Replace Windows Home Server With These Great Free Tools

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windows home serverMicrosoft has been implementing big changes lately, and none of them are sitting too well with me. If you’re as jaded as I am about the $50 Windows Home Server being killed off – replaced by the $450 Windows Server Essentials – then fear not; you can get pretty much all the same functionality from these awesome free tools, and not give Microsoft a penny in the process.

First off, let’s establish what Windows Home Server was awesome at:

  1. Backups; automated system backups. I’m not sure we can acheive quite the same level of OS integration, but we can certainly get close.
  2. Media streaming and file server; a rock solid file server that’s going to give you OS-independant DLNA media streaming to devices and computers.

I’m going to assume these are the main functions you’re after, though I’m sure there were more features.

So, what can you use instead?



CrashPlan is a paid cloud backup service, but they also have a free cross-platform app to manage backups, which you can use to setup a remote, personal backup system. Basically, you install the app and allocate a portion of your local drive; then on a separate machine, you install the app again, and tell it to backup to the first machine. You can use this for your own machines; or you can set up a buddy system with some friends, whereby you each backup to each other. Which is really pretty awesome when you think about it: read Matt’s full tutorial here.

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windows home server

Windows 7 native system imaging

If you’re running anything other than the Home edition, Windows 7 actually already has a system imaging function built in; you can store these images on a network drive as long as it’s formatted with NTFS, then use this image to fully restore a broken machine later. It’s not quite as slick as the backup and restore that you get with WHS, but it’s the closest you’re going to get (for free).

Download Tina’s free guide on Backup and Restore: Stuff Happens, for a complete walkthrough.

Media Streaming


Plex is still my favourite media streaming server and app; I’ve written about it before, but let’s go over the basic features that makes Plex one big bundle of awesome:

  • The server app runs on Windows, Linux and Mac. There are even versions for ARM-based ReadyNAS network servers.
  • Clients for Mac and Windows are free; iOS and Android clients costs $5.
  • Plex acts as a DLNA server for devices like smart TVs, Roku player, Xbox 360 and PS3.
  • Plex server scans a folder for new files; when it finds them, it promptly looks up artwork and other meta-data from a variety of sources. This has about 95% accuracy, so most of the time it’s hands-off in terms of having to micro-manage your movies and media.
  • Plex is beautiful. It looks fantastic on a 50″ TV and works great with the Apple remote.
  • Plex also has an interesting social / online component to it. You can use this to both queue videos you find around the web to watch later; and open up specific parts of your media collection for your friends to be able to view.

We have a free Plex PDF guide to get your started.

windows home server software

XBox Media Center (XBMC)

Originally for the Xbox but now cross-platform, XBMC is a networked media client; rather than the Plex approach of having a central server that manages your media, XBMC runs locally on your media center and reads files from a remote source (or a local source, or a DVD etc). This has the advantage of being able to use it with any old networked filestore. Why choose XBMC over Plex? Essentially, it’s a lot more hackable. to put it simply though: Apple fans -> choose Plex; Linux users -> choose XBMC. You should also know that Plex was originally a fork of XBMC, so they share a lot of the same roots.

We’ve got quite a few articles to help you get started XBMC.

windows home server software


Complete Replacements

If you’re looking for a more complete, feature rich solution to replace the nitty gritty parts of Windows Home Server, then consider these complete OS solutions; these will need your entire server machine though. Both of these are linux based; this means you have the advantage of being able to run anything that runs of linux, too, in case you wanted a machine for tinkering.


A feature rich solution for all your server needs:

  • Smart disk monitoring, with LVM and RAID.
  • Email notifications of system events
  • Debian package management and custom ‘plugin’ system
  • Web-based administration
  • User management and authentication
  • Network link aggregation

Despite the name, it doesn’t come with DLNA media streaming out of the box – you’ll need to install one using the plugin system, but this isn’t a huge task.

windows home server software


Amahi is much the same as OpenMediaVault, but I would say it’s more consumer friendly, media oriented, and includes an “app store” for add-ons. I had some success at getting pooled data drives up and running and wrote some tutorials on Amahi about a year ago, but I expect improvements have been made since then too.

windows home server

Have we missed any of your favourite tools? What did you replace Windows Home Server with; or did you just give up on the whole server idea and move everything to the cloud? Sound off in the comments!

