Thomas Watson, former IBM chairman once said ‘I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.’ Because computers have become so cheap and easy to use, many people are getting more than one. This opens up many possibilities, but can also cause some problems. I personally have five computers in my house.
The five computers in my home consist of three desktops and two laptops. I have quite a few media files on my computers and keeping all of these files synced and current on each computer has probably been my biggest headache. I also have a TV tuner card in one of my computers and I record a lot of TV shows that family members using other computers want to view. Currently, to solve these problems I share folders on all of the computers so I can copy files back and forth. This solution is far from ideal because it is a pain to manually copy files between computers. Backing up all these computers is also a concern for me. I don’t want to lose any of my files if a hard drive crashes.
Windows Home Server should help to resolve some of these concerns because it will backup all my computers and make it possible to share files with all my computers from one location. I recently reviewed the hardware required to run Windows Home Server, this time I am going to review the software.
Windows Home Server is built on top of Windows Server 2003 which is a very stable, but complicated operating system to work with. Windows Home Server is setup to be really easy to use because it hides all the difficult stuff and gives you a simple connector that you can use from any computer to manage the server.
Because I put together the hardware myself I had to install the software myself. The install process was not complicated, but it did require a lot of interaction. The first 10 screens all needed some kind of input. It took about five minutes to get to a part where the install process could go on by itself. After that it took about 30 minutes for the rest to complete. If you have nothing better to do during the install the screens that are unattended display tips and facts about the operating system for your reading enjoyment. I have 25 screen shots showing the install process. If you are interested in seeing them all you can go to the image image gallery
After the install and during the first startup you are prompted for a couple other bits of information. You have to choose a password, update method, customer improvement program, and error reporting. When you are done Windows Home Server will start and you are done with the setup. In fact, you are done with interacting with this computer all together. You can detach the keyboard, mouse and monitor. From here on out you will need to use the connector software that gets installed on the client machines. In fact, if you try to use the server directly you are presented with a warning. However, if for some reason you need to interact directly with the operating system you can always access it with remote desktop.
Installing the connector software is really easy. When you first start the connector software it will connect to the server and then check for a newer version of the connector and try to install it if there is one. This process failed for me. So instead, the server downloaded the software and put it in the software shared folder. I had to go out to that folder and install it on my own. After this I had to type in my password so that the connector could connect to the server and setup the initial backup process.
Once the setup is complete you can finally use the connector to connect to the server and start setting up your system. There will be a taskbar icon that you can use to startup the connector. Double clicking the icon opens up the login window and right clicking it will display a few other options. Keep in mind also that you can only be using the connector from one computer at a time. If you try to use it from two computers, the first one will get kicked off.
The first screen that you see when you log in is the computers screen. This screen shows all the computers that are connected to the sever and their status. You can connect up to 10 computers to the server by installing the connector software on each computer. A computer that has the software installed and is currently connected to the server will show up with a color icon and black text. A computer that is not connected will show up greyed out. This screen is also where you will setup and view backups for each computer. You can setup a backup by selecting a computer and then choosing configure backup. You will then be guided through several steps for setting up a backup. The wizard will detect all the hard drives on each computer and you can unselect each one that you do not want backed up. The wizard will then show you which types of files will not be backed up. After that you are shown a summary of what will be backed up and an estimate of how much space will be used. After that you are finished, and the backups will run every night during the backup time that you set in the settings screens.
The next tab over is the User tab. This is where, you can set up user accounts and give those accounts access to shared folders. The easiest way to set up an account is to use a username and password that is the same as the one you use on your client computers. If you do this then you will not have to log into the server when you use the shared folders. This is a bit of a time saver, and if you have multiple computers that have the same username on them, then you only have to set up one account for all of the computers. If you do set up an account with the same username, but you choose a different password, the connector will prompt you to either change the password on the computer or on the WHS account. If you choose to change the password there is a really easy to use wizard that will do it for you.
