He likes it: Linux guy gives Windows Home Server a (qualified) thumbs up

He likes it: Linux guy gives Windows Home Server a (qualified) thumbs up

Summary: It seems every time I do a Windows Home Server (WHS) post, the comments end up evolving/devolving into a debate over whether Linux or Windows is a better home-server platform. I decided to ask a Linux aficionado, Jason Perlow, to provide his take on WHS.


It seems every time I do a Windows Home Server (WHS) post, the comments end up evolving/devolving into a debate over whether Linux or Windows is a better home-server platform. I decided to ask a Linux aficionado, Jason Perlow, to provide his take on WHS. Here's Perlow's WHS review:

For the last 10 years, I’ve been pretty much exclusively reviewing and writing about open-source software. But in my previous lifetime, I was a Windows geek and I spent considerable time at Fortune 100 companies integrating various iterations of Windows Server into their respective environments. I guess like Mr. Spock on Star Trek, I need to return to the home planet on ZDNet to spawn about Windows every decade or so.

While many would call me a dyed-in-the-wool Linux freak, I have to admit, I like Windows. Oh, not Vista, but good ‘ol Windows Classic – Windows XP and Windows 2003. It’s a solid, stable platform that when kept up to date with patches and best practices applied will serve its job well.

Windows Home Server (WHS), which was released to manufacturing back in July of this year, started rolling out in new OEM systems in late 2007. As sold in new systems, WHS is a totally “headless” operating system – the server OS boots with no video output and has no keyboard or mouse input. You plug it into a network and it is just supposed to work.

As packaged, WHS does what it is supposed to do and it does it very well. The Windows Home Server Console software, which is useable over a Remote Desktop Connection (RDP) or via the native client, allows you to share drives and file shares, multimedia files, and permits you to remote console into any computer hooked up to your home network. The software is one of the slickest products I have seen Microsoft produce in the last decade. I’d love to see them produce the client for Mac and Linux so the “other” OSes can share the WHS love, as well.

But here is where things get interesting. Microsoft also sells the WHS software in the form of OEM builder kits for under $200 for anyone that just wants to install it on their own hardware. When installed using the OEM kit, WHS actually behaves like a full blown copy of Windows Server 2003 R2, with the backup and NAS software essentially bolted on. If you go under the covers and actually log into the Windows 2003 R2 console, you’ll see it has everything you expect it to have – such as Internet Explorer 7 and Microsoft Terminal Services and IIS -- and any software and drivers designed for Windows 2003 R2 will also install on it. Wanna install VMWare Server or Microsoft Virtual Server on it and virtualize a few XP and Vista or Linux systems? No problem.

Don’t go looking for this to be your end-all solution to your home server dreams yet, though. WHS' near-identical code base to Windows Server 2003 R2 is both a blessing and a curse – as such, the Windows Home Server OEM system builder kit is essentially Windows 2003 Server RTM code and needs immediate patching from Windows Update – to the tune of 30 or 40 updates from the minute you log on. Depending on what kind of hardware you install the software on, you’ll also need driver disks for just about everything – especially if you intend to use it on a wireless network, which is typical for a SOHO (small office/home office)environment.

Unfortunately, because Windows Server 2003 R2 is not designed to be on a WLAN, a lot of WLAN drivers for Windows XP will not install correctly. I had major issues, for example, getting Netgear’s and Belkin’s latest 108Mbps Super-G and Wireless-N 270Mbps USB and PCI cards to work correctly and had to revert to good ‘ol Category 5, which sort of defeats the purpose of being able to put this box anywhere in your house.

Another side effect is that not all Windows XP applications will run on Server 2003, particularly ones from third-party vendors. Want to run a freeware virus scanner from Avast! or AVG/Grisoft? You can’t. These vendors sense which OS you’re trying to install their products on, and you have to buy the real enterprise server version, or play with the (quite unstable) betas of the commercial WHS versions of their products. Ironically, the only one I got to work successfully was the open source CLAMAV for Windows, which couldn’t care less on which OS version I installed it.

