[Updated 9th February 2012 - please see comments for my answer re HP xw4400 and WHS 2011]
Windows Home Server is somewhat of a strange beast. It hasn’t exactly taken the world by storm, especially outside of the US in places like Australia, where – until relatively recently – it was available only as an OEM software license, and you had to build your own hardware. WHS is intended to be a pure OEM offering, as such – manufacturers like HP, Acer, et al, are meant to sell it to you within their own purpose built hardware, with value adds and nice little touches for good measure. HP, for example, delivered a range of extra add-ins in their bundle (no longer though – they abandoned the platform).
There still doesn’t seem to be a great penetration for WHS after some years. Microsoft haven’t really marketed it that heavily, and my experience is that not only have most consumers not heard of it, but neither have most computer retailers. Which is quite strange as we hit into the general availability of its second version, Windows Home Server 2011.
At its heart, Windows Home Server is a custom build of Windows Server. v1.0 was built on Windows Server 2003, while 2011 is based on the current Windows Server 2008 R2. Microsoft try to abstract the server’s workings from end users, by providing manageability from the clients using a Dashboard approach. The Dashboard is actually delivered via an RDP connection to the server. The theory is that you shouldn’t need to plug in a monitor, keyboard, or mouse to the WHS – just power and network connection.
WHS 2011 is somewhat controversial amongst existing WHS users, owing primarily to Microsoft’s decision to abandon Drive Expander in this version. The Drive Expander technology was intended to simplify how users managed their storage – they could more or less literally plug in a bunch of disks as they liked, and it would automatically use them. Nice, but it wasn’t really fault tolerant in any sense, and Microsoft had a rough time supporting it from the outset (stories of the first release and its ability to mysteriously lose data still abound). Microsoft’s idea is that people should instead take advantage of more readily available hardware redundancy, such as the RAID capabilities that Intel SATA controllers can provide. There’s some logic in this, but it also complicates things for the end user.
I don’t have the requirement for Drive Expander, but the backup functionality, central storage, and remote access definitely has its use to me.
I had access to the release of Windows Home Server 2011 via my MSDN subscription. It’s a good benefit, and one which was a long time in coming. I previously used the first release of Windows Home Server, until it was a casualty of a direct lightning strike to the house (which wasn’t stopped by surge protection). I definitely wanted to get WHS back up and running though, since we use it both for data storage and for centralised backup of all computers in the house. I was able to get hold of a HP xw4400 PC for the purpose, an x64-capable machine with 4Gb RAM and a 170Gb SATA HDD. I also salvaged the 1.5 Tb drive from the old WHS, since I was sure it was unaffected by the surge. I could make use of the inbuilt RAID capabilities, but I didn’t have redundant drives available right at the moment; I can always add them later.
Installation was much the same as any Windows Server or Windows 7 install. Within a matter of minutes, I had the Windows Home Server wizard prompting me to enter a few details. I found that a network connection was required for the wizard to run, even though it didn’t need an active Internet connection. Surprisingly, the wizard didn’t prompt to set a static IP address (which I would have expected), and was geared to getting you up and running as quick as possible.
WHS 2011 is built to work with IPv4 and IPv6, and I had no major problems. I did initially think that the software (apart from Windows itself) was build purely on IPv4 assumptions, but have had some evidence that it would work within a pure IPv6 environment as well – on the LAN, at least, but I’m not so sure on the Remote Web Access.
Maybe it’s a trick of memory, but the new Dashboard doesn’t seem that massively different from the old one. Maybe a little less cluttered, but it’s simple and includes only what’s essential to run. If you were expecting, for example, a migration wizard to import from an old WHS – forget it. There’s no upgrade path, and the whole thing is geared toward a new installation. You’ll find at first that there are a bunch of folders shared – no more Software folder, but the Users folder is, confusingly, retained in spite of them seemingly abandoning the user drive concept. The Users folder maps to the C:\Users folder, which seems fairly pointless since it maps to the user profiles; I disabled the share.
Logging into the WHS, I was able to see my 1.5Tb drive, with all the data intact, as F:. I found that I couldn’t just copy from the \Shares paths, but if I browsed to the hidden folder F:\DE, I’d see the “real” folders and files, and I could copy from there. I was able to recover all the data from the old WHS relatively easily, and then clear the drive for use on the new one.
Frankly, the server setup was relatively straightforward, and I’d hope that OEMs make this even simpler. I don’t expect migration to be made easier for anyone though.
Microsoft have moved the client setup from a network share approach to a web site based approached. By typing http://[WHS Server Name]/Connect in your browser, you get the option to install the WHS Connector on your PC or Mac. Yes, Mac support is included for clients! I found, though, that the setup is much more finicky than the old one; two computers refused to install because “an existing setup was in progress”, which I resolved by removing the PendingFileRenameOperations string from HKLM\SYSTEM\CurrentControlSet\Control\Session Manager. I also had problems when the WHS wasn’t working properly due to a problem with Home Group configuration conflicting with user based permissions, but once resolved I could progress.
