I’d like to recommend this product. But I can’t. The HP MediaSmart EX475 machine running the new Windows Home Server software could be a very useful product for many solo/small office law firms. It automatically backs up networked computers. It’s a file server, so all networked computers can share the server’s files. And it allows remote access to those files anywhere you have Internet access. And it may be worthless. Microsoft is dealing with a data bug that could, sadly, be the undoing of an otherwise promising product. First, the promise.
Sprite with a Bear’s Appetite
The HP machine is Sandy Duncan on the outside, William “the Refrigerator” Perry on the inside. It’s small and pretty, but storage space on the EX475 is 1 terabyte standard (two 500GB hard drives – roughly equivalent to a stack of 1 million of the hard plastic 3.5” floppy discs us old timers used in college). There are four drive bays. Each bay can hold up to a 1TB drive, so 4TB of storage is possible. Even more if you count the drives that can be added with eSATA and USB external ports. All for $750 or thereabouts. Or $600 for the EX470, which has 500 GB of storage.
Home Server at the Office
Don’t be fooled by the name Windows Home Server. This product has uses in the office. Granted, the stated target audience for this product is broadband-connected homes with multiple computers that need backing up (10 max per the WHS license), and need to share a common pool of family music files, photos, videos, and documents. Microsoft figures there are 40 million such homes. What Microsoft isn’t touting is that WHS machines can be hooked up to existing server/small business server networks for file sharing, media streaming, and client backup (but not server backup). Those uses are permitted under the license (I’ve confirmed this with Microsoft). So what gives? Business servers don’t currently have the backup features of WHS, and there are a lot of small firms with aging server machines that don’t have the storage of the HP EX475. Microsoft (and their hardware vendors) would rather such businesses wait just a little while for new business server machines and software than keep their current systems going for another year or two with a WHS. At least that’s my guess.
Setup is fairly easy. It’s not truly plug-and-play, though. The machine is “headless” – you can’t hook it up to a monitor or a keyboard. Nor, for that matter, does it have a CD or DVD drive. The only way to get to it is through a client computer. To do that, you’ve first got connect the WHS machine to your router via a wired (preferably gigabit) connection. Next comes installing the “connector” software on a client computer through the familiar process of putting a CD in, clicking “I agree” to the license terms and watching as the software jumps from the CD to your hard drive. Once that’s done, the client computer automatically seeks out the WHS machine on your network. The client can then pull up the WHS “console” interface – sort of a web-page that lets the clients manage the server. The console is well-laid out, and the setup walkthrough is a straightforward matter of setting up user accounts and passwords. The most difficult part of setup involves configuring the ports on your router for the remote access features of WHS. This will vary from router-to-router. Sometimes WHS can do this automatically, sometimes not. So it boils down to this: anyone who has set up a home or office wireless network can install the WHS, while anyone who hasn’t set up a network before will probably be able to get the WHS up-and-running for purposes of backup and file sharing but will likely need assistance enabling the remote access features if WHS isn’t able to auto-configure the router.
WHS is built on a pared-down version of Microsoft’s business-class server software. Plus a new trick or two. The primary new trick is something called “Drive Extender.” With Drive Extender, WHS spares its users the geekdom of managing multiple-drive RAID systems. If you don’t know the difference between RAID 0, 1, or 5 (much less how to set up such things), you can join me in blissful ignorance. Having multiple drives on a server is good, though, because it’s nice to have all of the data on multiple drives in case one goes bad. Drive Extender manages the multiple hard drives for you. All you have to do is say what shared folders you want to create, and check a box if you want WHS to maintain duplicate copies of those folders on separate drives. WHS takes care of the rest. This feature is called, are you ready . . . “folder duplication.” Very handy.
Another new trick is the automatic backup feature (not presently offered on the business-class server software). Backups are automatically scheduled, but can also be done manually at any time. Microsoft recommends doing the first backup with the client computer attached via a wired connection. I tried it with a 802.11g wireless connection, and it worked fine (it took a couple of hours, but between 2 and 4 am, I wasn’t really watching). Subsequent backups are much quicker, as it only backs up what has changed. Another benefit of Drive Extender is that it doesn’t save the same stuff twice. For example, say you’re backing up three computers and they all are Windows XP SP2 machines with Microsoft Office. WHS only maintains one set of the data for XP SP2 and Office. It keeps an index of which backups will need those files, and when you go to restore, it pulls XP SP2 and Office from the common files. Sounds iffy to me, but it works. And it saves a ton of drive space. The backups can be accessed in two ways. First, from within the console, a client computer can “open” a backup. Opening a backup takes a few minutes as the Drive Extender looks at the index and assembles the necessary files. Once the files are assembled, they open up in a new window and you can copy and paste files as you would normally. So “opening” a backup is great if there’s just one folder or group of files that you need to get to (as in using last week’s backup to retrieve a folder you deleted yesterday thinking you’d never need it again). The other way backups are accessed is via the restore process. WHS comes with a client restore CD. If a client computer’s hard drive crashes, just install a new drive. Put the restore CD in the client, boot it up, and the restore software will automatically connect to the WHS machine, identify the client computer (based on its MAC address), and ask which of the backups you’d like to restore. Then walk away, let the restore operation work, and twenty to thirty minutes later (assuming a wired connection between client and WHS) your client computer is back in business. Same deal if the drive is fine, but you just installed some software you wish you hadn’t. Do a restore to a week or so ago (before the software installation), and when that’s complete, open the automatic backup from yesterday to recover the most current version of the “My Documents” folder.
