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First look: Windows Home Server

I retired an old friend yesterday.  No, I am not talking about a pet or a beloved pair of broken in hiking boots.  Rather I'm talking about a near decade old Pentium II 400 PC.  It had finally reached the end of its useful life.  When I bought it it was only the third Pentium II machine on the market, and it was definitely the hottest piece of gear in my neighborhood.  Tricked out with a smoking ATI Graphics card in a state-of-the-art AGP 1x slot, a 12G hard drive, two USB 1.0 slots, and an unheard of 192M of memory, this was a dragster in its day.  Later I added a 100M zip drive for removeable media (USB thumb keys hadn't been invented), a 10 megabit network card (no integrated networking on the motherboard at that time, and 100 megabit was very pricey) and a 52x CD drive.

the old server

My drag racer ended its life as the family server; barely capable of running Windows XP, it was being used as a mere shell to hold a 250G hard drive, and nothing more.

Some weeks ago I was chatting with my friend Charlie Kindel, who runs the Windows Home Server team, and mentioned I would like to try their beta software out.  However, it wasn't until the simultaneous demise of several of my PC's last week that I really set about seriously thinking about a backup strategy for home.  The replacement for my old Pentium II is a newer (although it's still 3 years old) AMD Athlon XP based machine with 512M of memory running Windows Home Server. 

Windows Home Server is based on the Windows Server 2003 platform, which means that it will run on most late model hardware.  Several companies have announced dedicated server appliances as well, which will be available when this product finally ships.  They recommend two 300G hard drives in the box, although it will run with as little as a 70G drive.  I started with two 80G drives, plus my 250G.

Setting it up is easy, and very familiar.  It is, after all, Windows.  The setup program formats all the hard drives, and installs the OS and the server console applications.  At that point, you log out and disconnect the monitor, mouse and keyboard.  From now on, the server should be administered from the desktop application provided.

Create some accounts, install the desktop software on each of the PCs on your home network and… you're done.  From this point forward, every PC has access to shared files / photos / music / video and applications directories, as well as personal storage on the device.  The Home Server can tell you the health of your network as well (for instance, it warned that one of my kids anti-virus software was out of date).  It also automatically backs the PCs up overnight, retaining monthly, weekly and daily backups.  And the Home Server acts as a remote access server allowing you to get access to your files, photos and music, as well as your PCs (using desktop sharing) from anywhere.

There's also a burgeoning developer community creating plug-ins for the Home Server.  For instance, one plug-in will automatically upload photos from the server to Flickr.  Another allows you to use Wake-on-LAN to automatically wake-up any PC on the network from a remote location. 

I mentioned earlier that I set the server with two 80G hard drives, and a 250G drive.  However, for us that's really not enough. With just a little bit of video editing and a couple of backups that will be all used.  Fortunately, Windows Home Server seems to be infinitely expandable.  Simply plug a USB storage device in, and it will incorporate that device into the server, expanding your storage capability immediately.  In the screenshot below you can see that I've added a 500G external USB drive (cheap right now at Costco and Futureshop, by the way).

Windows Home Server Console

So what's it like to use?  I went to bed last night, and woke up this morning to find that most of the PCs were done their initial backup. It also found two PCs which had out of date anti-virus. And it all happened automatically.  Nice!  That alone is a huge improvement over my old "home server". 

For anybody who runs a network for family or even a small business, Windows Home Server is a simple and easy to use product that will relieve many of the burdens of being the "IT manager" at home.

More info: Windows Home Server team blog, We Got Served blog, Windows Home Server Forum

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