Review: Windows Home Server is a powerful networking tool

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

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More utilities and extras

WHS has several other useful utilities built in. The health monitoring utility is, depending on your point of view, either moderately useful or moderately annoying. Like Windows Security Center, it monitors the status of your firewall and antivirus and antispyware software, and issues alerts if you don't have such software running, or if a package is out of date. The pop-up alerts appear on each individual PC on the network. Considering that Windows already does this, it's not all that clear how much use this is. Alerts are supposed to also report on the performance of your network, although I never actually saw one.

More useful is the server storage tool. Click Server Storage from the Windows Home Server Console, and a screen like the one nearby appears. It charts hard disk usage, telling you how much is being used by shared folders, by backups, by the system itself and how much disk space remains.

Monitoring overall disk usage of your home server.
 
Monitoring overall disk usage of your home server. (Click image to see larger view)

Another useful feature is a "drive extender" that in essence pools all of your hard disks into one large virtual drive, so that you don't need to manage them individually. Whenever you add a new hard drive, WHS automatically adds its new capacity to your storage pool.

Remote access to your server

The niftiest part of WHS may well be its remote access capabilities, which not only let you access the server and its files from anywhere on the Internet, but also let you take remote control of any PC on your network.

Normally, the hurdles to do this are considerable, but WHS makes it quite easy to do. Your home router gets a dynamically assigned IP address from your Internet provider, so the IP address may change over time, which normally would be problematic for remote access.

But with WHS you sign up via Windows Live for your own free domain under the homeserver.com domain, such as thegrallafamily.homeserver.com. You then only need to type that address in your browser, and you'll be sent to your home server, even when its IP address changes. WHS tracks changes to IP addresses and ensures you're routed to the proper location. For someone like me, who frequently is away from his home office but needs access to files and entire PCs in his office, this can be a lifesaver.

To make the connection from anywhere on the Internet, type in your domain's URL. You'll be greeted by a warning screen telling you that there's a problem with your security certificate. Click through anyway; there's no problem. (Microsoft says it's working on this issue and expects a fix.) Then type in your username and password, and you'll be able to browse all the folders on your server, as you can see in the nearby figure.

You can remotely connect to your server, browse folders and download files.
 
You can remotely connect to your server, browse folders and download files. (Click image to see larger view)

Better yet, you can take remote control of any PC on your network, as shown in the nearby figure. There's one caveat: The PC has to have remote access enabled in Windows. Not all versions of Windows allow for remote access -- Windows XP Home doesn't, for example, while Windows XP Professional does.

Remotely controlling a PC over the Internet.
 
Remotely controlling a PC over the Internet. (Click image to see larger view)

Be aware that plenty can go wrong when making a remote connection. If your router doesn't use Universal Plug and Play, WHS may not be able to correctly configure it for remote access -- and even if your router does handle UPnP, you may run into trouble. For help on making a remote connection, see the related story "How to troubleshoot Windows Home Server problems."

The bottom line

WHS is a surprisingly powerful networking tool that should please home users as well as those with home offices. Microsoft has been criticized in the past for dumbing down its software and taking away powerful features in order to appeal to the largest possible audience. That's far from the case with WHS, though. This is a powerful networking tool that will give home users and home office users a wide range of customizable features.

One potential issue is hardware compatibility. The Connector software will only run on Windows XP and Windows Vista PCs. So if you've got older machines running operating environments such as Windows 2000, ME or 98, they won't be able to be backed up via WHS. You will, however, be able to browse network folders and copy files from those machines.

A complete system won't come cheap; the expected cost is $600 to $750. But if you need backup, file sharing and remote access, it will be well worth the price. And if you've got an old PC that meets the specs for the software itself, it'll certainly be worth your while to get the software by itself and to turn that PC into a server.

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor for Computerworld.com, and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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