I had similar difficulties installing ATI’s Hi-Def Radeon drivers on Home Server, because of various compatibility issues with .NET and ATI’s Catalyst management software. I wanted to hook Home Server up to my Sharp 42-Inch HDTV set, install a Blue-Ray or an HD-DVD drive, and play videos using the WinDVD codecs. All that was missing was Microsoft’s Windows Media Center software, and I’d have an all-in-one home server and media center solution. As it turned out, I was far more successful – sans the nice Home Server Connector software -- with Windows XP Media Center 2005, which I could get with my MSDN subscription that costs about the same amount of money.

For a first release, and for those people looking for a complete turnkey appliance solution, I think Windows Home Server is a nice value – although its questionable as to whether it’s a better value than dedicated Linux-based NAS appliances such as Netgear’s Infrant, which come in at a slightly higher price point but has more enterprise high-availability features.

Of course, there are free and excellent Linux NAS/Appliance distros such as OpenFiler, BlueQuartz and SME Server if you really want to go on the cheap. The remote access features of WHS are nice, but it’s not like this can’t be accomplished – albeit in a far less integrated fashion -- with what’s already built into most SOHO home routers with port forwarding and triggering and about 15 minutes of setup time getting free services like dyndns.org to work with the built-in features of Windows XP and Windows Vista.

My wish list? I'd like to see the next OEM system-builder release of WHS built on a more modern code base, such as Windows Server 2008, with a lot more built in driver support and better compatibility with Windows XP and Windows Vista applications. And in some ways, I would have preferred Microsoft made Home Server an add-on product for existing Windows PC’s, rather than requiring a dedicated OS. But otherwise, I'd give WHS a qualified thumbs-up.

Jason Perlow is a freelance writer and systems integration professional. He can be reached at jperlow at gmail dot com.

Topics: Hardware, Linux, Open Source, Operating Systems, Servers, Software, Windows


Mary Jo has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications and Web sites, and is a frequent guest on radio, TV and podcasts, speaking about all things Microsoft-related. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

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  • Heh.

    Only a Linux guy would like such toy. WHS is a geeky toy...it may be useful for some people, but I still don't see why Joe User would bouy it. This product is going to sell as well as desktop linux....
    • Joe user has

      All his and his family' cd's ripped to mp3's and stored in one location instead of 4(mom, daughter, son, and dad). They have located all of their recorded vidios and pictures all in one location, so that again. mom, son, daughter, and dad can get to them from any computer.

      Why do people have such a hard time wondering why joe user would like this. Christ, everyone stores all kinds of crap. Don't you think joe user would like the ability of NOT LOOKING ALL OVER FOR IT. Just like you and me.

      You underestimate joe user. You insult joe user's inteligence. And basicatly, I would not want to have you on a help desk because your insulting.

      • The problem is...

        that while there is nothing wrong with this product, its a product without a market niche. Anyone geeky enough to want a home server to begin with is probably geeky enough to figure out how to do it for free.

        As for Joe User ripping his CD's and storing them centrally, sure, I know lots of people who do that kind of thing. The thing is, you really don't need a server OS or even a dedicated machine for it. For those purposes, good old Windows XP works fine.

        So, in your example, all Joe really needs is to have one of his 4 machines left running all the time with a couple of file shares to store everything the rest of the family needs to access. Perhaps that machine needs a big hard drive and a way to do backups (like to an external USB drive, etc) but otherwise his desktop machine will do quite nicely. So he doesn't really need computer #5 in his home just for that. It doesn't matter if computer #5 is desktop windows, windows server, linux, or WHS - he just does not need computer #5 at all.

