Every once in a while, a technology comes down the pike that renews my faith in what I've dedicated huge chunks of my personal and professional lives to. Windows Media Center is a terrific example of that, because it touches on virtually everything that's interesting about technology to me: It's innovative, it's beautiful, and it's just fun, and people "get" it, and want it, the second they see it. Products like Media Center are pretty rare, however, and while I recall eagerly awaiting the first Media Center beta to show up on my doorstop in early 2002, the years since have been comparatively disappointing. Even Windows Vista, originally so full of vigor and promise, eventually became far less exciting because of interminable delays and dropped features. So it's been awhile.

This past year, however, my interest with technology has once again been tweaked, this time by Windows Home Server, a product that is, in many ways, related to Windows Media Center. That said, Windows Home Server (WHS) is quite a bit more pedestrian and workmanlike in the sense that you won't ever really sit in front of a WHS machine and "use" it as you do with Vista or Media Center. No, WHS is designed to sit quietly in a closet, or under a desk, doing its thing. But then it's that "thing" that is so exciting. And though it may be a tough sell for some people right now--WHS, like Media Center, is somewhat ahead of its time--I have no doubt that a huge percentage of Windows-using consumers around the world needs this product, whether they realize now it or not. Maybe when Apple copies it as Apple Home Server, or whatever, and supplies about 50 percent of the functionality three years down the road (you know, as they did to Media Center with Front Row and then Apple TV), people will finally get it. I don't think you should have to wait that long, however. WHS is here today, and it's a winner.

Features

From a conceptual standpoint, the problem with Windows Home Server is that it doesn't lend itself to a simple, single-sentence description that will immediately sell itself. In a nutshell, WHS is home-based server software, based on a rock-solid Windows Server 2003 core, that will typically be sold with new PC-like server hardware from companies like HP. (Enthusiasts are free to install just the software on a spare or new PC, however.) It provides three basic services: Automatic PC backup, restoration, and health monitoring; document and file sharing, including digital photos, music, and videos; and remote access capabilities, both to the server itself and to PCs on your home network. The biggest innovation in WHS is the way it handles storage: You can very easily add and remove storage from a home server, and never need to deal with drive letters or arcane Windows file sharing issues. WHS is also fully expandable, so third parties can ship add-ins for WHS that extend its capabilities in fun, exciting, and useful ways.

Let's take a closer look at each of these features.

PC backup and restore

With the advent of Windows Home Server, Microsoft now offers three levels of backup protection to users with the most recent versions of its software. Windows Vista introduced the Backup and Restore Center, for image-based backup of the entire PC as well as more typical file backup. Vista also includes Previous Versions, a way to retrieve older versions of documents and other files directly from the file system, as well as tools like System Restore.) Windows Live OneCare 2.0 offers an even better backup experience, with a centralized backup tool for all of the OneCare-enabled PCs on your home network. (OneCare 2.0 also offers a semi-related online photo backup feature.)

Windows Home Server offers a third level of backup protection. As with OneCare 2.0, this feature provides a centralized backup solution that applies to all of the PCs connected to the home server on your home network. However, WHS is a better solution than what's in OneCare because the backups are stored in a more logical place--the headless "back room" home server, and because it reduces the required hard drive space by not creating duplicate copies of files that haven't changed.

Windows Home Server Backup provides two basic services: It backs up the entire PC and then performs incremental backups on a daily basis going forward, allowing you to restore your computer to a previous state in time using an included Computer Restore CD. It also provides a way to go in and restore individual files and folders back in time, similar to the way Previous Versions works on the local system.

PC and server health monitoring

Windows Home Server includes health monitoring, both for the server itself as well as all of the connected PCs. In this way, it's again a bit like Windows Live OneCare 2.0, which offers a similar home network health monitoring feature. The overall health of the entire system--the server and all the clients--is optionally communicated via the WHS Connector icon that appears in the system tray of any connected PCs. If it's green, all is well. Yellow indicates a risk. Red is a critical problem. And blue means that that PC is currently being backed up.

WHS monitors a number of things to determine overall health. On the server, it monitors the health and free space of the hard drives. On the clients, it monitors backups to ensure they're proceeding without problems, and, on Vista systems, it integrates with Windows Security Center to ensure that each PC is up-to-date with anti-virus and other security controls. That way, you can see that a PC elsewhere in the house is behind on updating its security features and take proactive steps to correct the problem.

