Windows Home Server and the Hamachi Surprise*

18 05 2009

Synchronizing your digital life is a necessity in today’s modern world.  When you work for a company with a good IT department, you can keep up with the mothership using a collection of software applications and Virtual Private Networks (VPN’s).

But, let’s say you’re at home.  Maybe you have a home office, or maybe you just need to access stuff from your computers at home once in a while.  There are many options that can help you get the job done (and everyone has their own preference).  I’m going to talk about the way(s) I do it.

Use what you’ve got

If you have a Windows Home Server (WHS), then you may have seen the Remote Access section of the console screen.  I’ve set this up and have been able to upload and download files to and from my WHS when on the go.  Same goes for family members for whom you set up an account (to share files, pictures, etc.).

You can even get Remote Desktop access to any of your computers that have the WHS Console installed (and are currently online).  There’s also Live Mesh (in a later post), LogMeIn (related to Hamachi), and GoToMyPC… and many more.

Make it stick

Something I found helpful in my WHS setup was to permanently fix a few variables in order to make sure everything runs just right.  In particular, WHS will take advantage of a Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) router and automatically configure the settings it needs in order to participate in the outside world.

My router is UPnP enabled, but it doesn’t always remember its settings.  That meant my WHS would drop out of sight until I got back home.

The fix for this is easy.  All you have to do is get into your router configuration screen for the “Applications” or “Virtual Server” (each router is different) and permanently enable “Port Forwarding” to WHS.  Port forwarding isn’t that hard.  I don’t know why all these sites make it sound like a mystery.

If you have a UPnP router and enable WHS’ remote access, you will probably see some automatic port forwarding that WHS has already done for you.  To make it stick, help WHS by doing the following:

  • Copy down the entries from WHS in the router’s Port Forwarding or Applications area.  There should be a few different entries like Port 443, Port 80 and 4125.
  • Give your WHS a fixed IP address on your network by manually setting your WHS’ network adapter’s IP address (some routers let you hand out the same DHCP address all the time just by clicking a button).
  • If you change your WHS’ IP address, update your port forwarding settings.

This guarantees that your configuration won’t change if you reboot any of your equipment.  Also, it’s a server, it shouldn’t be roaming around your network, right?

Advanced topics in remote access

Here’s where things get interesting.  Getting files through the remote WHS interface is OK, but not all that flexible.  So, what I’ve done for many years is use my own VPN to get remote access.  Using a free application called Hamachi, you can get access to more of each machine’s services.  In particular, you can:

  • Connect to a Remote Desktop directly (without going through WHS)
  • Set up VNC on your machines for remote access (I can explain why in another post)
  • Browse shared folders using Windows Explorer on your remote computer
  • See if machines are online or not
  • Map a drive to a folder share on the Hamachi network

Hamachi is a secure (see Open Source comment below), reliable, and zero configuration VPN.  It is free, but also has some paid options which might be attractive.  It is not Open Source which irks some people.

Installing Hamachi on each machine you want to access remotely just takes a few clicks.  Here are some tips for best results:

  • Choose an inordinately LONG password for your Hamachi netowrk (and write it down).  You are, after all, exposing your home network to the big bad world.
  • Open Remote Desktop on your WHS and install Hamachi directly on that machine.
  • When Hamachi gives you the option, choose “Run Hamachi as a Service” on your WHS machine, or any machine with multiple users.  This ensures you will have access to it at all times.
  • Choose descriptive names for your machines so you know which is which.  Sometimes these machine names don’t quite resolve into their IP addresses well, so be sure to display each machine’s Hamachi IP address in the client window for easy, direct IP address access.

Now add OneNote

Remember how I said I synchronized my OneNote Shared Notebooks to WHS when I was at home or on the go?  The secret ingredient is Hamachi.  If you’ve already mapped your drive letter to the OneNote Shared Notebook location on your WHS, all you have to do when you’re on the road is:

  • Start Hamachi
  • Let it log in
  • Open My Computer on your computer
  • Double-click your OneNote shared drive (it will say “Disconnected” at first)
  • The drive will open up if you are connected to Hamachi

Once the shared drive opens, OneNote is ready to go!

There’s still more to cover here, so if you want clarification on one point or another, I will be happy to expand it in a later post.  Hopefully this gives you some pointers on how to keep more of your digital life in sync!

* if you wonder what the surprise is, I just thought it sounded like an old Bud Light ad.

