How to build your own Windows Home Server rig

Recycle an old PC or build out a bare-bones system with Windows Home Server

The attraction of a home server, such as Windows Home Server, is obvious for any household with several computers. But even if you have just one PC, the technology offers significant benefits -- such as automatic backups that will let you survive a catastrophic hard drive failure without losing any of your precious data.

Microsoft's Windows Home Server is built using the same code base as the company's robust Windows Server 2003, but it's been streamlined (and somewhat limited) for consumer use. In addition to automatically backing up every Windows XP and Vista computer on your network, WHS can monitor the health of all the Vista PCs on its network. If the server is equipped with two or more drives, it will automatically duplicate all its files to provide data redundancy in case one drive ever fails.

It also allows file and printer sharing; it can stream audio, video and digital photographs to any device that supports Windows Media Connect (including the Xbox 360 gaming console); and it can be configured to allow remote access, so you can access and control your server and all the machines connected to it from anywhere you have an Internet connection.

The recently announced Windows Home Server Power Pack 2 adds important new features to the server operating system -- including much-improved support for Windows Media Center Extenders and client PCs running Windows Media Center -- and fixes a number of bugs.

Note that Windows Home Server is limited to 10 client computers. Windows, Linux and Macintosh computers can connect to the server (either locally or remotely over the Internet) and access shared files, but only computers running Windows XP and Vista can take advantage of automated backup on home-brew Windows Home Servers.

Several manufacturers currently offer prebuilt servers based on WHS, but you can also buy the operating system by itself and easily build out your own server. We'll show you how. For the chassis, you can either recycle an otherwise past-its-prime computer or buy a bare-bones system such as the VIA ARTiGO A2000 we'll use in this example.

Getting a copy of Windows Home Server

Windows Home Server isn't sold as a retail product, but that doesn't mean it's not available to consumers. You can buy a "system builder" copy from many online retailers for about $100. You should be aware that Microsoft does not allow you to reuse this license if you migrate to different hardware down the road.

IT pros and commercial developers can also acquire the software as part of their subscriptions to Microsoft TechNet or Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN).

If you're not sure you want to commit to Windows Home Server, there are two ways to obtain a trial version of the operating system: You can pay the postage for Microsoft to mail you a DVD, or you can download it for free (in the form of an ISO disc image) and burn it to a DVD using a program such as Nero or CyberLink's PowerDVD. Visit Microsoft's Windows Home Server Web site for details.

The trial version will run for 120 days; after that time, you'll need to purchase the aforementioned system builder disc and perform a server reinstallation (don't worry, the reinstallation will preserve all your backups).

Installing WHS from a DVD is the easiest method; if the computer you're using doesn't have a DVD drive, your next best option is to use an external DVD drive that attaches via USB. Alternatively, you can copy the required files to a USB hard drive or USB flash drive and install WHS from there. See "No DVD drive? Installing WHS from a USB drive" for more information.

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