What You Need to Know About Windows Home Server

Executive Summary:

Based on Windows Server 2003, Windows Home Server (WHS) provides a simplified UI, a plug-and-play design, and key consumer-oriented features centered on backup, media sharing, and remote access. The storage capabilities in WHS should be particularly attractive to many business users. WHS is well-suited for homes and for small businesses with limited technical capabilities.

Windows Home Server (WHS) isn’t going to solve any enterprise issues in 2008. But it does point the way to the next Small Business Server, with new technologies that could benefit various server products. WHS is also a surprisingly good solution for small businesses in its own right. Here’s what you need to know about Windows Home Server.

What WHS Is
WHS is a server system for homes, as the name implies. It’s designed to be sold in preconfigured home server hardware—essentially low-end PC server hardware, though many WHS OEMs, such as HP, have created some stunning and environmentally quiet (and thus appliance-like) designs that are particularly well adapted to the home market. Based on Windows Server 2003, WHS provides a simplified UI, a plug-and-play design, and key consumer-oriented features centered on backup, media sharing, and remote access.

WHS isn’t designed to be accessed interactively in front of the server box. Most WHS hardware doesn’t even include a monitor port. Instead, WHS is typically accessed via a special remote console, which is installed on each PC that you link with the server. You can control all applicable WHS features from this console.

WHS Key Features
Windows Home Server provides several key features. These include the following:

Innovative storage scheme. Perhaps the most fascinating feature in WHS is how it handles storage. Under the covers, WHS utilizes the same drive letter-based storage system used by all Windows servers. But to the user, the storage connected to a WHS server is a single pool. As you add hard drives to the system—either internally or externally—you can add their capacities to your overall storage pool. In this way, WHS is almost infinitely expandable from a storage perspective, with none of the usual complexities and overhead typical of the storage market.

The WHS storage pool is split between the needs of the system (which are small), PC backups, shared folders, and duplication. That’s right, WHS also lets you arbitrarily assign data duplication on individual shared folders.

An interesting side effect to this system is that WHS makes it very easy to remove existing storage, for example to replace it with a higher-capacity alternative. You’ll need enough free space on your other attached storage devices to make this possible, but it’s a nice touch.

Centralized PC backup and restore. All PCs that are connected to WHS are backed up to the server on a nightly basis. The initial backup is a full backup, while later backups are incremental. WHS also provides an efficient way to navigate into backup sets and pull out individual files and folders. So rather than restore your PC to a certain point in time to recover an important file, you can now grab just that file.

PC and server health monitoring. WHS monitors its own health as well as the health of all connected PCs. PC security and backup states, as well as other crucial data, is communicated to connected PCs via a tray-based notification icon.

Media and document sharing. WHS provides standard small-to-midsized business (SMB)–based filesharing facilities, so you can easily share particular folders and their contents and set permissions as required. WHS also functions as a Windows Media Connect client, so you can seamlessly share media files like music, photos, and video over the home network with other PCs and compatible devices, such as the Xbox 360.

Remote access. WHS lets you access the contents of your home server and, in many cases, your connected PCs, via the Internet. This is handy for anyone who travels and needs to access files at home or would like to back up photos and other files to the home network while away. Remote access to the server occurs via a nice Web interface and even comes with a free Web URL (usually something.homeserver.com). But you can also access WHS and any PCs based on Windows XP Professional, Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005, or Windows XP Tablet PC Edition 2005 SP2, or Windows Vista Business, Enterprise, or Ultimate on your home network remotely using a standard browser-based remote desktop interface. (Other popular versions of Windows, such as Windows XP Home and Windows Vista Home Premium, aren’t supported because these products don’t include the required Remote Desktop features.)

To get remote access working properly, you’ll need a Universal Plug and Play (UPnP)–based router and an ISP that doesn’t block certain types of network traffic such as RDP. This remote access feature is pretty impressive, given that many companies offer similar functionality for an annual fee. With WHS, it’s free.

WHS sounds impressive, and it is, but you might be wondering what effect this product could possibly have on your business. In the short term, WHS benefits the smallest of businesses that are looking for centralized backup, file sharing, and remote access— features that WHS delivers with simplicity, ease, and no need for an IT department or service provider. WHS isn’t compatible with Active Directory, however, and it can’t scale above ten connected PCs, so it won’t be of interest to many SMBs. Looking forward, it’s obvious that several WHS features will also appear on the next version of Small Business Server as well as other related products. The storage capabilities in WHS, which were developed by Microsoft specifically for this product, should be particularly attractive to many business users. WHS is well-suited for homes and for small businesses with limited technical capabilities.

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