Windows Home Server – How did I ever live without it?

In January last year I was introduced to a new product: Codename Q Server, or what would eventually become Windows Home Server. I joined the beta program, discussed it with other MVPs, but never got around to installing it. Well last week I did, and I am kicking myself for not having done so earlier.

Like many IT Professionals (and hobbyists) I have a rather extensive infrastructure of servers and workstations that I am responsible for at home, and at times it has seemed that the shoemaker's children really did go barefoot – although my data was always backed up (probably once per week) the same could never be said for my fiancé or son. In total there are four workstations in the house – my laptop, Theresa's laptop, the family PC and the Media Centre PC. Because I am always building and rebuilding networks it did not seem to make a lot of sense to join them to a domain for centralized administration (although I did try that once with less than stellar results). I had a spare PC sitting around that I used to use as my desktop – in the days when I still had a desktop.

A few weeks ago in conjunction with the infrastructure contest I ran I decided to take that idle PC and install Windows Home Server (WHS) onto it. It had a single 80 gigabyte SATA hard drive in it, which I replaced with a 150GB SATA drive. I installed WHS without changing any of the defaults. I created accounts for each family member – although this was not really necessary. I then installed the WHS Connector onto my laptop to see how it felt… and frankly it felt pretty good; simple to use, easy to understand, and basically what I call PhD (Press here, Dummy!) Computing. I kicked off a backup of my PC with three mouse clicks.

Once I was comfortable that it was not going to blow up I added Theresa's laptop, and kicked off a backup. At this point I noticed that I was going to need more hard disk capacity in the WHS box, if only because all of our machines had so much different information in them, and for four PCs with a total of 600GB of hard disks, it was not an unreasonable expectation. That being said, the way WHS backs up the PCs under its control is incredibly efficient – if the same file exists on multiple PCs in multiple places it only backs up the file once. Imagine you have a fifty megabyte video on four PCs that no longer needs 200MB to back up, but 50MB! WHS-1

I added a 500GB drive to the home server, and it immediately asked me if I wanted to add it to the WHS storage capacity (warning me that all data would be lost). I did just that, and the drive disappeared… and the capacity of my home server increased by 500GB.  The WHS Console now showed that I had two Storage Hard Drives (that made up the WHS capacity) and two Non-Storage Hard Drives – in this case two external USB drives that were temporary.

Within a few minutes all of four computers had the WHS Connector installed (no reboot required – just install the connector from \\WHS\Software and away you go!), and were backing up their entire systems.  At the end of the day the WHS Computers and Backup tab showed the name of each computer, the description, the operating system and the status of their last back up (successful in all cases).  It also shows (with a slight greying) the PCs that are not currently on or connected to the network.

WHS-2

The next thing I decided to do was to play with the Shared Folders.  By default there are Five (Music, Photos, Public, Software, and Videos), as well as one for each user created.  I took all of my music and added it into the appropriate share, and suddenly instead of my being able to listen to my music on my PC, I could access my entire library from any PC… as could anyone else with access to that share (by default everyone).  I then did the same with my photos, and surprised Theresa when she looked at the Media Centre PC – the screen saver was no longer Windows Vista, it was our memories.  Videos came next, and this includes videos of the family but also some movies I recorded at one point.  The Shared Folder tab let me know exactly how much each took, and the Shared Folders screen also let me know how much of my entire drive (or drives) were taken up by Shared Folders.  You can of course add additional shared folders as you like, and grant (or deny) users permissions as you see fit.

WHS does much more than just shared storage and backups – it offers home users features such as Remote Web Workplace (RWW) and a way to host your own websites, but because I have my Essential Business Server working I do not need the same features again.  However as a huge long-time proponent of the benefits of RWW I can hardly stress enough how great a feature this is – previously you needed a full install of SBS to have this functionality – now it is available with WHS, the least expensive server solution Microsoft offers.

As if to stress just how simple WHS is to install, use, and maintain there is a book available for it – a children’s book – called 'Mommy, Why is There a Server in the House?’ that literally explains to a three-year-old what a server is, and why it is there.

I am hooked on the product, but why shouldn’t I be… I’ll never have to touch it again! 🙂

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