        If I was advising Joe, I'd just show him how to set up a file share (but as you pointed out he may already know that) and give him some advise on backups, and he is in business. No server required at all.
        • Time is Money

          I am not an IT professional, I am an Electrical Engineer. I am extremely experienced working with Windows, and I can get around OK in Linux. A home server would allow me to consolidate my media and let me access it remotely(I am a little sketched out by opening my desktop to RDC). Sure, I could buy a computer with no OS, and spend tons of time trying to figure out how to set it up in Linux, which probably involves a tutorial and tons of nonsensical command line operations and third party software. I could spend 10 hours or so trying to figure out how to set up Linux to function and share media with my Xbox 360 and Vista PC, or I could just buy Home Server for a hundred bucks or so and spend about an hour setting it up.
      • Man

        Have you ever worked a helpdesk? I have.

        If you spend 3 hours of working a helpdesk and you're not insulting Joe User, whether it's to his face (and he doesn't get it) or to your co-workers the second you hang up (or over a messaging client while you're talking to Mr. User) then you're either high or you have a much higher tolerance than me for questions like "How do I tell what version of Windows I have?" or "You want to know how much memory I have free? Let me check.... it says here I have 140GB on C:\ - what's GB mean? What do you mean RAM not hard disk space?" or my favorite one: "Click Start?Right-click or left-click?" Not that this has any bearing on the topic of this article. :)

        But IMO anyone who's capable of understanding the concept of a Home Server without a brightly-colored diagram and a slow explanation in a friendly tone of voice will probably be sophsticated enough to be able to use WHS. And for fairly cheap you don't have to learn a new OS (linux) to get a "real" server in your house. (I've done the linux server thing too, it's not bad but it did make me learn a bunch of stuff I never picked up at school or work). Currently I'm running a Windows 2k server I picked up, machine, software and all at a local college's surplus/salvage store for 50 bucks, but it's clunky - WHS is kind of tempting.
    • There are Windows geeks too

      And probably a lot more of them.
  • Lost all credibility with his Vista comments.

    Vista is not a perfect OS but nor is it the train wreck some would have us believe it is. I've been using Vista for almost a year. No problems with it. The FUD needs to stop if you want to have any credibility.
    • Message has been deleted.

      • So Linux makes perfect solutions?

        Compared to what Microsoft has to offer?

        As far as I can tell, I heard good stuff about WHS. So if Linux really has a better solution to WHS, why don't people use it?

        And what does Microsoft makes that's CRAP?
        • definitely not perfect

          Linux is definitely not a perfect OS. While it excels in stability and performance over Windows, its still not nearly as user friendly for general purpose use over OSes like Windows XP or Mac OS X. And there's a good reason for that -- Linux is getting most of its attention as an enterprise-class OS, not on the desktop.

          I'll note that in addition to testing Windows Home Server on the same hardware, I also installed Mythbuntu, LinuxMCE, and a few other multimedia desktop distros to try to replicate the functions of WHS and Windows XP. You definitely need a higher level of technical expertise to make Linux function in this kind of SOHO and Media Center role -- and in some cases, stuff just doesn't work so well. You can certainly set up SAMBA for home server use but it takes manual tweaking of configuration files unless you use a dedicated appliance distro like Openfiler or SME Server, and those distros aren't really good for multimedia applications. Wireless N is a non-issue on Linux right now, the drivers just don't exist, although most PCI-based Wireless-G cards do. And while you definitely can play things like Xvids on Linux (and it does work quite well) and HD video and audio drivers for the ATI cards do work there's currently no -legal- way to play DVDs or Hi-Def DVDs (HD-DVD. Blu-Ray) on most Linux distros yet (although Dell has recently licensed codecs so their systems pre-loaded with Ubuntu can do this, as can FreeSpire and LinSpire). This is more of a legal hurdle than a technical one, but its still an obstacle.

          This is not to say these problems won't eventually be solved. They will, and probably within the next few years. But for the moment Linux OSes are for enterprise applications like big database servers, J2EE farms and supercomputing clusters, still hacker or power user territory when used on the desktop, or best suited to dedicated appliances like TiVo, the Motorola RAZR 2 V8 smartphone, or Amazon's Kindle eBook reader -- and some of us like it that way.
          • Benchmarks please.

