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Review: Windows Home Server is a powerful networking tool

For once, Microsoft hasn't 'dumbed down' a software package, says Preston Gralla

November 8, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - The just-released Windows Home Server (WHS) from Microsoft Corp. is a surprisingly powerful networking tool that offers some of the sophisticated networking capabilities you would expect from big-boy servers, but aims them at the home "enthusiast" and power user markets.

In fact, some of WHS's capabilities are powerful enough that it's useful for the home office, not just home enthusiasts. In particular, its backup, file-sharing and remote access capabilities are ideal for users who run an office from their home, and possibly even for a small office of a half-dozen or fewer PCs. This should be no surprise: The software is based on the code of Microsoft Windows Server 2003.

The target for this software is aimed squarely at the home, though, and it does a very good job of doing most of the things that home users need, notably sharing media and other files, and no-fuss automated backup. It's designed for a world in which many households have multiple PCs attached via a home router to share broadband access.

WHS will primarily be sold as a plug-and-play, self-contained box that includes all hardware and software. You plug it in, turn it on and after some basic configuration, you're ready to go. Prices vary according to the capabilities of the hardware, size of hard drives and so on.

However, it can also be bought as stand-alone server software, so that you can put an existing PC to good use. Complete systems cost from a little under $600 to $750; the software by itself retails for between $160 and $200.

This review looks at the server software installed on a test machine with a 1.8-GHz Pentium 4 processor, 1GB of RAM, DVD drive, Ethernet connection and a 75GB hard drive. The minimum requirements for WHS are a 1-GHz Pentium 3, 512MB of RAM, a 70GB hard drive, DVD drive and Ethernet connection. On my test machine, the software ran flawlessly with no slowdowns or performance degradation.

Up, running and backing up

You'll need an Ethernet connection if you're installing WHS on a machine yourself, and even after installation, it's generally a good idea to use it over an Ethernet connection rather than a wireless one for the best performance and reliability.

Once your home server is running (or if you've bought a stand-alone box), you install client software called the Windows Home Server Connector on each PC (up to 10) you want to connect to the server. Most likely, installing the client software should go without a hitch. However, there is a potential "gotcha" that can cause serious problems -- and if you don't fix it, the console won't install.

WHS requires that you use NetBIOS over TCP/IP on your PCs. Some PCs and some home routers may have issues with this, although with a little bit of configuration, you should be able to fix the problem. For details, see the related story "How to troubleshoot Windows Home Server problems."

Once you install the Connector software, each PC will automatically back up its hard disk to WHS every night. PCs will be backed up even if they're asleep or hibernating. In essence, WHS issues a wake-up call, does the backup and then lets the PC return to hibernation or sleep mode.

Unlike the brain-dead backup program that ships with Windows Vista, the WHS backup program allows you to customize your backup by choosing individual folders to include or exclude. To customize your backup --- and, in fact, to customize every aspect of how WHS works --- you run the Windows Home Server Console on a client, which installs when you install the Windows Home Server Connector software on each PC.



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