Notifications, which appear when there are issues, can be annoying, as anyone who's used OneCare can relate. On the other hand, individual users can elect to just turn off tray-based health notifications, and that's not a bad idea for all the non-admins in the house. (i.e. everyone else in your family.)

Document and media sharing

While it's relatively simple to create a shared folder on any Windows system, and far easier and more secure to do so in Windows Vista specifically, Windows Home Server builds on this basic functionality in a number of ways. From a logical standpoint, a server is an ideal place to store file archives of any kind, though this may be a foreign concept to many consumers here in 2007. I've been using a Windows Server-based server for this purpose for years, though I'm in the process of switching this over entirely to WHS now. In my case, I need about 1 TB of storage space, but your needs will likely be far less. My guess is that a basic WHS server will ship with a 512 GB hard drive. For best performance, you're going to want two drives. I'll describe why in just a bit.

On a very basic level, WHS can and does act like any Windows-based machine with respect to file shares. It includes a number of pre-built shares, like Music, Photos, Public, Software, and Videos, and it creates a default share for each user you create (mine is called "paul"). These shares, by default, have standard rights associated with them. So while even a guest has read access to the Public folder, only a user who was explicitly given the correct credentials can access the paul share with Full rights. The UI for configuring this is far simpler than what's available in any Windows desktop version, and naturally you can add arbitrary shared folders if you wish. (You can also add arbitrary users, go figure.)

But WHS isn't just about simplicity: In addition to making it very easy to access and control access to whatever is available on the home server, WHS also includes a unique and innovative approach to storage. Basically, any hard drive you connect to the server is added to the pool of available storage, and you don't need to deal with drive letters or other disk management arcana. Just plug in the drive, external or internal, and tell WHS, via its console (see below) that it's free to use that storage. WHS will work with as much storage as you can throw at it, and it's basically only limited by the USB 2.0, Firewire, ATA, and S-ATA connections on your server.

Also innovative is WHS' approach to file redundancy. Rather than burden the user with complicated technologies like RAID, WHS instead supplies a very simple interface that ensures that important files are duplicated across at least two physical drives, ensuring that if one drive fails, you won't lose anything critical. I've configured WHS so that all of my digital photos are duplicated in this fashion, while videos are not. File duplication is configured on a per share basis and is automatic if you have two or more drives connected. You can, however, configure this feature as you will.

Finally, WHS also makes it easy to remove storage. This way, if you want to disable older, less voluminous storage devices and plug in newer, bigger drives, you can do so without interruption. First, WHS will copy whatever data is on the older drives to other drivers, and then it will remove that drive from the storage pool so you can disconnect it. (Obviously, this will require enough free space on other drives.) Brilliant.

Remote access

I currently subscribe to Logmein.com's Log Me In Pro service at a cost of about $100 a year. This service allows me to connect to my home Windows Server 2003 R2 server, which until recently was my main data archive, from anywhere in the world. (Assuming an Internet connection.) For someone who travels as much as I do, this kind of service is crucial: I can't tell you how often I've been out on the road and realized I'd forgotten to copy an important file to my laptop. With Log Me In, I can download those files and even remotely access the server UI over the Internet to perform other tasks. It's proven to be incredibly valuable.

Windows Home Server includes a superset of this functionality and, best of all, there's no additional or annual cost. Thanks to its remote access features, you can access the home server as well as most connected PCs in your home network using a simple and effective Web interface. (You can only remotely control PCs on your home network running Windows XP Pro, Media Center 2005, or Tablet PC with SP2 or Windows Vista Business, Enterprise, or Ultimate.) Remote access consists of three related features:

Access to WHS shared folders. The contents of any folders that are shared from WHS, such as Music, Photos, Public, Software, and Videos, as well as any other folders you've shared, are accessible via the Web interface. There's even a Windows Live Search-like search box to help find exactly what you need.

Access to connected PCs. PCs that are connected to WHS (put another way, PCs on which you've installed the WHS Connector client software) can be remotely controlled, similar to the way you can control a Windows client or server using Remote Desktop. Obviously, the experience can be fair to middling depending on your connection speed. But it's still pretty incredible to be able to do this with desktop machines while on the road.

