Review: Windows Home Server nearly ready for prime time

Currently in beta 2, the all-in-one backup, file-sharing and PC-monitoring device brings simplicity and automation to home networks.

A typical household with two adults and three children can easily have three or more computers. Since each of the users wants access to the Internet, their PCs are likely to already be connected to a router -- but sharing media files and other data among the computers often remains an arduous task.

What's more, many users have enough difficulty finding the time to manage their own computer -- updating antivirus software, configuring the firewall and keeping downloaded files in order -- that they pay little or no attention to the other PCs in the house. And that means few of them get backed up regularly, if at all.

Enter Windows Home Server (WHS), announced at this year's Consumer Electronics Show in January. WHS is a platform for storing, sharing and protecting data from multiple home PCs. Additionally, it can stream media, provide remote access and monitor PCs on a home network. The basic concept is simple and logical, and any household with more than one PC already wants one...though they may not know it yet.

Browsing shared music files on Windows Home Server.
Browsing shared music files on Windows Home Server. (Click image to see larger view)

The WHS software itself will not be sold as a retail product but will be available to consumers later this year in the form of hardware appliances such as Hewlett-Packard's MediaSmart Server, also announced at CES. Selling this product as an appliance only is in some significant ways a great idea, though final pricing will be the determining factor in purchase decisions for many people.

Making the product an appliance means that the server is a plug-and-play device. Buyers can open the box, plug it into a power outlet and a wired Ethernet connection, and turn it on. The unit boots and runs without a monitor or keyboard and can be managed from any PC on the network -- any PC, that is, running either Windows XP or Vista.

Since Windows Home Server is currently in beta 2, it isn't available in appliance form yet, but approved beta testers can download and install the software on any PC that meets fairly basic system requirements. My test system had a 1.7GHz AMD processor with 512MB of memory, a DVD drive and two ATA hard drives: one 60GB and one 120GB.

I found Home Server to be intuitive to use and very effective at backing up data as well as monitoring my home network's health. Its simplicity and automation will make it a winner with many home users. More technically savvy users, however, may find its limitations frustrating.

Getting started: Backup and recovery

Once the server is connected to your home network, a special piece of software called the Windows Home Server Connector needs to be loaded on each of the users' PCs. You can attach as many as 10 computers to the server. I was able to simply browse to the server's software folder and install the connector from its location on the server.

Configuring backup options.
Configuring backup options.

(Click image to see larger view)

By default, Windows Home Server backs up each computer running the Connector software every night. It's necessary to leave computers turned on in order for the backup to run, though the server can communicate with PCs that are either sleeping or hibernating, waking them up for the backup. Once the backup is complete, the PCs can go back to sleep.

The systemwide backup schedule can be set to keep backups for a specific number of days, weeks and months. At the end of the defined period, the oldest backup for that period is deleted to make room for the newest backup. You can change the number of backups and retention times to suit your network.

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