of the same backup engine used in Windows Server 2003 and 2008. WHS stores the backups from each of those drives in a special database; and for safety, many users have found it convenient enough to manually back up the backup database, sometimes onto separate drives in case of a server crash.

So these same users had been looking forward to a new feature of WHS' forthcoming Power Pack 1 that Microsoft had previously publicized, which would make backing up the backup databases more automatic. But only when a tester on WHS' forums asked Microsoft engineers to explain how he could make preparations for that new feature, did he -- and everyone else -- learn that Microsoft had changed its mind, and would not provide that feature after all.

Forum moderator Ken Warren claimed he'd mentioned this before. "As I've been saying for some time, Power Pack 1 will not provide a tool to back up your backup database," he wrote. "It was an announced feature, but it has been removed because it doesn't meet the quality bar. I know of at least half a dozen bugs submitted around that feature that left end users in a bad place with no obvious way back."

Backups of backup databases can still be performed manually, Warren added.

A supplemental brief for the current version of Windows Home Server (PDF available here) explains how this is done. "The Windows Home Server backup database is not duplicated by Windows Home Server Drive Extender," it begins. "So if you lose a single hard drive on your home server, you could possibly lose all of the backups of your home computers. You may want to periodically copy the entire backup database from your home server to an external hard disk that you attach to your home server. The external hard disk should not be added to the Server Storage on your Windows Home Server."

The process involves plugging an external hard drive into the home server, launching a command line from the remote system, initiating a Remote Desktop Connection from that command line to the home server, using the net stop command to stop the existing automatic backup service, launching a second command line on the home server remotely, using it to copy the contents of the folder named {00008086-058D-4C89-AB57-A7F909A47AB4} to the external drive, restarting the stopped service, then exiting both command lines. One tester described this process as "so simple."

The revelation disappointed another WHS tester, who wrote, "It is really disappointing to have this feature pulled from [Power Pack 1]. I find it hard to believe that no one at Microsoft knew this problem existed when they started touting the features of PP1 and stating it was on the shelf waiting for the corruption bug cure, which has taken far too long to get cured. If MS is going to be serious about WHS, they need to put a lot more effort/resources into the problems and take care of the end user or sell it to some company that will."

One Microsoft MVP, who tends the forum and is the author of a WHS users' guide though who is not a Microsoft employee, said he regretted that customers learned of the feature omission in this way, and especially that testers of internal builds knew it had been omitted for some time but couldn't say anything. But that's the breaks when one works under a non-disclosure agreement, he explained.

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