Microsoft hits a home run with Windows Home Server

Microsoft hits a home run with Windows Home Server

Summary: Almost without exception, the first reaction when people hear that Microsoft is working on Windows Home Server is, "Why would I want that?" After they see it, the first reaction is much simpler: "I want that." In this post and accompanying image gallery, I supply details about why you'll want Windows Home Server on your home network.


Almost without exception, the first reaction when people hear that Microsoft is working on Windows Home Server is, "Why would I want that?" After they see it, the first reaction is much simpler: "I want that."

So set aside that first skeptical reaction and take a close look at the image gallery I've assembled showing the most recent beta release of Windows Home Server in action. The April 2007 Community Technical Preview (CTP) was released to the public last week. I've been running it and its previous beta release for more than two months now. In this post, I'll provide a high-level overview of why this new product has such potential for home Windows users who are drowning in digital media and typically unprepared for sudden data loss.

Let's start with a description of what Windows Home Server isn't. It's not a general purpose file/web/application server. It doesn't require high-end hardware (an old P4 with 512MB of RAM plus a Fast Ethernet card will do just fine). You don't need a technical degree to set it up or run it. In hardware terms, it's an appliance (no monitor, keyboard or mouse required, and the smaller the better) designed to plug in to a home network, where it's always on and available for a variety of useful activities. A nontechnical end user should have no problem installing the client software and walking through the simple seven-step setup, after which it requires virtually no ongoing management.

So what does Windows Home Server do?

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  • The backup service backs up every every computer on the network, automatically, using a clever storage system that makes efficient use of disk space on the server. You can recover individual files from a backup or restore an entire system from scratch on a bare hard drive by booting from a restore CD and connecting to the network.
  • Shared Folders offer a common location for storing and sharing files, especially disk-hogging digital media files, which can then be played on any connected PC or Windows Media Connect device.
  • It allows remote access to shared files and to computers on the home network via a web browser, with policies that require strong passwords for access.
  • It constantly monitors the health of the network, alerting you if a PC is running with out-of-date antivirus software or if a nightly backup failed to complete.

Last week, my colleague Adrian Kingsley-Hughes published an image gallery showing the setup process for the April CTP release. In a way, that's a misleading presentation, because Microsoft's vision is that this software will be delivered preinstalled on hardware such as the Hewlett-Packard MediaSmart Server first announced at January's Consumer Electronics Show. The current beta requires testers to set it up on whatever hardware happens to be lying around, which is what I've done here.

After installing the server software, I disconnected the monitor, keyboard, and mouse from the server, popped the Windows Home Server Connector CD into my main PC, and ran the setup program. The first time you run the Connector program, it auto-detects the server and prompts you to complete the basic setup: entering a product key, giving the server a name, creating a master password, and installing any required updates. With those housekeeping chores out of the way, the connector software joins the computer to the network and installs a console program that allows you to begin settings things up. The connector software runs on 32-bit versions of Windows XP and Windows Vista; there's currently no support for Macs or for 64-bit versions of Windows.

Basic backup settings are configured by default when you run the connector software. By default, every volume on every PC is backed up in the wee hours of the morning, between midnight and 6AM. Files that aren't essential - page files, hibernation files, temp files, and so on - are excluded from backups, and the process is shockingly quick. The server software uses a clever algorithm that avoids storing duplicate files. The first backup set takes up the most space, using moderate compression to save every backed-up file. When you back up a second or third or fourth computer, the backup service detects common files, such as those used by Windows, by installed programs, and by data files that are duplicates of those on the first computer. Instead of making a second copy of those files, the server just notes the location of the original backup and adds a simple entry to its index. The result is that the backup for an entire PC with 20GB of files in use can take less than 4GB of additional space on the server.

I tested the restore process the hard way, by deliberately wiping out a perfectly good portable PC. I started by backing up my primary notebook PC (an Acer Tablet PC running Windows Vista Business), making extensive changes over a one-week period and allowing the nightly backups to run. After verifying that the backups were on the server, I wiped the hard drive clean, inserted the Windows Home Server Restore CD, plugged in a network cable, and held my breath. Roughly 25 minutes later, my system was completely restored, with all applications and data working as if nothing had happened.

By default, the server sets up a set of shared folders for storing music, photos, software, and other common files. In addition, each user with an account on the network gets a private set of folders. User accounts are the primary means for controlling access to shared and private folders. A unique feature called folder duplication protects data from loss in the event of a hard disk crash, using a software process that's similar to hardware RAID. As long as you have two or more hard drives and sufficient space, the duplication feature keeps copies of each saved file on separate disk. If a drive fails, your shared data remains intact.