            "While it excels in stability and performance over Windows,"

            Oft repeated but never supported statement.
          • Libdvdcss is Legal to view/play encrypted DVD's......

            Even says why in section 1201(f) of the DMCA.

            This Ubuntu page explains it in plain English.


            Also Linux is just as user friendly as the others, you just need to become familiar as you would with the others.

            merry Xmas....
          • Windows Home Server


            "Also Linux is just as user friendly as the others, you just need to become familiar as you would with the others."

            Though I have no real need for WHS, I tested the release candidate on a spare machine. Its capabilities (2.4Ghz single-core P4, 1Gb RAM, Radeon X1300 video adapter) were far above rather moderate hardware requirements that MS set for WHS. (HP MediaSmart WHS boxes are shipping with 1.6Ghz Celerons and 512Mb RAM, integrated graphics.)

            I have no experience with server software, and found WHS to be very easy to set up and maintain. Out of the box, so to speak, it required no "familiarity" with the SBS 2003 product that it's based on to set up and use. Though I didn't do so, once it's up and running, you can remove the monitor and keyboard from the server box and perform any and all "maintenance" through the supplied Connector software on your client computers. That part I [b]did[/b] test. All of the necessary basic maintenance functions worked well. I did [b]not[/b] test any Server 2003 add-ons.

            I also did not install anti-virus or anti-spyware utilities on WHS, since the only time it was directly accessing the Internet was for sporadic updates (two, I think) or to connect to a secure Microsoft website for Remote Access purposes (also tested--slow, due to upload bandwidth limitations, but workable.)

            WHS worked well with both direct connections (through the router) as well as with wireless "G" connections. I didn't attempt to stream video files from the WHS box, but mp3 files played well, with no stuttering.

            Media files and other documents can be stored in public and private user folders, in a central place, freeing up increasingly scarce disk space on the client computers.

            I think Mr. Perlow was in error when he attempted to connect his HDTV directly to the video adapter in his WHS box. That's not how WHS is intended to be used. Rather, he should have tried connecting it through a client computer, as a true HDPC, and tested in that way.

            For non-techies, the best part of WHS is the ease of adding more storage capacity when needed. All of the available storage in or attached to the WHS box is pooled, and additional, non-matching HDDs can be easily connected (via USB or Firewire) or added internally. WHS will automatically format and add those drives to the "storage pool"--the user doesn't need to "manage" that at all, and it removes the need to configure and maintain a RAID subsystem, something that most non-techies would say "Huh?" when asked about.

            For me, the handiest thing about WHS is its nightly scheduled backup facilities. And if you miss several sessions in a row, WHS will gently remind you that the "network is at risk. <insert computer name here> hasn't been backed up since <insert date here>". You have the option of leaving your client computers turned on overnight, or you can perform the backup(s) manually, using the Connector software. How handy is that?

            I have seen little or no real advertising for WHS, and I think Microsoft and their partner OEMs are missing the bus if they don't advertise the product more aggressively than they have.

            For people who aren't as tech-savvy as most here are but who have multiple computers in their households, WHS might be the storage and backup solution they're looking for.
            M.R. Kennedy
          • Backups, Big Freaking Deal

            The big feature you liked so much is ONLY available to Windows XP and Vista clients NOT for any other Windows clients, not to mention any other OS. What's so good about that? You can schedule a backup to a NAS drive or a USB 2.0 drive using Task Manager to cover that "wonderful" feature of WHS.

            Its a way to extract 200 more dollars out of the pockets of Windows OS owners.

            BTW with a MSDN subscription, he doesn't even need to bother with WHS. He gets all the Windows OS and server products along with Visual Studio automatically every year he keeps the subscription going. Whats a $200 product with a $1200 a year subscription?
          • I love linux but this is false

            "Also Linux is just as user friendly as the others, you just need to become familiar as you would with the others."

