Tuesday, June 19, 2007

MS Home Server review

Here is a question for you: when was the last time you backed up your home's digital files? Maybe never? Bad answer.

Microsoft has been working on a solution, and it went into its final production throes this past week. The product is called Windows Home Server, and it is a stripped-down version of its Windows Server 2003 that normally costs a thousand bucks or so. For the time being, you can download a timed-version (it will work until December) freely from this link. You do need to sign up and answer a few questions to join the Connect service, which also has other pre-release software from Microsoft.

You need to install the software on a new machine: it will wipe your disk clean and boot up automatically with the Home Server running. The software is designed to run "headless" which means that you don't need to attach a monitor or a keyboard, once you get beyond certain basics that I will talk about in a moment. It will install the operating system, split your hard disk into two partitions (one for system files, one for data), and set up a bunch of shared drives for pictures, videos, files, and so forth. Think of this as layering a simple set of controls on top of the standard Windows server platform.

To access these shares, you will need to run another piece of software called Home Server Connector Software from each computer to set up the network connection. There are basically two different levels of access – "remote control" for the administrators that gives them access to the server control console, and ordinary file and printer shares for everyone else.

I tried it out on my home office network to mixed results. I liked a few things:

First, getting to the reason for this column, it is very easy to backup your PCs with this product, provided you have a big enough disk on the server's PC. You can choose what you want to backup, and it automagically does it in the middle of the night, when traffic is lightest (and presumably your PC that is to be backed up is still powered on). You can set up a different schedule if you are pickier.

Second, Home Server can also automatically synchronize its shared folders with ones on your local PC – that is a neat trick and something you might consider for say sharing your pictures or videos across the network, and something that has been standard with the Windows server line for some time.

Finally, you can control the server from outside your home, if it can figure out how to open up your home gateway ports. It uses UPnP to do this. Sadly, my 2Wire DSL gateway doesn't support this (it doesn't support a lot of other things, but that discussion will have to wait for another day). It would be nice if there were another alternative to UPnP, but there isn't.

Here are some things that I didn't like about the software.

First, you initially need complex passwords to set the darn thing up, meaning something with seven characters, upper and lower case and numbers too. That seems a bit onerous for the average home network. This can be loosened up once you get the first user going.

Second, when the install was done, it didn't recognize the Intel network adapter that was in a fairly recent Dell. Once I installed the right driver, I was good to go. Third, despite its headless installation, you will still need to be sitting in front of the server to set up a shared printer. Next, the only clients for this server are Windows XP with Service Pack 2 or Vista – if you have got anything older on your home network, and chances are good you do – then don't even bother with the product.

Is this a good deal? It is hard to tell until Microsoft sets pricing. There is still talk that it will be available both as a bundled piece of hardware from the usual suspects and as a software download, but we'll see.

If it does come as low-cost software and you have an older PC and can upgrade the storage, it might be worth it. But if you have older Windows and Macs, then no: you are better off buying either a Mac mini or a network-attached storage box and saving yourself the trouble.

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About Me

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David Strom has looked at hundreds of computer products over a more than 20 year career in IT and computer journalism. He was the founding editor-in-chief of Network Computing magazine, and now writes for Baseline, Information Security, Tom's Hardware, and the New York Times.