Back in January, I posted a preview of Microsoft's Windows Home Server, a product that should send shivers of delight down the spine of any home computing enthusiast. Windows Home Server, or WHS, is the product we've been waiting for quite a long time, and then some: In addition to the expected digital media sharing features, WHS also offers a pervasive platform for full-home PC backups, hot-add expandable storage, and remote access. And best of all, it will be made available both as a standalone software package (which you can install on any PC or server) and as a bundle with specially-made home server hardware.

WHS is expected in late 2007, but since my initial preview, Microsoft has made a number of improvements to this product. First, the company released Beta 2 (see my screenshot galleries), the first beta version of WHS to ship to users outside of Microsoft. WHS Beta 2 offered a decent look at the features I'd described back in my preview, so I didn't provide an overview of that version. But since then, most recently, Microsoft has shipped another beta release. Dubbed the April 2007 CTP (Community Technology Preview), this WHS release offers dramatic improvements and a near-feature-complete look at this evolving product. The April CTP also comes on the heels of news that Microsoft has shipped a software development kit (SDK) that will allow enterprising third party developers to ship WHS software add-ons that will extend this product in exciting ways. Taken together, we now have a much better idea of how WHS is shaping up.

About the CTP

Once again, I spoke with Microsoft product manager Todd Hedrick, who told me that the 'C' in CTP alternatively stood for consumer, customer, and community. "We think of it as the 'C-cubed' build," he said, noting that they had staged the release of the CTP so that first-tier testers such as MVPs, Microsoft Insiders, and Microsoft employees could give them a few days to triage the build before it shipped to the wider test pool. "Any one of them could tell us there's a showstopper [in the CTP build] and we'd stop the whole thing," he said. "It's a sanity check."

Regarding the public beta, over 45,000 people were accepted into the program previous to the CTP release, and Hendrick says there are another 10,000 to 12,000 waiting in the queue. Those testers will be brought on board for the CTP, he said, though it was unclear whether Microsoft would continue accepting new testers after that point.

The CTP represents a visual freeze of the product: "What you see is what it will look like [when it's finalized]," Headrick told me. WHS is "98 percent" feature complete, he said, and only a few minor changes will be made between now and the final version.

Changes since Beta 2

Since Beta 2, Microsoft has made a number of changes to WHS, mostly due to tester feedback. Some of these changes include:

Remote access

In Beta 2, there was no way to configure remote access, but that functionality has been added in the CTP. You can see it in the Windows Home Server Settings window via the WHS console, where a new Remote Access section now lives. WHS will attempt to configure your home router automatically, which should work on most UPnP 2.0-based routers. If your router is not compatible, however, you'll need to manually configure port forwarding using instructions in the Help file. The Remote Access section of this window also lets you set up a custom domain name for your home server. During the beta, Microsoft is using the livenode.com domain, but a different domain will be made available when the product is finalized. You can also use Remote Access to configure whether your internal Home Server site is available externally.

More granular notifications

In Beta 2, WHS users were a bit scattershot: You could see different colored notifications (red, yellow, or green) in different locations and situations. This has been cleaned up in the CTP, but Microsoft has also made notification control more granular. So, for example, you can turn on or off notifications on a PC-by-PC basis, which can make sense if you don't want certain family members to have to deal with these interruptions. (Help notifications can also be accessed programmatically with the new WHS SDK, opening up even more possibilities.)

New password settings

In the WHS CTP, Microsoft has dramatically changed how passwords work, largely because Home Servers can now be remotely accessed. By default, you must specify a "normal" (5 characters or more) password to access WHS, and if you turn on Remote Access, you must use a "complex" password (a mix of lower- and upper-case letters, numbers, and symbols). (You can alternatively configure the server with no password if you desire.) Microsoft has also added a password hint system, which requires you to type in a text-based hint. Since this text-based hint is available to anyone, Hedrick recommends users ensure that it's a hint for them only. (i.e. don't make it "what is your middle name?")

Server name

Microsoft now lets you provide a unique name for the Home Server. I know this sounds like a minor issue, but the previous version didn't provide a simple UI for this. You can now specify the server name during setup.

Out of box experience (OOBE)

Though many WHS users won't see this, Microsoft added the so-called out of box experience, or OOBE, to the April CTP. This is the wizard-based UI that appears when a customer buys new Home Server hardware from a Microsoft partner like HP, brings it home, and turns it on for the first time. "It will take you through some screens where you're prompted for the name of the server, whether to use auto updates, your password and password hint, and whether you'd like to take part in the Customer Experience Improvement Program and Windows Error Reporting," Hedrick said. If you'd like to see an approximation of this UI in the CTP, you can do so after installing the server software on your own hardware.

