A typical household with two adults and three children can easily have three or more computers. Since each of the users wants access to the Internet, their PCs are likely to already be connected to a router -- but sharing media files and other data among the computers often remains an arduous task.
What's more, many users have enough difficulty finding the time to manage their own computer -- updating antivirus software, configuring the firewall and keeping downloaded files in order -- that they pay little or no attention to the other PCs in the house. And that means few of them get backed up regularly, if at all.
Enter Windows Home Server (WHS), announced at this year's Consumer Electronics Show in January. WHS is a platform for storing, sharing and protecting data from multiple home PCs. Additionally, it can stream media, provide remote access and monitor PCs on a home network. The basic concept is simple and logical, and any household with more than one PC already wants one...though they may not know it yet.
The WHS software itself will not be sold as a retail product but will be available to consumers later this year in the form of hardware appliances such as Hewlett-Packard's MediaSmart Server, also announced at CES. Selling this product as an appliance only is in some significant ways a great idea, though final pricing will be the determining factor in purchase decisions for many people.
Making the product an appliance means that the server is a plug-and-play device. Buyers can open the box, plug it into a power outlet and a wired Ethernet connection, and turn it on. The unit boots and runs without a monitor or keyboard and can be managed from any PC on the network -- any PC, that is, running either Windows XP or Vista.
Since Windows Home Server is currently in beta 2, it isn't available in appliance form yet, but approved beta testers can download and install the software on any PC that meets fairly basic system requirements. My test system had a 1.7GHz AMD processor with 512MB of memory, a DVD drive and two ATA hard drives: one 60GB and one 120GB.
I found Home Server to be intuitive to use and very effective at backing up data as well as monitoring my home network's health. Its simplicity and automation will make it a winner with many home users. More technically savvy users, however, may find its limitations frustrating.
Getting started: Backup and recovery
Once the server is connected to your home network, a special piece of software called the Windows Home Server Connector needs to be loaded on each of the users' PCs. You can attach as many as 10 computers to the server. I was able to simply browse to the server's software folder and install the connector from its location on the server.
By default, Windows Home Server backs up each computer running the Connector software every night. It's necessary to leave computers turned on in order for the backup to run, though the server can communicate with PCs that are either sleeping or hibernating, waking them up for the backup. Once the backup is complete, the PCs can go back to sleep.
The systemwide backup schedule can be set to keep backups for a specific number of days, weeks and months. At the end of the defined period, the oldest backup for that period is deleted to make room for the newest backup. You can change the number of backups and retention times to suit your network.
It's possible to select specific drives to back up, and you can select some folders that you don't want to back up. However, I was able to instruct the backup to skip only a limited set of predetermined folders, including temporary files, the hibernation folder, the recycle bin and a few other system files. It's not possible to skip standard folders. While experienced users may not like this restrictive approach, it's probably the best way to ensure that casual users are completely protected, since the system simply backs up everything on the users' drives.
The server stores files in three different types of folders: regular backups, plus public and private folders. Public folders allow open access from any connected PC; private folders are like private network drives on a business network. They store a user's files and are accessible from any connected PC by any user with the correct username and password.
Backup files are collected in their own backup libraries, which are separate and different from user file folders. In fact, the backup process is fairly sophisticated in that it backs up at the block level, only backing up those blocks that have changed. This complexity is completely hidden from users, who see their backups as complete files. An individual file or folder can be selected for restoration, but the file itself may comprise multiple incremental updates made over the life of the file. This keeps the size of the overall backup smaller than it would be if complete files were backed up every time they changed.
I was able to restore files by selecting a backup from three days prior and browsing the files in the backup set. Restoring files is as simple as dragging the required file from the Windows Explorer window to your selected destination. In fact, I was able to view the backups from one of the other computers on my network and restore its backed-up files to my main computer. That means that even if one computer fails completely, its contents can be retrieved immediately. Even private files can be brought back to life as long as you have the login name and password to access the private folders.
PC monitoring and file sharing
If it did nothing but back up home computers regularly, Home Server would be a great thing. But its Connector software also monitors and announces the status of firewalls and antivirus software on each PC it's installed on, and it reports on the quality of your network connectivity. And that's where Home Server begins to make real sense for the average home PC user.
Announcements appear as pop-up messages on each PC running the Connector. I found the pop-up messages telling me "The Den PC's firewall is turned off" a bit annoying since I had turned it off on purpose. On the other hand, that kind of information is good to know.
Another problem that's growing as the use of digital media explodes is being able to access the media from wherever you want to use it. You might have 50GB of music on one computer, 25 full-length movies on another and thousands of digital images on still another. Making any or all of that entertainment available in the living room is likely to dampen anyone's enthusiasm for the evening's entertainment plans. Putting a Home Server in the network where all the digital media can be stored and accessed is a great solution.
I was able to simply copy all my photos, music files and videos from my various computers to the public media folders on the Home Server. From there, any PC in the house is able to access them -- although you can limit which media folders are freely accessible. If you have an Xbox 360 or other Windows Media Connect-enabled device, you can stream audio and video content from the Home Server for live viewing, rather than having to download it first, then play it.
