Home is where the server is

27 04 2009

It’s time to make good on my threat to post about home technology.  This post will be part of a series about stuff that makes my technical home life functional, yet very geeky.  It’s a mix of things that anyone with a small office / home office (SOHO) might enjoy using.  Some of it may save your bacon.  Even if it’s Canadian.

Just to get some affiliations out there – I don’t have particular allegiances, but typically I’m Microsoft-centric these days.  I do maintain a Mac (a post on that later), iPod, and used to have some Linux boxes around.  So I’m no stranger to any of that.

Why you need a Windows Home Server

This is a product that Microsoft got right.  There are others as well (Microsoft OneNote, and I’ll post about that later).  But I digress.

A stay at home server is right for you.  Be sure to check out the children’s books for those inevitable questions.

I was on the early adopter program for Windows Home Server (from here on, we’ll call it WHS).  No, it is not perfect, but it does so much of what I want to do, that I can overlook some warts.  What’s more, their Power Pack releases have actually fixed bugs (something you might have heard Bill Gates talk about) and introduced new, valuable features.

In my family and circle, I’ve been an evangelist for WHS.  Let me give you a couple mundane, yet valuable reasons why.

Effortless security and backup

If you’re a PC family, it enforces a couple good, but neglected practices like setting a username and password for your PC and doing backups for you.  Once each user has an identity, the WHS client backs up your stuff quickly and easily.  Even over a wireless 802.11g network.

There are ways to back up Macs too, but it’s not as seamless.  It does take advantage of WHS’ folder duplication and, if you do it right, you can copy the files over to an external USB drive in case of a catastrophic Mac failure (it happens) and restore your Mac in no time using Disk Utility.

WHS in practice – upgrade to a new hard drive in 30 minutes*

If you’re a tech geek, you know that you are “green” in that you keep old hardware running forever by just swapping out components when you need an upgrade.

On my Fujitsu T4220 Tablet PC, I did just that.  Using my WHS, I was able to install a new 320GB SATA drive and be back running in 30 minutes*.

How?

  1. Run a final backup of your system to WHS (inspect your settings to ensure you are actually backing up all the folders you need)
  2. Make sure you have your WHS restore / boot CD (or a bootable USB stick) handy
  3. Pop in your new drive
  4. Hook your machine to a wired LAN connection so it can quickly access your WHS
  5. Boot from the WHS restore CD – it will allow you to format and partition your drive if you haven’t done so yet
  6. Choose your most recent backup, point it at your new C: partition
  7. Sit back and relax for 30 minutes – you deserve it

* OK, so the partitioning and formatting of a 320GB drive takes a LOT longer than it should.  But the restore process was actually about 30 minutes for an 80GB partition (which was migrated to a 130GB partition on the new drive).

Making the bootable USB stick is fairly easy and I can explore that in another post if needed.  This is a MUST if you have a netbook.

WHS in practice – how it saved my relationship with my parents

When NewEgg was running a special on HP’s MediaSmart WHS box, I badgered my dad into buying it (plus an extra hard drive).  It was unbelievably low priced, but it sat in a box for 2 months after he got it delivered.

His home network has one bug that I can’t figure out – all local hostname lookups get sent out for public DNS resolution.  So a local lookup ALWAYS goes out to the Internet, and of course, fails.

The cure for that was making a \windows\system32\drivers\etc\hosts file entry for the WHS box.  That made WHS happy.

Fast forward to a time when my mom’s new laptop had a catastrophic Vista boot failure.  BSOD’s right after boot, no matter what mode we booted into.

We have no idea why this happened.  It wasn’t a virus, new hardware, or anything detectable.  The Vista recovery process, though seemingly thorough, didn’t uncover a fix.  It would still BSOD on each boot.

I finally asked my dad:

“When was your last backup?”

“Um… 3 days ago.”

“Anything interesting happen on that PC since then?  New files?  Photos?”

“Nope.”

So, over the phone, he and I created a restore CD to bring the laptop back to life. Once we disconnected his router from the Internet (the name resolution problem came back without the hosts file entry), he was up and running in 30 minutes.

Then we did a much longer chkdsk /b /f etc. to find disk errors and re-map bad blocks.

Suddenly that WHS purchase paid for itself.

New stuff to do with your WHS

I will post later on about how to leverage the power of WHS, Live Mesh, Windows Live Photo Gallery, Hamachi, OneNote, Media Center and VNC all together within WHS.  So stay tuned.

Windows Home Server should become the hub of your digital life.  It’s especially valuable if you have an XBox 360 or a TV that supports the DLNA media protocol (which allows you access to pictures and media on WHS from your TV).

The things WHS does above and beyond Apple’s Time Machine and a Drobo are worth the minor complexity of getting it set up.

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5 responses

27 04 2009
zachishi

Always seemed like a great solution to me. Maybe I will put one together with a leftover machine. Does it take any really computing power or is this something i can run on a white box. Oh and I already have Nas in place, can these two co-exist?

27 04 2009
spackle

I totally scavenged together a box I had lying around the house. It can be a fairly minimal machine. And, since you control the hardware, you can add some goodies like extra controllers, or a card reader. I have mine set up so that I can dump photos to my shares directly to the machine. All it requires for management their console and remote desktop (after your install is done).

I think it can learn to love a NAS, but I’m not sure how they exactly play together. All the RAID the WHS does is software, not hardware. When you plug in new storage, WHS just asks if you want it to become part of its pool. If you say yes, it munches the drive and then rebalances the storage across all your disks.

28 04 2009
Home Is Where Home Server Is « MS Windows Home Server

[…] The first part in the series explains why you need a WHS and the writer explains how it saved his relationship with his parents, which you can read here. […]

4 05 2009
Brian Eukel

Interesting – may have to give it a try.

4 05 2009
Scott

Thanks for the article. Looking forward to your future WHS-related articles.

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