HP's new home server is small, smart, and impressively simple

HP's new home server is small, smart, and impressively simple

Summary: When Hewlett Packard called last month and asked whether I wanted some hands-on time with their new MediaSmart home server, I jumped at the chance. My biggest question was simple: Why should I buy this hardware when I can build my own server, presumably for less? After spending the last two weeks comparing the MediaSmart Server to one I built, I see the difference. If you're looking for world-class backup, along with easy remote access and digital media sharing capabilities, this machine should be on your short list.

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Earlier this year, I looked at a beta release of Windows Home Server and called it a “home run” for Microsoft. This week, Hewlett Packard announced that it would begin taking orders for its new MediaSmart servers, which are built on the Windows Home Server platform, with actual shipments set to begin later this month.

HPÂ’s new home server is small, smart, and impressively simple

I’ve been running the final OEM release on my own server, using a spare PC as the hardware platform, since the code was released to manufacturing nearly three months ago. In that three months, it’s become an indispensable part of my home network. So when Hewlett Packard called last month and asked whether I wanted some hands-on time with a MediaSmart review unit, I jumped at the chance.

[To see the MediaSmart server in action, visit my exclusive image gallery]

My biggest question was simple: Why should I buy this hardware when I can build my own server, presumably for less? In theory, the OEM software Microsoft supplies provides a solid base of features and functionality. It’s up to hardware vendors to add value with innovative design and complementary software to differentiate their product from the competition. In the desktop PC market, that rarely happens. After spending the last two weeks comparing the MediaSmart Server to one I built, I see the difference. HP has served up a nearly perfect example of how OEMs can take a solid OS and make it much better. Don’t even think of building your own home server until you’ve seen what HP has done with this small, quiet, extraordinarily expandable machine.

Street prices for the MediaSmart server start in the mid-$500 range. So what do you get for that price?

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Here’s what you get from the Windows Home Server software:

  • The best backup solution I’ve ever seen. After installing the connector software on each networked PC, you can configure backup operations and work with backed-up files from the management console on any PC. The local software wakes up PCs in the wee hours of the morning to perform its backup, then allows them to go back to sleep. Backups are saved as image files, allowing you to recover individual files or restore a complete PC after a hard disk crash. In the past three months, I’ve tested the Home Server restore capabilities more than a dozen times. It has not failed once and is, without question, the simplest backup solution I’ve ever used.
  • Highly efficient use of disk space. Backup sets stored on the server use single instance storage to avoid duplicating data. The default backup configuration performs incremental backups of changed clusters (not files) daily. On a network where three or four PCs are running the same version of Windows and have some files in common (especially disk-hogging music and video files), the result uses dramatically less space than if you were backing those machines up to an external hard drive with third-party software.
  • Easy monitoring of all client PCs. Pop-up messages on the client alert you when a networked PC has its firewall or antivirus software disabled, or when a backup hasn’t been performed in several days. Alerts also let you know if a drive on the server is failing or if the server is running low on disk space.
  • Fault tolerant shared storage. If you have at least two physical drives in the server, you can set up folder duplication on shared folders. Using a feature called Drive Extender, Windows Home Server keeps redundant copies of data files on separate physical disks, but only for folders you designate for duplication. In this scenario, if a drive fails, your data remains intact; the price, of course, is paid in disk space. The result achieves the same effect as if you were using a RAID array but is much easier to use, without the configuration hassles and with the flexibility to mix and match drives and select which files and folders will be duplicated.
  • Remote access. You can grant remote access rights to any Home Server user account. With remote access enabled, you can log on to the server and upload or download files in shared folders. If you enable Remote Desktop connections on individual PCs on the network (an option that requires Windows XP Professional or Windows Vista Business/Ultimate/Enterprise editions), a user with the proper credentials can access those PCs remotely.

