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

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.