Windows Home Server FTW

Posted on Aug 25 2009 in Computing

I tend to consider myself a technical user, and for years, I operated various Linux distributions and setups to facilitate our home network. Mostly this meant a place to dump our backups in an intelligent manner, but I would also setup things like easy file sharing between our computers and even get fancy sometimes and so music servers or video streaming (though we never actually used any of that). However, after years of putting a lot of effort into maintaining that type of setup (keeping things organized, re-configuring everything after a workstation re-install, reconfiguring the server after a Linux re-install, etc), I decided I wanted something simple, that "just works." To be fair, part of my problem with using Linux was that the Linux box doubled as my development and testbed server, so I was always tinkering with it. Instead, I needed a box that would serve our family home network and not be my tinker box.

Enter Windows Home Server.

Since I had extra hardware, I decided to get a copy of WHS and install it myself. This works just fine, though the install takes just about forever since WHS is basically a cleverly hacked and enhanced version of Small Business Server 2003. WHS mostly sells pre-installed on hardware, such as HP's MediaSmart server line, so my bet is Microsoft isn't too worried about the install experience. Though, other than the time taken, the install was easy and seamless.

Once everything was installed and I ran through windows update (got the power packs, too), I set about linking the computers on our home network to the server. This process was pleasantly simple, requiring that a small installer be run. The installer was quick and, might I say, "just worked." It finds your WHS on the network, helps you manage your password sync between computer and server, and places useful but unobtrusive shortcuts and a tray icon on the workstation. I did this with three Vista machines and an XP machine, all without a hitch.

Once a machine is connected to the WHS, you can use the convenient WHS console (WHS is designed to operate headless, BTW), which is basically the console application piped through a terminal services window, or you can login via terminal services the "normal" way. In the console, you can configure the server, see connected computers, visualize hard drive usage, and configure the automated full-computer backups.

Yes, automated, full-computer backups, a-la time-machine (though not hourly, which really isn't a big deal to me at all). Essentially, when you configure a computer to be backed up by WHS, every day during the time window that you configure, WHS will pull a complete backup of your machine. But, WHS is smart about it, and just does differential backups, meaning that while the first backup might take quite a while, subsequent backups are much faster (just a few minutes usually). I have my network configured to backup to the WHS every day between 1am and 6am. It keeps a week of daily backups, and several weeks of weekly snapshots. So, should a hard drive fail in the family, WHS has all the data... and I mean all the data, including the windows install, applications, everything that's not specifically excluded by me.

If this was all WHS did, in my opinion, this would be worth the $100. But, consider the growing multitude of add-ins you can acquire for WHS, and the value continues to grow. On my list of personal favorites is an online backup service called KeepVault. For $100/year, we get 100gb of backup space to which WHS will automatically backup any of the shared folders we choose. We keep all of our multimedia files on the WHS (and access them via mapped network drives), so the moment we import pictures from our digital camera, they are on the server, being backed up securely online. Perfect!

I could continue to go on about other capabilities, but I don't want to sound like too much of a fan boi at this point. In short: I recommend WHS because it just works and offers key features that make keeping your home network running a breeze.