Are Home Directories Dead?

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything, really because I haven’t had much to say and the rest of the blogsphere has already said it.  However recently, I’ve had some interesting discussions which prompted me to write something.

Some background – For the last 5 weeks I’ve been in meetings and discussions with many vendors around data retention and eDiscovery based on a project our legal department is sponsoring.  I’ve met with at least half a dozen eDiscovery vendors from StorIQ, Digital Reef, Commvault, Symantec, etc. but the last couple days we’ve been talking with other IT people in my industry (chemical manufacturing) around their processes and procedures on the topic.  Some of the companies we spoke to said something that really struck a chord with me regarding home directories.

For starters, eDiscovery and data retention is a BORING subject…data crawling, indexing, dedup, searching…not the typical subjects that spark my interests.  However we’re beginning to look at Exchange 2010 and Sharepoint 2010 along with Windows 7 and Office 2010.  What jumped out at me is how much effort Microsoft has put into these products around data retention.  If you talk to Microsoft, its no surprise they’re making SharePoint the platform for web development.  We’re a big SharePoint shop and we’ve been telling users “Put it on a team site” for years, but where it gets interesting is with SharePoint’s “MySite”  A MySite is a SharePoint site that belongs to an individual user.  They can post blogs, add webparts, post pictures, and collaborate with their colleagues.  It can also store document libraries.  What’s even more interesting….you can also do Folder Redirection with Windows 7 to a users MySite, as well as offline access to MySite document libraries.  This leads me to my question….are home directories dying?

When I first heard from another chemical company –  “we’re killing off legacy home directories for SharePoint MySite’s” I did a double-take….Why?  Well not to toot my own horn but I had this idea 3 years ago when we first got into SharePoint and learned about MySites.  I thought to myself….Self…if I could redirect users My Documents to a MySite, then I could get cranking on a some type of browser based, thin-client workspace with Citrix’s SharePoint webpart to access applications, then layer on the functions of other webparts for things like email thru OWA and IM thru the Office Communicator webparts.  However at the time, you really couldn’t do it very easily thru group policy and I lost interest.  But now with Windows 7 and Office 2010, Microsoft did a pretty nice job at integrating everything that makes saving docs to a Sharepoint site very easy.  If you’re not a SharePoint user…on XP with Office 2003/2007 you had to save your document locally or on the network, then browse thru Sharepoint and upload your docs…it was a pain in the arse for lack of a better term.

Now my first thought was “great…lets take unstructured crap data and move it into a structured database of crap” but as I saw some of the new data retention features of SharePoint 2010 it started making sense.  Here’s a quick list of advantages to having user data in a MySite as opposed to a standard home directory:

  • Document version – No more “mydata.xls, mydata1.xls, mydata1old.xls, mydata2.xls”  SharePoint can manage versions…up to 5 versions (I think) of a single doc.
  • Data retention – legal policies can be incorporated into document libraries and sites in SharePoint.  For example, a doc that hasn’t been viewed in 2 years can be deleted or moved to lower tier storage
  • Rights Management – SharePoint libraries can integrate with Windows Rights Management Server so data can’t be printed or forwarded outside the company, etc
  • eDiscovery – All SharePoint data is indexed and searchable for litigation.  Holds can be put on docs so they’re moved out of retention policies or set to read-only

The only real disadvantage I can see is:

  • Restores – recovering a single doc from SharePoint isn’t all that easy.  Yeah there are document level backup agents, etc for SharePoint, but its still way easier on a file server or even better a NetApp NAS share with snapshots.
  • Expensive storage –  SharePoint needs SQL and SQL database servers and 15k FC disk is still expensive compared to low I/O RAID5 file servers.
  • WAN – Most of our remote sites have a local file server, but we have a centralized SharePoint site.  Now you’d be saving files over the WAN and your data could be inaccessible during a WAN outage.
  • SharePoint – Yeah obviously you need to be running SharePoint which is no simple task in itself.

Let’s face it…Home directories as we know them have been around since the dawn of time (oh how I miss NetWare 3.1) and maybe they’re on their way out…I’d love it if it took PXE with it.  So I pose the questions…Are Home Directories Dead?

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