What if you run out of storage space on the server? No problem.

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Plug in a new drive (internal, USB, eSATA, or FireWire) and you can add it to the storage pool immediately. Data storage doesn't use drive letters, so even on a system with three or more drives you can expand the storage space available without having to worry about copying files. I had no problem plugging in a 200GB USB drive and expanding my server storage in a matter of minutes.

Media sharing is a big benefit of the centralized storage model. After I moved more than 80GB of MP3 and WMA files to the server and turned on the Media Library Sharing option for the Music folder, I was able to connect an Xbox 360 to the server and begin browsing the collection and streaming tunes with perfect performance. I could have used a Roku Soundbridge as well, or any third-party device that supports Windows Media Connect.

Remote access is off by default. It takes a visit to the control panel to turn on web connectivity, which involves signing up with a Windows Live account, creating a unique subdomain at Microsoft's site, and setting strong passwords for every access. The server software does a good job of auto-configuring most routers that support UPnP. In my case, inbound connections have to pass through two routers, so I wasn't able to test how well remote access works. That's an oversight I'll rectify this week and follow up on later.

If the feature you want in a home server isn't on this list, don't despair. Windows Home Server includes an add-in capability and an SDK that allows third parties to develop applications that can extend its functionality. It takes literally two clicks to install an add-in.

All in all, Windows Home Server does a remarkable job of delivering a set of features that every home network needs with a simple interface that doesn't require advanced technical skills to operate. The single question that remains is whether hardware makers like HP can deliver products at the right price point - ideally, under $500. With this software scheduled for release before the end of the year, we should have the answer to that question in time for the holiday season.

Topics: Servers, Data Management, Hardware, Microsoft, Networking, Software, Storage, Windows

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  • Linux gives you a better server. For free!

    Linux gives you a better server. For free! For example Ubuntu 7.04 server edition:

    Plus the hardware requirements are dramatically lower. And old Pentium 2 with 192 MB RAM will do.

    Trust Linux on your server: around 80 percent of the world's internet servers run on Linux.....

    Greetz, Pjotr.
    • Not in the same market as a Linux server

      Automatically back up all my computers? Provide data protection without hardware RAID? Allow me to access my home computer when I'm on the road without having to do anything more than click a button or two?

      You just read the word "server" and posted this, didn't you? You obviously didn't read the post or look at what this product does.
      Ed Bott
      • It pays off!

        My, my. I apparently hit a very sore spot there, given the vehemence of your reaction...... :-)

        Of course there is a learning curve involved when you start out with an Ubuntu Linux Home Server. But the curve is steep, and you get excellent free help on the fora.

        It is not as easy as the Windows thing, true. And you possibly might not have all the features. But the effort is well worth it, though. Not only you get it for free, but you can achieve this with much older and weaker hardware, and most importantly: you end up with a much higher degree of security.

        Greetz, Pjotr.
        • I repeat...

          Not the same market. If you want to install your own Linux server, be my guest. But this product is aimed at people who want an appliance that can be set up and working in 15 minutes.
          Ed Bott
          • Already on the market

            There are already appliances that do this running linux though the user just sees a web interface.
          • Seem familiar

            In many ways it's reminiscent of the old Cobalt (later, Sun) Qube.

            Same concept as a 10 year old Linux appliance, with updated functionality and a better price point. Can't hold that against Microsoft... a good idea is good no matter where it came from.

            It didn't sell real well for Sun, but hey, Microsoft is targeting a different market. It seems to me to be a pretty narrow market as well: home users that are tech-savvy enough to appreciate backups, and non-technical enough to need one-click installs, as well as affluent enough to afford the appliance. It remains to be seen whether non-technical home users are really willing to shell out hundreds of dollars to have online backups. Unless there's an [i]iceberg[/i] under the water that Ed's not telling us about, that's the only thing new you're getting. All the rest of it -- alerts, file sharing, and remote access -- is available [i]without[/i] the server.
          • I do believe the average home user is being greatly underestimated here.