Next is the Shared folders tab. This is where you can setup new shared folders and see which folders you have setup. You also setup which folders have duplication turned on. Duplication is the process that Windows Home Server uses to make sure your files are protected against hard drive failure. If you have more than one hard drive in the server and you have duplication turned on then WHS will make sure that there is a copy of the duplicated files on two different physical drives. This way if one of them fails, then the other one will still have your files. There are five folders that are created for you during the install. These are Music, Photos, Public, Software, and Videos. A folder is also created for each user account that you setup. By default duplication is turned on for all of them. In the screen below you can see that I turned off duplication for Videos and Software. Duplication does use up more space, so choose wisely which folders you want to duplicate. For example, if you have 100 GB of video and you want it duplicated your video folder will take up 200 GB of space. Another thing I discovered is that if your system fails and want to get at the data on the drives you can easily put one in another computer an access it like a normal disk. If the disks had been put in a stripped RAID this would not be possible.
Next is the Storage tab. Here you can see each of the disks that you have in the machine, and on the right you can see a pie chart and a list below it of how much space is used by the server. As you can see from the image below I have not run any backups, so there is no space used by them yet. You will also notice a small Windows symbol by one of the hard drives, this lets you know which one has the system partition on it.
The last tab is Network Health. This will open a new window that shows any alerts that may affect the network stability. The only reason you would ever have to click on this is if it is a color other than green. A yellow color indicates a warning or minor problem and a red color indicated an error or major problem. For example, if one of your machines has gone for several days without getting backed up then you will get a warning and the network health tab will turn yellow. When there are new updates for the computer you will see a red tab and it will be marked critical. In addition, if you have any Vista machines connected to the server this tab will display the health of those machines. Things like antivirus and firewall errors will be displayed here. You can also disable any of the errors. Clicking the check box next to the error will prevent it from notifying you or changing the color of the Network Health tab. The events will still be logged, but they will show up with a grey color that indicates they are disabled.
Then to the far right is the settings button. This opens a new window to all the settings that you have access to. Starting at the top you have the General, Backup, Passwords, Media Sharing, Remote Access, Add-ins, and Resource.
The General settings consists of date and time, update, customer experience, and error reporting. Updating Windows Home Server is done automatically, but if you click the button it will do a manual update which works just like the normal Windows update.
The Backup section is where you can set the backup time, how long backups are kept, and a button at the bottom where you can run the cleanup. By default, the length to keep is set to three for daily, weekly and monthly backups. If you want to keep your backups longer then you can change any of these numbers, but it will also take up more space. Also, since cleanup is only run on Sundays, the daily backups will always have a week of backups before they are cleaned up.
In the Password section you can change the system password, and set the strength of passwords that accounts require.
Media sharing is where you get to choose if each folder is streamed to other computers. Streaming is useful if you want to use Windows Vista Media Player to access your music without navigating out to the folders. Streaming also overrides any permission settings you have setup for your folder. If a folder is streamed everyone has access to its contents.
Remote access is where you setup a website where you can access all your computers and shared folders. I will talk about this more later.
Add-ins is where you get to install other programs that can be used to expand the usefulness of Windows Home Server.
The last settings option is Resources. This shows the motherboard, processor, and memory that is installed. You can also see the version of the software you are using.
Performance for a server comes down to whether it fulfills its tasks or not. With Windows Home Server extreme speed is not that important. Most of what it does is done at night, so even if it takes a long time, you will most likely not notice. I have been using Windows Home Server for about a month now and I have not had any trouble.
The backup process has worked just as I hoped it would. Every night it backs up all the computers that are connected to the network. I was curious about how much space backing up all my computers would take. I have four computers connected to WHS and you can see from the screen shots below the four computers together hold about 434.30 GB worth of information. You would naturally think that at least the first backup would take up almost the full amount of space on the server. When I saw the actual space that it used I was really surprised by how efficient WHS is with storage space. I took screen shots of the storage before and after a full backup of each computer. As you can see instead of taking up 434.30 GB of space it actually only took up 191 GB. I was also pleased that backups even worked when a computer is in sleep mode. The connector software wakes up the computer and when it is done it will go back to sleep. It would be nice if WHS could also boot up a computer that was off, run the backup, and then shut off the computer when it was done.