Access to the WHS console. Additionally, you can access the WHS management console when you're online but off the home network. The management experience is identical compared to when you're connected locally, aside from potential speed issues and the fact that the console appears within the browser and not via the traditional console window.

In addition to all this great functionality, Microsoft goes a long way towards making it really easy to configure and use. By default, Remote Access is disabled, so you'll need to utilize the Remote Access tab in the Settings dialog to first turn it on and then configure it. Enabling remote access will either be dead simple or utterly painful, depending on what kind of router you're using on your home network. If you have a compatible UPnP router, WHS will automatically configure it for remote access and all will be well. If you don't, you'll need to manually configure your router using fairly technical instructions in WHS help. That latter route isn't pretty, either: I was never able to correctly manually configure my own router to work properly, though a firmware upgrade allowed WHS to later automatically configure the router and get things going. This is a potential weak link.

Here's a tip: To enable remote access to specific PCs, you'll need to do a little work on each PC as there's no way to do that via the WHS console. This varies a bit between XP and Vista, but on Vista, you open the Start Menu, right-click on Computer and then select Properties. Then, click Advanced system settings and navigate to the Remote tab in the System Properties dialog that appears. Under Remote Desktop, select "Allow connections from computers running any version of Remote Desktop (less secure)". If you choose the "more secure" version, it won't work.

Once remote access is up and running, Microsoft will give you a free custom URL like something.homeserver.com where "something" is replaced by whatever name you prefer. That's pretty cool, though I'd love to be able to use a real domain name (like something.com).

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. As you should expect, installing the software version of WHS on your own hardware is time consuming and involves a silly number of reboots and so on, and then the initial configuration experience requires a bit of dedication and time as well. Those who purchase new home server hardware, however, should experience something much simpler. But configuring the server is still pretty time-consuming. That said, it's a one-time deal. For the most part, you'll install the server once and then just access it remotely occasionally after that.

Configuration involves first installing the WHS Connector software, which comes on its own CD, on a client PC (Windows XP SP2+ or any version of Vista). The installer will join your PC to the server for later backup purposes and then complete the setup process. Then, you can launch the WHS management console from the WHS Connector icon in the tray. This bizarre application is really a custom-tailored remote desktop window that typically only displays the console, running remotely on the server. It's weird.

On a stock WHS install, you'll see a very simple interface with Computers & Backups, User Accounts, Shared Folders, and Server Storage buttons on the top. There's also a Network health shield icon and links for settings and help. Here's what's available in the WHS management console user interface:

Computers & Backup

From here, you manage the computers that are connected to WHS (i.e. the systems on which you've installed the WHS Connector software). A connected PC is one that will be completely backed up to the server by default, but you can configure this at the drive level. For example, you might only want to backup one hard drive on the system regularly, but not the other. By default, WHS will backup individual PCs overnight, but you can manually trigger a backup from the Connector tray icon on the client PC or from within this interface. You can even trigger backups from other PCs if you'd like.

User Accounts

Here, you can create user accounts to allow individuals to access various features of the server. By default, there is a guest account, but you will typically create accounts that map to accounts on the PCs you use and thus to people in your home. For example, I create a paul account, assign it a complex password (required in WHS by default), and give it Full access to all shared folders.

If you want to provide remote access, you'll need an even more complex password. For simplicity's sake, you may want to ensure that the account you use to logon to your PC locally and your WHS have the same name and password, though this isn't strictly necessary. If you do set it up this way, however, you won't have to enter a user name and password every time you access a file share through Vista's Network interface.

Shared Folders

Here, you'll see all of the shared folders that are configured on the server, along with a simple Duplication option for each, which determines whether data in that folder is copied to two discs for reliability purposes. You can add and configure shares from here, and determine access rights on a user-by-user basis.

Server Storage

This section of the WHS user interface lists all of the hard drives that are currently attached to your server, whether they're configured for use by the server, and other related information. You can add new storage to the server here or repair a hard drive that's encountering errors. (This shows up in the WHS Connector tray icon as a health alert.) You can also remove a hard drive using this interface if necessary.

