Weekend Project: Building a Windows Home Server (Part 2)

Posted by Minnaar Pieters 28 Sep 2009

In my previous post I described my hardware choices when building my new Windows Home Server, something that I am handling as a weekend project. I am still using the HP ML110 G5 server, with 4Gigs of ECC RAM. I also upgraded the 250Gig HD to a new 500Gig Seagate drive - a nice quick one with 16 meg cache and 7200rpm speed. The 250Gig is now a secondary drive a use for folder duplication - but more on that later.

When doing these upgrades I was once again reminded about why some people insist on buying dedicated hardware for server use instead of using generic desktop components. Upgrading this HP Proliant server is a bit easier than most desktop cases I have come accross. A thumb screw removes the side panel, and thereafter the front bezel of the machine swings open like a door. About 16 screws are neatly lined up on the front of the server for when you want to insert another harddrive - no need to look for extra screws. The hard drives just slide into the front of the machine, and it makes a nice "click" once its installed. Its the small details I like.

When choosing hardware, it is beneficial to use two or more hard drives with Windows Home Server, but also a good idea to use the fastest drive you can for the system partition. WHS uses a proprietary method to distribute storage instead of complicated RAID setups. However, the OS still uses the primary drive for its system installs and also as a first point to write files to when copied to the server, therefore a speedy drive is your friend.

Setting up Windows Home Server cannot be more easy - merely boot the install disc on your machine, and confirm most of the on screen tidbits. It will inform you that all the drives in the machine will be deleted - and you have to confirm this. Once again, it might be a good idea to use as new hardware as possible, which will lead to less chance of failure. The install is not exactly brisk - it takes about an hour, even with nice quick hardware. It reboots many times in the process as well, so be patient. If you are used to the quick installs that Windows 7 or Snow Leopard has these days, you might want to calm down a bit and just be patient.

WHS did not automatically install some of the drivers on my server, including the network card - no biggie, just install the Windows Server 2003 versions of the drivers that came with your hardware. To see which drivers did not install, just check the Device Manager.

Once all you drivers are installed, activate your copy of WHS, so that you can start installing software updates. Unfortunately my copy of WHS is pretty early, so I had a lot of updates - about 200MB's worth. That again takes some time - patience is virtue. Its easy - just run Windows Update and use the express option.

Once WHS is updated and running, it is time to start setting up shares and backups. To do this you start up WHS Connnector software - you ought to get a disc in the box to install this, otherwise get it from the "Software" folder in your WHS install. Installing the connector software will enable you to administrate the server from your workstation, and also run the server "headless", meaning it does not require anything but a powerplug and a network cable attached to your network. Once installed, just enter your server password and then you can start setting up your backups and shares.

Backups are pretty easy - using the connector software, WHS gives you the following tabs:
  • Computers and Backup - use this to add computers on your network that needs to be backup up.
  • User Accounts - setup user profiles who are allowed to access your shared folders, including a Guest user account.
  • Shared Folders - So what folders do you want to share on the network? Add them here.
  • Server Storage - Give an overview of the current storage on the server.
  • Network Health - Will be green unless your computers have not been backed up in a while, or any of your machines have outdated windows patches, antivirus definitions, etc. Very handy.

Backups are pretty easy to do from the connector software, but WHS is also smart in the way that it stores it. If a identical file is found on more than one of your workstations, it will only back that file up once, not a separate version for each machine. In other words, backing up 5 machines with 100GB storage each does not translate into 500GB storage needed. Far from it - in fact, if your machines run mostly the same operating systems, you will see that WHS does not use a lot of space at all. Backups are one of the major reasons to get WHS, so get started with your backups - their first run can take a lot of time, especially over wireless networks, so you might want to connect to ethernet with the notebooks for their first backup.

Shared folders are easy to set up - you can easily choose which folders can and cannot be accessed by certain users in your house, but you can also setup a Guest account so that new machines who connect to your network can easily use some of the resources without any complicated login rituals.

So far in this review WHS does not show too many benefits - shared folders can be done with a lot of free solutions like FreeNAS, but the backup part is very well implemented. Where WHS starts to shine however is with addins and how well it integrates with other devices in your home like Xbox 360. But that I will leave for my next post in this series.
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I am a R&D Analyst in Stellenbosch South Africa who has a immense passion for all things tech related. I embrace technology, open source and web standards, and I participate and contribute to the social web.