I did a little more research on how Windows Home Server manages its backups and I found that instead of storing each computers files separately it skips files that are the same on more than one computer. For example, if you have more than one computer running Windows Vista, WHS will only backup one of the operating systems, this is also true for MP3s and any other types of files. There will be differences between the operating systems and these are also backed up on the cluster level. This means if you have two files that are only slightly different it does not have to backup all of both files it only backs up the differences. This explanation was taken off the Windows Forum, “Windows Home Server maintains ‘database’ of all of the unique clusters across the home PCs that are being backed up, and then keeps track of which PC had which cluster for a given date/time. It also keeps track of some other stuff to be able to do a full restore of a PC from this ‘database’. NTFS disks are required since the PC Backup technologies rely on Volume Shadow copy Services (VSS) for taking a ‘snapshot’ of each hard drive to enable the system to determine what clusters have changed from a previous point in time (the last backup).”
If you happen to be using your computer when a backup starts you have the option to postpone it. The backup process only backs up one computer at a time so if you choose that option Windows Home Server will move on to the next computer and come back to this one when it is done. If you let it go you will see a progress bar that lets you see how the backup is progressing. If backup is working on another computer you can log onto the connector and see a progress bar that shows the status of the other computers backup.
Restoring a backup is easy. You can either do a full restore, in which case you will need the restore CD, or a partial restore in which case you go on the Computers and Backup screen, and select any of the computers to view all the backups. As time progresses, backups will be cleaned up as they get old and are replaced with new ones. You can choose how long to keep backups in the settings screen we talked about above. This screen also shows you how much space each backup is using and how long the backup took to run. You can also lock a backup, which means it will never be deleted. You will notice that the first backup that ran will probably have taken longest to run and the rest will take quite a bit less time.
Doing a full restore requires the use of the Restore CD. If your hard drive has crashed, Windows has become corrupt, or you just want to revert back to an older version, all you need to do is boot to the Restore CD and follow the instructions. I have included a few screen shots of the process, and you can see more by going to the gallery. A couple of screens that I want to point out are the detect hardware, disk management and error recovery. On the detect hardware screen it lists the network and storage devices it has found. If it does not list anything under network, then you will have to install some drivers — otherwise it will not be able to connect to the Windows Home Server to get your backup. It did not see my wireless connection, but it did find my ethernet connection, so I did not have to load any drivers. The storage devices are the same. If you are using a RAID or something that requires special drivers you will have to load them here before continuing. The Disk management screen will give you some simple options when it comes to managing your disks before you restore the backup. Last is the error recovery screen, I got this after completing the restore. I thought it was a bit odd, but after selecting a normal boot everything was just fine.
Some of you may ask how is this different than an online backup or other backup utility. First, because it is not off-site it is much quicker, it provides a history of backups so you can go back to when you first setup your computer and retrieve files, and third if your hard drive crashes or gets formatted you just need to put in the restore disk and you can restore the entire system right from the server. Most other backup systems require you to manually install the operating system and then you can get at the backed up files. One thing an off-site backup provides is extra protection against hardware failure. If your house burns down you will lose everything, but if it is stored at another location you will be secure knowing that your files are safe. Because of this I recommend you use both WHS and an off-site backup. There are many available online and some that will work directly with Windows Home Sever to keep your files safe. Carbonite is an online backup program that gives you unlimited space for only $49.99 a year. This is an exceptional deal especially considering how much space you are going to use up with Home Server and all the backups.
Sharing media also worked well, as long as I used a program that accepts streams from the Microsoft media connect technology. Windows Media player is one of those programs, but only on Vista. I had no trouble choosing to have Windows Media player search the network for media servers. Once it found a server it allowed me to play all the media that is shared. I noticed that it was a little slow when using a wired connection, and even more slow when using a wireless connection. The fact that this only works with Media player when it is on Vista is a bit disappointing. In addition, media sharing does not work at all with Media Center, even though Microsoft is pushing it as the media hub for each computer. I could not even get it to see my shared folders to watch recorded TV that is stored on the WHS. Even if Microsoft did not support this from the beginning, I would think that if they are really trying to push this platform, they would make it possible for any of their operating systems, and even other operating systems to be able to access the servers content in the most convenient way possible. I can only hope that Media center and Media player will be upgraded to support this functionality. Otherwise it just looks like a lame way to promote upgrading to Vista.