What you can't do in WHS is determine where files will be stored. This is handled by WHS: All you do is create shares, determine whether they're duplicated across disks (requires two or more hard drives, of course), and then copy files up to that location. Simple.

Settings

This inauspicious little link opens up the most complex UI in the whole console, a Settings dialog with seven sections by default, though pre-installed versions of the server will have more. These sections are:

General. Here, you configure date and time, region, Windows Update, and other basic settings.

Backup. Here, you configure various settings related to PC backups, including the backup window (12:00 am to 6:00 am by default); how much time to retain monthly, weekly, and daily backups; and so on.

Passwords. WHS requires very strong passwords by default, because a malicious hacker accessing the server over the Web could gain control over the system, and thus all of your valuable files and, potentially, other PCs on your network if they were able to brute force attack their way past a weak password. That said, you can change the password policy here if desired.

Media Sharing. Though they're disabled by default, WHS can share digital media files via the Music, Photos, and Videos shared folders using standard Windows Media Connect technology. If you enable this sharing, PCs and compatible devices on your network (like an Xbox 360) will "see" the home server shares and be able to access that content over the network.

Remote Access. Here, you can turn on the home server's Web server, configure your home router for remote access and Web serving, and configure your custom domain name (something.homeserver.com). Enabling these features, along with the media sharing folders described above, pretty much provides the full feature set of this initial release of WHS software.

Add-ins. Here, you can install or uninstall any WHS add-ins. (See below.)

There's also a seventh section, Resources, which acts as an About box for WHS.

Extending the home server with add-ins

While WHS is obviously an excellent product in its own right, even in this first release, Microsoft was wise to allow users to extend the product's capabilities through an add-in SDK (software development kit). Developers can use this SDK to create unique new features that run up on the server. Already, there are numerous excellent add-ins available, many of which are free, and no doubt more are coming down the road. For a good list of available WHS add-ins, check out the We Got Served Web site, which is dedicated to WHS. I'll be looking at a few WHS add-ins in my upcoming review of HP's MediaSmart Home Server.

What's missing?

Despite its well-considered feature set and the advantages of its add-in capability, Windows Home Server isn't perfect. The installation and configuration scheme will likely prove arduous and complex for many consumers, though the enthusiasts who will no doubt embrace this first version will have no problems. The management console is particularly bad: It appears to be implemented as a unique type of remote access window where the only available view is the console itself, which fits just inside the frame of the local application window. What this means is that while you can't actually access the underlying desktop through this window, you can in fact occasionally see and interact with dialog boxes and other windows that are being launched on the server. The effect is sort of scattershot, and I'd like to see the WHS team create a true local application for managing the server for a future release. The current implementation just seems thrown together.

Another issue concerns router configuration. While WHS can automatically configure most UPnP-enabled routers, a huge number of consumers purchased Wireless-G routers over the past several years and then proceeded to never update them or think about them again. If WHS can automatically configure your router, the experience is terrific. If it can't, you're in for a world of hurt, and I was unable to successfully follow Microsoft's instructions to manually configure the router to work with WHS. In my case, a router firmware update solved the problem, and now everything is working swimmingly. But I can't help but think that this is one area where WHS will just prove too daunting to typical consumers. There has to be a better way of doing this: One solution might be to include a router with home server hardware or even integrate that functionality into the box itself. That would of course limit where you could place the device, but I can't help but think that router configuration is going to be the number one complaint from users.

While the remote access functionality is excellent, Microsoft is leaving out the biggest potential market by not supporting Windows Vista Home Premium. This is by design--Home Premium doesn't include the remote access features needed to make this functionality work--but it should be added as part of the WHS Connector install.

Egregiously, Windows Home Server doesn't support x64 clients. I can't imagine why that's the case and would expect Microsoft to clear this one up as soon as possible.

Anyone who's used Windows Media Center over the years will immediately wish to see those capabilities made available inside WHS. How wonderful would it be to stick a WHS box and your cable box in a shelving unit behind the TV and then just interact with Media Center functionality via a Media Center Extender and your HDTV? Currently, Media Center takes up valuable resources on daily use PCs, and while this does work---my family's been using such a system for almost a year now, with an Xbox 360-based Extender in the living room--it's not optimal. Media Center should be on the server and then accessible, along with other content, via Microsoft's Windows Media Connect technologies.

