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Who Needs a Home Server?

- 2007.01.11 -Tip Jar

This week Steve Jobs delivered his annual Macworld keynoteaddress, and while no new Macs were introduced, Apple quietlyintroduced one product this week that I believe will get a lot ofpress in the weeks ahead as it goes head-to-head with anotherproduct from rival Microsoft that was also quietly announced.

This product is the new AirPort Extreme BaseStation, and it wasn't even mentioned during the keynote. Itsrival from Microsoft (and a few of its partners) is WindowsHome Server.

The AirPort Extreme Base Station is a wireless router, and theWindows Server is a computer, so how are they goinghead-to-head?

Therein lies the rub: Both products are different answers to thesame question - with the problem being that hardly anyone has askedthe question yet.

Compare and Contrast

Bill Gates announced Windows Home Server (WHS for short - myfingers get tired) a few days before Jobs didn't announce the newAirPort Extreme Base Station (it's on the Apple website), and oneneat little feature brings the otherwise ordinary Apple wirelessrouter into a whole new market segment - the ability to connect toone or more USB hard drives and automatically share them over anetwork with Macs and Windows PCs.

In contrast, WHS, which is a full-fledged computer, has its harddrives inside (dual drives in a mirrored RAID 1 array, Ibelieve).

Apple allows you to easily add as many drives as you can connectto your USB hub (the AirPort Extreme Base Station has only one USBport), and you can mix in printers as well. Microsoft does the samething.

These two products start at opposite ends of the "home server"market, with Apple's offering at a low US$179, which is cheapconsidering it doubles as a print and file server, while PCs withWHS will cost US$500-1,000.

They're very different products, with the WHS adding a lot ofcool stuff for Windows users like automatic backups and versionsaving of files, and allowing you to recover a file to an olderversion or restore an entire PC should its hard drive fail. Apple'sTime Machine in the upcoming Leopard (Mac OS X 10.5) willlikely give the same capability to the new AirPort Extreme BaseStation using a shared drive, but we don't know yet.

The prices are fairly close when you add the cost of a USB huband a pair of USB 2.0 hard drives to the AirPort Extreme BaseStation, although for backup a single drive will probably be morethan adequate for most users.

The similarities don't end there. WHS requires another computerto configure it, as it is a headless operating system that wasn'tdesigned to have its own monitor, keyboard, and mouse. AirPortExtreme is about the same, requiring OS X or Windows AirPortsoftware to configure its settings.

WHS is an actual Vista-based operating system, whereas AirPortExtreme uses an embedded OS of which Apple says very little. Youcan do many of the same things with either, but Apple's device ismore like the simple NAS (network-attached storage) drives that arelittle more than an external hard drive with a network interfaceand sell for about the same $179.

Who Needs a Dedicated Home Server?

That brings me to my opinion on these things - and the questionnobody seams to be asking. Does anyone really need a home server,and, if so, should that home server be a dedicated device?

I'm not convinced. Last week I brought home what was previouslymy most powerful office computer, an iMac G5. That computer originally servednot only as a powerful computer, but also as the office fileserver. Its large hard drive is partitioned into a 100 GB mainpartition for the Mac itself and a 150 GB partition that's set upas a network share.

Like the Apple AirPort Extreme Base Station, Microsoft's WHS,and dedicated NAS systems, the iMac can share its second partitionwith ease, can handle as many external USB or FireWire drives as Iwant to connect and share them, and, more importantly, it's also afull-featured computer that takes a very, very light performancehit when someone is accessing a shared file.

Even better, when you buy a newer computer, your old one makes aperfect candidate to play home server, either "headless" or with amonitor and input devices that allow it to also function as a realcomputer. About the only downside to using an older computer as ahome server might be the noise from its fan, but many computers arequite silent in their operation (many people bought Mac minis forjust this purpose).

I honestly don't see many homes needing a real server or aNAS.

Speed Matters

The big downside to such things, and the reason why they aren'tessential yet, is speed. I have gigabit (1000Base-T) networking setup in my office, but to copy very large files, such as the restoreimages created from my Mac and PC hard drives (I use plain old DiskUtility for Macs and Norton Ghost for PCs), which for my officecomputers average about 10 GB per computer, takes 10 minutes.

Don't have gigabit ethernet? It would take about anhour-and-a-half over conventional "fast" (100 Mbps 100Base-T)ethernet, and almost three hours over G wireless. Even the upcomingN wireless will still give you about a 40 minute wait.

10 GB is a lot of data - but not in today's world of downloadedmovies, music, and photos.

A Better Backup Solution

For this reason, the best solution remains the simplest: a fastexternal hard drive to back up your even faster internal harddrive, with FireWire faster than USB 2.0 (even if the maximumtheoretical speed is slower, as USB is processor intensive andFireWire has its own controller).

Network storage is terrific at handling smaller files, olderfiles, and files that multiple people need access to. Officesbenefit greatly from network file sharing, as most offices deal insmall files like spreadsheets and documents. But even a 2-3megabyte file feels much slower opening over a fast network thanworking from a local hard drive. Still, the price is worthwhile forthe security of a backed up file server that tracks revisions andmaintains older versions.

Is a home server in your future? Will Apple's new AirPortExtreme fill the bill?

I use the current AirPort Express andalready love the convenience of its built-in print server, so I'llprobably pick up one of the new AirPort Extreme Base Stations, makeit my primary wireless router, and share an old USB drive to holdstuff I don't want cluttering my laptop (older movies and iTunes TVdownloads). I'll share my printer over it the way I do now withAirPort Express, and if the two will interface, I'll give theAirPort Express new life as a range extender to give me wireless onthe front porch, instead of just the back yard as I have now. LEM

Andrew J Fishkin, Esq, is a laptop using attorney in Los Angeles, CA.

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