Tags: windows home server

Upgrading from Windows Home Server to Windows Server 2012 Essentials

A couple of weeks back I started the upgrade from Windows Home Server to Windows Server 2012 Essentials. I never bothered moving to Windows Home Server 2011, the lack of Drive Extender was the deal breaker for me. But with WHSv1 falling out of support, it had to be done, that plus all the drives were almost full, which was having a noticeable impact on performance sometimes, so time to do something about it. Plus getting something a bit more modern was much desired!

For background I put together the current box from an Asus T3-P5G31 around 2008 or 2009, does the job nicely, small and compact. Only downside is there's only space for two 3.5 inch drives, I have a third in the 5 1/4 inch bay. I was running it with a 1TB, 1.5TB and 2TB drives.

First up Windows Server 2012 Essentials isn't cheap, it is insanely expensive to use as a home server, at around ten times the price of WHSv1. But as someone who has run a server at home since Windows 2000, hosting commercially successful websites from it, along with Small Business Server 2003, just so I could get push e-mail to my phone, it was more a returning to the norm. But undoubtedly the price is a deal breaker, the product is clearly aimed at the small business.

I ordered two Western Digital Red 3TB drives to go along with it. There was mixed opinion on the internet as to if the board with its ICH7 controller would support 3TB drives. So I ordered a Transcend PDC3 SATA board, to add 2 more SATA ports, and definite support for 3TB drives, if the on-board controller didn't. Also added 2 USB 3 ports, juicy bonus, or so I thought, more on that later.

Before doing the install, I backed up all the data onto one of the 3TB drives by plugging it into another machine and copying everything over the network. Data safe, ready to go to work.

I ended up installing the system on an old 500GB drive I had lying around, then using the two 3TB drives to mirror data on the server - I ran into a setback when Storage Spaces had to wipe the data from a drive to use it in a Storage Space - d'oh, so I had to copy the data to another drive, and then back again after creating the Storage Space - adding about 20 hours to the process.

I then used the 2TB and 1.5TB drives together in a simple volume to hold File History backups, and also image-based backups. So yes, I have two drives sticking out of the case, but I needed the storage. Alternatively you could run with USB drives in nice tidy enclosures, but I don't need tidy.

I had already tested it out in virtual machines so had few unexpected surprises. It installed without a hitch.

By default the connector software joins the client machines to the domain, I don't need this and run my home network as a workgroup, there is a workaround. Run the following on an elevated command prompt before installing the connector software:

reg add "HKLM\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows Server\ClientDeployment" /v SkipDomainJoin /t REG_DWORD /d 1

Boom, joins the computer without messing with your local user profiles. It installs the Launchpad and Dashboard software, and away you go basically.

I however ran into some issues. The largest of which was the server becoming unresponsive after about 12 hours, upon closer inspection it seemed the Transcend SATA card's USB driver had a memory leak! Luckily I'm not using the USB ports, so I disabled the driver. This is something you should be aware of if you're using this card in a similar setup.

The following minor issue is the connector installation adds a service that periodically changes your DNS servers to your server, if you need to prevent this from happening you can disable the service (Windows Server LAN configuration).

Lastly clients seemed to forget their network credentials every session, this would prevent File History from running unless you accessed the server and entered them again - it seems the Launchpad software changes the credentials from permanent to session only. Disabling the Launchpad software resolves this - there seem to be no major side effects - backups still run normally, but you lose server alerts, or trigger backups manually from the client (you can still do it via the Dashboard) - no big deal in my opinion. Presumably this is a side effect of running as a workgroup rather than a domain.

All in all no major problems, just be aware it is way more expensive, and way more complicated to setup, well relative to Windows Home Server, certainly not compared to older versions of Windows Server. But alas it seems the Home Server market has been abandoned by Microsoft, however Windows 8 Pro does support Storage Spaces, so using Windows 8 on a home server isn't unreasonable, in fact it's very possible.

And yes my Terraria and Freelancer servers continue to operate normally from it!

Update on the new Windows Home Server

Following on from my previous post on the subject of my new server, its been running fine for a week.

