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

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.
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

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.

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.

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.

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.)

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.]

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