Building a Home Server: Part 2 – the Software

In my previous post I described my hardware choices when building my new Home Server, something that I am handling as a weekend project. For the purposes of this article I am using a HP Proliant Microserver – a great compact little server with ample expandibility for home use. As a start I am using the built in 250GB Seagate drive as the boot drive, and then three Western Digital AV Green Power 2 Terabyte drives. You can choose whatever size drives you want, but look at things like power usage and reliability. This is a server after all.
There is a number of operating systems to choose from for home storage. We need an OS that is stable, has the ability to backup PC’s on your network, and also has drive redundancy to keep your data safe in case of drive failure (and yes, drives do fail). After looking at all the options, Windows Home Server version 1 is still your best bet. It is rock solid, and has a great community of add on developers. You can find it at most specialist computer shops for around $99.

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 v1 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. The “proprietary method” that WHS v1 uses is called Drive Extender, and it works very well. With traditional Redundant Array setups you needed a lot of technical skills, and drives that were the same size and speed to make it run efficiently. Drive Extender works in amuch more friendly fashion – you just keep on adding drives, and the system adds that drive to the data pool. For example, you might have three drives of different sizes, and they will all form one big “drive”.
Best part is, you can select a folder you deem important enough to have duplicated over two drives at any time. For example, this means you can have your photos always duplicated (in real time) over two drives. So if any drive fails in you Windows Home Server, that important folder will not be lost. Problem is, Microsoft only had this technology in Windows Home Server version 1.

Microsoft recently launched Windows Home Server 2011 – an “upgrade” which is a spectacular letdown. While the base server operating system has been upgraded to Windows Server 2008, Microsoft decided to let go of the Drive Extender technology. This is a huge mistake on Microsoft’s part. Drive Extender is the number one reason Windows Home Server had a fanbase. Windows Home Server without Drive Extender does not give it any significant edge over other solutions like FreeNAS, except for automated backups. Frankly Microsoft, there is not a lot to make us even look at WHS 2011 if you take out drive redundancy.
Setting up Windows Home Server v1 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 newer hardware where 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 Lion has these days, you are in for a surprise. 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. Most shipping versions still ship with only Power Pack 1, and there is already a Power Pack 3 available. 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. You will be rebooting quite a few times.
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 on your client machines – you ought to get a disc in the box to install this, otherwise get it from the “Software” folder in your WHS install (Click on Start and go to \\SERVER\Software). 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 backed up daily, or when they appear on the network.
  • 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. Also set which users can access what, and which folder must be duplicated.
  • Server Storage – Give an overview of the current storage on the server. This also tells how much of your storage is dedicated to duplication / redundancy.
  • Network Health – Will be green unless your Windows 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.
The other advantage of using Windows Home Server is has a DLNA server built in – this means media streaming devices can access your media “library” and also access the relevant metadata of the files. For example, stored movies might have the DVD cover attached it etc. Windows Home Server also has a vibrant developer community that is actively creating new add ons for your server. A few great examples include “My Movies” which enables you to instantly backup DVD movie discs. No, I am not promoting piracy – there are legitimate reasons you might want to do that. Another great add on is Lights Out, which enables you to set schedules when you want your server to go into sleep mode. If you are using an iOS device that you want to stream video to, look at a tool like AirVideo. The app will cost only $3 for your iPhone or iPad, and then you install the simple AirVideo Server app on your Windows Home Server, and point it to your videos folder.
Not a fan of Windows Home Server?
Of course you are free to use whatever operating system you want – there are some terrific free options out there if you do not need all of Windows Home Server’s functionality. You might lose some of the ease of use though, and you might need to familiarize yourself with new interfaces. If you are up to the challenge, I am not going stop you.
Some other great alternatives:
FreeNAS – FreeNAS is a super scaled down storage server OS. The whole OS can run off a flash disk, which is great for servers that have an internal USB port. It can run on very old hardware, and has some great features like running an iTunes media server.
Ubuntu Server Edition – If you have some technical ability, and you are up for a challenge, you might want to look at Ubuntu Server Edition. Sure, it will not be as easy to set up as WHS, but you will have some great features. It is also built on a rock solid foundation.