Windows Home Server 2011: What It Is and How to Use It

Initial Setup

The hardware used for this installation is built around a Zotac mini-ITX motherboard with an Intel Core i3 530 CPU and 4GB of DDR3 RAM. The system lacks a DVD drive, so we used a Samsung external USB optical drive to handle the installation. This meant making sure that the system BIOS was set up to boot from the USB drive.

The system housed a single unformatted 2TB Western Digital GreenPower drive. The entire process went smoothly at the beginning, and if you've ever run Windows Setup, you won't find much different in the Windows Home Server routine. But we hit a snag at the end of the automated process: The system didn't have a built-in driver for the gigabit ethernet controller. That missing ingredient generated an error message, which resulted in a reboot, which led to the same problem and error message. In short, Windows Setup had entered an infinite loop.

Escaping this catch-22 is simple. After completing the 'Preparing Desktop' phase, you'll see the 'configuring Windows' screen with a progress bar; at that point, simply press Ctrl-Alt-Delete, open the task manager, and kill the setup process. Windows will unceremoniously dump you to the desktop, at which point you can install the chipset and the network drivers. Unlike in the Windows 7 setup, installing chipset drivers didn't require a reboot.

For us, after that little gotcha, the remainder of the installation process went smoothly. Windows Home Server 2011 configures a single drive into two partitions: a relatively small boot partition, and a larger data drive. Now it's time to configure the first client PC, which will also be the main server management console.

Configuring a Client

You no longer need to use a CD or a thumb drive to configure a client, though you can certainly set a system up using a CD if you want to. Instead, bring up a browser and type the following URL:

http://<homeservername>/connect

replacing <homeservername> with the name that you assigned to the server during setup. You'll download the WHS connector installer, and then run it.

If you have auto logon configured, you'll be prompted to revert to login-required mode. You don't have to search around for this; the WHS connector app will launch it for you. At that point, you'll have to reboot, and then run the connector setup app again.

Launchpad is separate from Dashboard, so you can have different logins than your desktop system uses.
Once the WHS connector is installed, you'll run the Launchpad app. The first time you do this, you actually run the Windows Home Server dashboard. After you've set up WHS, Launchpad and Dashboard are two different animals. You should set up a user account that is not the same as the system administrator account, and give it a different password. This will allow you to work just with your own file shares. You can always launch Dashboard from Launchpad.

The new admin Dashboard for WHS 2011 looks much like the old one.
This separation of the WHS user login, your local system login, and the WHS server admin login simplifies matters considerably. You no longer need a client login if you're dealing with a simple home network where you trust all your family members--but sometimes it's best to be cautious.

You'll also want to configure global server settings, which we will discuss under three headings.

Configuring the streaming quality depends on your CPU performance.
Media server and media streaming capabilities: The tricky part here is to figure out streaming quality, which depends on the performance of your CPU; unfortunately, figuring out which setting to use is difficult. If you click on the 'Common processors and the profiles that they support' link, you'll get a Web page that tells you which Windows Experience CPU Index is suitable for which quality level. But you get no other clues, since WHS 2011 doesn't implement WEI. Instead, the refrence page suggests that you "find a system that's running the same CPU and use that WEI." That advice is about as dumb as it seems. If you're using a Core i3 or better, you can probably safely adjust the setting to 'Best'.

WHS 2011 can be part of a Windows 7 HomeGroup.
HomeGroup setup for Windows 7 users: All this means is that you add the WHS system to your Windows HomeGroup, which simplifies access to the server.

You can use your own domain name, but your choice of domain name registrars is limited.
Remote access: You no longer have to use the Microsoft homeserver site, though you can use it if you like. If you have a domain of your own, you can make the WHS system part of that for remote access, but your choice of domain name providers is limited to GoDaddy.com and eNomCentral.com. If your domain isn't registered with one of those providers, you'll have to transfer your domain name to them in order to use it.

Assuming that you have other client PCs to configure, you'll need to set those up next; but with your newly acquired experience, you should have no problems doing that.

You'll want a separate account for each user.
The next thing you need to do is set up user accounts for each person on your home network. This is a pretty simple job, and it should take very little time on each system that you install the WHS connector software on. Note that WHS 2011 now defaults to weak passwords, so if you want stronger passwords, you'll have to change the policy.

Backups

One key feature of Windows Home Server is its backup capability. You can set up backup schedules, specify which files and folders to back up, and start backups manually as needed. If you need different backup configurations from the default one, you must make those changes via Dashboard. Individual users cannot make changes to their own backup policies through Launchpad.

You configure backups from the Dashboard.
Since WHS 2011 doesn't support GPT partitioned drives, you can't use the newer 3TB hard drives unless you have a special driver. Your client system can use GPT drives, which you can back up on a file-by-file basis, but restoring files to the GPT volume appears not to be implemented. As a result, you'll have to copy to an intermediate volume first.

That pretty much covers all of the steps involved in performing a basic WHS installation and configuration. You may have to do more for your particular installation--for example, you may have to point DLNA clients to the new server, or find add-ins (such as the third-party drive replacements add-ins). At this point, though, you have all of the basics set up and ready to go.

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