Setting up Windows Home Server in the office

The stay at home server turns out to be the little server that could, with plenty of business friendly features.
Even the smallest business will find a server useful, whether it’s just for sharing files and connecting them to the Web or delivering applications.

Microsoft’s Small Business Server puts most of the functions a business needs in one box, and you can use a mix of Windows and Linux machines to scale a client’s business. But what if your client is a micro-business, or needs an additional server to handle some essential backup tasks but doesn’t want to invest in expensive hardware?

You could purchase a stand-alone NAS box, but that can require significant work to turn into a server that will just sit there and handle a mix of file store and other tasks. There is an alternative, in the shape of a recent arrival on the scene: Microsoft’s Windows Home Server, based on a heavily modified version of Windows Server 2003. Intended for home use, it’s a simple headless server that sits neatly between Linux-based NAS boxes and Windows Small Business Server. Microsoft markets it as a 'stay-at-home server', but there’s definitely a place for it at work.

Windows Home Server has a number of key features that are just as useful in the office. One of the most important roles is as a centralised backup server. SBS 2008 doesn’t include client backup but you can use a Windows Home Server to back up a small network of up to 10 PCs. One important feature here is a single instance store, which holds only one copy of each file, no matter how many PCs have a copy. This keeps backup storage space to a minimum. Using Home Server as a backup tool also helps protect key staff members’ PCs, automatically and transparently backing up laptops when they connect to a network.

It will also simplify system health monitoring on small networks. A Home Server-managed network uses its client software to monitor the status of all the PCs in the network, giving you one central place to see security reports. You can use this health report to determine which of your client’s PCs need maintenance – saving you time and helping you be proactive.

A Windows Home Server system works well as a NAS, giving your clients easy workgroup storage and file sharing, but unlike a NAS. Network shares on a Home Server can be mapped to desktop PC drives, with default shares for each user as well as centralised workgroup storage. Files are also centrally indexed and can be searched from connected PCs. A Home Server can also act as a printer server, simplifying group printing and allowing a team to share a single USB printer that wouldn’t normally be a network resource.

Shared files are given some measure of protection with shadow copy. Like Windows Server 2003 and Windows Vista, you can set up Windows Home Server to use Volume Shadow Copy on its shared directories. This automatically makes snapshots of drive contents so users can recover earlier versions of files – at the expense of some disk space. If there’s enough disk space on a Home Server (and if you’ve configured a device with multiple drives) its data redundancy features help reduce the risks associated with drive failure by storing data across multiple drives. This isn’t RAID – it’s more flexible and more like the features of much larger enterprise-grade virtualised storage appliances.

A Home Server uses the same virtualised storage model to give you quickly expandable storage. You don’t have to match drive sizes or even connections. As it treats all the drives that are connected, whether they’re in internal bays or attached via USB or eSATA connections, as a single storage fabric all you need to do to add more storage is plug in another drive. There’s no need to map drive letters or create new shares – the existing mappings and shares just get more free disk space. The Home Server will initialise the drive in the background, add it to the storage pool and make additional copies of stored files, all without any administrative intervention. External drives can also be used to back up a Home Server, making copies of files stored in shares.

Windows Home Server has its own SDK and there are some useful add-ins that you can download to get extra features. These are built with standard Windows development tools and Home Server can also host ASP.NET applications, running on its built-in Web server – so you can also write your own add-ins to add functions your clients need.

The headless nature of a Home Server makes it unobtrusive, and at the same time, easy to manage. You don’t need a monitor or a keyboard on the customer site, tempting users to experiment with it, just a Web browser or the console client software. With the right firewall configuration and a strong password you can administer your client’s Home Server from anywhere in the world – even from a mobile phone. It’s also a remote access gateway, so you can use Windows Remote Desktop to access any connected PC over the Internet (as long as it’s on line and configured to allow remote access). You can use this technique to work with customer PCs without having to make expensive and time-consuming site visits.

Some features aren’t quite so important for businesses. You’re unlikely to need its media streaming tools, unless your clients want to stream corporate and training videos to an Xbox 360 or any other Windows Media Connect devices.

Getting started with Windows Home Server is easy enough. Devices like HP’s MediaSmart Server only need power and an Ethernet connection, and are small enough to fit under a desk and attractive enough to sit on a shelf. You can also build your own Home Server systems for customers; many OEM vendors offer suitable hardware and the Windows Home Server software is available through Microsoft’s System Builders programme.

Once it’s plugged in, and connected to the network, the Home Server box is ready to configure. All you need are the installation CDs and a desktop PC on the same network segment.

Put the setup CD in the desktop PC, and run the installer. A wizard will guide you through the process, which can take time, especially if there are firmware and software updates to install. You have to install the client software on each PC in the office, which you can do by accessing the server’s Web page, and then create user accounts on the server. Make sure you set up one for yourself – and also make sure that the Home Server has an Internet connection, so you can access it remotely.

You’ll also need to either set up an IP address mapping or a NAT connection in your client’s router. Home Server does support UPNP and can configure routers appropriately – but the protocol is not perfect and business routers often have secure implementations that don’t allow hardware or software to set up routes to the outside world. Once you’ve set up a connection you can use a Web-based RDP proxy in a browser to connect to the Home Server and use the server’s administration console.

Like most NAS systems, Home Server should really only be used for file-level shares. Block-based network storage needs iSCSI at a minimum – so make sure your clients are only using their systems to store documents and other discrete files, not databases. There have been problems in the past with Home Server’s virtualised storage fabric automatically moving files that are being held open for writing, and while a recent update cured many of these issues, it’s still best to avoid using Home Server as a central store for Access, FileMaker and other database applications.

Despite some initial problems, Windows Home Server is a surprisingly capable operating system. It doesn’t have all the features of a full blown Windows Small Business Server installation, but it’s the perfect companion for SBS as a backup appliance and it’s also ideal for a small network that only needs file sharing and print. With automated backup and remote access, it’s a cost-effective way of giving your smaller clients the network they need.

Microsoft’s Home Server team blog is the place to go to find useful tips and tools for any Home Servers you may be looking after:

Add-ins can add extra functionality to Home Servers, from extra administrative tools to cloud-backup services:

If you’re using HP’s little MediaSmart Home Server, there’s a whole blog and wiki for you:



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