Is Windows Home Server The Most Reliable Backup & File Server?

James Bruce 14-09-2011

windows home serverWindows 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.

That said and done, let’s look at the features provided by Windows Home Server 2011.


windows home server

Automated Backups

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.


home server

File Server

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.

home server

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.


Media Sharing

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.

windows home server

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 The Best PVR: Windows Media Center! Despite the perceived image of Microsoft as a lumbering beast with bloated software that ships full of bugs, they have actually produced some fine software over the years. Today I’d like to highlight Windows Media... Read More (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.

Related topics: Data Backup, Web Server, Windows 7.

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  1. Terry Aney
    September 29, 2011 at 1:44 am

    Which machines are actually available for purchase?  (if you have one, which do you have)  I have an Acer h340 with WHS1 on it.  I have a mix of Mac and Windows.  I had followed some (pretty technical) instructions I found from a blog and was able to make Time Machine back up to it, but after upgrading to Lion for Macs I can no longer backup Time Machine to WHS.  I'd love to purchase one (maybe leveraging some of the hard drives I have in my old WHS - understandably having to format them) so that I could...

    a) Back up Mac and Windows to it
    b) Have everything available for streaming/network access for XBOX and Apple TVs/iTunes
    c) Can you install Media Center and/or iTunes on it?  Currently I have a separate server running just so I can have those programs available...all I really need from Media Center is TV I'm open to options)
    d) Be able to backup the 'Backups of my machines' and selected files (i.e. Home Photos/Videos) to one of the specified hard drives so I can swap that weekly/monthly to make sure I have an offsite copy?

    I think a) and b) are a given based on comments/article.  Not sure on c) (especially the Media Center part) and I *really* want d).  I think there were some add-ins for WHS1 but I could never get them to work.

    Thanks in advance.

    • James Bruce
      September 29, 2011 at 8:53 am

      Hi Terry. I purchased an OEM licence rather than a complete machine, so I built it myself. 

      I believe you'll need to upgrade to WHS2011 if you want to backup lion as some other commenters have said, but I cant confirm if this works as I havent got that set up yet. 

      You should be able to install the OEM version on your Acer machine just fine, though it's a legal grey area. PErhaps upgrade the memory if you're worried about the legality. You certainly dont need to buy a whole new server. 

      a. yes, both, should be able backup
      b. xbox is fine, i dont have an apple tv to test though
      c. itunes - yes. Media center - no. I have the same difficultly myself right now (see my review of media center as the best PVR around). // . Unfortunately, MS just doesnt to put media center on their servers. 
      d. backup the backups... certainly possible, but is done as a backup of the entire server rather than individual client backups. you can select which bits of the server to actually backup though, if you wanted to exclude your downloads folder or something for example. im not sure how the server will behave when you take it out of the machine though - it tries to backup daily. if you set up a rotation and just ignored the backup errors though, it should work. 

  2. Danny Stieben
    September 16, 2011 at 1:59 am

    Windows Home Server doesn't have any hard drive space pooling as the first version, right?

    • muotechguy
      September 16, 2011 at 7:29 am

      Indeed it doesn't. Though I havent actually found it to be a problem as yet, and there are add-ons available form third parties to achieve the same feature, I think. 

  3. Dave
    September 15, 2011 at 11:43 am

    You should look at Windows Storage Server 2008 R2

  4. LD
    September 15, 2011 at 12:23 am

    Its not WIndows 7, Its Server 2008r2

    • muotechguy
      September 15, 2011 at 7:49 am

      Its based on NT6, same as server 2008, vista, and windows 7. For the sake of the majority of our readers, and the fact that both windows server 2008 and consequently WHS2011 have the same look and feel as Win7, I wrote that it's based on Win7. Perhaps "it's based on the same core tecnologies and look feel UI that underly Windows 7" would have been more technically accurate. 

      • LD
        September 16, 2011 at 1:42 pm

        Fair enough.

      • LD
        September 16, 2011 at 1:47 pm

        Oh, I know what else I wanted to say.  It seemed important to point out it is Server 2008 because at $50 you get a nearly fully featured version of a Server OS.  it can even be run as a domain controller (though is against the eula).

        • muotechguy
          September 17, 2011 at 9:32 am

          Great point, thanks. I wonder - is that a hack to get it to work as a domain controller, or is it built-in but just forbidden?

        • LD
          September 17, 2011 at 1:46 pm

          I haven't don it myself, but there's an article at howtogeek that explains the process.

  5. Anonymous
    September 14, 2011 at 7:27 pm

    Can I back up Macs and PCs in a mixed environment?

    • raygun
      September 14, 2011 at 7:55 pm

      Yes, it backs up Macs as well as PCs. Time machine compatible. Love it.