Setting up remote access on the MediaSmart server

HP’s additions make the system easier to use and enhance some features that are missing or incomplete in the base Home Server package:

  • Great media sharing. In the basic Windows Home Server interface, a simple checkbox lets you share music, photo, and video files with networked devices and other PCs using Windows Media Connect. That’s fine for PCs, Xbox 360s, and networked music players like those from Sonos and Roku, but (unsurprisingly) Microsoft hasn’t enabled native support for iTunes. HP adds a third-party module (the open source Firefly media server) that allows you to stream iTunes libraries over the network as well.
  • Lightweight web server with photo sharing. The winner of Microsoft’s recent contest for Home Server add-ins was Andrew Grant’s Whiist, which adds the ability create to simple websites for sharing content such as photo albums. HP’s Photo WebShare add-in offers a more polished approach to creating and sharing photo albums that can be accessed over the Internet. You can create an unlimited number of visitor logons based on e-mail addresses. These Photo WebShare visitor accounts are separate from Home Server accounts. The advantage over using a third-party service like Flickr? No lengthy uploads; your visitors don’t have to create user accounts; and you can safely share private photos that you might be uncomfortable sharing on someone else’s server.
  • Personal domain names. The base Home Server package allows you to set up a custom address at the Microsoft-managed homeserver.com domain. HP has partnered with TZO.com to offer an additional, alternative dynamic DNS system. The biggest advantage of the TZO system is its e-mail integration, which helps remote users recover lost passwords and allows PhotoShare album managers to notify users of changes or additions.
  • Slick front ends. HP has added a custom tab on the Home Server console to make it easier to reach its special features. It also includes a stripped-down control center designed to be less intimidating for novice users than the full Windows Home Server console.

HP created a custom control center for its MediaSmart home server to simplify access for nontechnical users

And it’s expandable. My review unit included two 500GB drives. I added another 800GB of storage by filling the two additional bays with a 320GB and 500GB SATA drive, respectively. The drive bays sit behind the front panel. To increase the storage on the server, open the door, slide out an empty plastic drive holder, and snap in a new drive — no tools required. In all, it took me less than a minute to install each new drive, which appeared in the Home Server console instantly and needed only to be enabled with a mouse click. (If four drives isn’t enough, you can add up to four external USB drives and one external eSATA drive.)

So who’s going to buy this thing?

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Let’s be clear up front: This is not a product for the masses. Windows Home Server makes sense if you have at least two PCs in a home or very small office and you want world-class backups for them, along with remote access and digital media sharing capabilities. My father, who passed away two years ago, ran the family business out of his home office and was fanatical about backups. To stay productive when he was away from home, he gladly paid GoToMyPC.com $20 every month for remote access. He would have loved this machine. I suspect there are at least a few hundred thousand potential Home Server buyers who fit that same profile.

Why a MediaSmart server instead of building your own? A few weeks ago, my ZDNet colleague David Berlind predicted that Windows Home Server would be “Microsoft’s next flop.” He recoiled in horror at the very idea of a home server, especially one from Microsoft. Servers are complicated, says David. “Once you set up a server and people start using it, it isn’t long before you’ve bitten off more than you can chew and suddenly, your role as the residential IT manager takes on an entirely new dimension,” he wrote.

I understand David’s trepidation. The servers he knows so well are PCs, after all, and they require constant maintenance. If you build your own server, you have to install disk drives, configure the OEM operating system from scratch, and find a place for it to reside. With a small footprint PC, you typically have a single drive bay; extra storage requires external drives, each with its own enclosure and power supply and cabling. If you choose a tower PC with multiple internal drive bays, you have to find a place where its sheer bulk and fan noise won’t be intrusive. You also have to keep a keyboard, mouse, and display nearby for those inevitable maintenance tasks.

The MediaSmart hardware is very different from either of those build-your-own options. It has a 1.8GHz Sempron processor and 512MB of RAM inside. But that’s where the resemblance to a PC ends. The HP machine is downright tiny (9.8” high, 9.2” deep, 5.5” wide) but has four internal drive bays. It doesn’t need a keyboard or a mouse or a monitor, so it can safely be tucked away out of sight on a shelf or a dark corner. It’s whisper quiet in operation, so even if you leave it in plain sight, the blue lights on its front panel are the only indication that it’s actually running.