Here's the thing sat next to the old server. Much smaller, and much more likely to survive the journey to Guildford - I've actually decided to use screws to hold this one together, not cellotape and blu-tac. Although I'm sure I'll be swearing at it when I need to swap out some disks.

The only real downside to using such a smaller case is the number of disks it can support. There are only two 3.5 inch bays with this particular case, and one DVD-ROM drive bay - which I play to use to put an extra disk in, as having a DVD-ROM drive would be a bit pointless. But if push came to shove Windows Home Server is quite happy using USB drives too.

Here's the exact build for those interested:

Asus T3-P5G31 barebones
Intel Pentium Dual-Core E5200
Arctic Cooling Freezer 7 Low Profile Fan
OcUK 4GB 677 DDR2
Western Digital Caviar Green 1TB

Other drives were harvested from the old server, but I'll probably end up adding a 1.5TB drive at some point. The new Western Digital drives are pretty quiet, but they're still farely loud while seeking. Not as quiet as my Hitachi P7K500 I use in my desktop, which are pretty much silent while doing anything, including seeking.

Temperatures aren't bad considering it only has one fan other the one in the PSU, which is on the CPU - no chipset fans (which always get worn out after a few years). The two cores float between 36 and 44, and the two drives in there at the moment float between 39 and 43 the CPU fan happily runs at around 1400 RPM, I've only twice heard it spin up to about 2000 RPM and then only for a couple of minutes usually when the server is munching through some backups.

New server under construction

Today I'm putting together a new server, its based on an Asus T3 barebones system, I've got a 2.5Ghz dual core Pentium for it, and 4GB of RAM. As well as some of the new low power Western Digital disks.

This will be replacing my 9 year old system which has faithfully been running almost nonstop based on a 1.4Ghz Athlon Thunderbird, with 1.5GB of RAM and a collection of aging hard disks, this has been running Windows Home Server and a Virtual Machine running Small Business Server flawlessly, so hopefully the new system will be just as reliable.

All together it came to about 400, including Windows Home Server. On the plus side it should be using 25-50% of the energy of my existing server. Meaning it'll pay for itself in just a couple of years.

Considering how cheap hardware is nowadays this really is a fantastic time to be replacing older energy-hungry systems with new, smaller, faster and more efficent systems, something businesses should really be looking at to reduce their energy bills.

If everything goes to plan, my old server will be retired sometime tomorrow.

Windows Home Server review

I picked up a copy of Windows Home Server a couple of weeks back, saw it on Overclockers and ordered it with a new 500GB hard drive, I was originally going to have this finished a day or two after installing, but things got in the way.

Microsoft announced Windows Home Server back at the CES in January, it was very well received and I managed to get onto the beta program a couple of months later, so I come at this review having used it for 6 months or so already.

Windows Home Server is aimed towards people with 2 of more PCs (a maximum of 10 clients are officially supported). Its main three features I would say are:

1) Network storage, it exposes standard network shares for file storage, you can create your own, change which users have permissions etc. If you have multiple hard drives you can set it to duplicate all of your files to protect against a hard disk failure. From an end user perspective all the hard disks will appear as one headless drive, and Windows Home Server will manage things in the background.

2) Backup, with the Connector software you can backup your computers to Home Server (which actually uses surprisingly little space as its cluster based backup not file based). By default it will backup the entire machine, so in the case of drive failure you can simply restore the whole image to a new hard drive.

3) Online access to your files, being a stripped down version of SBS 2003, it's got IIS and it does get used to provide a web front end to access all the files on the network shares. You can also use remote desktop to connect to the Home Server itself, or any PC on the network (Home Server will forward the packets to get around NATs). It supports uPnP, so if your router supports it too it can set all this up automatically. You even get a sub domain name to help locate your machine so you don't need to remember your IP address.

It also supports a number of other things, media sharing like WMP11 or Windows Media Connect, you can stream media to another device like an Xbox 360.

Also it allows 3rd parties to develop add-ons which can provide more functionality. There are already plenty of them released; one for example uses the web front end to make a public or private photo gallery. Another is a bit torrent client.

