Windows Home Server Beta 2 review

If you have several PCs in your household, there are currently two ways of tying them all together: either get a NAS device, or set up a dedicated Linux box. Neither are perfect options: the former generally amounts to shared storage, and the latter is a complex option. With Windows Home Server, Microsoft is gunning for the middle ground – the simplicity of NAS, but with server features and functions. Microsoft research estimates that there are some 40 million broadband-connected homes globally with two or more PCs, and it’s at these Windows Home Server is targeted.

Rather than start from scratch, Microsoft has taken the Windows Server 2003 R2 code, stripped it back and added a radically simplified web-based remote management console. Final Home Server hardware is designed to be headless, and early examples, such as HP’s Media Smart Server, don’t even have graphics cards. The preferred admin method is using the Windows Home Server Console client software, which offers a balance between ease of use and advanced features.

Attach the Home Server hardware to your router via a wired connection before installing the Connector software on your XP or Vista client PCs. While you can access the server’s shared storage through Explorer, the Connector software is the real coup for ease of use, and adds several key features.

Principal among these is centralised and automated backup. At a specified time, the Connector backs up the entire PC (including its system drive) with folder-level exclusions. But it doesn’t back up the files themselves; rather the lower-level hard disk clusters they inhabit. Identical clusters (such as those that form parts of the same file on several machines) are only stored once, dramatically reducing the amount of space used: our four PCs with around 220GB of data consumed less than 100GB in backups. At the next backup, only those clusters that have changed will be rewritten, speeding the job up considerably. You can specify the lifespan of each backup set and restore either your entire PC to an earlier time (using a supplied restore CD) or individual files.

There’s also another new technology, known as Drive Extender, which, rather than assigning C: and D: labels to each separate physical hard disk, simply integrates them into the overall storage capacity, regardless of size. The console has wizards to easily add or remove disks, including over USB or FireWire. If you’re using multiple disks, you can also enable folder duplication (on a per Shared Folder basis), which will attempt to store a copy of each on two physical hard disks, capacity allowing.

Should a drive fail entirely, the data can be rebuilt. Should that drive contain the Home Server installation, that will need restoring (with an install disc), although you’ll have to reset your user accounts and backup settings. If this all sounds familiar, it essentially offers many of the benefits of RAID. Its use in future Windows versions, however, is currently described as “hypothetical”.

Media streaming is also built in via Windows Media Connect, so any UPnP-compliant digital media adaptors (both hardware including the Xbox 360 and software such as Windows Media Player 11) will pick up media stored in the shared Music, Video or Photo folders.

The final major string to Home Server’s bow is remote access. Eventually, the Server will automate much of this, with a static “username.homeserver.com” URL, although it’s currently via your router’s IP address and some manual router port forwarding. Within the Hotmail-like interface, you can access the Home Server console and status of your PCs, as well as connect to them via Remote Desktop or access shared folders. You can download items by checking boxes next to them (with folders being sent as ZIP files) and, subject to your user permissions, create new folders, upload or delete items.

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