            I'm a Linux administrator for many years now and this is a false statement. Linux is highly configurable....HIGHLY! For an admin this is both a gift and a curse. A gift when extreme customization is required...a curse if you need to figure out what it's doing without the help of the customizer. But for the home user there is no way on earth that ANY dist of Linux is as easy to use as any version of Windows. It must mature 10 more years before it reaches that point. The fact that you have a choice of many different desktops would confuse many windows or mac people. A home user doesn't need that much choice, or want it. They want to click one thing to go to the web, they want to click one thing to edit pictures, or play a movie. They DO NOT want to track down codecs or sift through thousands of applications starting with the letter G or K based on their desktop choice or make sure the application is compatible with the kernel version they are running. They want to pick up a phone and call a standard support number and get help with a standard operating system that came with a standard computer. That's the problem, they think of their computer as if it is a toaster. Until Linux reaches this level it will not suffice. I like Linux and Windows, I don't care which one you use at all and I hope they both have long futures.

            Ps. Please do not reply explaining that your grandmother uses it.....I've used many different distros of Linux and at one time or another had to go to the shell and edit config files. I've loaded Ubuntu on many laptops and run into extensive wireless issues. There are many pluses to using Linux but for the average user, it needs work, and better support than a forum.
          • "'m a Linux administrator for many years now" yeah right

            "<i>'m a Linux administrator for many years now</i>" Yeah and Al Gore invented the internet......<br><br>"<i>...a curse if you need to figure out what it's doing without the help of the customizer</i>"<br><br>Um...what the hell is "the customizer?" I use the KDE desktop (on my desktop pc) and XFCE desktop (on my laptop), I've used Gnome, Fluxbox & Window Maker desktops as well and have not come across something called "the customizer" Tell me O supposedly experienced one where I should look in my system for that utility......<br><br><i>"But for the home user there is no way on earth that ANY dist of Linux is as easy to use as any version of Windows."</i><br><br>And when was the last time you checked out various Linux distros 1999? Why don't you check out current versions of desktop Linux distro's such as PCLinuxOS, OpenSUSE, Ubuntu/Kubuntu, ZenWalk, Fedora, Mandriva, just for starters.<br> An admin worth his/her salt could lock down any and all changes to clients on their network if they had a clue, so I really take your being a Linux system admin with a chuckle. <br><br>I switched to linux about 1 1/2 - 2 years ago now and my wife maybe 6 months after I did. It was EASY. My wife never having had any exposure to Linux before has rarely needed me to help her after the initial installation. Yes there is a learning curve just as there are when you switch from any OS to another even some when switching from one Windows version to another.<br><br><i>"The fact that you have a choice of many different desktops would confuse many windows or mac people."</i><br><br>LOL, and this is a complaint? that you have freedom of choice and aren't locked into what some corporation wants you to run? Are you on drugs? Just about all distros will install with one desktop then if you want to change your desktop you are free to do so your not <b>locked in</b> to a certain desktop as Windows and Mac would like you to be.<br><br>"<i>They want to click one thing to go to the web, they want to click one thing to edit pictures, or play a movie</i>"<br><br>You surely haven't tried a gui based Linux distro... I click on the icons or menu selections for the apps I wish to use...Firefox, Thunderbird, Xchat, Skype, Adobe Reader, RealOne Player, OpenOffice (notice these apps I use would be fimilar to a Windows user and all are native linux versions not Windows apps running under Wine.) just as a Windows/OS X user would.<br><br><br><br>"<i>They DO NOT want to track down codecs </i>"<br><br>Have you noticed anything strange about Windows? Go into your local computer retailer and try to run a AVI file on their demo's or try it with one fresh out of the box. Mind you this is a codec OWNED by Microsoft... It doesn't come pre-installed you *gasp* have to download it! Yes, you've had to do these things with Windows as well you just don't remember doing it. Usually it comes from Windows update servers or as happened with my recent need for a codec my app noticed I didn't have it and offered to download and install it for me..yep automatically. Ah, life is good....
            <br><br>"<i>There are many pluses to using Linux but for the average user, it needs work, and better support than a forum.</i>"<br><br>First I will say that again your are for sure no professional Linux administrator or you would know each distro has PAID TECH SUPPORT you know like after your 30-90 days of Microsoft or OEM's support runs out on Windows you pay per incident or per minute...You said you checked out Ubuntu, well their tech support is provided by the owners of Ubuntu Conical LTD... Now to address your comment about getting help in forums. Tell me where do you get your FREE Windows support? Oh...forums, IRC channels, and websites just like the Linux community does...<br><br>BTW, some mention having to go to command line to do some things. I've had to do it on rare occasions. Why does Windows still contain a DOS command line? Even Vista has it, and why? for those rare occasions when you can't get the job done via the GUI interface..... Admit it your just here spreading FUD and poorly considering you know zero about Linux. At least learn about it so you can spread your FUD and at least sound like you have a clue about what your saying.<br>I don't mind honest debates over pro's and/or cons of Linux, Windows, or OS X but flat out lying is just a waste of bandwidth especially when your dumb enough to say you are in a job that you clearly have no clue of even the basics of the OS you supposedly administer.
          • don't think I agree here

