Windows Home Server Preview

March 14th, 2007

The ultimate goal of Windows Home Server (WHS) is to provide users with an easily expandable network storage device for their media and backups.  Sharing media across a home network or restoring a dead system has been made as simple as possible. 

The beta version is now out so I took it for a test drive.

Installation:

The most important part of the installation is that eventually there will probably be no installation for most users.  WHS will probably ship preinstalled on a small cube computer-like device that only contains a motherboard, memory, hard drive, and connectors for external additional hard drives.  Video, audio, mouse, keyboard, and other such input/output devices will not be needed.  All control of the box will be though other devices on your network.

For now, the software installs like most other windows software.  Full erase-your-drive installation is the only option. 

As the installation quick camera picks show, the software is based on a locked-down version of Microsoft Server 2003.

This beta installation required at least 32 GB for installation.  The minimum recommended amount of space is 80 GB.  I bumped heads with this early in the installation process.

After switching out the hard drive, the server installed without an issue.  The server also requires a Ethernet connection to your network

I will be writing some tech-recipes about hacking and customizing this installation later.  One nice hint to remember is during the lengthy driver installation, the “lock-down” of the server has not yet be enacted.  If you hit cltr-esc during driver installation, you can access the normal start menu and control panel.  This is nice if you want to change the power settings for a laptop serving as your server, for example.  After the installation is completed, the server is locked down and accessing these settings will be more difficult.

Client:

Installation of the client is straight forward on any windows box. 

A wizard will walk the new user through making user accounts.

Having the same user/password combinations between the client computers and the servers keeps things simple.  This combination allows each client to seamlessly connect to the shares on the server. 

Luckily, the windows client will walk the user through making any changes that are required.

 The console on the client gives a view of all the computers on the network.  This also includes a warning if one of the computers has not been backup recently.  Here you can see that my computer is currently in the process of being backed up.

 

The backup is very efficient.  My home computer contains gigs of information that was backed up in a few hundred megabytes.  WHA also has snapshot capability; therefore, users can recover files from a previous point in time.  The backups occur automatically at night.

A whole mirror or a few files can be recovered from the backups on the server.

What boxes will connect to the server? XP, Vista, XBOX 360, Media Centers, Windows Mobile devices, and Zune music players should all connect. 

The following screenshot shows the various aspects of server control…

  • Computers & Backup is the main screen that I showed before.  It shows all computers on the network and their backup status.
  • User Accounts allows for the creation and editing of user accounts.
  • Shared Folders allows for the editing and permissions of what folders are actually shared with whom.
  • Server Storage shows the current status of the amount of storage available on the server.  If more than one hard drive exists in the server, files can be mirrored on both to protect against data loss.
  • Network Health gives a warning if issues are detected.  This would warn me about backup status at this time, but enhancements that keep antivirus/antiviral software up to date across the network is a natural extension.

Here is a compressed version of the Computers status screen…

Here is an example of how the server allows you to limit certain shares on the server to certain users/accounts:

 

Clientless:

If you have your accounts setup correctly on the server, you do not need the client to access the shares.

Here is a connection through explorer in XP:

Here are connections through finder in OS X:

The server always contains a copy of the client and a restore CD.  This would allow a crashed computer with a back up computer to get back online quickly.  Here is the typical scenario…

  1. Hard Drive fails on one of the computers in the network
  2. Replace hard drive and connect to the network
  3. Boot from the generic restore CD.
  4. The dead computer’s virgin hard drive is rebuilt from the server’s backup.

Media streaming will be available to a wide range of devices including XBOX 360 and the large numbers of devices that can utilize Windows Media Connect.

Remote Access:

The most nerve wrecking thing for me is that the user will be able to access their WHS from outside their network on the internet.  This is done through a web browser.  By purchasing the client users will be eligible to sign up for a free microsoft redirect to their home server (useraccout.HomeServer.Com).  The remote access will be through IIS 6.0. 

Conclusions:

The remote access makes me really nervous.  When a flaw for IIS 6.0 is found, any domain on the HomeServer network would instantly be at risk.  If the home server is hacked, any computer is the network is also owned.  It could be very ugly.

For most homes with an existing network, this will be a dream.  Buy the box, plug in the box, walk through a couple of wizards and all the boxes on the network are backed up and protected.  This will give all the boxes on the home network the ability to easily see and stream shares of music, pictures, and video. 

By bundling the software with the hardware, Microsoft becomes more apple-like.  By trying to keep it simple, even more so.  Good choices all around.

For now, I will use my home server as an essential part of my internal network.  The remote access will remain off… for now.