Windows Home Server

winhomeserver-2In 2007, Microsoft announced and later released Windows Home Server as a way to improve data management around the home. Whilst the 1990s was a time when households may have purchased their first computer, the following decade saw an increase in multiple computers potentially leading to having your data all over the place, such as on USB memory sticks.

By 2010, I decided to have a home server. It was driven by storing internet downloads mostly, and so I built a rather modest Intel i3-based (1st-gen Westmere) PC for this task. My logic was that it would be a more useful and neater solution than purchasing several external USB hard disks over time. Among the parts to piece this PC together, was a copy of Windows Home Server purchased for under $100 AUD.

What was the point of Windows Home Server (WHS)? It’s primary role was for the most part a workgroup file server. Dump all your documents, photos, and media into one location, stream your media to other devices, automate and store backups for computers around the home, and access your files whilst you’re away.

As shown in this slide originally to cover Small Business Server 2008, WHS had been mentioned for the multi-PC home market. Services such as OneDrive (previously known as SkyDrive) and Azure were only in their infancy at this time, so the focus had still been all on-premise offerings. Ten years on, the strategic direction has been generally to push consumers from home up to mid-sized businesses to utilise Microsoft 365 cloud-based services.

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Slide from a Microsoft presentation circa 2008. Source: https://slideplayer.com/slide/9501653/

Exposure was relatively limited – either by a manufacturer, HP and Acer in particular who built small NAS-style systems with WHS preloaded, or via system builder OEM channels such as the copy I have. It was never a product people had rushed to buy, mostly filling a niche market among computer and technology enthusiasts.

For those that had a spare PC or enough parts lying around dormant, it also became a good opportunity to repurpose hardware. System requirements weren’t listed in the Getting Started Guide, though one could get by with a Pentium 4 or Athlon 64, 1 GB RAM, and a minimum 65 GB of hard disk space to get going.

WHS was really a crippled version of the fully fledged Windows Small Business Server 2003 with Service Pack 2 (Version 5.2.3790), and remnants of this is noticeable during installation. Not a big deal, though it lacks polish considering this wasn’t a beta release. For this post, I used VMware Workstation 15.0.2 set to a single core processor, with 1 GB RAM, and an 80 GB virtual hard disk drive. Creating the virtual machine with Workstation 15.x hardware compatibility mode caused Setup to crash early on during installation. Starting again and choosing Workstation 6.x mode proved to be a fail-safe option.


Installation

From a single DVD, installation is rather simple. Punch in your serial number, format your hard disks, give your server a name, and away you go. Setup without prompting created a 20 GB partition for Windows, whilst the remaining 60 GB was allocated for storing data on the hard disk. After a few restarts, Setup eventually requests for a new administrator password, and informs that you can now run the server in a headless state.

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Installing Windows Home Server.

Once installation completes, Internet Explorer loads up with a caution, stating that it’s best not to use the standard Windows Server variety of administration tools as it could potentially break your WHS installation. This appears each time thereafter when logging into the server directly, though can easily be removed.

Closing the browser, you’re presented with the desktop as below, with a rather Windows Vista inspired background.

Administrative tasks were completed using the Windows Home Server Console, a simplified dashboard to configure core functionality. Although some of the traditional tools as found in Windows Server 2003 are still about, these for the most part were somewhat crippled or not overly useful due to WHS’ lack of involvement with a network domain. You can still actually set up it as a domain controller by running DCPROMO.EXE, though requires some tweaking and doing so actually was against the end user license agreement (EULA).


Windows Home Server Console

The Windows Home Server Console is the focal point of managing your server, and is divided into four categories:

Computers & Backup

Initially blank, this is where all your home PCs are presented and for configuring their backups once the client connector software has been installed. Using the Backup Configuration Wizard allows for tailored backups for each PC – from complete drive volumes down to selecting the specific folders worth keeping in order to optimise disk space used. It only plays nicely with NTFS formatted volumes however.

User Accounts

Create user accounts for each of your family members, and whether no access, read only, or full access is required to each shared folder. There’s also the option to enable remote access to files via a web browser, and to connect to your PC’s desktop whilst you’re away from home. A Guest account was also available that required no password, for those that didn’t want to setup individual accounts.

Shared Folders

Lists all the folders available to be shared. Apart from personal folders for each user, the default folders include Music, Photos, Public, Software, and Videos. User access rights for each folder can be customised. Folder Duplication was an option to mirror the contents over multiple hard disks connected to the server, to safeguard from hardware failure. This relied on a rather unique feature to WHS that was known as Drive Extender, providing data redundancy and easy expansion of storage into a central pool. Instead of data filling up one hard disk and moving onto the next, data would be evenly distributed across all available hard disks. Home users wouldn’t need to think about drive letters or having to understand RAID and dynamic volumes. In March 2008 however it was discovered that there was a data corruption issue with Drive Extender, and users had to wait until June that year for a fix as part of Power Pack 1, essentially a service pack.

Server Storage

Provides a list of your hard disks physically connected, and was the place to either add or remove a hard disk from your storage pool. Drive Extender’s flexibility meant adding external USB drives could be added into the storage pool.

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Windows Home Server Console and its settings.

Additional configuration changes could be done via the Settings dialog box. Third-party add-ins were made available though choices were fairly limited. HP had some for instance with their MediaSmart Server, such as having the ability to check the system’s fans and temperature, and the ability to use iTunes as a service.


Connecting Your Home PCs

Home PCs could connect to the server’s shared folders just by knowing their UNC path, though the client connector software is what took advantage of WHS. This software required the PCs to be either running Windows XP with Service Pack 2, or Windows Vista, and had later worked with Windows 7. Installation could be done via CD-ROM or pointing to http://server:55000/ via your web browser, where ‘server’ was the name of the WHS system. During this process you’ll be asked whether to wake up your PC from sleep or hibernate mode in order to perform backups, otherwise only when the PC is on.

For the most part there’s little material difference, apart from the addition of another icon in your taskbar. From here, you may open up the WHS Console, commence a backup, change your password, or open shared folders available to you.


Conclusion

Initially I was rather enthusiastic with WHS, given the low price point and simplified server roles that were more appropriate for a household situation. Other Windows Server products were of interest to me, though are truly overkill and difficult to justify paying for. Later the second and final version, WHS 2011, was released. Once word got out in 2012 that this would be the end of the road for this product line, I thought what’s the point upgrading? Alternatively you’re left with vanilla Windows, and a mix of third-party tools for a similar purpose.

Microsoft suggested users to switch over to Windows Server 2012 Essentials, though given the significant price jump it wasn’t a convincing move. The key point of WHS was to keep it simple and accessible for those that understood the concept without the need to understand how Active Directory, or DHCP works.

By 2014, my original home server was replaced with an i5 (4th-gen Haswell) PC, with 32 GB RAM in which I have still been using to this day. The extra RAM is primarily to make use of Hyper-V virtual machines. Over time hard drives were slowly replaced with Western Digital Red’s with total storage capacity at 23 TB. Thanks to an IT course, I scored a legitimate license key for Windows Server 2012 Standard at no additional cost and has been used ever since. There’s no rush at the moment to do so, but when the time comes to upgrade not just the hard disks, I’m really left with Windows 10 Professional or some flavour of Linux at this point in time.

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