            I have to disagree here. Windows is just as complex if not more. The only reason people think it's easier to use is they've had over 15 years to get used to it. Windows does some of the most confusing things where as Linux is straight forward. The thing is you get used to doing it the wacky windows way and it seems easier. I'm not calling people stupid here as I find this myself. I know how drill down thorugh dialog boxes and wizards and that seems normal to me. The reality is changing an easy to find config file value from 0 to 1 is so much simpler than using some crazy wizard that is hard to find and difficult to use to change some burried registry setting.

            As you said Linux is configuable to the extreme but the thing is the average user doesn't need to do any of that. They could get a distro set up by and OEM that works right out of the box and even has application support for which open source apps you can download and get working in the quickest easiest manner possible.

            I found one comment kind of funny; "Codec hunting". That's an issue I've had all kinds of problem with on Windows. I missed an espisode of my favorite show so I looked up a Torrent for it. I download the file and it was a mess due to the wrong codec. So I had to hunt down the codec. This seems to be problem every time I download a show. They seem to use a different codec for each one. Eventually end up getting them all and then re-install the OS and the problem starts all over again.
          • Command Line

            I am not an experienced Linux user, but I have to use it occasionally. The one program I need to run on it involves using the command line( I have to use the "source" command before I run it, whatever that does) every time I need to run it. This could be the fault of the application developer(Cadence), but I have never seen a Windows Application require that.

            I have never needed to search the internet and download a codec for Windows Vista, if you are correct that it does not ship with most codecs, it must automatically download them or something.
      • Specifically what about Vista is a train wreck? (nt)

        • technology seems ok

          Vista seems to have had some growing pains, mostly with respect to 3rd party drivers, but they are getting worked out. In this respect, its a lot like Linux. Third party drivers, almost by definition, are not under the control of the system developers. So hopefully Linux and Windows Zealots can agree that 3rd party support can be worked out, it just needs a little time and enough market share to get the makers to either publish the interfaces or write the drivers.

          What I see as 'train wreck' for Vista is this. I work in a nominally 'Microsoft Shop'. We are developing web applications primarily, but not exclusively, in ASP.Net. We have had zero interest from management to add Vista desktop or support. There has been interest in supporting the new Office formats, but via a 'translator' not a desktop upgrade.

          However, we keep adding new services using MySQL/PostgreSQL databases running on Linux, because the 'database stack' from OS to RDBMS to JDBC/ODBC/ADO.Net drivers is free of cost and license worries and they work just fine. We are also adding wikis and related tools. These are as likely to be PHP or Java as ASP.Net. From the perspective of Microsoft's business model, this must be considered a 'train wreck'.