First Look: Windows Home Server RC1

Earlier this year, Microsoft announced its upcoming Windows Home Server product; a sort of beefed up NAS based on Windows Server 2003 SP2. A few days ago, Microsoft released the first release candidate for Windows Home Server, and since I was admitted into the beta program, I downloaded this release and transformed my trusty desktop x86 into a Home Server.

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Windows Home Server allows you to turn an ‘old’ computer into a central server for in the home. This server can then be used to store data, to make backups of all your machines, to share printers, while also allowing you to remotely access the server, as well as the machines that connect to it, via the internet, from anywhere in the world. WHS will be sold as an OEM release for hobbyists, but most people will buy Home Server as a complete hardware/software package.

Windows Home Server requires, at least, a 1Ghz processor and 512MB of RAM. However, my machine only has 448MB of RAM, and it still works fine and fast. I run WHS on an AMD Athlon XP 1600+ (1400Mhz) processor. The rest of your hardware requirements are fairly irrelevant, since the WHS machine is designed to run as a headless server (so no keyboard, mouse, and monitor); for instance, even though my machine has a GeForce 6200 with 128MB of RAM, I use the standard VGA driver. Only during the installation process do you need a keyboard/mouse/monitor. If you plan on using external hard drives, Microsoft advises against using USB 1.1, because “the older USB standard is significantly slower and less reliable for storage, and it is not supported on Windows Home Server.”

The installation process is fairly straightforward, and has a Vista-esque feel to it; after a few short questions regarding serial number and hard drives, the installer will tell you that it will complete the installation by itself, without user input. The installer will erase all your hard drives, and warns multiple times before doing so (in fact, you need to acknowledge this fact before WHS will install). This is the case because WHS will use all the available storage on your machine for its storage pool. It will create a SYS (C:) partition for the operating system (10-20GB), while using the remainder for storage.

When using Windows Home Server, it is best to discard of the idea of ‘separate hard drives’. WHS will create a storage pool, disregarding hard drive size boundaries. For instance, in my box, I have a brand new 160GB drive, as well as an older 40GB drive. WHS will automatically combine this into a 180GB storage pool (20GB for the OS partition), and any future storage options added to the machine can be easily added to the storage pool. Microsoft says “Windows Home Server grows with you to meet your needs, today and into
the future.”

After the installation, you will be greeted by a wizard which will guide you through the initial setup. This wizard configures things like automatic updates (which will be performed in the background), your password and password hints, and similar things. Interestingly, Microsoft seems to have taken a few cues regarding security, since the required complexity of a password changes with how you configure the server. For instance, if you enable remote access, WHS demands a strong password.

After the installation of the server is complete, you are left with a fairly standard Windows Small Business Server 2003 desktop. A warning HTML page will pop up, warning you that you currently have full access to your server and its settings. You can now turn the server off, disconnect the keyboard/mouse/monitor, and power the server up in headless mode. You now need to install the (small) connector software on your client computers. This connector software enables you to change your server’s settings via the Vista-esque Windows Home Server Console.

First thing you need to do now, is set up an account on your server. This account needs to match the one on your client PC, including the password. This requirement is not bug free yet, as every now and then, the Console will complain that passwords do not match (even though they most certainly do). As soon as matching accounts are made, you can access the pre-set shares on your home server (Photos, Music, Videos, etc.). You are now ready to start transferring files. Since the shares are standard CIFS shares, you can connect to them from any SAMBA-enabled machine.

You can configure each share, and also add new ones or delete them. You can set whether or not to “duplicate items”; if enabled, all items in this share will be stored twice (on both hard disks) as a redundancy method. Since you can set this per share, I disabled this on my videos, but enabled it on my photos and documents (which are much more valuable to me). You can also set permissions per user for each share. Music, photo, and video files can also be streamed to clients.

Windows Home Server also allows you to backup your client computers. This is also configurable via the Console; you can set which folders and files to in/exclude, the time when the backup should be performed, and so on. The Console will also calculate how much space it thinks will be needed for the backup, a welcome touch.

The interesting thing is that underneath all this, WHS is “just” an installation of Windows Server 2003, including all its advanced tools and configuration options. Remote Desktop is enabled, so you can easily Remote Desktop into your server, and configure its advanced features this way. This will allow advanced users to fine grain their server to their liking, far beyond what the Console can do. In other words, because of the WHS RC, I now have a Windows Server 2003 server in my walk-in closet.

An inevitable comparison [made by others] I have ran into every now and then is that between WHS and Apple’s Time Machine. This comparison reminded me a lot of that between Front Row and Media Center; namely, completely unfair and pointless. Front Row is just a flashy front end to QuickTime, iTunes, DVD Player, and so on, where Media Center is a complete solution, which adds a lot of functionality to Windows. I feel the same about comparing WHS to Time Machine: WHS allows for a whole lot more than Time Machine, and inevitably, it seems more complex than Time Machine.

I am left with good impressions of this RC release. It is very easy to set up, does not require a very heavy and expensive machine, and allows for easy expansion and administration, while not limiting the user, since you still have access to the full Server 2003 installation. Even though the final release date is still months away, the RC looks very finished and polished. Overall, WHS seems like a very interesting product, and I hope Microsoft and its hardware partners can keep the cost of the hardware for WHS down, so that it is affordable for most of us, contrary to what happened with Media Center computers.

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