            I work in professional environments day to day (hospitals mostly) so granted the people I meet are usually at least college if not university educated people. But most wave a white flag at technology. However in the last several years, even the least likely of these people are doing things at home to emulate what they have at work the best they can. Who hasn't learned to setup a router and do wireless at home now? The huge trend toward laptops makes a difference here too. There is room for a server in most homes. A small device hidden away about anywhere. or in the home office room of the house. <br>
            i just don't get why people, esp. the linux users for whatever the reason (although they are down on every project MS undertakes, so one must consider the source) are saying this is too complicated for home users?? On the contrary. It's what most home users are looking for. And you know, most home users could give a squat about the fact it costs money. They realize they are living in capitalism and accept the way the market works. Free is not inviting to all that many people. They'd rather pay something to feel they have support. Whether the "free" software has great support or not. American's esp. love to be capitalists. There is no sign of a democratic socialist government being tolerated in the U.S. ever. Which means people know that free means subsidized. Which means taxes, which means most know they've been subsidizing the Unix and *nix projects for almost 5 decades now. General users may not alwasy be computer could professionals in other fields have the knowledge of a Linux geek?? They can't and that's why they appreciate a device like this and also know what makes the world go round.
          • Your memory is very fuzzy, I think

            I had a Cobalt Qube server from the days before Sun bought Cobalt Networks. It was a web/e-mail/file server aimed at small businesses that wanted an appliance they could get online with right away.

            Comparing it to WHS is a stretch, to say the least. It's not the "same concept" in my opinion. In fact, I don't think there's any overlap in features except for the fact that they both allow secure access to shared space on a file server based on user accounts.
            Ed Bott
          • Not one bit, Ed.

            [b][i]Comparing it to WHS is a stretch, to say the least. It's not the "same concept" in my opinion. In fact, I don't think there's any overlap in features except for the fact that they both allow secure access to shared space on a file server based on user accounts.[/i][/b]

            The "concept" I'm referring to is a plug-in multipurpose server appliance with minimal configuration. With the Qube it was basically this: set the IP address, plug it in, and log in with a browser. First login becomes the administrator. Keep in mind that the Qube was released in the 1990s. Nearly a decade is more than enough time to allow for implementation of the same concept with different capabilities. As I said in the post to which you responded, the functionality is updated. Given the time span you could expect no less.

            Now, I've already acknowledged (here: that this is a different feature set for a different market. In fact, I said exactly this: [i]When it comes to the feature set, that's purely a judgment call. It all depends on what's important to you. Other server appliances have targeted other markets; while they may not provide exactly the features of WHS, they do supply other features not included here, such as POP and IMAP mail servers, bittorrent download managers, FTP services, calendaring etc. Microsoft have chosen features that they deem important to themselves and their target clientele."[/i]

            I see no reason to back off my position at all, as I'm absolutely right. It's simply not possible for a reasonable person to disavow the general similarity of concept within the scope already discussed. The only way to disavow said similarity is to limit the feature set to [i]exactly[/i] what WHS provides, which would just be plain silly: EXACTLY as silly as saying that your modern automobile is a completely different concept from a Model T, IMNSHO.

            I was [i]perfectly[/i] clear about my context, and since you not only read, but responded to both posts, you knew it. Because I know for a fact that you're not a disingenuous person, but rather a reasonable and intelligent person I respect, I'll put your current criticism down to having a bad day or something. Get some rest.
          • I went out of my way to be polite

            Sorry you're so easily offended.
            Ed Bott
          • I took no offense.

          • Offense

            Admitted offense or not, you're still being a twat. Leave it be and leave your e-penis at the door when you come to post ok? xox
          • Neverhadachoice, since you asked...

            ...if it is "ok", I'll just point out that I was perfectly sincere when I told Ed that he was a reasonable and intelligent person I respect. I wasn't being sarcastic or facetious, and I truly think he was in a bad mood when he posted the response. If you want to refer to that as an "e-penis", I'd say you need to get your priorities in order, and maybe practice some improved communication skills.

            As for everything else, I offered an opinion, and I backed it up, which is more than anybody else has done since I stated it. If you haven't been following the conversation, I invite you to go back and read my posts in chronological order. I started out openly skeptical about the product. I asked several specific questions, which Ed directly and factually answered. My subsequent posts indicated that I now think WHS is a well-implemented server appliance. IOW, I'm more than willing to change my opinion in the face of clearly argued opinions and/or facts, and I have demonstrably done so in this Talkback. My main point in the current thread (here: wasn't even about the similarity of concept (which is obvious); it was that time will tell whether it has sufficient market to make it a success. I hardly think that's arguable, as the product hasn't even been released. It's also my opinion, and I have heard nothing in the way of cogent argument to the contrary, that the concept of a server appliance remains unchanged even if the specific features vary among implementations. That's not so difficult to understand.

