Windows Home Server Review

Windows Home Server is not a new product by any means – It was first released to RTM in July 2007. Power Pack 2 is the current update release and Power Pack 3 has been in Beta via Microsoft Connect for some time with no clear release date in site still.

What is Windows Home Server?

Windows Home Server (WHS) targeted as SOHO markets for people with multiple computers, media sources and devices who want to centralize, share and backup their files and media.

Windows Home Server, commonly found pre-installed on devices like the HP MediaSmart Series of devices, which are small form factor computers which more closely resemble Network Attached Storage (NAS) due to their ability to house many disks.

Windows Home Server is no new operating system however. It is actually Windows Server 2003 Small Business Server (SBS) with a pretty shell GUI on top and a few modifications.

The design of WHS however is that you never actually access the server. The access is completed via the Home Server Console which is a GUI installed on client computers, which serves a double purpose. One, it provides administrative access to the server for someone in the house with the admin password. The second purpose is that it configures the client to work with the home server allowing it to access the shared media and files and to work with the backup features.

Why Am I Looking at WHS?

Well good question. From previous postings you will see that I have a Dell PowerEdge SC1425 server which provides the backbone of our house running ESXi (not my choice, but the lack of Intel VT required for Hyper-V forces me this way).

Of late our energy bills have be mounting and I’ve decided to look at ways IT can help (although it is probably also the cause).

I’m not ditching the SC1425 before anyone asks me for a price (this isn’t eBay!) but I will be installing WHS on here. The magic will be in a Add-In for WHS called LightsOut. LightsOut provides the ability to sleep, hibernate and shutdown the WHS server on a given schedule allowing me to have the machine power down at night and power up in the mornings meaning we can save many hours of electricity consumption through planned downtime.

Centralized Backup

Windows Home Server provides automated and centralized backup for all of the machines within our house, and the Power Pack 3 Beta provides full support for Windows 7 clients.

WHS is able to perform full system level images of the client devices and when used with the WHS Restore CD, you can fully restore a client device via the network to it’s original state.

WHS also implements Volume Shadow Copy otherwise known as Previous Versions to allow you to restore files to a previous version in the event of a bad change. WHS allows you to mount and browse the full system backup files and to extract files individually from them in order to complete a partial restore.

Remote Access

WHS utilizes UPnP and DyDNS to allow you to publish a site to the web from your home server allowing you to share your media to authenticated users, remotely control your home computers to authenticated users and host a public website for things such as a blog or photo gallery.

WHS provides you with a free DyDNS domain name in the *.homeserver.com domain.

Media Sharing

Windows Home Server allows you to share your media around your home using a DLNA compliant approach. This means that devices like PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 are also to access the media allowing you to see your movies, music and pictures on your big screen.

Media Center Archiving

Own a Media Center? Windows Home Server when configured to check in with a Media Center computer can archive all of your recorded TV to the central location and then remove it from your Media Center freeing disk space on the server.

The advantage of this is that WHS also can create copies of that Recorded TV is alternate formats which can be later shared to devices such as Zune.

WHS installs a modification to your Media Center which allows you to access this Archived TV content. This WHS modification to Media Center also allows you to view the status of your Home Server and shows you the status of your available storage, backups and any notifications and alerts about your PC clients which is really nice.

RAID-Less Data Duplication

Today, RAID hardware is not expensive – Most SATA motherboards include a form of RAID although most of the time this is limited to RAID0 and RAID1 support although I have seen some boards with RAID5 and RAID10 support in the past.

WHS uses a RAID-Less data duplication methodology called Storage Balancing. When a folder is configured for duplication, Windows Home Server will duplicate that folder so that it exists on 2 disks at any time. If a disk fails then the files are automatically duplicated to another available disk.

The process is effective, however it adds to the CPU load and is not as good as a full RAID system due to the fact that the OS and the OS configuration is not duplicated.

That said, it makes it very simple for people who are new to backup and technology of this type to get redundant storage for their personal and precious data which is a must.

Add-In’s

Windows Home Server has a great community and a very active forum with users making add-ins and extensions which provide some great functionality (I already mentioned LightsOut). There is also some companies making sellable add-ins.

 

Conclusion

Windows Home Server is a really nice product which has lots features to it’s name and I think there is a place in almost any home for one, however it’s not without it’s problems.

Lack of Native Media Center
The whole point of Windows Home Server is that it’s always on and storing your data. Xbox 360 is the best media extender on the market, however you cannot use this capability directly with WHS. You need another PC online acting as the Media Center.

I would like to see WHSv2 or Power Pack 4 give WHS the ability to host Media Center directly – Not the purpose of recording live TV because that is the job of a dedicated device, but to give the Xbox users the great Media Center UI experience without the need for a 3rd device in the mix.

Remote Recording
WHS provides you with a web interface and with the WebGuide Add-In to WHS you can stream your media and recorded TV via the web. I would really like to see the ability to add scheduled recordings to your Media Center via the web – Sky offer this service although it doesn’t work without fault of it’s own.

Windows Software Update Services (WSUS)
An enterprise product that can be hacked into WHS (SBS 2003) currently, I would like to see WHS give you the ability to centrally download and manage client Windows Update installations.

When considering my move from ESXi to WHS, this is one of my biggest concerns due to the increased WAN usage for the multiple clients in our house.

Microsoft Security Essentials Integration
This is kind of linked to the WSUS and fits around the Microsoft ForeFront eco-system, but I would like to see Microsoft Security Essentials integration with WHS. This would allow you to centrally manage the client definition updates and also possibly provide a central quarantine for any detected viruses.

Support for Windows Mobile (Windows Phone) Devices
With Microsoft’s great push on Windows Phone and Windows Mobile 6.5, this is something I can definatly see appearing in WHS anyway, but I want to mention it anyway.

I would like to see the ability to install the WHS Connector on a Windows Mobile device so that I can; one, manage my WHS from my phone either on the network via my Wireless LAN or remotely via the *.homeserver.com DyDNS name.

The second part to this ask is that the phone could perform backups to the Windows Home Server. This overlaps with the Microsoft MyPhone service which I already use and enjoy, however I feel that the 200MB restriction on MyPhone is too low and prevents a lot of people performing full backups of all of their devices.

Better Support for Network Storage
A lot of people are looking at NAS devices. I currently have a NETGEAR SC101T (although looking to upgrade to a ReadyNAS Duo or a ReadyNAS NV+). Windows Home Server doesn’t do a lot for network storage arrays. This is due to it’s SBS 2003 backing and it’s lack of iSCSI and NFS support, but I this would make a great addition.

richardjgreen

Richard works as a Cloud Consultant for Fordway Solution where his primary focus is to help customers understand, adopt and develop with Microsoft Azure, Office 365 and System Center. Richard Green is an IT Pro with over 15 years' of experience in all things Microsoft including System Center and Office 365. He has previously worked as a System Center consultant and as an internal solutions architect across many verticals. Outside of work, he loves motorbikes and is part of the orange army, marshaling for NGRRC, British Superbikes and MotoGP. He is also an Assistant Cub Scout Leader.

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