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30 Comments - Write a Comment


Edward Bellair

Nice. Now I can test all and see which I like or just work on ubuntu for it all. Thank you. Any recommendations?



great tools, i’ll try them ..



I used my Windows Home server for backup and as a media server for several years. However, when I finally needed to restore, I ran into the “81% problem” (google it),
So now my server PC runs Ubuntu Server 12.04 LTS. File shares are handled by Samba, media is served by Logitech Media Server (Apple Lossless music for my squeezebox) and MiniDLNA (for the rest). Access from the outside is handled by NeoRouter (highly recommended). As for backup, I use the builtin backup program and send the backup to the personal file share. Besides that I also backup the most important stuff in the cloud.


Richard Borkovec

I can’t believe they’ve gotten rid of the Home Server and replaced it with the $450 version. Holy cow! Guess this just makes the free Linux versions that much more tantalizing. :)



I have been running Amahi very happily for some years now. I was so pleased I bought a dedicated server and stuck it under the stairs. It handles the basics of what you need from a home server with simplicity and assurance and delivers a raft of ‘one-click install’ applications to extend the usefulness of your server. It hosts my blog for example.

I can only recommend one thing. Although the team have done a fantastic job of porting Amahi to the Ubuntu platform I would avoid it at all costs, especially if you intend to use LinuxRAID. Fortunately development has not ceased on their Fedora based offering, which is reassuringly rock solid.


Dimal Chandrasiri

XBMC looks kinda the solution I need! :D


yes i been using it ever since xbox times and it great on so many way



not sure why MS took such a drastic step. May be they are only thinking of businesses, who could afford to shell out $450.


Why sell something for $50 when you can sell it for $450? It’s the Apple business model – When you have devoted groupies, soak them for all they are worth.



I shall carry on using WHS1 for backing up W7 machines, file serving and media streaming to Sonos. We are mixed platform here: Mac OX and Windows. The Macs can use the file server perfectly well, even in Mountain Lion. But Time Machine does not work for backups so I am looking at CrashPlan as a means of backing up to the WHS1.

Also I back up Shares on the main WHS1 to a second WHS1 using SyncBack (2BrightSparks). Does it nicely in the background.

Eventually I shall look to move to Synology for all server functions including Time Machine. Not so sure about Mountain Lion Server…..


David Jones

I’ve installed Plex on my shiny new Win7 computer and can send content to TV via Roku. However, due to encryption, I can’t transfer my DVD movies to my hard drive. :( This is especially frustrating as my DVD player broke recently and I was hoping to use Plex to replace it. Despite this major frustration, I can use Plex to send YouTube videos to TV (no longer YouTube Roku channel) and Music CDs.

Any suggestions for decrypting? I’ve tried HandBrake, DVD43, DVDshrink, but the readily-available versions don’t decrypt.

I’m not a pirate, honest! I just want to xfer my legitimately-obtained movies to my hard drive!

James Bruce

Hmm, odd that those tools didn’t work for you. The sad truth is that you’re screwed as a legitimate owner of that content. My best advice: download them instead – not only will you get better quality, but it’ll be DRM free. Obviously, that isn’t legal though, so make sure you cover your tracks with a VPN.


I have a very similar situation with W7 and ripping my DVDs. My work around: I run Linux OS in a virtual machine and rip to my second shared drive on my W7 box. This allows me to rip my dvd collection hassle free. Now I can fire up my quite little Roku box, Ipad or Andriod phone and watch my dvds from anywhere in the house.

Me Again

I figured out how to decrypt! I stumbled onto the solution accidentally. I use DVDFab to decrypt, HandBrake to compress, and since Plex for Roku apparently doesn’t handle stacked files, I need Format Factory to merge into one file. Takes a long time for multi-DVD videos!