David’s list of reasons to avoid home servers concluded, “What consumers really want is to just plug it in and have it start working.” That, as it turns out, is a perfect description of my setup experience. I unboxed the machine, which already included two 500GB SATA drives leaving two additional bays free for later expansion. After plugging in the power cord, I used the supplied Ethernet cable to connect the machine to a free port on my router. I installed the client software on my local PC using the included Connector CD, answered some basic setup questions, and finished setup in under five minutes. (Adding each new PC takes an extra minute or two for initial setup.)

Setting up a MediaSmart home server doesnÂ’t require a keyboard, mouse, or monitor

The tiny box doesn’t require any physical interaction. All management tasks are done through the HP-customized Home Server Console. If you’re the ad hoc IT staff for multiple PCs in your household or small office, you’re probably used to making the rounds to do maintenance on each one, ensuring that security software is up to date, checking the status of Windows updates, running backup software, and so on. Using the Home Server console lets you perform most of those tasks from any PC on the network, using an interface that feels like a local application. If you can handle the interface for the latest Norton or McAfee security suites, you can keep this server running smoothly.

At first blush, the MediaSmart Server’s prices seem a little high. List price for the 500GB EX470 is $599 and the 1TB EX475 is $749 (the only difference is the number of hard drives installed at the factory). Discounts should chop those prices by 10% or more; Amazon.com, for instance, has the two machines available for pre-order for $535 and $680, respectively. If you total the cost of the pieces you’d need to duplicate this setup, that’s a fair price indeed. An external hard drive with a terabyte of storage runs at least $300 and doesn’t offer any remote administration tools. Image-based backup software can add $20 or more per client. The more appropriate comparison is a network attached storage device with a terabyte of storage and a bundle of management and backup software, which typically costs $500 or more. For a small business, it’s easy to justify the expense. Home users might not see the cost-benefit equation so clearly.

If you’ve got a multi-platform home or office, you’ll run head-on into the biggest drawback of Windows Home Server: Currently, it only works with 32–bit editions of Windows XP and Vista. Microsoft says 64–bit support is in beta now and should be widely available early next year; Mac users are likely to be out in the cold indefinitely, although they can still connect to shared folders using SMB connections.

In the next few months, other U.S.-based hardware vendors will begin delivering their MediaSmart competitors (outside the U.S., you can buy OEM products already, like the Tranquil PC Harmony Home Server). Velocity Micro is now taking orders for its NetMagix HQ Home Server, which comes with more memory, an Intel CPU, and dual Ethernet ports, along with a premium price tag several hundred dollars higher than HP’s; it’s due to ship in December. What makes HP’s MediaSmart design more attractive, and a better buy, is its insistence on delivering extra value in software instead of just preinstalling the OEM version of Microsoft's code on custom hardware.

[Note: On November 29, I'll be hosting a webcast with representatives from HP and Microsoft to discuss the MediaSmart server and Windows Home Server software. To participate and ask questions about either product, sign up for the webcast. I am not being compensated in any way for this event and I have complete editorial control over the questions I ask.]

Topics: Hewlett-Packard, Data Management, Hardware, Microsoft, Operating Systems, Servers, Software, Storage, Windows

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181 comments
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  • Why WHS might be too late

    I have 2 desktops, 2 laptops, a media PC, a file server, and an XBox 360 in my house so I think I would be a candidate for WHS. The problem is that with advances in LAN speeds, I already use shared folders on my file server to store all of our files. With advances in broadband speeds, I use GMail to store all of my email. I use Google Calendars to store all of my appointments. I use Google bookmarks to store all of my bookmarks. I'm going to try and use Google docs instead of Office to see if that will work for my rather primitive home needs (which is what WHS is targeting: home users). I use a Subversion service (on my file server) to store all of my code. The [b]only[/b] local files I have that require backups would be saved games although I find I use the XBox more and more for gaming. Quite frankly, if one of our desktop drives crashes, I would reinstall an OS (Linux or Windows, wouldn't matter) and I'd be up and running within minutes of login with no restore required.