The client still retains the little “network health” icon in your taskbar, but Microsoft also now introduce the “Launchpad”, a quick way to access your backups, remote web access, shared folders, and server dashboard. It’s nice, although some will want to find the option to disable it. I found that a user without WHS credentials can’t actually disable this – you have to enter valid credentials before you can get to the settings dialog. Hmm. At least the network health is expanded, looking at client updates, server backups, and so forth.
One of the new additions to WHS is the ability to use Home Groups to share data, much like with your Windows 7 clients. I discovered, though, that you really need to choose between Home Groups or user based share permissions – Home Groups take precedence, and in some cases, if you configure things in the wrong order, it can stop your WHS folders from being visible. Relatively easy to resolve, but I could see a consumer being completely confused. I wound up removing the WHS from the Home Group and electing to use the traditional user-based authentication. Home Groups are great if you don’t want to distinguish between individuals, but in some cases there’s data our kids don’t need to see.
As with WHS 1.0, 2011 can be configured as a Media Server, visible from any Windows Media Player or pretty much any compatible uPnP / DLNA software or device on the network. I found I had no problems setting quality to “Best” for video streaming, but this as always is dependent on your network speed and signal quality. Overall, network performance for file copying and video streaming seemed good, relying on the native Windows 2008 R2 and Windows 7 capabilities.
Remote Web Access setup is largely unchanged, relying on uPnP to configure the open ports required for remote access. If uPnP isn’t available to perform the configuration, you’ll have to configure several port forwarding rules manually. In my case, it worked fine with the Fritz!box. Remote Web Access a handy way to access your files, server, and computers, although of course there’s some crossover with free services like Live Mesh. In fact, given that (for example) we have a Windows 7 Home Premium install, which doesn’t support RDP, Live Mesh can be the superior option – since it still allows remote connection to that PC. The Remote Web Access site is more responsive and tidier, and the Silverlight video streaming is very nice indeed, and performs well in testing. I just can’t recommend it for remote desktop access when Live Mesh is SKU-independent. I’ll probably have to do a Windows Anytime upgrade to a higher SKU to allow remote access on that machine.
Backup remains one of the strongest points of the product. You can set it to take a daily backup of each client computer each night, even performing Wake on LAN to make computers available for backup as needed. I find that the backup functionality works well even over 802.11g and 802.11n connections – one of our notebooks has only 802.11g capabilities. The difference in operation from the previous version seems relatively minimal, and that’s fine – it worked, and worked well. It’s certainly saved me from grief before on failure of my daughter’s hard drive.
Importantly, Microsoft have thought about server backup this time around. Previously, backing up the server was a manual task, to be done when you thought of it. Now, however, it’s positively encouraged, with any HDD able to be set as a backup drive – and you can schedule those server backups. For myself, I’ll be plugging in a USB hard drive once I’ve replaced the one that blew up.
Like with WHS 1.0, one of the selling points is the ability to install addins to enhance functionality. One of my favourites was always TiVo Publisher, which allowed me to send videos to my TiVo across the network. Sadly, it appears that you need WHS 2011 compatible plugins, so I’ll have to hope it gets updated. I wasn’t a huge consumer of plugins, but this was one I loved to have handy; there’s a number to choose from already for 2011, and I’ll definitely be looking for some.
I’d like to see more functionality in WHS 2011 natively, like inbuilt proxy server, WSUS functionality, Live Mesh synchronisation, Microsoft Security Essentials for WHS, and so on … but these are certainly where plugins can come in. There are antiviruses for Windows Home Server, cloud backup apps, and more; but it seems silly not to have more value added functionality in the base offering. And why Microsoft wouldn’t at least put their own antivirus on the platform is beyond me.
You can, of course, also install apps directly to the server (although MS of course will doubtlessly recommend against it). So you could possibly use server apps like Forefront TMG, if it will install, and install system services like WSUS and the like, to get missing functionality. But this is typically beyond the end user.
I do like WHS in general, although I can’t say what Microsoft really hope to achieve with it. It just doesn’t seem to be an easily marketable product. There’s not much to it, in and of itself, and while I appreciate its utility, a lot of people would most likely go “huh?” and wander off. I’ll continue to happily use it, with the backup functionality and so forth being invaluable, but I can’t see this being a major product anytime – unless a third party steps up and makes something special to work with it. Perhaps this will be the last version of WHS that we’ll see, but only time will tell.
The move to Windows 2008 R2 and incremental updates to the software are certainly welcome. It’s not an amazing and awe inspiring update though. It’s largely more of the same, to the extent that I didn’t really see the point of screenshots. I do wonder who Microsoft’s market is with this though – it seems to me that the Technet Plus and MSDN subscribers – geeks, in short – are the most likely to use and gain benefit from it. It certainly doesn’t seem like a viable consumer product. But who knows .. if they can find a major partner to replace HP and add major value, and encourage the addin developer community, and market it … maybe.
Ramble my followings on Twitter: @OhCrap
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