Home Server? Nah.

Word is that Microsoft is introducing a Windows Home Server at CES this year.


I think home servers will always be a niche market. Most people have no need for them, and the things they _can_ do for a home can be done other ways that are arguably more appealing for home users.

Let’s think a bit about this. What uses might a home server have?

  1. A centralized place to store data, accessible by multiple machines.
  2. A place to back up important data
  3. A web server for friends and family

There might be other uses, but these are the main ones people talk about. So let’s look at these one-by-one and see if we can’t come up with something more appealing.

A centralized place to store data, accessible by multiple machines.
The “centralized” part is probably not that important – having the data accessible by multiple machines is. And this then assumes the home has multiple computers! You can’t sell a home server to a home until they have more than one computer! So – what if instead of selling them a home server, you sell them a second Mac? When you plug it in, it uses Airport or Ethernet and Rendezvous to detect other Macs (and maybe other Windows/Linux/etc machines) on your network and offers to set up (insert sexy marketing name here) “account synchronization” between the machines. Once this is set up, accounts and user data are replicated between all the machines on your network. Now all data is accessible from all machines, and you have a little bit of protection should one machine die – its data is on the other machines on your home network. This could even work with laptops – when they can see each other (or the other machines on your home network), they synchronize data. When you take them away from your home network, they have a complete local copy of your data you can use at Starbucks.
Instead of buying a “server”, which sits somewhere without a keyboard, mouse, or display, you have a whole ‘nother _computer_, which you can actually _use_. It seems to me that it would be far more appealing to have another computer than a strange little box sitting on shelf that you don’t actually directly _use_.

A place to back up important data
Time Machine in Leopard (Mac OS X 10.5) might help users actually start backing up their data. This gets more important each day as hard drive sizes get bigger and bigger, making the amount of data you can lose bigger and bigger. But Time Machine is useless without a second hard drive or a server. So – you can get people to buy an external hard drive (or with a Mac Pro, install a second internal drive) – or get them to buy a second Mac. Like the account sync, Macs on your network could act as Time Machine repositories for each other. (Even better, I’d like to see future Macs come standard with two hard drives that are mirrored and user-replacable. When a drive fails, the user is notified that they need to replace it.)

A web server for friends and family
While a home server can handle this task, it requires special network setup for most home users. Most home users have Internet connectivity through a router with NAT – so any given computer, even the server, cannot be directly reached from the Internet without reconfiguring the router. This is beyond the capabilities of most home users. Right now, it’s arguably easier to use a hosted account like .Mac or one of the many alternatives to host web pages.

With a little software magic from Apple, building on lots of technology that already exists in Tiger or that has been announce for Leopard, owning multiple Macs would give most of the benefits of having a home server, plus additional capabilities that no home server could give. I know I would find it easier to explain to my Mom the benefits of having two Macs over the concept of having a Mac and a “home server”.

Home Server? Nah.

6 thoughts on “Home Server? Nah.

  1. ryan says:

    I think you missed the point on the centralized storage point. At my house we have a couple of roku soundbridge’s,a linux server, and a macbook. If i didnt have the server i would have to leave the macbook turned on 24/7 to serve up music around my house, instead of a small box in the closet that i never have to think about. With the advent of the iTV product these home servers will become even more relevant I think since laptop users are not going to be able to have a 500GB drive in there laptop, and are not going to want to plug it into there laptop everytime they want to sit down and watch something they D/L’ed from the iTunes store. Microsoft has realized this with the server idea, and I’ll bet it fits nicely with there xbox media extender (which i assume iTV could be an analog to)

    The idea of syncing all your computers is ludicrous, what if i don’t want my wife’s 40GB of country music mp3’s on my laptop (that is already low on space)? Sure in this hypitheiclal situation i could setup the system not to sync her music, but then i just defeated the whole purpose of this exersise.

    I think a Mac Mini type server would be most beneficial, if we are keeping things the ‘mac way’ Apple would release a router (probably with a built in airport) that would be automatically configured by the server to serve up web pages you did in iWeb.

    Try to think about it the other way around, about just how beneficial an “Apple designed and built” home server would be. Think of it in a house with a couple of laptops that cant have external drives hanging off of them just to listen to music on the stereo because the toddler will run off with the HD.

  2. I’ll go out on a limb here:

    You will never see a home server from Apple.

    Why? It would require a new piece of hardware from Apple. None of their current hardware offerings are appropriate for a home server, and they’re not going to build a new piece of hardware for such a niche market.

    Microsoft, on the other hand, has every incentive to try to sell Windows Home Server. They can always get some other company to build the hardware. And it helps them push Windows onto everything – your cell phone, your car, your TV, etc.

    I get your needs, ryan. I understand the benefits of a home server. I’ve thought about setting one up myself. But I’m a technology guy. I just don’t see most people going to the effort to set up a home server. For most people, it would be just too much trouble and too little benefit.

    Maybe a good analogy is home media distribution. There are people who spend thousands of dollars to put all their CDs and DVDs in giant jukeboxes that are distributed to all the TVs and stereos in their house. They can go to any room that has a TV or speakers and watch the movie or listen to the CD of their choice. But it’s a niche market. Most people just sneakernet their DVDs or CDs from their living room to their bedroom. Works well enough, is much cheaper, and much easier to troubleshoot!

  3. Greg,
    There are 5 computers in my house. A MacBook, mac mini, Windows XP laptop, Windows XP desktop, and a FreeNAS server. All of these machines are networked. The MacBook, Dell laptop and desktop do not host any content. The BSD UNIX based FreeNAS server is the main repository/backup server for documents. The mac mini is the main music, video, image server for the house. I have attached a 160GB firewire HD to it. Since OS-X ships with a complete AMP (Apache web server, MySQL database, PHP/Perl) stack the mac mini, with it’s small foot print and super quiet operation, is completely “appropriate for a home server”.

    You are being short-sighted.


  4. Island:

    You’re hardly an average user. I’m not saying a home server isn’t useful for some people – I’m saying it will always be a niche market. You’re in the niche. I am, too. My mom is not. Most people I know are not.

    So I don’t think Apple will ever offer a product in this space.


  5. J David says:

    Just stumbled across this older article, and as it turns out, Apple did release a home server of sorts, in the form of the mac mini server.

    Their mistake, in my eyes, is that it doesn’t have software tailored for the home user; I want to see centralized iTunes management and centralized iPhoto management. And I want it done the “Mac” way, in that I plug it in, the machine finds the other computers, and sets the connections up on its own. That is what I am looking for.

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