    Sharing pictures over the Internet is also something that is very easy to do with numerous options out there like Facebook and Windows Live Spaces (and I'm sure many more).

    I look at my desktop computers and I realize they are, with few exceptions, thin clients to NAS and various existing and excellent online services. A couple years ago, WHS would have been great for me but I think the time may have passed. I guess I'm not a huge privacy nut so for those who are, the Google/Windows Live solution might not be acceptable.
    NonZealot
    • You're right about the privacy!

      Google has your whole life on their servers. Not a solution for me.
      jorjitop
    • My complements to a helpful informative post (NT)

      .
      BubbaJones_
    • You miss the point

      I think you miss the point entirely. This was never aimed at you, it was aimed at your mom, your sister, your aunt, all of whom thing gmail is an erotic dancer of the male persuasion.

      Of course it is too late for you, but it was never aimed at you anyway.

      Now take me. I am a tekie. the last desktop I bought was a 20 mhz 80386 in 1988. I have built every machine in my house (barring laptops) ever since. In the last two years I have built dual core (and now quad core) servers using Windows 2003 and hosting SQL Servers with maxed out memory and terabyte arrays. I have 3 servers, my development laptop, my wife's laptop and my son's laptop.

      I don't use any of that "Google stuff", not that I disparage it. I depend on my stuff and internet access is still not reliable enough to leave my life out on a server somewhere in the hinterlands. I have email from my clients with my work, on my laptop. If I am home and the internet goes (and it has) I continue working. Sure, I can't remote in to my clients but I can still get stuff done.

      I am building a WHS from spare parts and am quite looking forward to it. I WANT the no hassle backup and the remote desktop access if I need to do anything to them. I use remote desktop now for accessing the servers and what a freaking hassle. Editing the registry to get each machine on it's own port, futzing around with the windows firewall and sharing to turn on remote desktop, poking holes through the firewall so that I can get at all this stuff when on the road. Hamachi clients (paid) so it will run as a service in case the normal access fails (which has happened). VNC as an added layer of access "just in case".

      How wonderful will it be to make all that crap go away (assuming it works of course). RDT from anywhere including outside of my home, to any machine in the network, with NO setup on my part!

      Oh yea, I want that!

      But of course it is too late for you because you have hobbled together a kludge of various pieces and parts from all kinds of different vendors that do all this stuff (as had I).

      So pardon me if I give it a try, 'cause I am tired of the kludge.

      JWC
      jwcolby@...
  • Intended Market Segment?

    Some will react and buy based on their technical experience. Others less technically inclined might say:

    [i]"Why do I need this vs Vista?"
    [/i]

    WHS is not going to have broad appeal, even if it is easy to set up.
    D T Schmitz
    • Doesn't compete with Vista

      "Why do I need this vs Vista?" is the wrong question. It works with XP r Vista, but doesn't compete with or replace either one. The proper competitors are NAS devices, external hard drives, online services, etc. etc.
      Ed Bott
      • Monoculture...?

        Yes it works with some XP...
        But only administered by Vista & XP (sp?)
        It will be useful to some who live only in that monoculture.

        Too bad like other NAS/media/backup servers it cannot be administered by any system with a web interface. Probably WHS won't even work to backup or share files with Mac, Linux, BSD, BeOS, OS2/eComStation, PS3, etc.... Then it would be at least interesting. (they really should move into the 21st Century)

        And it is rather pricey and power hungry.

        If I could not build (and even sell) my own custom ones.
        I would go for HP MediaVault (if they still make them now?)
        or Seagate Mirra, TerraStation or others.

        It seems to me because of its price point, that will interfere most with SBS03/07 or they just need another loss for bookkeeping........
        LazLong
        • Administration

          You can access the admin interface from any web browser; the client software allows home server to back up the machines. Also, as noted in the article WHS can provide shares just like any other Windows system, it however cannot do backup for them. It would be very interesting to see someone write a plug-in for home server or wrapper in Linux to allow backups. You have a lot of criticism yet you don't know much about the product. The truth is though this is for home users and most of them use Windows.
          Jhaks
          • Can you........