Home Server is based on Microsoft Windows Server 2003, so it's a fully capable operating system. The good news for home users is that all the advanced features that Windows Server brings to the business environment are either automatically managed or disabled in Home Server. That leaves the good parts running on autopilot and easy to use.
The Connector software that runs on each PC is necessary only if you want to be able to manage the server, back up your PC and otherwise be an active part of the network. Without the Connector, it's still possible to view the server's public directory structure from a Web browser on your networked PC. That also means that if your server can be accessed from the Internet, you can browse it from a Web browser on any PC via the Internet.
The trick, though, is to make your server accessible via the Internet. To do this right now, you need to use a service like DynDNS or tzo.com to route a Web address to your cable or DSL modem's dynamically assigned IP address.
Before Home Server ships, however, Microsoft expects to offer a service through Windows Live that will let you choose a domain name for your server under the homeserver.com domain. For example, my domain could be "scott.homeserver.com" if I happened to get to it before any other Scotts. This service should be available when the systems appear on store shelves.
Once your server is accessible over the Internet, you can browse the server and download files to any Net-connected computer. (You will, of course, need the correct username and password to access private files.) If the remote device is Media Connect-enabled and uses a high-speed connection, you can even view or listen to media files streamed from your server.
Finally, you can use the Home Server's Remote Access to Computers function to access the full capabilities of your PC remotely. This gives you most of the functionality of services like GoToMyPC without the monthly cost. However, there is a catch: Your home PC must be running either Windows XP Professional or Vista in order to be controlled remotely.
While normal PC browsers can access the Home Server over the Internet without any problem, I was disappointed to find that my Cingular Blackjack running Microsoft Windows Mobile 5 couldn't find it -- the mobile browser never displayed a login screen or even an error. I subsequently found out that Microsoft doesn't expect to be able to deliver mobile access in Version 1 of Home Server but is looking to add it for the next revision.
Requirements and limitations
Windows Home Server sounds on the surface to be nirvana for home networks, and it well could be -- that is, if you have the right parts and pieces in place to take advantage of all its services. Many homes with multiple PCs, some of which have been "migrated" through the family hierarchy, will be disappointed when they attempt to use all the facilities of Home Server.
The most significant issue is that the Connector application will only work on Windows XP and Vista. Those old PCs running Windows 2000, ME or 98 -- or, for that matter, Mac OS X or Linux -- may be able to browse the shared folders, but they won't be backed up and monitored. That limitation in itself may be a deal-breaker for a large number of households.
Another requirement is that the server must be connected to the network router or switch with a wired Ethernet connection of at least 100MB/sec. The router and other PCs can be wireless, but that primary wired connection is needed in order to get the performance necessary to stream multimedia content to the other computers. Fortunately, 100MB and even Gigabit Ethernet switches are relatively inexpensive and may not pose much of a disincentive to buyers.
Other requirements are less important because the system will be delivered preconfigured with the required processing power (at least 1GHz), memory capacity (at least 512MB) and Ethernet port.
Ready to grow
Microsoft has done a great job of hiding the complexities of server management in Home Server. My test unit had two hard drives, a 60GB drive and a 120GB drive. In a standard PC or server, those drives would appear as separate drive letters, and files moved to the server would need to be explicitly placed on one or the other drive.
The Home Server uses a "drive extender" function that masks the complexity of multiple drives by simply extending the logical space when drives are added to the system. This makes the entire pool of disks appear as a single volume. The bottom line is that users simply place their files in folders without regard to what drive the folders are on.
Microsoft says the server's drive capacity is expandable, and I was able to add a drive to my server by simply opening the box, attaching the cables and powering the server back on. The system automatically takes care of reformatting the drive and adding the new capacity to the pool.
When Home Server is shipped in appliance form, Microsoft wants users to be able to add drives without using tools or opening the box. For example, HP's MediaSmart Server is expected to be available with either one or two SATA drives installed, but with an additional two open drive bays accessible without opening the case. This means you can buy two drives and simply slide them into the available slots in order to add storage capacity. In addition, users will be able to add external drives via both USB and FireWire connections. It is expected that capacity approaching six terabytes can be added without the need to use any tools.
Beta 2: Nearly feature complete
Microsoft announced a relatively short list of features for WHS, including:
-- Automated backup
-- Centralized and expandable storage
-- Ability to access shared folders from anywhere
-- Easy to set up and configure
From my testing, all these features are well supported and function as advertised in beta 2. Microsoft says it expects to ship the final product through its partners with the full set of features intact. Eventual partners named include:
-- Advanced Micro Devices Inc.
-- Intermec Corp.
-- Quanta Computer Inc.
Windows Home Server is slated to be available in "the second half of 2007." That leaves a lot of room for precise timing but definitely puts it into play before the holiday season. Unofficially, sources say they expect to see units on the shelf from HP by late summer. Pricing information isn't yet available, but expect the most significant price differences to reflect the amount of storage capacity in the server.
For my part, now that Home Server is installed on my network, it's not going to be unplugged.
Scott Koegler lives the digital lifestyle in the wilds of western North Carolina, where he writes about computers, computing, software and making them all work together. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story, "Windows Home Server Almost Ready" was originally published by Computerworld.