Many of you have heard of the acronym SOHO, which stands for Small Office/Home Office, and has been used for quite some time to discuss technologies suited for the solo worker or small business. When it comes to networks, many small firms opt to set up a peer-to-peer configuration, with one of the workstations tasked as a server as well in order to save money by buying one less machine. However, there have been advances in hardware and software for the burgeoning home network market that may offer other solutions as well.

The key to a good network and server is not only to have a secure place to store and share data, but to have a good way to maintain that network as well. For years Network Attached Storage (NAS) solutions have been available, and are becoming more in demand and in larger capacities, as home networks need to store lost of large multimedia files. Vendors such as Buffalo Technology, Maxtor, and Lacie, offer these drives, which plug directly into an open ethernet port in your router, and come in many different storage capacities. Many models also come with USB ports to add additional drives, or to enable it to function as a print server. These products provide a good option for file and print sharing for several reasons:

  • They are cheaper than a standalone PC;
  • They are easier to set up and configure (often just involving plugging in the power and the ethernet cable, along with the installation of client software on each workstation);
  • They are more secure from an operating system standpoint, as it resides in nonvolatile system memory, as opposed to the hard drive itself, thus not prone to “infection” by malware.

It can also still be configured for individual user access with varying access rights, just like a regular server.

The exciting development in this area, however, is the impending release from OEM’s of Microsoft’s Windows Home Server. The idea behind this product is to provide a simple to install and configure home server system that will provide users with a central storage location for all of their photos, videos, music, and the like. The three key features being highlighted by Microsoft are:

  1. It can do automatic, daily backups of every workstation hard drive (either just the data or a complete drive image). The idea is, if your hard drive fails, you can just swap it out for a new one, run a restore from the server by booting from a WHS Home Computer Restore CD, and you are back up and running.
  2. You can access the server from anywhere outside the home through a secure web site allowing you to: 1) Access data in shared folders; 2) Access a PC on the network and run applications as if you were sitting in front of the machine; and 3) Access the controle console from the server to manage the network.
  3. Data imaging on the server itself. Similar to a RAID (Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks) setup, the server can simultaneously write data to two different drives, so that if one should fail, it would continue operating from the other.

In addition, the server can monitor the health of each machine (albeit only if that machine is running Vista), checking to make sure the antivirus, firewall, backups, and Windows are all up-to-date (which can be a daunting task if done manually). Even with just these features, it is easy to see how WHS can benefit a law office in the form of quick recovery from a disk disaster in a workstation or the server, easy network maintenance, and access to data for the mobile lawyer. However, that is not where the story stops.

Microsoft developed this product with two types of users in mind: the geek and the non-geek. They did this by basing the operating system software on Windows Server 2003, then focusing the user interface on key home features in order for it to be easy to use by the non-geek. However, the geek can still reach beyond this to the more robust features in Server 2003, and the third party developer can also create server applications to supplement the product’s initial feature set. See for yourself by reviewing the WHS Reviewer’s Guide.

Bear in mind that machines equipped with this new network OS have yet to be released to market, so you probably will not be able to purchase one until some time this fall. Pricing is also up in the air, although Microsoft puts it at around the cost of a low end PC. Progress can be tracked, and new information can be obtained, on the WHS Blog maintained by the Microsoft product team. As with any product, I advise a wait and see attitude to see how the market, and early adopters, respond. However, assuming the product lives up to the hype, although it is made and marketed for the home, this is an exciting and useful product for the solo and small law office.