Beyond sharing media you can also setup shared folders and then give special permissions to any of the users on your network. In addition to sharing with local computers you can also setup a website where you can share your files online. The website is only accessible to users on the server, so if you want to share files with friends you can set up an account for them. Keep in mind that you are only allowed 10 accounts, so use them wisely. Another part of the website is being able to access remote desktop for any of the computers that are connected to the server, including the Home Server itself. Each computer needs to have an operating system that supports remote access. For example, as you can see in the screen shot below I have a laptop and a desktop that are running Vista Home Premium and those operating systems do not allow inbound remote desktop connections. This is very disappointing because it is one of the main features Microsoft is advertising. It would be nice if when you installed the connector software it would enable this functionality. Connecting to the Server itself gives you full access to the connector interface which will allow you to fully manage your server while you are away from home. I also ran into a couple of problems when trying to use the remote access ability from the web. The most glaring problem is the reduced functionality that non-IE users get. Non-IE users only have access to the Shared folders.
Add-ins are great. They are a really good way to get added functionality and tailor Windows Home Server to meet your exact needs. Most of the add-ins are free and you can find them all over the Internet. I chose a couple that I thought would be interesting to try. If they are programmed correctly they can be installed and managed directly from the connector. Some, however, need to be installed from the operating system. To do this you would have to remote desktop into the server. As you can see when I installed the add-ins they added two new tabs across the top. This gives you access to each add-ins functionality.
After having the Home server for a while you may discover that you have used up all your storage space. Fortunately, adding additional storage is really easy. As you can see from the screen shots below I added a 250 GB external drive and it only took about 5 minutes. Immediately after plugging in the drive it showed up as a Non Storage Hard Drive. When I clicked on it I got the option to add it to the storage pool. After following the short wizard it was added and you can see that my storage space was increased. To remove the drive you again click on it and choose remove. The wizard is brief, but the process of removing it takes a bit longer depending on how much data you have on the drive. This is the drive I had just added, so it did not have much, if any, data on it, but it still took about 15 minutes to remove the drive. I could only imagine it would take hours if you had a large drive all filled up. The reason it takes so long is WHS has to copy all the data to other drives. If you don’t have enough space you will probably get an error and it may not let you remove the drive before you add in another one first. I was not able to test this because I don’t have that much data on my server.
One problem that I ran into while using WHS was with running out of memory on my Vista machines. You may ask how does Windows Home Server affect Vista’s memory usage, but this is a known issue and it happens when you copy lots of files on Vista. Apparently Vista has a limit of 16,383 copies and then it needs a reboot. Windows Home Server causes this because it copies so many files during a backup. The backup can easily exceed 16,383 copies in a night, especially your first backup. To fix this I would just reboot my Vista machine each morning and it would be good for the rest of the day. According to this forum other programs can also cause this behavior. However, an out of memory error is not enough to keep me from using WHS. I will wait for a fix from Microsoft.
Warranty and Support
Because this is an OEM product you are not going to get any support if you build your own server. If you buy one from a reseller you will have to go back to them for support. So far I have had no reason to need support, except for an occasional question which I can easily get answered by going to one of the many forums that are dedicated to Window Home Server.
I am really happy with this new operating system. It has become an integral part of my home network. Even if it just did backups I would be happy. Backups are something that we all need done, but we never take the time to do it. Windows Home Server makes this really easy, by doing it automatically. The media sharing leaves a lot to be desired, I really want to be able to stream media to my Media Center PC and to my XP machines. Also, if Microsoft would enable inbound remote desktop connections for all computers that have the connector software installed that would make this program complete. Many people I know already have a lot of this functionality by using a NAS, file server and online email or document programs, but because they have several devices and several programs they use, it requires a lot more time to manage. Home server wraps up all of this into a nice and very easy to manage package that I think is excellent. As of the writing of this review you can preorder Windows Home Servers on the Amazon website for as little as $569 and I strongly recommend that you do.
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