            Setup & Administer from 2k, or XP < sp3? or for that matter Linux or Mac?
            Can you backup & Restore individual files, filesystems, and or partitions to and/for different systems? Can it serve Ogg, Flac, Theora, XVID? Can it connect to a modded (old) Xbox or new PS3..... If it has a new general web interface, without loading (very limited/limiting) client software that is new.

            It does samba shares automatically?

            And more & more even ^some home users are beginning to discover there is more than just monoculture & marketing myth.

            Have you used anything other than windows?
            LazLong
          • I believe you.

            WHS, is a great backend for Leopard Time Machine according to both Apple and Microsoft. WHS will automatically backup any Windows computer and be able to restore any files.

            With a PS3/Linux if there is any backup software out there then WHS would just be a storage unit. To me it is worth it because have 2 Desktops and 1 Laptop all running windows, and 1 Mac Desktop and 1 Mac Laptop running Leopard.

            On my Windows Laptop I am dual booting with Ubuntu, but I do not know how to get Samba working, but before that happens I need my network card Wired/Wireless to be working. Gutsy Gibson does not support mine. Other people claim to have gotten them to work, but when I try what they say nothing.

            Everything worked in Fiesty Fawn. I might be down grading.
            BroGnorik
          • Vista to Linux instructions

            Here:

            http://blogs.zdnet.com/Bott/?p=237
            Ed Bott
          • What is your point, really?

            This article is about WHS and what it can do. If it's not for you, that's fine and dandy. Who really cares? There are so many products across so many markets which the same questions you ask could be applied, but somehow they only funnel down to Microsoft. It's ok for you to dislike the monoculture, but try a blog or forum where that is the topic. I think this one is about WHS and it's own merits?
            xuniL_z
          • Other than Windows?

            I have done all my programming projects in Linux and I work IT in my university's computer science lab which exclusively runs Fedora. I didn't say it wouldn't be great for WHS to have all those features but it is not realistic and would only be interesting to tech enthusiasts; the platform however is expandable which is good news to the enthusiasts. For the average user it provides a great hardware/software feature set.
            Jhaks
          • ROTFLMAOBTC

            Have I what? Ogg and Flac are cavemen from an old 50s movie aren't they?

            Just because you are a linogeek doesn't mean that anything that doesn't help you is useless. In fact it brings up the very real question "why do you care at all?". Obviously a little irritated (still) that linux doesn't rule the world but hey...

            So obviously because it won't be all things for all people it is completely useless. Thus sayeth someone who obviously prefers a system that is all things to a tiny minority and absolutely useless to the rest of the world.

            Oh never mind. If you are reading this you are not working on the next killer app that WILL do all the things that you mentioned in your response ogg and flac and this n that). Don't forget to handle backing up IBM mainframes and VAX minis and ...

            Oh, never mind.
            jwcolby@...
        • Yes, it can be administered over web

          You can connect to the machine via Remote Desktop and administer it. But the connector software only runs on XP/Vista. And given that those two operating systems represent 90% of the installed base, that seems like a reasonable decision.
          Ed Bott
          • RDC for mac

            You can get a remote desktop client for mac too, I assume it will allow you to connect to windows server home, it lets me connect to my Windows Server 2003 server, from my girlfriends mac.

            http://www.microsoft.com/mac/otherproducts/otherproducts.aspx?pid=remotedesktopclient
            gtg781w
      • Dumb that it can't backup Vista 64

        You would think they would go out of the way to be sure it backs up
        all of the current MS Desktop os's
        gifto
        • Yep

          I've talked to the execs in charge of the WHS division and they acknowledge that was a strategic mistake. The good news is the client will be available reasonably soon. But it is a glaring omission to be sure.
          Ed Bott
          • Yep it shows how much thought and planning ...

            was put into the product
            mrOSX
      • But the average consumer doesn't know...

        enough about the function of a server to not ask that question.
        Hrothgar - PCLinuxOS User