Sunday, November 08, 2009

Windows Home Server, part one

I recently decided to take the plunge and invest in newer technology for our home server. I wanted a small, efficient system to replace the iDEQ mini computer running Windows Server 2003. I was favoring an Ubuntu Linux system running on a VIA green computing platform. Unfortunately, the VIA motherboard was too unstable to run Windows or Linux on. I gave up after swapping power supplies and memory; everything else is integrated into the motherboard. During that time the Intel Atom based hardware and Windows Home Server (WHS) appeared. Since Windows in some flavor will always be running somewhere in the house and WHS was getting favorable reviews I took the plunge and purchased an all-in-one unit with the WHS license.

The Hardware

I purchased an Acer easyStore H340 for $360 (before tax and shipping). It features the Intel Atom 230 processor, a Western Digital WD10EAVS 1 TB hard drive, 2 GB DDR2 memory and has 5 USB 2.0 ports, 1 eSATA port and a gigabit Ethernet port. The front door opens to reveal four SATA drive bays (the non-system drives are hot swappable). Windows Home Server (WHS) with Power Pack 1 comes installed and ready to finish on the TB disk drive. The McAfee Total Protection was installed but not active, sitting there waiting for me to activate the trial and then pay later.

The unit is smaller than any of the mini-computers I currently own. It is also quiet and unassuming and would quite at home in any basement likely near the router. There are indicator lights on the left side for power, drive and network activity and a multicolored status indicator light. Each drive has a multicolored status indicator light.

I added a WD10EADS 1 TB hard drive to the system. The drive trays are plastic and cheap feeling so I was careful with the tray I put the hard drive into and when I slid it back into place. It was recognized by the server and I added it to the storage pool without issue. There are close to 2 TB of storage in the pool.

After doing some reading I decided to purchase a 750GB hard drive but not add it to the storage pool. This drive will be used for bit torrent downloads, distributed updates and other high activity data. The 750GB was likely overkill but only $12 more than a 300 GB drive. When you do not add the drive to the pool the corresponding indicator light stays purple instead of a happy blue like the other drives in the pool.

I also purchased a Seagate 1TB hard drive and external enclosure to serve as a backup drive. I was able to hook up the external drive, dedicate it to backups and then make a quick backup of what was on our server.

The Software - Windows Home Server

Windows Home Server (WHS) came pre-installed on the Acer machine and almost ready to go upon start up. Connecting to the WHS begins with the connector software that comes on an accompanying disc. Shares are created for pictures, video, software, recorded TV programs, and for a public folder. WHS seems to prefer Windows authentication and having your user names and passwords synchronized across multiple computers. This was an issue for me because I had an older computer with one user name and most newer computers had my full name as the user name. I renamed the one account and broke a security license key for a piece of software I really do not use anymore. Still, one minor aggravation to play well with WHS.

Management is performed (or should be performed) through the Home Server Console. The console cannot be resized which is an annoyance for those of us that have netbook computers and limited vertical resolutions. Many options are compacted into an one panel and the administrator can expand the console and WHS through plug-in modules. Remote desktop can be used to maintain the server but with caution; anything specific to WHS should be managed by WHS and if you do things outside of WHS you can potentially screw up WHS.

I had problems removing McAfee software. I was not happy with Acer at this point. Why install trial software that nags you without providing a means for un-installing it? I rushed in and used remote desktop to connect and then remove the software with errors. I had to reboot the server to get the components to disappear from the console. I have not checked the registry or disks to see if the product was removed completely.

I have not used the workstation backup feature of WHS. The workstations I have have too much junk on them and I do not like the idea of my netbook being awakened in the middle of the night to have a backup performed. I prefer to have control over tasks like backups and updates on the netbook devices.

Another feature I have not used yet is the ability to put things on the Internet through WHS. Exposing a WHS to the world is scary without doing some reading first. I am happy right now with having the WHS closed to the rest of the planet. Since I am on that topic, how do you think ISPs are going to react to the idea of a technology adequate family putting a server on the Internet. Imagine what happens when someone on this planet figures out to hack the default implementation of WHS. Millions of potential zombie computers and personal data stores open to damage.

The primary goal of WHS is to centralize the protection, access, organization and storage of home data and services. This assumes at least one or more home workstations and portables are in use in the home (it would not make sense to pay for a license and have a server without one). These computers would be routinely backed-up to WHS. Media is to be stored centrally on the WHS server so multiple computers and other devices can get to it. So if everything is centralized for security and convenience then why are two important aspects of Windows not part of WHS.

Why no integration with Microsoft Security Essentials (MSE)?

MSE is free for XP, Vista and 7 users and regularly goes to the Internet for software and virus list updates. WHS coordinates the backup of devices on a regular schedule, why not centralize the security definitions and MSE software updates instead of having each home device connecting to the Internet to do so? Make a plug-in for MSE within WHS, which would download security definitions and updates to protect itself and provide them as a primary source for computers on the home network (the Internet being the secondary source if the WHS was unavailable or the computer were away from home).

Why no integration with Windows Server Update Services?

WSUS is also a free download but is geared more towards corporate environments. I have WSUS running on the current home server and it was nice to have a local copy of the 12 to 16 updates Microsoft just released on Tuesday. With WSUS the patches were downloaded once and then distributed locally to my two desktops in minutes. The same updates took roughly 40 minutes on my netbook, which is new and not currently pulling from the WSUS server. There are instructions on how to install WSUS on WHS available on the Internet but there is no support and no guarantees future updates to WHS would not cause a failure of WSUS and/or WHS for software not installed through plug-in. As with the security services, provide a plug-in for WHS to download and be the primary source for software updates for all local devices that can get to the WHS (leaving the Internet as the secondary source).


There will be follow-ups to this post as I start getting deeper into WHS and as more and more plug-ins and options become available.

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