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I have to admit that when I first heard about the Windows Home Server I didn’t really think that much of the concept. After all, it’s pretty simple to take an existing Windows server and turn it into a home storage and backup system. Also, there are plenty of easy-to-deploy Linux appliances that can quickly turn any system into an effective network-attached storage device, and never mind the many inexpensive network hard drives available at many stores.
And all of this is still true. But after testing the release candidate of Windows Home Server that was made available last week at connect.microsoft.com, I must say that I am very impressed with its implementation, simplicity and functionality. At least on the software side, it looks like the Windows Home Server could not only turn home digital media storage into an easy task, it may more importantly make home system backups much easier for users.
I installed the Windows Home Server on a do-it-yourself server system in our labs by simply booting to the installation DVD and letting the install run its course. One amusing aspect of the installation process was when it went from the Vista-like Windows Home Server screens and transitioned to installation screens for the Microsoft Small Business Server, which has clearly played a big part in the underlying code of the Home Server.
While the Windows Home Server can be easily run in a headless mode, unlike some appliances it still does work in a direct mode with monitor, keyboard and mouse attached. From here I could access the main Windows Home Server Console directly.
From this console I could add user accounts for the server, control access to shared folders and create new shares, check the health of the network, and view connected system backups. However, in most cases users will install the Windows Home Server Connector software and control the server remotely, which I did for most of the tests. When I installed the Connector software on a remote system, it automatically discovered and connected to my Home Server and configured the system to back up to the Home Server.
By default the system is configured to do backups overnight on a daily basis. However, I could configure this to happen at any time (useful for those of us who don’t leave our home systems running overnight) and could also do backups on demand.
I tested the Windows Home Server using a standard Linksys 100M-bit home router and despite this connection was impressed by how quickly the Windows Home Server backed up my fairly loaded Vista workstation, completing an initial backup in under 15 minutes. Of course, I installed the Windows Home Server on fairly hefty server hardware, and backups will be slower on less capable systems.
By default the Windows Home Server is only accessible via the Connector or through standard Windows network shares. However, I could also choose to turn on Web site access, which made it possible to access the server from anywhere using a Web browser.
With this browser interface I could log into the server and easily access shared folders. I could also remotely access systems connected to the Windows Home Server or launch the Windows Home Server Console from the browser. However, these last features only worked when using Internet Explorer. If I used Firefox, I could only access the shares.
One of the biggest questions remaining for the Windows Home Server will be the type of hardware on which it is delivered. For the most part the server will only be available through OEM hardware vendors and pricing will depend on what these vendors decide to charge.
It will be interesting to see where these vendors decide to fall on the spectrum of power and capability versus price and low-profile designs ideal for homes.
The first products based on the Windows Home Server are expected to ship sometime in the second half of 2007.