Bart H

I use DVDFab ver8 to RIP my original movies into MP4 format or KVM format and store the files on an external 4TB drive I have put my original DVD disks in “off site storage” to prevent damage to them. with a fast machine it will take about 15 to 30 min to rip. Also the “Handbrake” programs rips well. It is enjoyable not to have to dig out the disks to watch a movie or TV show.


Kannon Y

This is one of the most useful articles I’ve read recently. You might not remember this, but you actually helped answer this exact question of mine in the Answers section last year. Thanks again, by the way. Your advice was extremely helpful.

Right now I’m using the streaming feature within XBMC, which works great, but am really looking forward to making greater use of Plex.

The one thing about Windows backup that I couldn’t really stand is the length of time it takes to perform a backup. Server’s backup implementation is elegantly done, seamlessly running backups in the background – whereas the integrated Backup in W7 requires massive system downtime. Still, it’s better than nothing.

Thanks again for the great article!



can you put a server on your main windows 7 ultimate machine or turn it into a server and use it to or is it just a server for everyone in the family to hook to because i have a copy of windows home server 2011 i bought along time ago and never figured it out.
anyone help dont want to mess up my only desktop computer with all the external harddrives and have nothin to use but 3 laptops

James Bruce

You can’t run it *on top of* an existing installation, however you *can* use a WHS2011 machine as an actual workstation – it is just Windows 7 underneath after all. However, you may need to fiddle around initially to get internet explorer to allow you to download a better browser (it runs by default in a very restricted mode); and it goes without saying that using a server as a workstation isn’t really recommended. I wouldnt even try gaming on it, for instance.



Gave my the push to see is XBMC is the ticket. Can’t understand MS *not* wanting you to be able to watch a movie. Now Apple on the other hand with iTunes store, I get.


Jobeth Madrilejos

im using plex and i like it very much!


daniel dawson

Paying $450.00 for a windows home server ,it would be better to build your own.



FREENAS I think should really be mentioned in this list. If we’re talking file storage and sharing on a home network, its probably a more popular option than Amahi or Mediavault.

For the more technically inclined Ubuntu Server is a definite contender. Free, stable, and very powerful.



Interesting article but I’ve just upgraded to whs2011 plus DriveBender.
This combination gives me a better experience than whsV1 in every way. Running on a HP Microserver, it is fast and stable – very pleased.
Also remember that whs2011 runs on top of Windows Server 2008 which is a real server operating system in its own right. You can take advantage of all the facilities this brings – run databases, WordPress, whatever you want – completely independent of whs. Pick up a dummy’s guide and take control! :)


“Windows Server 2008 which is a real server operating system in its own right”
And Ubuntu Server or CentOS linux are chopped liver?


As opposed to WHS2011, like the comment says.


Keith Swartz

Wow! Good article! Lots of stuff to put on my to-check-out-list to check out! Thanks MakeUseOf!



Been using Ubuntu server for a long time. Currently using v12.04 LTS.
1 – I use Samba to share files (mapped to) my Windows laptop and NFS4 (auto mounted in fstab) to share files with my Ubuntu laptop.
2 – You can easily share printers via Samba as well but my printers are wi-fi so not necessary.
3 – Subsonic to stream music and movies to my Android phone and tablet. Also streams to any browser both in the house and over the internet.
4 – I use Tonido as my own personal cloud so I can access my files via a browser over the web or from my Androids.
5 – I use the built-in Ubuntu Backup and SyncBack on the Windows laptop.

Tried Plex but it was too slow and seemed cumbersome to navigate a large media collection.
Tried Boxee in the past and also slow and cumbersome.


super duper

i always wanted to build my own media server. any suggestions for which one to choose from among these servers?


Not really. Those are mostly dedicated hardware devices, which are quickly out of date, lose features or incompatible with the latest OSes. Better off using an actual computer which you can update and upgrade components etc.


Vishal Srivastava

Damn, I’m running Windows 7 Home basic. Will definitely try Amahi.

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