What you need to know about Windows Home Server PP1 (especially on HP hardware)

If you have a computer running Windows Home Server, the long-awaited Power Pack 1 update should show up as an automatic update beginning today – assuming you didn’t install it weeks ago when it was released as a download. (For more details about why you absolutely must install this, see my ZDNet post.)

For a home-built system, the update should be a one-shot deal (but make sure you check any installed add-ins to see whether they’re compatible with PP1). If you have an HP MediaSmart Server, you have some slight extra complications. In addition to the PP1 code from Microsoft, you need to install a software update from HP (version 1.3). (In fact, you get x64 support only if both updates are installed.) The HP update in turn enables a pair of server add-ins, a streaming-media server from Packet Video, and a 7-month trial version of McAfee Total Security.

The order in which you perform these updates matters, and on the HP machine, which has only 512MB of RAM, performance will be noticeably slowed while you’re performing the updates, and will slow even more if you decide to install and configure the optional add-ins.

Ian Dixon has the full text of the guidelines as published by HP. If you have the time, they’re worth reading.

Terry Walsh of We Got Served has a superb summary of the installation guidelines along with some very perceptive comments about HP’s hardware and its development program:

I know that HP have spent a lot of time testing a wide range of upgrade paths with various server configurations along with Microsoft over the past two weeks to try to understand and mitigate the slow server response users are experiencing when PP1, PVConnect and McAfee are installed at the same time.

However, the fact that they’ve had to publish this advisory tells me the following (and I’ve made these points variously to Microsoft and HP directly)…

He goes on to list three criticisms, which are spot-on. Here’s are Terry’s three bullet points along with some commentary of mine (but go read his whole post, please) :

“1. The recommended hardware specification for Windows Home Server must be raised.”

My take: Terry’s absolutely right. The 512MB of RAM and Sempron CPU in the MediaSmart server are certainly good enough for out-of-the-box functions. But when you begin to install and use add-ons such as the iTunes server that comes with the original HP software or the new PV Connect product, performance can drag. The difference in performance on my home-built system is noticeable, thanks to a faster CPU and much more RAM. I greatly prefer the form factor of the HP machine, especially its size and ability to quickly add or remove up to four disk drives. Someone who is less patient than I am might chafe at the occasional sluggishness of the MediaSmart server.

“2. HP (and other OEMs) really need to provide customers with a supported memory upgrade path that does not invalidate their warranty.”

My take: I’m planning to perform a memory upgrade on this server today (a process that’s not for the faint-hearted), so I can compare its performance at 512MB and 1GB. The cost of the RAM is trivial, but it will be major surgery to open the case and swap the single SIMM. Partly, that’s a problem with the ultra-small design, which forces some very tight engineering. But when this box is redesigned, I hope that easier access to RAM is part of the new feature list. Having said that, I have to add that I have yet to see a small home-built PC that handles more than two drives well, much less four, as the HP does.

“3. I really hope HP manage to sort out a beta testing programme soon.”

My take: There really seems to be a disconnect between the folks at Microsoft and the folks at HP right now. I’ve had multiple conversation with people on both teams in the past six months, on and off the record, and it’s pretty clear that there’s not a clear line of communication between them. As the biggest OEM player in the world (and the only one in the U.S.), they deserve special status. If Microsoft wants to encourage innovation on this platform, they need to get down to HP’s HQ in Cupertino a little more often. I know that resources and priorities (and nerves) were probably stretched pretty thin over the past 8-10 months as the saga of the data corruption bug played out. Fine. That’s all in the past. Can you guys please sit down and work together on the next release of your respective products? I’ll be happy to pick up the tab for coffee and doughnuts.

That’s all in the future. For right now, if you’re using Windows Home Server, be sure you have these updates.