Thinking about Xbox Home Server

My friend Mark Bowker recently blogged about the hypothetical potential of a Microsoft Surface Server. Since he covers Virtualization for ESG, he has a lot of opportunities to think about converged infrastructure, as well as the impressive hardware stacks of converged infrastructure that are powering today’s data centers. At the same time, another friend, Rod Trent at Windows IT Pro, wrote an article about Xbox One.

And that got me thinking…

For those that don’t know, when I am not helping folks back stuff up, I do a lot of gaming – including advocating family-friendly gaming through one of my other blogs, I am also a big fan of Windows Home Server (see blog).

Quick history lesson – Microsoft first released Windows Home Server (WHS) several years ago, as a consumer-centric file-consolidation device. Powered by a trimmed down Windows Server OS, it provided file sharing, as well as photo-, video- and music-streaming to a household. You could buy it as a pre-built appliance that wasn’t much bigger than a Kleenex box from Best Buy, Frys or even Walmart (I think). HP, Dell, Asus and others made the hardware; it didn’t require a monitor or keyboard, and it just plain worked! But when they began shipping WHS 2011 (v2), the hardware guys didn’t ship appliances for it, MS was in the throes of redefining its vision for servers and the cloud, and WHS seemed to just fade away. Maybe WHS was just bad timing?

So, why not put them together?

The new Xbox One will now be boasting a very powerful 8-way x86 processor, so why not carve off a few of those cycles and run a thin hypervisor – and then host a small Windows Home Server v3 VM inside it?

  •   Xbox has clearly been positioned as the entertainment hub for the house, not only offering gaming, but access to video channels (NetFlix, HBO, ESPN, Cable-TV), music/video streaming, etc.
  •   Home Server’s vision was to consolidate file shares, photos and whatever music you owned (outside of its music service), as well as iTunes streaming.

When Mark’s blog considered a Microsoft server, my immediate reaction was that Microsoft wouldn’t want to inflame their traditional server hardware partners. But today’s IT infrastructure market is full of Co-Op-etition, with diverse and sometimes unexpected partnerships of hypervisors, storage, and server stacks for private cloud infrastructure. But unlike the server market, the home-server market is largely uncontested, with commodity, often Linux-based NAS devices, on store shelves. And while home-NAS devices tend to be just for technical-enthusiasts, the Xbox platform is in tens of millions of homes.

Think about the possibilities

So, with an x86 architecture and CPU cycles to spare, is it that hard to imagine strapping some additional storage on the back and then truly making the Xbox the center of all of your home’s data?

After that, what else could you do?

  • How about linking the file storage to Microsoft’s SkyDrive, so that the Xbox is your home’s storage gateway to all of the files that you’ve stored in Microsoft’s cloud. And if that file serving functionality works, why couldn’t DropBox or other online file sharing platforms also offer a client, inside the file serving VM, but managed through the Xbox UI.
  • If you wanted to store more on-site, you might want some kind of Xbox attachment offering RAID storage, to support bigger capacity on the Home Server. Or leverage the Windows Server (inside the VM) and its built-in iSCSI target for accessing more storage from any cloud storage provider or from small iSCSI storage vendors like Drobo.
  • Skype is Microsoft’s go-to communication service, so why not find a USB to RJ-11 attachment and convert your VM-enabled Xbox into telco-bridge. With Skype providing Voice over IP, and your home phone(s) plug into the RJ-11 jack on the Xbox … Microsoft and your ISP have just become your home phone provider.
  • If you wanted to get really crazy, set up a VM (inside your Xbox) that serves as a distribution and management point for Microsoft’s Windows Intune service. While data centers use Microsoft’s System Center and private cloud management toolset, Intune offers software distribution and basic PC management for small businesses. But many cloud-based services run best when there is an on‑premise device for enhancing the local experience, before going to the cloud. So, if your family has 5+ PCs like mine does, a local distribution point for Intune might be a cool thing.

There are probably other combinations that might be interesting – all predicated on running a thin hypervisor on that shiny new x86 powered Xbox One.

BYOD and CoIT for Servers

Surface was an exciting first step to Microsoft delivering its own hardware for the computing experience (other than the consumer specialty devices like Xbox). And I can imagine that much like the 360 built on its original Xbox learnings and then blew the doors off, Surface v2 ought to be just as impressive.

Ten years ago, I bought a ThinkPad for personal use, because I had great experiences with my work-issued Thinkpad. It used to be that folks brought their corporately-owned technology choices back to the home. Today, in our BYoD world, it is just as common to see folks take their personal technology choices to work and influence their co-workers, and their IT departments. So, it certainly couldn’t hurt for Microsoft to re-introduce savvy home-users to their server stack, but in a way that isn’t geeky but is instead cool and compelling (like through an Xbox UI).

So, I’m starting to like Mark’s and Rod’s ideas of Microsoft delivering a server – but maybe it doesn’t start in the datacenter? Maybe it should start in the living room?

Please leave your ideas in the Comments section below.

And as always, thanks for reading.

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