It has been about a month since I installed Windows home server beta two on an old PC I had kicking around. So far I’ve been very impressed with the software. While I only have a few machines connected to the server, at the server has done has impressed me so far.
As I stated in an earlier post, windows home server is a product that is in beta for Microsoft designed for Home Networks and is based on windows server 2003 technologies. You install the software on a machine, configure user accounts, and plug it in to your network. Once the server is up and running you can run it as a headless device meaning that it does not need a monitor or a keyboard and mouse connected to it. Access to the server after the monitor and keyboard are disconnected is done using Internet Explorer. Once the server is running, you then use the client CD, and install the client software on each PC that you wanted connect to the home server. The client software sets up a backup routine, adds a shortcut on the desktop to shared folders creates and network status icon in the taskbar. Once user accounts are created on the server it sets up folders for each user, as well as a set of folders that are shared between all users. The server can also be used as a media connect device, that allows you to stream multimedia files to other media connect devices such as in Xbox360 or another windows PC with Media connect installed.
The server utilizes new technology called single instance file backup. What this means is that if the same file is backed up twice from different computers only one actual copy will be saved to the drive and a pointer will be created for one of the PC’s. For example if you are backing up two computers to the server, each with XP home installed, the backup program will back up all files on the first PC, and then while backing up the second PC, it will check to see if the file already exists in another backup and will back up a pointer to that file only if it does exist. This technology saves space on the home server allowing you to get away with smaller storage drives.
The home server product allows you to add more storage space to your home server at any time. This can be internal hard drives or USB or firewire hard drives. A word of caution however, is that when a hard drive is added, the drive is formatted an existing contents are lost. Hard drives can be added a couple of different ways. The new storage space can be added to the server as a whole, and the server will just store files wherever it can. Or the new hard drive can mirror the existing hard drive as a debtor redundancy method. This way if one hard drive fails, files will not be lost.
The server software also comes with a recovery disk. If you have to restore the PC that has been backed up to the server, even if the hard drive has completely failed, you can restore the backup to a new drive. I have tested this using virtual machines and have been very successful with it. I backed up an XP home virtual machine to the server, then under virtual PC 2007 created a new virtual hard drive, captured to restore a ISO file and rebuilt the virtual machine using the backup. This worked flawlessly. It gave me to identical virtual machines each one started fine and worked with no problem. I get to test this on actual hardware, but I do have an older tablet PC that has been backed up and I will soon test this feature. My plan is to format the drive, boot off the recovery disk and attempt to restore the operating system to the formatted drive. If it works like the virtual machine, I should have the system back to where it was before the format.
The backup does work over Wireless Networks, however the restore requires that the PC be physically connected to the network which makes sense as not all wireless card drivers can be included in the boot up. I should add that once a full backup is done, on a client PC, the backup only backs up changed files. This reduces the amount of time and bandwidth that a backup takes.
Windows home server will also be able to share printers that are connected to it to all users. This way one printer can be used by all users of a Home Network without having to purchase print server devices.
Windows home server also features several additional tools. For example it allows you to connect back to your file shares across the Internet using a web browser so that you can share your files with friends and family or access them from another PC. If you are running windows XP Professional, Windows Vista business, Windows Vista enterprise or Windows Vista ultimate, you can remote control your PC on your Home Network across the Internet just using the web browser. I have made the suggestion to Microsoft, that if an end user purchases windows home server and is running Windows Vista home premium, that they may allow remote control to the platform as well. I have not as yet tested a connection to an XP pro machine, but I have a remote controlled to the server. This feature is found in windows small business server 2003 and works extremely well, so I’m assuming that it’ll work just as well under this server package.
Microsoft has just released a software developers kit for windows home server which will allow vendors to create additional applications to extend the functionality of the home server. With this SDK we should see some additional applications available close to the final release of the product.
In my earlier post I indicated that the hardware requirements are not very rigid. All you need to install a server is a 1 GHz processor, 512 MB of ram and they 80 GB hard drive. This will allow for virtually any PC sold in the last four years to be used as the home server without too many hardware upgrades. One word of caution though, older hardware is more likely to break down sooner, especially hard drives, so I would suggest that if are using an older PC you consider at least replacing the hard drive before installing the server. In this way you can also install a larger hard drive at a minimal upgrade cost and use the second one as a second drive and the server.
As we are in beta two, I would suspect that we would see at least two release candidates before the software is made available to the public. I would guess that the time frame for release it be in the summer or early fall of 2007. It is still unclear if it will be available as this offer only purchase, available at retail or an OEM product. I’m also sure that we will see hardware appliances sold by the major tier one manufacturers. Regardless of how it is being sold we are recommending this product to most of our end users even if they only have one computer laptop. Our experiences show that most home users don’t have an adequate backup plan to deal with important documents, downloaded music or digital pictures.
Since the time I started writing this and before I published it, Windows Home Server has gone to Consumer Technology Preview (CTP). This means that if you want to get a head start on the WHS server you can apply to download it. Visit the Microsoft Home Server Website http://www.microsoft.com/windowshomeserver and follow the links. You will have to fill out a brief questionnaire at the site and log in using a Windows Live Account.
I have also been thinking about configuration for these Home servers going forward. I think that the configurations we will be offering at Sysguy Consulting will be based on clients risk strategy. If they are looking at using an old PC to run the WHS, we would advice adding a new hard drive and using file replication as a backup. If they are looking at getting a brand new box, an AMD Sempron or Intel Celeron Processor would be fine. Hard Drives and setup could be chosen based on if the client is looking at a large amount of storage space or if they want data protection.
I still feel that the Windows Home Server product is a real winner! It answers a small problem that is often neglected by home users until it is too late and that is backing up important files and documents. So far the product has been very stable and I would encourage people to look at this very seriously as soon as it is available later in 2007.