WHS is also missing a way to backup the server itself, or content on the server, to a second machine or a dedicated storage device. (Or, perhaps, an online service.) While third parties will no doubt rush to fill this need, WHS should include something along these lines out of the box. Many users will simply push their most precious files from the desktop to the server, not realizing that the server isn't inherently any safer from a physical perspective than the desktop. You can still lose those files.

And while this isn't a missing feature per se, I would like to point out one obvious issue facing WHS: Consumers just aren't used to buying headless servers. It's one thing to purchase a USB or even a network-attached hard drive solely for backup purposes, but it's another thing entirely to spend $500-$1000 on a PC-like server that will sit in the corner somewhere and then never be directly accessed. This is a conceptual thing that will require consumer education. At least when you buy an iPod, laptop, or other similarly-priced device, you have something that you can sit there and actually use. Home Servers are going to be a tough sell for some people.

How to get Windows Home Server

Windows Home Server is available in two ways, as a software-only product that you can install on your own hardware (any modern PC will do; check the Microsoft Web site for details), or pre-installed on new home server hardware. The software-only version isn't sold in retail packaging, but is instead made available from NewEgg.com and other online resellers in "OEM" packaging, which is typically aimed at system builders. You can find the OEM version of Windows Home Server for about $200, which is quite reasonable. (Note that while the current version of WHS installs and runs on 32-bit hardware, the next major release will almost certainly be 64-bit only.)

If you'd like to purchase Windows Home Server with new hardware, which can be quite desirable, turn your attention to companies like HP, Iomega, Lacie, and many others. Some of this hardware is surprisingly innovative and even attractive. I'll be reviewing the HP Home Server as soon as the product is released, so stay tuned. And while I can't discuss that product yet, I will at least add that many Home Server makers will be adding to the core functionality provided by WHS. Some of this additional functionality is quite excellent, and could make a big difference if you're not sure which route to go.

Final thoughts

Windows Home Server is the ultimate stealth product: You almost certainly need it but don't realize it yet. While most of the feature set of this product is available elsewhere, I'm not aware of any single products out there that offer all of this functionality in a single place, and at such a reasonable cost. The PC backup and restore functionality is an extension of work that went into the Vista Backup and Restore Center and Windows Live OneCare, but it's automatic and network-based, and doesn't require any expert set-up. Sharing documents, files, and digital media content from a Windows-based file share is hardly new, but getting it onto a dedicated server, and potentially replicated across two physical drives, is a huge advantage. One-stop PC and network health monitoring is priceless, as you're likely the in-home "network administrator" just as I am in my own house. And while I'm currently paying $100 a year for a remote access solution that works with only one PC or server, WHS gives you this for free, plus throws in access to all of your PCs as well as the server, and adds a custom domain on top of that for Web-based sharing. The whole of WHS truly exceeds the sum of its parts.

That WHS is so easily extensible with useful add-ins is, perhaps, the icing on the cake. This is huge for areas where Microsoft has ignored certain market opportunities, and provids an ongoing value to WHS that exceeds its built-in capabilities. Anyone interesting in or using WHS needs to pay attention to the burgeoning add-in market. There's a lot there and much of it is high quality.

Of course, WHS is a 1.0 product and it's lacking in some areas. I'd like to see Media Center specific integration, for example, so that recorded TV shows can be transcoded and then archived up on the server. Indeed, an even better solution would be to provide full Media Center capabilities right on the WHS box where they belong, so that consumers can free up their PCs for more traditional uses like the Web, productivity applications, and games, without worrying if a reboot or next-generation DirectX 10 game title is going to interrupt a recording TV show. The setup and configuration experience, too, is somewhat second rate and may prove daunting to typical consumers. The administration console, in particular, needs to be re-engineered as a real local application. The current implementation is just kind of hokey.

Overall, WHS is a wonderful solution for problems you never knew you had. But make no mistake, these are very real problems that need to be addressed, and WHS does so in spectacular fashion. I'm looking forward to what the Home Server team does next, but even now in this initial release, they've spun some magic. Anyone who doubts whether innovation is alive and well at Microsoft simply needs to take a look at this product. Highly recommended.