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8 responses

19 05 2009
welchwerks

Thank you, you explained with ease, works great

22 05 2009
Installing VPN Software on WHS « MS Windows Home Server

[…] From making the settings "stick" to connecting to the WHS remote desktop directly (without going through WHS), this great post can be read here. […]

22 05 2009
MS Windows Home Server » Blog Archive » Installing VPN Software on WHS

[…] From making the settings "stick" to connecting to the WHS remote desktop directly (without going through WHS), this great post can be read here. […]

16 06 2009
Opera Unite + Windows Home Server? « Spackle

[…] Unite + Windows Home Server? 16 06 2009 I’ve gotten a lot of hits on my article about how I extended my Windows Home Server (WHS) with Hamachi.  I use Hamachi because I need a more direct way to interact with my WHS content away from […]

3 08 2009
Nick

I discovered your blog today, and find the articles highly informative and interesting. I must say that I disagree somewhat with this post. I prefer to have as few points of failure as possible. Hamachi creates this by funneling all data through third-party servers. To avoid this isn’t it better to run a VPN server on the WHS? Folder sharing, VNC, and remote access will all work without Hamachi as they are all built or easily added into (most versions of) Windows.

3 08 2009
spackle

Hi Nick, thanks for stopping by! Glad some of it was of use to you.

It is true that Hamachi will route the connection request to its servers when you try to resolve the network list at startup. However, Hamachi is Peer to Peer in its connections, so they don’t become a traffic bottleneck when it comes to throughput. You can see this if you transfer files from outside your house and inside your house via the Hamachi network. There will be a noticeable difference in speed when you’re on the same network (even when using the Hamachi IP address).

Of course, if Hamachi’s name resolution servers go down, you’ve got your point of failure right there… the same is true for a DynDNS.org service as well (and the built-in remote access provided by Microsoft). Basically, to find your WHS box (if you don’t spring for a fixed IP address), you will need some sort of way to resolve its location on the Internet.

So running a VPN server on your WHS system would render similar benefits to Hamachi. It would be a different configuration, and some of these solutions cost money. Hamachi uses the native Windows services to do file sharing, and of course VNC can work with or without a VPN. It all depends on how much you want to configure and port forward through your firewall.

I’ve used Hamachi for years without an issue, but I know that many people would rather go a different route for a variety of reasons. I think that it (or something similar) should just be built into WHS. The remote access is OK, but if you had access to all the services on your network with no configuration, that would be really cool.

Thanks again!

4 08 2009
Nick

Wow, thanks a bunch for the quick and thorough response. (I don’t mean to turn the comments section into a forum, nor do I mean to debate or flame, so please tell me to stop if it’s not ok.)

When transferring files within a LAN while using the Hamachi service won’t the bottleneck then become your download speed as opposed to the wiring (or wirelessing…. if it’s a word) of your network? Also, how does peer to peer increase the speed of a transfer between two computers. I was under the impression that multiple computers that shared the file were what made P2P an efficient method of data transfer.

I always forget how spoiled I am to have a (semi-)static IP address. My router has always reserved the address for me so I’ve avoided setting up a DynamicDNS address for everything except my WHS. I also run the VPN server from my router, so if the VPN is down I can be sure that my network is inaccessible since my router would be down as well.

When I mentioned running the VPN from the WHS, I meant the built in support. Granted it only uses PPTP, but do you think that for the average user it is a simple and secure enough method of create a VPN?

Thanks for responding,
-Nick

4 08 2009
spackle

Hi Nick,
I think we’re on the same page. I think if Microsoft wants WHS to be the “center” of your digital life, building in a zero configuration VPN is exactly what needs to happen. I see in Windows 7 they have this concept of a “sharing group”, but it’s unclear to me whether or not that grouping of computers can traverse a firewall when you’re on the road. It seems to act like a mini-domain with the media and file sharing stuff enabled easily.

That’s one reason I thought Opera Unite might be interesting. If you can share pictures with the parents in a click or two, that’s about the level of complexity most people would accept. But, ease of use can’t compromise security…

But you’re exactly right about the bottleneck with Hamachi. It’s whatever your connectivity limit is for the slowest computer’s connection that’s involved in your file transfer. I was just pointing out that the Hamachi servers themselves play no part in the actual data transfer.

Hamachi is Peer to Peer in the sense that once the VPN connection is established, it’s as though the computers are on the same network, no matter what’s physically between them (i.e. data doesn’t have to go through any more hoops than necessary – like a gateway server or something). If you look at a project like TOR, it purposely routes traffic all over the place in order to decrease its traceability. So that costs throughput, but its objectives are different.

Hamachi’s not P2P in the BitTorrent sense though. Live Mesh is more like that actually (if you are copying files to and from multiple computers). Mesh will actually figure out if one of its members is on a local network and adjust its transfer settings accordingly (e.g. if you share files to your cloud-based storage and two computers on the same network, it will replicate the data from the fastest source instead of hitting up the slowest peer).

Thanks for stopping by Nick. It’s good to know someone’s out there reading. No worries about clarifying or questioning. I can’t possibly claim to know exactly how everything’s working or the best possible scenario for everyone’s situation… I’m just reporting on what has worked for me (and I have to admit, once it works, I don’t usually go back and fix it for a while 😉

TTFN
Gregg

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