Like many IT pros, I have attempted to set up a full-fledged Windows server to run my home network. Yes, I've even gone so far as creating my own Windows domain. But, like most of the techies I know, I've also eventually abandoned the thing and gone back to a Windows workgroup for simplicity sake, if not power-consumption and cost.
So now, here comes Windows Home Server, a workgroup server for a network of 10 computers or less. I've been beta testing it, reading what others are saying about it, and talking to colleagues who are working with it. The early returns are a lot better than I expected. Windows Home Server is trying to solve three problems:
- File sharing
- Remote access to files
In order to figure out just how well it accomplishes these tasks, I consulted my colleague Shawn Morton (right), the TechRepublic site manager, because Shawn is the most proficient consumer electronics dude that I know, and he has been testing Windows Home Server with live data. Shawn has a serious home network setup with a variety of PCs, an XP Media Center PC, an Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii, and a ton of other stuff that I won't mention, otherwise you'll end up drooling like me.
"It's super easy to set up," Shawn said. He installed it on an unused PC that he equipped with several removable drive bays so that he could add more storage in the future.
He noted that it definitely felt like a beta install since there were odd Windows Server 2003 screens that popped up and the computer restarted itself 4-5 times in the process. It took about an hour to install, with the setup handling all of the partitioning and other basic steps that are part of a normal Windows installation.
File sharing and Backups
"It creates the shares for you," Shawn said, "and it's easy to point non-technical users to them." It is easy because Windows Home Server uses standard names such as "Music" and "Photos" and "Software" for the network file shares, so you don't have to remember any special character strings or drive letters.
Next, Shawn tried out the backups. "The whole automatic backup thing is really cool," he said. "It backs up your whole PC for you. I think most people don't backup, and they worry about the fact that they don't back up."
Shawn ran some backups and the process went smoothly. When I spoke with him, he was still getting ready to test the recovery of one of the backups using his son's PC.
One thing that Shawn really liked was the remote access feature, which can be turned on to make the server accessible over the Internet via Microsoft's livenode.com domain (e.g. yourserver.livenode.com).
"Being able to log into your [home] server from anywhere on the Internet is great," Shawn remarked.
The remote access feature wasn't turned on by default and had to be configured. "It tries to connect to your router and change the settings for you," he explained. The auto-config didn't work with his router, but it instructed him to open the needed ports on the router. Shawn didn't have any problem figuring that out, but if the auto-config doesn't work then this turns into a power user feature.
Shawn tried accessing his Home Server remotely from work and it connected right away, but then he discovered something he didn't like. "You can't stream any of the media remotely. You have to download it," he said.
Putting it to use
Overall, Shawn likes the product because it solves some important storage and backup issues for his home network. And if he likes it then I'm pretty sure that a lot of power users, enthusiasts, and techies are going to like it, too.
"For what it's supposed to do, it does it very well," Shawn said. "I could even see it in some really small offices, especially because of backup."
Appliance vs. Software
Shawn has his Windows Home Server box running as a headless server and is ready to add more storage on the fly - another thing that Windows Home Server can do automatically. Shawn is hoping to keep this setup and simply upgrade when the full version of the software comes out - if Microsoft releases it as a software product and not just as a hardware appliance through third parties such as HP.
"I hope that they release it separately," Shawn said, "because a lot of the people that it's going to appeal to already have a box laying around that they can use."
Unfortunately, according to an FAQ on Microsoft.com, Microsoft will not be releasing the Windows Home Server software for users to install as an OS on their own PC hardware. Instead, it will only come bundled with hardware from OEMs, the same way that Windows XP Media Center Edition was. Of course, many users got around that restriction by buying an OEM copy of XP Media Center from vendors such as NewEgg.com. I suspect that the same scenario could play out with Windows Home Server.
Shawn has written two articles introducing Windows Home Server:
- A first look: Inside Windows Home Server (Customer Technology Preview)
- A first look: Inside Windows Home Server remote access
Here are some other links:
- Gallery: Windows Home Server Installation (Build 3790)
- Microsoft hits a home run with Windows Home Server (Ed Bott, ZDNet)
- Video: Bill Gates touts a server for every home (News.com)
- Windows Home Server - Official Blog (Microsoft)
Does it look like Windows Home Server solves the home storage and backup issues well enough for you to consider buying one? What other features would you like to see? Join the discussion, and take the poll below.
Jason Hiner has nothing to disclose. He doesn't hold investments in the technology companies he covers.
Jason Hiner is Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.