Media Sharing and Add-ins
It’s clear that Microsoft, HP, and many other vendors hope to make WHS machines the hub for all things digital. One of the key parts of this strategy is the “Add-ins” feature of the WHS software. Microsoft has made a “Developer’s Kit” available to programmers, and is striving to develop a broad base of independent additions to the WHS platform. HP, for one, tweaked the console on the WHS software to have built-in folders and management tabs for music, photo and video sharing within the WHS network, as well as a photoshare web interface for the outside world. There are many small developers who are tweaking WHS as well. One of the most prominent is Andrew Grant, whose Whiist add-in makes it easier to add new websites to the WHS remote access feature. Other add-ins offer remote access to home electronics (set your thermostat, turn on your lights, etc.), or allow you to tie the WHS into an online backup solution for another layer of data protection. The most comprehensive list of add-ins appears to be on Terry Walsh’s We Got Served WHS site. This add-in community will bear close watching.
Beware of Bug
There have been some data loss issues with Drive Extender. The issue doesn’t appear to impact the backup function, just the file-server function. Data gets corrupted when users are editing documents stored on a WHS shared folder. Which raises the question: “What good is a file server if it’s read-only?” I would say that you could work around this by temporarily saving the file on the client computer as you’re working on it, and then saving the finished product back to the WHS. But Microsoft now says “We recommend that you do not use the programs that are listed . . . to save or to edit program-specific files that are stored on a Windows Home Server-based system.” So, apparently, you can’t even save a read-only file from the affected programs. At first (December 2007), Microsoft said the list of such programs was short. Microsoft vowed a quick fix. As of February 25, 2008, it’s not fixed. And the list of affected programs has grown to include such standards as Quickbooks, Quicken, iTunes, and shockingly, Microsoft’s own Outlook, Excel, and MediaPlayer. Keep an eye on Knowledge Base article #946676.
Areas for Improvement
Everyone on the WHS project should be working 24/7 to fix the bug. If they can get that done, then and only then can we quibble about more routine product tweaking. Such as: WHS’s search features could be improved. WHS comes with Windows Desktop Search. But getting to it is a pain, and the interface compares poorly to the Desktop Search interface on Vista and/or XP machines with the optional Desktop Search download. It would be much more convenient if the indexes on WHS and the client computers were linked, so that a client could search its own drives and the WHS shared folders at the same time, and show the results in one window.
Drive Extender doesn’t work with file names over 260 characters long. The “name” includes the folders and sub-folders where the file is located, so a little reorganization is in order before moving a set of matryoshka nesting doll folders to the WHS. Also, the folder duplication function of Drive Extender needs an “auto-suspend” feature. The manual recommends that you turn off folder duplication when copying large amounts of data to a WHS shared folder. It can slow down the system if it’s trying to copy the files from the client to one WHS drive and, at the same time copy them to a second drive on the WHS. It seems to me that Drive Extender ought to be able to figure out when the incoming files will present this problem and save the duplication until the copy from the client is complete.
The HP EXs only come with 512MB of RAM. But the blogosphere is replete with posts from those taking full advantage of the media-sharing and web-hosting features who howl that 512MB isn’t enough, and are posting how-to’s on adding more memory –and thereby voiding the warranty. I haven’t had a memory issue yet with my unit, but perhaps HP could offer more RAM on future machines or make a RAM upgrade slot easily accessible.
Also, for security purposes, it would be nice for future machines to support drive-level encryption. Internet security is always a concern for any connected machine. But the HP WHS machine is so small, and the drives so easy to remove, I’d be afraid someone might just up and walk off with one. Physically. Using their legs.
