I got into the Windows Home Server Beta, and have been doing quite a bit of testing and playing around with it. The idea is fantastic, and in its current beta 2 guise, has certainly nailed a few excellent ideas.
For anyone who doesn’t know, Microsoft Windows Home Server is a new product Microsoft is launching sometime near the end of the year. It is essentially a file server for the home, and is built on Windows Server 2003 R2. Most home users would have no idea how to set up a server, and the default Windows Server 2003 is way too complicated, and way too expensive to justify running at home. Home Server aims to address these issues of complexity and cost, and open up the wonderful world of client server computing to home users.
When the product is released later on this year, it will be available in two forms. The first is as an appliance with specifically designed hardware from PC manufacturers such as HP, Dell etc. The second way is as a more conventional DVD, although whether you’ll be able to walk into your local PC shop and buy Home Server isn’t known to me at this stage.
Home Server, as mentioned earlier, is a slimmed down version of Windows Server 2003 R2. A lot of the management and features have been removed and replaced with a very basic configuration utility. The server itself, whether you bought specific hardware or are running it on a PC you already have, is designed to run completely headless, i.e. there is no keyboard, mouse or screen attached. All configuration after the initial install will be done remotely via the Home Server Management Console or via the web interface. It is meant to be put in a cupboard or your attic or somewhere out of the way and just be a central location for all your media files, and any other files you would wish to store. It is primarily designed for digital media, and comes pre-configured with shares for Videos, Photos and Music. Each user account you create on the server will also be assigned a folder in which to store any files they may want.
The real benefit of Windows Home Server for home users is found in the backup and file redundancy features of the product. Each client PC on your home network gets a small piece of client software installed on it, and this is where the greatness begins. Each machine on your network now becomes a managed device, something until now, was reserved for business and enterprise users. Home Server keeps a constant eye on your PC’s health, and alerts you if any machine on your network has a problem such as Anti-Virus software not running, disk space low, whatever. Also, Home Server automatically does a FULL system backup of your home PCs after you install the client software, and updates this backup every night with any changes that have occurred. You get a bootable System Recovery CD with the product which can be used to resurrect a dead machine and get it back to the state it was a last backup. This is a phenomenal step forward for home users in my opinion. NOBODY I know backs up their home PC religiously, and these machines often contain irreplaceable information such as personal photos. You can back up all your network machines to the Home Server, but the disk space used is kept to a minimum due to single instance storage. This means that if you have 2 machines with exactly the same file, such as Windows system files, the Home Server will only keep one copy of this file on disk, but it can be used to recover any machine that needs it.
Another of Home Server’s real strengths is in the area of disk management. Gone are the days of struggling with C: and D: on your server, and trying to manage space and who puts what where. Home server uses the NTSF file system, but adds a new share mirroring feature similar to Distributed File System (DFS). It doesn’t matter to the user where the file is, just so long as it’s available when and where it’s needed. When you install Home Server, it warns you that it will completely wipe any disk currently connected to the machine, and it then proceeds to set up its new file system. Once this is done, you can just start copying files to the shares it creates. The management console shows you a pie chart of the current disk usage, and breaks it up into system, backup, redundant data, media etc so you can see exactly where the disk space has gone. You can also add disk at any time. On a normal Windows machine, adding a disk is a nightmare of partitioning and labelling with a drive letter, and then trying to decide what to store on the new disk to use the space effectively. With Home Server, you can add a disk at any time, either internal or external USB or Firewire, and it will just be assimilated into the space pool. Your little pie graph will change to indicate that you now have X amount of GB free, and you can proceed to copy more files to your server. If you want to remove a disk for some reason, you simply go to the management console and click remove disk. It will then copy all the data that is stored on that disk somewhere else, and you can safely unplug it.
You can also specify certain shares you wish to make redundant. This means that Home Server will always ensure that the files you specify are stored simultaneously on two separate disks, thereby protecting those files from single disk failure. This is a very important feature, and for anyone who has taken a lot of photos, an absolute necessity. Redundancy can be specified on a share level, so you can specify that all photos are redundant, but videos and music are not. One problem I have noticed with this (at beta 2) is that you can’t make the system drive redundant. This means that should your system drive decide it’s had enough, you lose everything. Some data may still be stored on other drives, and I believe it’s possible to connect it to another system and recover the data, but I have yet to test that. If you just rebuild your Home Server on a new drive, and then want to get the data off the older drives, you’ll struggle because Home Server will wipe the disk before it will make it available to be accessed. I hope they fix this before the final version comes out, because having all the redundancy is kind of pointless if there is still such a glaring single point of failure.
Home Server also comes with a full web based front end. You can connect to your server from anywhere in the world (provided you set up your router to allow this) and download files from it, upload files to it, check network condition etc. Really nice if you are away from home and need to access files or photos. You can also use this method to share photos etc with people who live a long way away by simply creating a user account for them to come in and get whatever they may need. The web interface is still a little rough around the edges, but this is purely cosmetic and will be sorted out by final release. Another nice touch is that if you need to download multiple files, you can select them, and when you click download, Home Server will create a ZIP file for you containing all the files you selected, meaning you only have to worry about downloading one file, and you can get some extra compression depending on the file, and save bandwidth.
The hardware requirements for Windows Home Server are fairly modest, and can easily be installed on an older PC you may have lying around. It requires a Pentium 3 processor and 512MB of memory. It will not install if you have less than 512Mb of RAM. They also recommend you use your biggest disk you have available as your system drive. It also requires a wired connection, and will not work if you only have a WIFI card in the system. This is to ensure good network performance, since file sharing is this machines primary task. Otherwise, installation is really simple and once it’s up and running, you connect via a PC on your network, install the Management Console, create a user or two, and that’s it.
I hope they price this product well when it comes out. If it’s too expensive, I don’t think it’ll do well. People like my father are ideal candidates for this sort of product since he has more than 1 PC at home and never backs anything up, but would be devastated if he lost everything. However, he won’t pay a small fortune for this, and will have to be seriously convinced of its usefulness before he’ll part with any cash. Everything is going digital and a central place in the home to store everything safely is a huge step forward for most people. I’m very excited about this product, and look forward to seeing the final version. I will be using it extensively over the next few months, and will add any other comments and discoveries to this article.