Add-ins support

Also new to Server Settings is an Add-ins section, from which you can manage the various WHS add-ins that will ship in coming months. "Add-ins are things you can build with the SDK," Hedrick said. These include various kinds of executables, including background services, and Microsoft will ship at least one WHS Add-in, which it will brand as a PowerToy, sometime in the future. (The identity of this Add-in is currently a secret.) Microsoft expects to see a big market for WHS add-ins, including tools that will allow you to remotely view USB cameras, anti-virus utilities, and the like. "It's very flexible," Hedrick said.

Lots of little things

In addition to the more obvious changes, WHS has been changed under the hood has well. You can disable backup for a PC that is not connected to the Home Server anymore, which was a problem in Beta 2. "You can now remove a PC from the Home Server console," Hedrick said, "and it will delete all the backups. This is one of the high-level annoyances that testers found in Beta 2." The system does a better job of tracking various system aspects, including overall server health, Drive Extender health, and Shared Folder health. If a hard drive goes missing, for example, WHS will do a better job with troubleshooting and repairing the problem than was possible in Beta 2.v

The WHS CTP also adds the ability to install Windows Updates on a "headless" server. (i.e. a server with no keyboard, mouse, or display, which could be most WHS installs.) Previously, Windows Updates that prompted the user required someone to manually log onto the Home Server and click through dialogs. Now, WHS handles that in the background, and you can install all updates from the client-based console.

Users familiar with Beta 2 will notice that the WHS console UI has been updated somewhat to be prettier and a bit more streamlined. It's not dramatically different, to be honest, but this new UI does offer a few subtle improvements. The Settings button, for example, actually says Settings (in Beta 2, it was a picture of a gear), and there is a new three-pane status bar on the bottom of the window. These panes offer, from left to right, information about which users are logged in via Remote Access, Drive Extender (whether it's balancing storage, resting, or duplicating), and Backup status, respectively.

Microsoft has also added a server recovery mechanism for Home Servers without DVD drives, since many retail Home Servers will ship without such a device. Basically, Microsoft's hardware partners will ship a recovery and diagnostics DVD with their servers, allowing users to reinstall the system and recover data. The new recovery mechanism allows you to trigger this DVD from a network-connected PC. (Of course, do-it-yourselfers who purchase WHS software only can do this directly from the server as well.)

Installing and using WHS CTP

Rather than write a complete overview of the WHS CTP, I'd like to point you to my two CTP screenshot galleries, which adequately explain the process. And besides, I need to save something for my final review. In the meantime, let me just offer a few observations.

Windows Home Server is based on Windows Server 2003 with Service Pack 2 (SP2), but appears to utilize a Vista/Longhorn Server-type install process. You can actually upgrade a Beta 2 box to the CTP, but I chose to do a clean install, and I'm glad I did. In fact, I'll almost certainly be switching over my main home server (currently running Windows Server 2003 R2) to Windows Home Server sometime in the weeks ahead.

Once the server portion of Setup is complete, you must complete the install remotely using the Windows Home Server Connector software. From here, you enter the server password and hint, join the PC with the Home Server, configure backup, and then run the WHS console, which runs in a self-contained window.

It appears that WHS can only backup NTFS volumes. I'm guessing this is related to Previous Versions, but I'll need to check with Microsoft on that.

In general use, the WHS CTP is similar to Beta 2. You configure users, computers, Shared Folders, and storage as before for the most part. The Settings window, as previously mentioned, has been updated with new Remote Access and Add-ins sections to accompany this new functionality.

My router--a D-Link gaming router--apparently isn't compatible with the automated Remote Access configuration capability. I'm actually sort of shocked by this, so I'll be looking for a new router. Microsoft tells me that when WHS ships, they will provide a router compatibility list and will actually certify routers for WHS via a logo program in order to help consumers ensure they have the right hardware.

Looking ahead

With the April CTP behind them, Microsoft is looking ahead to the eventual release of this initial version of WHS. The company expects to ship a release candidate (RC) next, and then finalize WHS in the second half of 2007.

Conclusions

I remain excited about WHS and while one might easily come up with a number of features they'd like to see added to the product--a server-based version of Media Center comes to mind--know this: This is the initial version of WHS, Microsoft plans to keep improving it over time, and they're listening to your suggestions and ideas. As with the first version of Media Center, the technology is in a nascent stage but is already quite compelling. If this first version of WHS is so good, I can only imagine what the future holds.