Windows Home Server Installation and Configuration

3/14/2012 5:39:33 PM

1. Introducing the Home Server

In late 2007, Microsoft's PC maker and hardware partners began shipping specially designed home server products based around a new operating system called Windows Home Server. Code-named "Q" (and previously code-named "Quattro"), Windows Home Server is just what its name suggests, a home server product. It provides a central place to store and share documents, along with other useful services for the connected home.

Windows Home Server is designed to be almost diabolically simple, and after 2½ years of active development, Microsoft decided that it had achieved an interface that was both simple enough for the most inexperienced user and powerful enough for even the most demanding power user.

Okay, maybe that's a bit of a stretch; but given what it does—bring the power of Microsoft's server operating system software into the home—Windows Home Server is pretty darned impressive. And if you're in the Windows Home Server target market—that is, you have broadband Internet access and a home network with two or more PCs—this might just be the product for you. In many ways, it's the ultimate add-on for Windows 7.

From a mile-high view, Windows Home Server provides four basic services: centralized PC backup and restore, centralized PC and server health monitoring, document and media sharing, and remote access. We'll examine all of these features in just a bit.

2. Windows Home Server Evolution

The initial Windows Home Server generation, which is still current at the time of this writing, is based on Windows Server 2003, a previous generation version of Microsoft's enterprise-class server OS. In addition to the initial release, Windows Home Server has also seen two major updates, Power Pack 1 (PP1) and Power Pack 2 (PP2).

The first version of Windows Home Server provided all of the basics, which are still present in today's product: PC backup and restore functionality, PC and server health monitoring, document and media sharing, remote access, and, as crucially, an extensibility model that enables developers to create add-ins, small software updates that enhance Windows Home Server's capabilities in fun and interesting ways.

Windows Home Server PP1 was released in mid-2008. This update includes compatibility for 64-bit (x64) versions of Windows Vista (and Windows 7), server backup capabilities, improvements to remote access, and a number of other changes. Key among these is a fix for a data corruption bug that affected almost no users but was widely reported by the press.

Windows Home Server PP2 debuted in April 2009 and included features that made this product more interesting to the hardware makers that sell Home Servers. It adds support for the Italian language (in addition to the currently supported Chinese, English, French, German, Japanese, and Spanish languages), improves the SDK for developers, and vastly simplifies the "day one" experience (what used to be called OOBE, or out of box experience), reducing the number of steps a new user has to complete from 23 to 13. PP2 also includes a simplified and improved remote access experience, and enhanced media sharing, especially for Media Center users.

Of course, Microsoft is also working on a next-generation Windows Home Server code-named Veil, which will ship after Windows 7. Windows Home Server v2 will be based on the Windows Server 2008 R2 generation of server products that appeared alongside Windows 7 and will no doubt interact seamlessly with Windows 7 features like HomeGroups. Sadly, that product wasn't ready for testing at the time of this writing.


In addition to Microsoft's work on Windows Home Server, some key hardware partners have been working over the years to steadily improve their Windows Home Server machines with innovative hardware designs and interesting software solutions that extend core functionality through high-quality add-ins. Key among these is HP, whose MediaSmart Server line has proven to be the customer favorite in the United States, and for good reason: these machines consistently provide an even better experience than the stock Windows Home Server experience documented here. And yes, both Paul and Rafael rely on HP MediaSmart Servers in their own homes. These are excellent servers.

HP currently markets two different MediaSmart families of servers. The high-end MediaSmart EX series is the mainstream Home Server and supports multiple internal hard drives. It's shown in Figure 1. The HP MediaSmart Server LX series, meanwhile, is a one-hard-drive option that is aimed at the low end of the market. Shown in Figure 2, these servers can be expanded externally.

Figure 1. HP MediaSmart EX series Home Server

Figure 2. HP MediaSmart LX series Home Server

3. Windows Home Server Installation and Configuration

Depending on how you acquire Windows Home Server, your one-time install and initial configuration experience will either be long and reasonably difficult or long and reasonably easy. Those who purchase new home server hardware will have the simpler—and likely superior—experience, but configuring the server is a time-consuming proposition in either case. That said, it's a one-time deal. For the most part, you'll install the server just once and then access it remotely occasionally after that.


Some PC makers, notably HP, have gone to great lengths to make the Windows Home Server initial setup experience much easier than the Microsoft default. See Paul's reviews of HP's MediaSmart Servers on the SuperSite for Windows ( to see what we mean.

Once you've purchased a Windows Home Server machine, you simply plug it into your home network, turn it on, and then access it remotely from other PCs on your network. (Check the server documentation for the exact setup procedure, which varies from PC maker to PC maker.)

You won't normally sit down in front of your home server with a keyboard, mouse, and screen, and access it as you would a normal PC. Indeed, many commercial home server machines don't even come with a display port of any kind, so you couldn't plug in a monitor even if you wanted to. Instead, Microsoft expects you to interact with Windows Home Server solely through a special software console.


You may not be surprised to discover that you can bypass the Windows Home Server administrative console and access the bare-bones operating system if you know the trick. Here's how it works: on a Windows 7–based PC, launch the Remote Desktop Connection utility (type remote in Start Menu Search), type the computer name (hostname) of your home server into the Computer field (typically something like HOME-SERVER), and supply the name administrator as the user name and the password for the master account that you configured during home server setup. Ta-da! You can now access the Windows Home Server Desktop, shown in Figure 3, just as you would any other computer. Note, however, that Windows Home Server is designed to be used remotely via the console, and not interactively, so be careful about installing software or making other changes via this remote desktop interface.

Figure 3. If you remotely access the server, you'll find a stripped-down version of Microsoft's enterprise-oriented Windows Server products.

The initial configuration of Windows Home Server involves first installing the Windows Home Server Connector software, which comes on its own CD, on a client PC running Windows XP with Service Pack 2 or 3 or any version of Windows Vista or 7. (You can also access the Connector software via your home network; it can be found at \\{computer name}\Software\Home Server Connector Software\ by default.) The installer will "join," or connect, your PC to the server (see Figure 4) for later backup purposes and then complete the setup process.

Figure 4. Windows Home Server connects to your PC, establishing a backup and management relationship.


As is the case with any other PC-like network resource, you must log on to the Windows Home Server in order to access it remotely, and that's true regardless of how you plan to access the server (via shared folders, the administrative console, or the Connector tray software). While it's possible to maintain different logons on your PC and the server, it's simpler to make them identical. That way, you will automatically and silently log on to the server every time you need to access it. In fact, Windows Home Server will prompt you to do this, as shown in Figure 5, if the passwords don't match. Note, too, that if you configure Windows Home Server for remote access, the passwords you use need to meet minimum length and complexity guidelines, for your security.

Figure 5. It's not required, but your life will be easier if you sync passwords between your PC and your Windows Home Server user account.
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