I never actually used Windows Home Server (WHS), but I thought about doing so often enough. It’s killer feature (for me)? The ability to plug in different disks, of different sizes, from different vendors (and even using different interfaces -I have a lot of old PATA drives kicking around!), and have them appear to the rest of the world as one large storage ‘pool’, with in-built redundancy. This was called ‘Driver Extender’… and has just been removed as a feature from the new Version 2 Home Server product. It seems a bit of a weird decision on Microsoft’s part, removing one of the two key product differentiators that made Home Server special. It wouldn’t surprise me to see the entire thing killed off, to be honest.
Anyway, the reason I no longer care too much about WHS is that I have my own way of doing networkable, extensible bulk storage: a Drobo with a WDTV Live media player.
My particular “first generation” Drobo only takes 4 hard disks -newer and more expensive ones can take up to 8. But using 2GB drives, that still means 6TB of usable storage (4 x 2TB, minus 2TB used for data protection), which is enough to be going on with. If 3TB and 4TB drives ever make an appearance, I’ll probably be a firmware update away from being able to increase my protected, usable storage space accordingly. Regardless, you can stick any combination of SATA drives into the Drobo you happen to have handy, and swap out smaller drives for bigger ones as your storage needs grow (and as your wallet finds it can cope). There’s no networking capability (you’ll need to pay stupid money for the Drobo Share, or the Drobo FS to get that), but you do get extensible, protected, set-and-forget storage that more-or-less just works (see below for the ‘more-or-less’ bit!).
The WDTV Live is a good media player. I had a plain old WDTV before the ‘Live’ version came out, and the upgrade gets you a networked media player. Set it up with an IP address, plug in an ethernet cable and it immediately makes itself visible as a Windows (well, Samba, anyway!) Share on the local network. Other than that capability and a slightly slicker front-end, there’s not a lot of difference: the thing is still capable of playing just about any media format you throw at it, has no problem with High Definition content, has a lovely “ten foot interface’ that anyone can drive within seconds… and just works, beautifully.
Stick these two products together, then, and what do you have? Basically, the Drobo just plugs into the WDTV Live via USB, is then seen as a single giant volume full of multimedia files… and the contents of that volume are then shared around the rest of the network, thanks to the Samba-sharing nature of the WDTV. When I rip a new CD on my PC in the study, therefore, it’s trivial to copy the output to the Drobo sitting under the TV on the other side of the house, despite the Drobo not having ‘intrinsic’ networking of its own. So what you actually end up with is a NAS that does excellent duty as a media server and player. Someone should design a product that includes both bits of functionality in the one box!
The networked Drobo FS costs about AU$850. The standalone Drobo Share costs AU$300. Neither would be able to play a bean on my TV! My non-networked Drobo cost AU$599, and the WDTV Live cost a further AU$189… so I end up with viewable, networked, extensible, protected storage for AU$788 instead of non-viewable, etc, etc for AU$850 – AU$900. (Hard disks cost extra, of course).
I’d thoroughly recommend the WDTV Live… it’s really plain sailing to use, and you couldn’t get a more capable, simpler media player. We ditched the original WDTV player a year or so ago for the joys of Windows Media Center running on a spare PC… but the usual Windows problems meant that experiment turned into something of a disaster (crashes, driver problems, forever updating etc etc). We were so pleased to be able to junk the complexities of Windows for the highly-functional simplicities of the WDTV once more!
I wish I could recommend Drobo quite so unreservedly. If you’d asked me three months ago, I would have done. But since then, I made the mistake of purchasing a new one for an elderly friend. I mention the ‘elderly’ bit because his requirements, above all, are for something that simply works, without fuss, bother or the need for constant fiddling and tweaking. He is a very non-technical person, and his movie collection needs to be safe without having to think about it. A pity, then, that the Drobo unit I purchased for him turned out to be defective: it didn’t work at first, it then worked long enough to copy a couple of terabytes onto, and then it decided not to work again once it had been plugged into a different PC. It would hang during its boot sequence; it would declare it couldn’t find some disks, then decide it could see those after all but now couldn’t see the ones it had no problems seeing before; it would not be detected by Windows 7 at all, and then it would be detected without a problem, until you rebooted the PC -after which it would revert to being undetectable. It was bonkers, frankly. Precisely what you don’t want when you buy ‘safe, protected, reliable storage’!
Naturally, you get the odd lemon turning up whenever you take the hardware-purchasing plunge, but I can tell you: getting one lemon makes you have second thoughts about the earlier purchase that has never put a foot wrong! It just undermines your confidence in the product as a whole, in short. And it doesn’t help that their “support desk” has the same senseless, robotic and dumbed-down attitude that all support desks seem to go for these days. All I wanted was a returns authorisation number. Instead, I get asked to produce a diagnostic log. Fair enough: I try to do that, and I can’t because the unit is completely unrepsonsive. I tell them this. They reply not with a ‘Jeez, it’s screwed then!’ but with a ‘well, can you try using the Firewire port instead of the USB one’! I don’t even have a Firewire port, I point out. Well, I’ll need to escalate this to the next level of support, I am told. No you won’t, I say… either authorise the return right now, or I start consulting lawyers. At which point, the return was authorised without further comment!
I don’t like the fact that I had to wrestle with them like that. The second I couldn’t produce a diagnostic log because the unit had hung, they should have authorised the return. The suggestion to plug it into a Firewire port reflects the fact, I think, that Drobos are very popular in Apple Mac circles… and I imagine the dumbed-down, treat-you-like-a-moron, have-you-tried-turning-it-back-off-and-on style of support is designed to cater to that particualr type of audience. It didn’t do anything to endear me to them or their product, though! (Can you tell??!)
Anyway, I’d like to say that the guy who actually sold me the thing couldn’t have been nicer or more solicitous: he’s gone out of his way (literally: he turned up at the office today to pick the defective unit up personally) to see me right with a new Drobo that works properly. Time will tell on that score, I guess, but I can’t really fault his efforts thus far. Meanwhile, my own, original Drobo sits there quietly under the telly doing sterling service without the slightest issue. So yes, on balance, I would still recommend it. Just make sure you get an excellent vendor -and don’t waste too much time with their useless technical “support”. My vendor, by the way, who comes highly recommended, is Ross at Ineedstorage.