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Microsoft storage: a litany of failure

Posted on 11 Feb 2011 at 15:09

As Microsoft provokes a storm by canning Drive Extender, Jon Honeyball reflects on the company's long list of disasters in the storage arena

A deep, heartfelt sigh is all I can muster in response to the news that Microsoft’s Windows Home Server (WHS) team has decided to pull the Drive Extender technology from the next release of WHS, due later this year.

Apparently it’s too difficult, it has bugs, it doesn’t work under heavy loads, and it’s best that we don’t have it at all if it isn’t working properly (a view that has a certain logic to it).

The handling of this news has been somewhat catastrophic for the WHS team’s credibility. Apparently, we don’t actually need Drive Extender.

The handling of this news has been somewhat catastrophic for the WHS team’s credibility

In fact, it seems we’ve been asking, nay begging, Microsoft to pull it, so the firm is really just doing what we asked. No, really, that might seem a typical piece of Microsoft corporate double-speak to you and me, but it’s what we want.

Everyone laughed in amazement, then got angry and told Microsoft where it could shove all its future WHS products – and they said so in public, on the Microsoft forums.

Within hours came a second missive from the temple on top of the mountain. Actually, the work done to redesign Drive Extender from the existing version 1 to the newer, cleverer version 2, has failed. It’s buggy, it falls over, it loses your data, and Microsoft can’t fix it in time. You still don’t want or need it either, do you?

Dropping the ball

I’m not entirely surprised that Microsoft dropped the ball on this. Just look at its recent history with storage technologies.

WHS version 1 is a lovely thing, based on Server 2003 with all the unnecessary corporate gubbins pulled out. It was designed to run without a screen or keyboard.

It fitted nicely into home networks, and offered backup and recovery for desktop PCs. It offered a centralised store for multimedia content and streamed it on the network to any device that could consume it.

Part of that multimedia requirement was a storage solution that could just grow with the user’s collection over time, so Drive Extender was created, which basically faked a file store running on top of existing NTFS disk partitions.

And because it wasn’t tied to any underlying drive letters, you could add another hard disk and seamlessly grow your store without having to move everything around or reformat the disks. This was ideal for home users with a steadily growing storage requirement: when their disk gets full, just pop in an extra one.

Even better, Drive Extender added some extra tweaks that were genuinely useful. You could mark certain data as being important and WHS would ensure that, although Drive Extender made them appear that they were stored in one place, they would actually be stored across two physical drives, which protected you against a single disk failure.

This was no replacement for a full backup solution, but it at least kept the machine running and your data safe whenever a disk failed.

Such a solution was spot on for the home market, which was hardly surprising as that was where it was aimed in the first place. The implementation wasn’t without hiccups; there was a bug in the first release that allowed Drive Extender to lose data.

It took Microsoft months to fix it, which was the first indication that this wasn’t a technology it took very seriously.

Now scoot forward to the current betas and Microsoft has decided that Drive Extender is going to be useful to a wider audience. We might like it in the Small Business Server, too.

After all, we have similar storage needs there, which also grow over time. Buying an SBS server with a few empty drive bays gives us the room to grow in future. In order to make Drive Extender work well on a more business-orientated server, where the disks would be subjected to the heavy I/O loads of, for example, Exchange Server, it was decided to re-architect the product, and it’s this work that’s failed, because it now appears it does rather unpleasant things when under load.

So in typical Microsoft thinking, best pull the product from the whole platform and pretend that nothing happened, and that it’s all for our own good.

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User comments

Hope for Drive Extender Yet?

Within days of the RC of Window Home Server with Drive Extender removed, there are possible solutions starting to come forward from independent developers (just check out some of the WHS blogs). It seems Microsoft do give up when they can't work it out and depend on others to complete their products for them.

By davemarchant1 on 11 Feb 2011

Other options

Why not Linux? Many Microsoft users cringe at the thought but if the storage problem is worth solving, Linux is worth learning. Indeed, much of the internet infrastructure runs on Linux, not Windows or Mac. True, there is a steep learning curve unless you're already familiar with some computer basics. However, Linux is generally rock-solid, runs for days/weeks/months/years, costs nothing (other than time), and has LVM (the equivalent of MS Drive Extender).
Marketers have long fooled consumers into thinking technology is an all or nothing proposition (ie, are you Mac or PC?). In fact, you should use whichever technology suits your needs. Allegiance to one manufacturer is bad for the consumer on many levels. Maybe you're Mac, PC, and Linux.
No amount of whining will force the corporate hand. Corporations are about money and profits. If Drive Extender is too expensive or makes the product unprofitable, you're not getting it.

By storm311 on 12 Feb 2011

That is how MS thinks of consumers...

Its no wonder that they are making no inroads in the consumer space.

By msbpodcast on 12 Feb 2011

I use TimeMachine on my ...

network of Macs (2)along with Linux (1) and PC(1) with cron job running on my disk server to pull off new/changed files off the machines.

With over 3TB of space to maintain, its was just easier to do.

By msbpodcast on 12 Feb 2011

Word

Windows Server 2008 R2, Raid 10, done. Previously I had WHS v1 and eventually moved over to 2008 r2. I WILL probably install and use WHS V2 just... umm, just to use it :)

Either way, it 'is' a shame that DE is dead, darn shame as they really did have a fantastic product.

By rhythm on 18 Feb 2011

There's a lot of other tech coming out there. drive bender and StableBit's Drivepool.

Drive bender in particular looks interesting as that seems to run on any Windows platform.

By bubbles16 on 25 Feb 2011

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Jon Honeyball

Jon Honeyball

Jon is one of the UK's most respected IT journalists and a contributing editor to PC Pro since it launched in 1994. He specialises in Microsoft technologies, including client/server and office automation applications.

Read more More by Jon Honeyball

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