Windows Home Server Experience

A couple weeks ago, I set up Windows Home Server in the house, opting to go the DIY route rather than with an out-of-the-box solution like the HP MediaSmart. I saved a bit of money in the process, though it wasn't without some issues getting started.

For a machine, I turned to the Dell Outlet site, which I've used in the past and haven't had much trouble with. I've purchased a bunch of machines via the Outlet over the years and only one has ever had issues. Odds are that it would happen at some point with a non-Outlet machine at some point, so I wasn't worried about ordering another box that way.

The machine is an Inspiron 531 desktop, with 2GB of RAM and a 250GB drive in it. It also has a DVD burner, mid-sized tower case, and the standard integrated network and video (the latter isn't needed by WHS). It was $249. Dell had sent me a coupon the week I was watching the Outlet, which basically took care of the shipping and tax. I spent another $150 or so at NewEgg to add a 750GB -- Roughly $400 total for that machine with 1TB of storage. (Note: looks like the only option now is to get a 530 rather than a 531. The difference is that the 530 uses an Intel CPU while the 531 has an AMD processor).

The setup started off fine, but I ran into issues later when I had to put drivers on the machine (after installing WHS). The Inspiron had shipped with Vista Home Premium, which I didn't need, but WHS is based on Windows Server 2003. The drivers that came with the machine (and available via Dell Support) were Vista drivers and didn't fly with WHS. Some Googling and experimentation led to trying the Windows XP drivers, which seem to be working just fine. The main holdup here was the network card's driver... with no network, I had to use sneakernet to get the drivers on to the WHS box.

So I saved money over going with an off-the-shelf Home Server... but paid a DIY tax with an hour or two of setup time and tinkering around with drivers. I'm happy with that.

Once set up, the experience has been awesome. The machine is running "headless" at this point, but the client software is on a few different machines now and works great for managing the server. In a pinch, I've used Remote Desktop a couple times to look at the server's control panel.

The features I like the most:

  • Access to the file shares on the server just plain works. There's no futzing with ACLs, Windows firewall, or anything else. Each user account on the server has its own private share, there's a public share for general use, and dedicated shares for music, photos, videos, and software. An admin account can control access to those in simple fashion -- each user account gets no access, read-only, or read-write. From the client perspective, it's just \\SERVERNAME\SHARENAME and you're good to go.
  • Backup is solid and runs seamlessly... it takes a while when you initially run it (go wired for that first backup!), but after that, the incremental updates aren't really noticeable.
  • There's a Tivo add-in that hooks write into your music, photos, and videos. That adds access to our Tivo Series 2 (Home Media Option), along with the Xbox 360 Media access that just works out of the box with WHS. I don't need to publish photos and music from a spare desktop machine any more. As an added bonus, the machine's faster than that spare was so scrolling through images and music is way fast.
  • Related note... remotely installing an add-in is dead simple. Copy an MSI into a share on the server, run the remote management client, and tell it to run the MSI for the add-in. Removing an add-in later looks just as easy.
  • Remote access to the server over the internet is very cool. The WHS setup process gets you a subdomain under the domain and you can log into the server from any web browser to get at the files stored there. That's already proven handy when I wanted to show someone in the office a photo that we were talking about.

A few things I'd like to see improve or change:

  • I still think that Microsoft needs to make WHS available via MSDN. I've got a few different ideas for add-ins I'd like to develop, but I'm not interested in doing development and debugging on the home server that's actually in "real world" use at the house. Unless they change this decision, it'll mean I need to purchase a separate WHS license if I want to get serious about add-in development. Incidentally, they've received a LOT of feedback on the issue, but currently say it's not available on MSDN due to some "valid logistical issues"... who knows?
  • It doesn't seem like there's a real great solution yet for managing our music via an iTunes library. Aside from WHS add-ins, installing software on a WHS machine is discouraged... so iTunes has to be on a separate machine. But honestly, the only time iTunes gets used is for syncing our iPods (and related playlist management). Playback in the house is done via the Tivo or Xbox 360. So all the music is in two places now -- WHS and that spare desktop machine (with iTunes) that we plug the iPods into. I think (but am not certain) that I could have the iTunes library on that machine simply reference the files on the WHS box -- but haven't tried that route yet (mostly for fear of hosing up the iTunes metadata and "device awareness" for our iPods). Need to do more research here.
  • Obviously a big issue that MUST get addressed soon is the widely-reported corruption problem. Thankfully, we're not editing files directly on the server shares (and won't anytime soon). The editing/manipulation tends to happen on our client machines, with the results being backed-up or simply stored for shared-access on the server.

I suspect that corruption issue is THE top priority for the WHS team in Redmond... once it's resolved, my next hurdle will be to figure out the best way to set up Lightroom catalog(s?) for the 7+ years of photos we have stored. Currently, I use fairly "transient" catalogs with Lightroom since all the photo files (both RAW shots, XMP sidecars, and JPG images) are being stored up on the server. But in doing that, I miss out on many features of having everything in a catalog.

All in all, I'm very happy with the WHS experience thus far. If you can live without the option to remotely edit files (to avoid the corruption problem), I'd recommend it.