Improvements in the Works
Microsoft has announced a Power Pack to be released in Q1 2008. One of the main benefits of the Power Pack is that it allows drives to be accessed without adding them to the stable of drives managed by Drive Extender. As a result, users can pop a drive into a spare bay, copy shared folders and client backups (or even back up the WHS operating system itself), and then pop the drive back out. This is great if you want to keep a copy of all of your data in a safe deposit box or some other offsite location. The Power Pack will also permit more customization of the remote access interface. Currently, anyone set up for remote access can navigate to a tab that shows the computers connected to the WHS. This is great if you’re on the road, you’re the geek of your family, and you need to remote desktop in to a spouse or kid’s computer to diagnose/fix a problem. Not great if you want to give a remote access password to a client for the sole and only purpose of sharing a specified folder. With the Power Pack, you’ll be able to hide the tab that shows the computers on your WHS network. The Power Pack will also address compatibility issues with 64-bit machines which, as of today, don’t work with WHS. HP has announced updates as well, including improved media streaming capabilities, and free (for a few months at least) McAfee enterprise virus protection for the WHS machine and all clients.
Is It a Strawberry?
Have you ever rooted for an athlete that had all of the physical gifts in the world, but was such a head case that things just never panned out? That’s what Microsoft has on its hands here. And it makes me sick. I really, really hope things get turned around. I’d love to see this product fulfill its great promise. That’s what my heart says. My wallet says, “Don’t bet on it.”
Jeff Rambin has a transportation and technology practice in Tyler, Texas. He can be reached at Jeff@RambinFirm.com.
In the 1930s, The Martindale Hubbell company started publishing a catalogue of lawyers. In time it grew to be the single-most comprehensive and prestigious listing of attorneys in the United States. Since its inception, competitors have sought to compete with and ultimately replace it. The age of the Internet brought new competition, i.e. Findlaw, AVVO, and others. Martindale responded with Martindale.com and Lawyers.com. Martindale and all of its competitors use the same model, a listing available to search engines and a profile by the attorney describing the firm, its members, practice, representative clients, or other information believed useful by either the company or the subscriber. The information, while published online, is substantially similar to the old model that used books.
JD Supra, founded by experienced business attorney Aviva Cuyler, is about to change all that. JD Supra takes attorney marketing into the 21st Century. It provides something different and more innovative than all of the lawyer search engines that have preceded it. JD Supra provides real content contributed by the lawyers it lists. Its trademark is “Give Content, Get Noticed.”
Cuyler started the site because lawyers regularly draft documents that are used once and then forgotten. Many of these are prime examples of the lawyer’s craft. JD Supra provides a method for the lawyer to showcase that work by posting it in a searchable database linked to the lawyer’s profile. The brief that took days to write and is an example of your best work need not be relegated to the file cabinet but can be uploaded to showcase your experience in this area of law.
In order to get listed, the attorney must contribute a brief, motion, article, or some other legal document. These are then indexed by area of law, jurisdiction, type of document, subject area, and contributor. Posting documents is free. A basic listing that includes a logo or photo, name, contact information, practice area description and list, honors and awards, professional associations, and education is also free. Cuyler explains that she expects to produce income by selling enhancements to the basic listing, as well as advertisements on the site. A listing with direct links to an attorney’s email, websites, and blogs, will cost $20 per month or $240/year. No doubt other enhancements, and charges, will come.
Once the site is fully operational (it is scheduled to be online by the time you read this review), it will allow searches for briefs, decisions, papers, and other documents. The search engine is designed for use both by both lawyers and the lay person. You can limit the search by jurisdiction, subject matter area, document type, and search terms. This will enable a lawyer searching for a brief on a subject to find what another lawyer has done in the past, learn from it and, hopefully, improve upon it.
The site is designed to allow potential clients to read actual documents written by the lawyer before contacting or retaining the lawyer. Cuyler indicates that the site as originally contemplated would let lawyers benefit from their colleagues’ work and connect with real people. Potential clients could search, determine which lawyer was doing work on questions similar to their case, and then contact the lawyer.
In the reviewer’s opinion, this system offers many potential advantages, particularly for lawyers and corporate counsel looking for local counsel in a distant place. Instead of looking at what someone says about a lawyer, for the first time it will be possible to look at actual work done by the attorney before making the hiring decision. Clients may find this instructive; however, lawyers will probably be better able to judge the quality of the work actually done.
Note: While this review expresses the reviewer’s independent opinion and analysis respecting JD Supra, the editors disclose that JD Supra is a sponsor of the GP|Solo Division of the American Bar Association.
Marc S. Stern is a solo practitioner in Seattle, Washington, where his practice emphasizes insolvency and bankruptcy. Mr. Stern currently serves of cochair of the Bankruptcy Section of the GP|Solo Division of the ABA. He is also the coeditor of Letters for Bankruptcy Lawyers (ABA Publishing, 2005). He serves on the ABA’s Task Force on Attorney Discipline of the Joint Ad Hoc Committee of Bankruptcy Court Structure and is a contributing author to its Report on the Scope of Inquiry Required Pursuant to §707(b) as amended.
© Copyright 2008, American Bar Association.