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Microsoft 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:
- Backups; automated system backups. I’m not sure we can acheive quite the same level of OS integration, but we can certainly get close.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!