In December, Microsoft provided me with a lengthy briefing about Windows Home Server, code-named Q, a consumer-oriented server product that Microsoft will ship in late 2007. I've been eager to discuss it ever since. However, I don't think many Windows IT Pro UPDATE readers are going to be installing Windows Home Server at work any time soon, though it's likely to be a be success at the homes of IT professionals and the friends whose purchases they influence. That's because Windows Home Server doesn't interoperate with Active Directory (AD) domains. But don't be put off by Windows Home Server quite yet: A careful reading between the lines of the Windows Home Server feature-set can provide some insights into where Microsoft is heading with its other server products, including the next version of Small Business Server (SBS), which won't ship until next year.

If you're not familiar with Windows Home Server, please refer to my preview on the SuperSite for Windows (http://www.winsupersite.com/article/reviews/windows-home-server-preview.aspx). The mile-high view goes like this: Windows Home Server provides three essential services, two of which, amazingly, are storage related. First, Windows Home Server provides full and automatic image-based backup of all PCs in your home (Windows XP Service Pack 2--SP2 and newer), effectively moving the unit of backup from the individual PC level to the household level. Second, it supports hot-swappable and, given hardware constraints, almost infinite storage increases. That means you can add internal and external hard drives as often as you want and Windows Home Server will simply pool all that storage automatically, with no drive letters mucking up the interface. Third, Windows Home Server does provide the types of digital media-sharing features one might expect of such a product.

A couple of other Windows Home Server properties stand out. First, it's completely headless, and you couldn't plug a keyboard, mouse, or display into the box if you wanted to. Second, it's super-simple, almost comically so, and designed for regular people, not technology geeks. Third, and this one is truly amazing, Microsoft will let you buy Windows Home Server as standalone software, or you can buy preconfigured servers from major server makers such as HP and others.

So what hints does Windows Home Server provide for the next SBS version? Well, SBS is well renowned for its simplified UI advancements, but Windows Home Server takes that to the next level, with two years of development aimed almost solely at ensuring that users are asked as few questions as possible in the clearest possible language. The big advancement I see here, however, is backup. Imagine an SBS product that provides Windows Home Server -like backup of every PC in the environment. Sure, you'd need a lot of storage space, but Windows Home Server uses Single Instance Store (SIS) technology on the server to keep down storage requirements, and it does so across machines. In other words, if every PC in your environment has an identical foo.dll file, SIS ensures that only one copy of that file is stored on the server. According to Microsoft, testers are seeing 15TB to 19TB of data backed up to just 300GB or less of storage space on Windows Home Server server. That's a revolution.

And these backups aren't static or monolithic. Windows Home Server customers will be able to navigate into point-in-time backups on the server using Windows Explorer and pull out various versions of files on the fly. Looking for that presentation? Did you want the version from December 15 or the updated version from January 8? You can copy both copies of the file right to your desktop.

Windows Home Server also provides the beginnings of a whole-house PC health-monitoring service using the “green badge of health” icon that should be familiar to many SBS customers by now. In both Windows Home Server and SBS, there's a lot of work that can be done going forward to ensure that these smaller environments are as safe, secure, and up-to-date as possible, including such features as network quarantine, where out-of-date mobile systems are kept off the network until they're up to speed.

With Windows Home Server, I've seen the future of SBS. And I think, if you look closely, you'll see a lot to like in both products.