The expansion of home and SOHO networks in the past few years has led to lines of inexpensive hardware to make these networks more affordable. One example is the NAS or Network Attached Storage Drive that grafts an ethernet controller card onto an external hard drive and adds server software for security and ease of backups. This made dedicated file and print servers more affordable. This expansion also led to lower priced routers and wireless access points in the home and home office that facilitated the sharing of data and printers while complicating the task of installing and configuring those networks, maintaining security on the workstations, and effectively backing up the data on all of them. Finally, the increased use of the PC for home entertainment and multimedia, partly through the advent of the Media Center Edition of Windows XP and the XBox gaming platform, have created a demand for more sophisticated networking and broadband communication of content across same.

In answer to all of this, and as a logical next step, Microsoft introduced the Windows Home Server (WHS), which I discussed in a previous post. This product took the NAS box and put it on steroids by adding a fully functioning network operating system in the form of Windows Server 2003 (albeit with a different user interface) that allows for easy backup and storage of multimedia content, monitoring of network health, remote access to the data it stored, and many other features. In addition, another product came onto the market to address the many headaches suffered by home and SOHO users in installing and configuring a wired/wireless network. This product is Network Magic, which I also discussed in a previous post. Both products make it easier for the solo and small firm attorney to maintain and use a network. The question then becomes, is Network Magic, a software application solution that costs, at most, $49.99 for an eight machine license, a less expensive solution for what WHS (estimated by Microsoft to be the equivalent in cost to a low end PC) can do for more? The short answer is: it depends on your needs.

WHS promises to be a rich, powerful, and expandable server platform. However, if your office is mainly running Windows XP or earlier, it does not come through on all of that promise. First of all, the health of the workstations on the network (i.e. whether Windows, antivirus software and firewall software are up to date) can only be monitored on machines running Vista, which I expect is not the OS of choice for solo and small firms as of right now. Second of all, it does not currently support third party antivirus and firewall software. Network Magic, however, is compatible on versions of Windows all the way through and including Vista (an Apple Mac version is contemplated soon) and all third party security software.

On the other hand, WHS promises to do things that Network Magic does not. First of all, it has a backup utility that will not only back up all of your workstations on a daily basis, but can periodically take a disk image that can allow for the restoration of your system onto a new hard drive (with the use of an emergency boot CD) should the old one fail. This difference will be less significant by next year when Pure Networks is planning a version of Network Magic that will recognize NAS drives as separate devices on a network. This, combined with the built-in backup capabilities of NAS devices will address data integrity. The only thing it would still lack would be a full system restore using an emergency boot CD. Also, WHS’ remote access feature allows for real bi-directional access to files on the server (i.e. you can access the file like you were on your network and easily save changes to it). With Network Magic, however, you can either view or download the files, but cannot save changes directly to the server (you have to change them locally then upload the modified file, saving it under a different name and then deleting the old one). In addition, WHS allows remote access to the workstations as well as the server.

Outside these two main areas, the products currently do much the same thing. This is where the user’s individual needs would come in to play. If you already have an NAS for data backup and mainly need something to monitor network health, overall usage, and allow you basic remote access to data, then Network Magic will accomplish that for less. If, however, you need more robust data and system backup capability, and VPN-equivalent access to data remotely, then I would recommend WHS with Network Magic running on top of it to monitor network health, connections, etc. in an office that is not 100% Vista. Either way, you will get more out of your network and spend less time maintaining it.