To read more about what Home Server does, check out the Microsoft's website.

On with my experiences...

It was installed on my server machine in the cupboard, which was formally running the beta version of Windows Home Server, and prior to that Windows XP and Windows 2000.

The specs are as follows, 1.4Ghz Athlon Thunderbird, clocked at 1.0Ghz (at 1.4Ghz it crashes due to the 180 watt PSU), with 1GB of RAM, an 11 year old 2MB video card and a bunch of hard drives.

This is also the machine which runs Windows SBS 2003 in a Virtual Machine, which I use to handle my e-mail, which I wrote about in detail here. So although the machine does have 1GB of RAM, half of that is set aside for SBS 2003.

There were no problems encountered using Virtual Server on the final version of Windows Home Server. So although this product looks simple and is geared towards anybody using it, you can still log on to the desktop and do some really powerful things with it.

The OEM package that I had came with three discs, 1 DVD being the actual install disc, and 2 CDs one containing the Connector software for the clients, and 1 containing a bootable disc that you can use to recover a machine from a backup.

Installing it was simple enough, it uses the same installer as Windows XP and Server 2003, although it does have some new swishy Vista style graphics. It took may be a little over an hour on my machine in total.

Once installed, you need to give it a password, this is used to login to the client-side control panel provided by the Connector application, dubbed the Windows Home Server Console.

Windows Home Server storage view

Using this, you can setup individual machines, create new user accounts - typically these should match usernames and passwords on the client machines. Create shared folders, and see the storage pool to add or remove hard drives to the machine.

Under settings we find more advanced options.

Windows Home Server settings

We can alter almost everything from here, what time backups start and end, required password strengths, and setting up remote access. Speaking of which this is the webpage you're greeted with when attempting to login.

Windows Home Server login page

Once logged in, you can access any of your files stored on the server. You can upload and download files over the web front end, open the Console over remote desktop, or connect to the server's desktop, or any other machines on your network.

Windows Home Server remote access

It also supports instance search so you can quickly find anything you're looking for, this also works locally on the network using Vista's search functionality.

Pros: It's simple and does what it says without any hassle. Yet if you're more of a power user and want to install an FTP client, or DHCP server - although it isn't an officially supported scenario you can go ahead and do that.

Plenty of good addons released so far, no doubt with plenty more under development.

System requirements are low, and work on 5 year old hardware easily.

Cons: No Connector support for 64-bit Windows yet, so you lose the fancy backup features and the ability to access the Console. But the network shares still work fine, and if you really need to, you can use remote desktop to connect to the server and access the Console from there. There are some ways around this, but I hear this is currently under development.

Considering all of that, I give Windows Home Server 5 out of 5. Highly recommended to anybody who wants a backup solution for multiple PCs, or who wants an uber-network attached storage device. You can buy it in both OEM form for hardware you've already got or you can buy it on machines like the HP Media SmartServer.

Windows Home Server Connector on x64

It's nice to see Microsoft leading the field in support for 64-bit operating systems.

Windows Home Server Connector, which is the little application installed on the clients which handles backups and opens the Home Server Console, doesn't install on x64.

Officially the team says they don't have the resources to support x64 and so there will be no support at this time.

What I want to know is why Microsoft isn't putting the money into the team to support x64. I don't know about you, but I want the transition to 64-bit completed as fast as possible, that means all vendors pulling their weight writing compatible software. We're running out of RAM fast, there's games around now which chew up over 2GB quite happily, we need to migrate soon. Having Microsoft, who was among the first (with AMD) in the x86 space to start pushing 64-bit dragging their feet with Home Server is somewhat annoying.

You can force the install of the Connector software on x64 by using the following on an elevated command prompt:

msiexec /i \path\to\whsconnector.msi WHSMSI="RUNSETUP"

But backups simply won't function properly, and it is not officially supported. What I would like to see a few months down the road after release is x64 support.

I'd also like to see a stripped down Exchange plug-in for Home Server, with a web front end hooked in to the Home Server web page too.