Windows Home Server is one of those obscure Microsoft products that you never knew you needed. It’s rock solid reliable, simple to manage with a familiar Windows interface, and my personal choice for a home file server and backup solution. Let me explain what it is and what it can do for you.
What Is Windows Home Server?
Based upon Windows Small Business Server 2008, Windows Home Server is a consumer-focused server operating system with Windows 7 at the core. It’s been hardened on the security front, slimmed down on the desktop features, and performs a variety of tasks that can really simplify your home computing life. It’s designed to be left alone in a cupboard, constantly on and working, but you can still run a lot of regular Windows software if you want. Full remote access is provided so you can log in and manage your server from any client in the house (or over the Internet).
In hardware terms, if it runs Windows 7 relatively well it will run WHS2011 just fine too, though if you’re building your own machine I’d suggest skimping on the graphics card and getting more memory instead.
Cost – & The Alternatives
Before I start introducing you to features, let me say upfront that Windows Home Server 2011 costs $49.99 if you purchase an OEM license – which means you’ll have to build the computer yourself that you plan to install it on. Legally, you shouldn’t buy OEM versions if you’re installing it onto an existing computer, but I’ve also heard it said that simply changing one of the cables or upgrading the memory classifies you as a “system builder” and therefore qualifies as OEM.
If you’re interested in purchasing a complete, ready built home server computer (usually with a wonderfully small form factor), check out the hardware section of the Microsoft site. The HP MediaSmart is a popular choice, and costs from $400 to $1,000 on Amazon. Of course, there are free alternatives that handle all the features that Windows Home Server can, and possibly more – but personally I find the complete package that Home Servers offers to be more reliable and less of an effort to maintain.
- Amahi Linux is the most feature rich alternative, but the file duplication options aren’t quite there yet.
- FreeNAS is a solid fileserver / router linux distro, definitely for advanced users only. I plan to write an updated article on it, but for now we covered it once before in 2009.
- We regularly cover backup solutions.
- You could “roll your own server” with Ubuntu Linux, which could run on older hardware too.
That said and done, let’s look at the features provided by Windows Home Server 2011.
One of the main concerns of home users is how to implement a decent backup system. For me, this means full data backup, as well a bootable system backup so I can be up and running again soon. If you have more than a few PCs in your house, managing all those backups becomes a constant mess of USB drives and various free apps to handle bootable partitions and…..well let’s just say it’s just a big hassle that I don’t need. WHS handles backing up all your PCs and data with such simplicity, it’s hard to believe it’s a Microsoft product.
Once connected to the server, your computer will be set to back up automatically. That’s it. You can view all the connected PCs from the WHS dashboard and adjust settings for backup frequency or when to delete old backups, but the defaults are fine and it all just works.
In the event of a catastrophic drive failure on that machine, you need only change the drive for a working one, and boot from the supplied WHS recovery CD. All your data and system will then be restored in just a few clicks, over the network, from either the most recent backup set or any archived sets.
With full user access control, WHS is the most reliable file server I’ve used yet. It also gives you the option to backup those file shares, of course.
Yes, you could just share some folders from any Windows 7 PC, but as anyone with home networking experience knows, the results don’t always work as expected. It’s difficult to set up fine-grained access control without a central user server.
As well as a secure file store for your media, WHS also allows to share your media with any standard DLNA device – the Xbox 360 for instance. Not limited to your home network only either, you can access your media remotely too over the internet – to show relatives a slideshow for example. You can also upload files to your server which is useful if you’re out on a long holiday.
Admittedly, movie streaming isn’t a feature I use often and various codecs can present a problem.
One minor useful feature for me is the ability to automatically archive shows and movies from your Windows Media Center (another fantastic Microsoft product I highlighted last week). This means you can keep all your media centralised and avoid having to put huge drives into your living room HTPC.
It’s Windows 7!
One of the problems with customised Linux distros is the fact that an entire computer is given over to the task, and all other little Windows apps I like to run suddenly need Linux alternatives. Not so with Windows Home Server, as it’s still a functional Windows environment. However, Home Server doesn’t run some of the more advanced Windows components and isn’t suitable for gaming, for instance. Media Center is noticeably absent.
I do hope you consider using Windows Home Server to handle your homes file and backup needs, but there will always be free alternatives if you’re prepared to put in the time and effort to make it all work. If you have any questions about Home Server I’d be happy to answer them in the comments, or as ever feel free to share your own choice for home backup and file servers – I’d especially like to hear of any complete solutions that are relatively easy to set up. In the coming weeks, I’ll highlight some of the add-ins (plugins?) available for WHS2011 too, that add even more functionality to your server.