When is a NAS not a NAS? When it's a personal server
Windows Home Server may be dead, but its spirit lives on in the modern NAS drive
Exactly a decade ago, Microsoft announced Windows Home Server - a general-purpose home hub, providing centralised data storage and backup for the whole household, as well as streaming video and handling remote access. I thought it was a great idea: I even put together a feature for PC Pro guiding you through the process of building and setting up your own Home Server. Those were the days.
Sadly, Windows Home Server is no longer with us. Microsoft never gave an official reason for killing it off, but the evidence points to strategic euthanasia. In the last release of WHS, before it was ditched altogether, Microsoft surprised everyone by removing one of its core features - the "Drive Extender" that combined multiple disks into a fault-tolerant RAID-like array. Overnight, it became impossible to recommend WHS as a safe space for your data. The writing was on the wall.
Yet while Windows Home Server may be long gone, its promise lives on in today's NAS appliances. To be sure, they don't run Windows: that's probably a good thing, as their stripped-down Linux software can run happily on minimal hardware, and is probably rather more secure against hacker attacks.
Otherwise, though, the philosophy is strikingly similar. Not content with simple file-sharing duties, the modern NAS appliance acts as a media server, a remote-access gateway and a generic app platform, capable of running everything from Mono to Minecraft. Like Home Server, the system is designed to be used "headless", but it's often possible to hook up a keyboard and monitor and interact with the system directly.
Of course, not everyone needs such capabilities, especially not in a business context. There's a reason why the Synology DS216j is one of our favourite appliances, even though it's not exactly over-endowed with computing power. In plenty of scenarios, devices like the ultra-lightweight Buffalo LinkStation 520 are all you need.
For personal use, however, we'd recommend a NAS appliance that's capable of more than mere file-copy operations. You might be surprised at the uses you find for it. In my own case, embracing the ways of NAS allowed me finally to retire the noisy old Windows Media Centre PC under my TV, and use Plex instead to stream video seamlessly through the air. Now I'm seriously considering moving the handful of websites I administer in-house, rather than continuing to pay an annual fee for a limited amount of space on someone else's box.
The only problem I have with my do-it-all NAS appliance is the name. To refer to it as mere "network-attached storage" shamefully undersells its capabilities. It makes more sense to take a leaf out of Microsoft's book and call it what it is - a fully-fledged Home Server. After all, while storage is crucial, it's a mere fraction of what the flexible and extensible systems we've seen recently have to offer.
This article originally appeared in PC Pro issue 276