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

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Microsoft's original Windows Home Server was both crude and groundbreaking. When it debuted, it had limited hardware support, no 64-bit version, and weak built-in capabilities beyond file and app storage. On the other hand, it offered robust backup, reasonable security, and drive extender--a feature that simplified the tasks of adding and pooling hard drives.

Because the original WHS was built on an older server platform, an update was inevitable. Windows Home Server 2011 has now arrived, and with it a bevy of new features--and one key feature of the older version removed. Let's start by looking at why WHS 2011 is a good fit for your home-server needs.

64-bit functionality: Windows Home Server 2011 is 64-bit only, but it's a welcome upgrade from 32-bit. Using 64-bit addressing lets you add more than 4GB of RAM.

With the original WHS, having a lot of RAM wasn't particularly useful. In fact, some retail WHS boxes shipped with as little as 512MB of RAM, and 1GB was the norm. That first Home Server wasn't very suitable for running apps remotely. Eventually, interesting plugins became available--like Servio, which enabled WHS to be a better media server.

Better media server: Windows Home Server 2011 has robust media transcoding and streaming capabilities, and it supports a wide range of codecs--AAC, AVCHD, DivX, MPEG-2, MPEG-4, WMV, and more. It's now a DLNA 1.5-compliant server, meaning that DLNA-capable client devices can connect to a WHS system set up as a media server. As more HDTVs, A/V receivers, and other similar home electronic devices ship with built-in DLNA client capability, combining a robust media server and a robust PC server in one box becomes increasingly useful.

The original WHS didn't have this capability built-in, so various media server plug-ins were among the most popular WHS plug-ins available. But those aren't needed any longer (though some may have additional features beyond those in WHS 2011.)

Windows 7 HomeGroups: You can add a WHS 2011 box to your HomeGroup, which makes sharing files and printers much easier. The only drawback is that there's setting up shares in this way results in a little granularity. You can have read access, full access, or no access.

Easier login management: Logging in to the first release of WHS was something of a chore. You could make things easier by using the same characters for your system login and for your account login on the server, and then enabling auto-logon on your PC. But setting up that arrangement on multiple PCs was tedious and created a security risk.

WHS 2011 uses an external application, the Dashboard, to separate PC logins from Windows Home Server logins. This allows you to have no login on your desktop PC while maintaining secure access to the server.

Easier server management: Managing the first WHS wasn't especially difficult, but you always had to work through a single, modal screen. With 2011, you get full support for windows on your desktop connected remotely. I ran Windows Update on the server from my desktop PC, and it looked just as it would have if I were running Windows Update on my local PC.

Why Not Use WHS 2011?

If you're comfortably using the current version of Windows Home Server, is upgrading to the new version worth the inevitable pain of adjustment? The answer depends on several things:

  • The importance you attach to the new features

  • The level of upgrade pain you're willing to live with

  • The usefulness to you of Drive Extender

Our assumption here is that you've either built your own WHS box or are a current user of a retail WHS system.

Drive Extender: The one huge feature that Microsoft dropped from WHS 2011 is Drive Extender. That decision has generated reams of complaints from heavy WHS version 1 users.

Drive Extender pooled multiple hard drives into a single large volume. It wasn't RAID--there was no hardware redundancy, and no improvement in performance. Essentially it was just a way to minimize the hassle of adding hard drives, which didn't have to be the same size, and of managing multiple disk volumes. But it made building huge volumes easy; and if you recorded a lot of media, that could be a big deal.

Though Drive Extender didn't create hardware redundancy as such (nor RAID 1, for example), you could specify duplication for shared folders, and the software would replicate folders on separate drives. That capability simplified the job of adding external drives and configuring them as part of the system.

So if you're wedded to Drive Extender, you might not want to migrate to WHS 2011.

The good news is that third parties are stepping into the fray. The site reports that at least three third-party drive extender drivers will be available for WHS 2011.

Upgrade pain: If you've been using WHS 1, and you've fully configured it with plugins for serving up media, home-power management, and other features, you may be in no hurry to migrate. That's because upgrades to WHS 2011 from the original aren't simple.

There is no clean upgrade path from WHS 1 to WHS 2011 because the first version of WHS is a 32-bit OS while WHS 2011 is 64-bit. Upgrading entails performing a clean install of the OS onto the system.

This procedure is a little tricky with existing hardware. A number of retail WHS systems were built around Intel Atom CPUs, and many of them didn't support 64-bit addressing, which means that they can never be upgraded to WHS 2011. The program requires 64-bit support in the CPU.

If you have a 64-bit-capable CPU, you'll have to back up all your data, then install WHS 2011, and then restore the backed-up data. It's time consuming and tedious if you have a lot invested in your current installation.

Now that we understand some of the pros and cons, let's walk through a WHS 2011 installation. This is not an upgrade, but a new install. I've got an existing WHS version 1 box, that I'll eventually phase out, but this makes upgrading to the new system somewhat easier, since I can skip the backup step.

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