            By all means, continue the [i]ad hominem[/i] attacks if you like, but that doesn't touch my argument. Have a lovely evening.
          • My wager is...

            That if there's any uptake on this at all there will be an open source and Linux version of this within a year.

            All the parts are there so I bet someone will do it.

            Now, if you have one computer acting as appliance then will this install on an older box or does it require a new one with all the Vista bloat (bloat in this case being all the bells and whistles that an appliance stuffed in the spare bedroom doesn't need)?

            The other, so far, unanswered question is security and how well it will perform in the wild complete with multiple internet connections.

            The concept looks good enough. Then again, the concept of Vista was good enough on paper though, to this point, Vista is looking more and more like Microsoft's New Coke.

            I'm more interested in performance than "golly, gee whiz" screen shots anyway.

            The real world will be the judge of whether this is a home run or a weak ground ball back to the pitcher.


          • You'll like this bloat

            WHS is built on Windows Server 2003, and the engineers left a lot of that in the build when they overlaid WHS on top. So you get a lot of latent capability a technically proficient person can exploit. Or, for the non-techie, you get a device that doesn't need a lot of care and feeding, and yet still backs up your workstations once a day, every day. The server sits behind your broadband connection's router (with inherent firewall/NAT blocking) and I'm sure someone will write appropriately sized security components.
          • your wager wins john

            You are correct, there are already a number of people out there working on the simplification of server and operations, not to mention keeping the cost down.
            Linux based system are the only thing that keeps M$ working hard to keep their customers happy, which is a good thing. I am a M$ fan and have been since Win 3.1, And I AM a Linux fan as well. Ubuntu is a great release, and the best part is that it is OPEN source, so lots of people make suggestions for improvements and lots of Excellent Developers make the improvements.
            Microsof will not get the message, that is why they keep the bucks high, but as long there is serious competition, they will keep trying to keep the customers happy.

          • Competition = Good

            It is all about Competition. For me, other developers, and home users as well, the most significant thing that OSS has contributed is lowering the entry point for obtaining high quality software. It used to be that a company used to have to drop at least a couple grand on an piece of Enterprise level software *just to look at the manuals*. But thanks to OSS, developers can get Express or Lite versions of many of their cooperate work horse brethren. Things like such as Oracle Database server, MSSQL server, almost all of MS's Visual Studio tools like VB, Visual C++ are now available for use in a production environment for free.

            OSS is forcing many companies are being pressured by the market to end their Monopolistic pricing policies. Even Microsoft is contributing to lower software prices... no really.

            Take their Expression Studio. Expression Studio is the first direct competition to Adobe's Creative Suite (Photoshop, DreamWeaver, Illustrator, etc). This can only mean good things for consumers. I would love to see Flex Builder or DreamWeaver with a $100 price tag. I would buy them in a heart, as would the company I work for,

            All I can say is that I would welcome an Open Source version of Home server. MS Home server looks like something I could really use. A central machine to manage back ups of all my boxes, that I can set up in 15 min and run off of one of my older boxes? Stick my noisy old hard drives in it, set it up, stick it in a closet and forget about it? That is a a no brainer. I know enough about Linux to know that setting up a system like that would be a pain in the ass to do from scratch. We are talking about AT LEAST a solid weekend down the tubes. I have never had luck getting SAMBA to work correctly with out a lot of massaging (but that is me).
            Duke E. Love

            Thats all... just another way to get the idiots who have fallen for Windows to begin
            with, to think they need to spend more money on useless crap LOLOLOLOLOLOL

            >>> Thats all... just another way to get the idiots who have fallen for Windows to begin
            with, to think they need to spend more money on useless crap LOLOLOLOLOLOL

            So what is wrong with making money off of idiots and worthless crap? That is the American way. LOLOLOLOLOLOL...

            Nice try monkey boy.
            Duke E. Love
          • This is what the average non geek wants

            I think the WHS covers the basics pretty well from what the original article stated. You windows and linux geeks might be suprised by how many average computer users have multiple computers in their house. They want easy to use, easy to get started with, and they will pay for those products that meet that need. Plus, like John said, if there is a market for it, a linux version of the appliance will come out quick. Actually no home user (for the most part, OS bigots excluded) would really care what OS is on the appliance, as long as it works as advertised.