My Windows Home Server Experience

I have wanted to redo my home server now for a long while. It’s nothing fancy really, just a old Pentium 4 Dell box that was given to me a couple of years ago for doing some computer work on the side. The only upgrades I have made to it was slapping in a 300GB hard drive I had laying around and boosting the ram from 512MB to 1GB.

It set around for a year before I even touched it until one day I decided that I need a file/backup server for my house. Later on I decided that I needed an FTP server then a web server so on and so on. Now I can’t imagine what I did prior to having a home server.

My wife and I both backup our desktops to the server and one thing has always bothered me, the fact that I did not have any redundancy for the hard drives (such as RAID). I always told myself that I would get around to buying a controller card and new hard drives, but I have never had the time or money. I was quickly filling up the disk space and I always had to remote in and delete old backups (what a hassle). This lead me to start searching for a different home server solution. I looked into stand alone NAS servers but didn’t like the cost or the feeling of being limited to what I could do.

Then I found Windows Home Server. I had heard of it several times but was skeptical. So this weekend I decided to download the 120 day free trial and fired up VMware. I was blown away with the features it offered such as…

Centralized Backup – Allows backup of up to 10 PCs, using Single Instance Store technology to avoid multiple copies of the same file, even if that file exists on multiple PCs. Backup is totally automated and runs what ever time of day you specify.

Health Monitoring– Can centrally track the health of all PCs on the network, including antivirus and firewall status. Doing this from one location is amazing.

File Sharing – Offers network shares for computers to store the files remotely, acting as a NAS (network-attached storage) device. Separate categories are provided for common file types like Documents, Music, Pictures and Videos. The files are indexed for fast searching.

Printer Sharing – Allows a centralized print server to handle print jobs for all users.

Shadow Copy– Takes advantage of Volume Shadow Copy Services to take point in time snapshots that allow older versions of files to be recovered. Needless to say, I was excited when I found out that Windows Home Server deletes old backups for you. I was using Norton Ghost to do this but had to always remember to delete the older backups.

Headless Operation – No monitor or keyboard is required to manage the device. Remote administration is performed by using the Windows Home Server Console client software provided in the OS. Also supports Remote Desktop connections to the server while connected to the same LAN.

Remote Access Gateway– Allows remote access to any connected PC on the network over the Internet. This is perfect for my wife and I. I have to remote in to my home PC all the time from work and she is about to take on a job as a teacher and she wants to access her home PC from her classroom. With the router we have I could only port forward port 3389 (RDP) to one IP on the network. If my wife wanted to remote to her PC she would have to remote to mine (kicking me off) then remote to hers. The solution would have been to spend $150 to $200 on a router that supported VPN but with Windows Home server you log into a secure site and are presented with a list of computers on your network to remote into eliminating the need for a VPN router to remote into multiple PCs on your home network.

Media Streaming– Can stream media to a Xbox 360 or other devices supporting Windows Media Connect. This is self explanatory.

Selective Data redundancy– Guards against a single drive failure by duplicating selected data across multiple drives. This is similar to what RAID1 does but with individual folders instead of the whole disk. This eliminates the need to buy a controller card that supports RAID. Brilliant!

Expandable Storage – Provides a unified single and easily expandable storage space, removing the need for drive letters. You can add more hard drives and replace smaller ones without the need of reconfiguring a RAID. Your server grows with you over time.

Extensibility through Add-Ins– Add-Ins allow third-party developers to extend the features and functionality of the server. Add-Ins can be developed using the Windows Home Server SDK, to provide additional services to the client computers or work with the data already on the server. Add-Ins can also be ASP.NET applications, hosted in IIS 6 running on WHS.

Server Backup– Backs up files which are stored within shared folders on the server to an external hard drive. There are also Add-ins available that allow you to back your server up off site.

Something that bothered me initially was rather or not I would be allowed to continue to host my website in IIS. I had problems at first but later found out that WHS does not like the website directory to be in the same directory that hosts the Remote Access website page. Once I moved it to a different directory it worked flawlessly.

Another concern was if I could still use my windows Home Server as an FTP server. I install filezilla server edition and it worked just as good as it did on my real server.

As great as Windows Home Server is, it is not without its faults. There were a couple of things that I didn’t like.

The first thing was not being able to monitor who is accessing the Remote Access site. Filezilla has spoiled me to that and it’s a nice tool to have. Especially when your internet speed bogs down and you want to see who is eating up your bandwidth.

The second thing I didn’t like was that the Windows home server console wants to use UPnP (Universal Plug and Play) to set up port forwarding on your router for remote access. I can see why Microsoft would do this, after all home server is meant for home use (where security isn’t as important as a corporate environment) and people who have limited server and networking knowledge. You can forward the ports manually but WHS insists that you turn on UPnP. It also took several tries for it to work properly Yuck.

All and all I think the pros far outweigh the cons. You can purchased a copy from newegg today for $99. For more about Windows Home Server or to download the 120 day free trial click here.

I would love your comments about your experiences, both good and bad, with Windows Home Server.

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