With the demise of the underappreciated Windows Home Server, Microsoft is offering up two interesting alternatives going forward: Windows 8 and Windows Server 2012 Essentials. Windows 8 has a lot going for it, including a low price, a simple user experience, and easy compatibility on a home network. But based on years of great experiences using WHS, I’m choosing Windows Server 2012 Essentials for my own home office instead.

To be clear, this is not a choice I recommend for everyone. Essentials 2012, like any version of Windows Server, comes with some complexity. So while I can’t resist the allure of a real server, Windows 8 may just be a much more obvious choice for most. It works a homegroup, includes all of the media sharing stuff needed to interact with an Xbox 360, and can utilize the useful Storage Spaces-based data duplication and storage pooling functionality.

But if you’re with me on this one, or just curious about how Essentials 2012 compares, stick around. I’ve installed, in turn, the Beta and Release Candidate (RC) versions of Essentials on my Micro server (described below), which I’ll be using as the center of my home office network in the near future: All I’m waiting on at this point is the final release of Essentials, which I expect to see in the coming weeks.

In subsequent articles, I’ll highlight individual features of Essentials 2012, as well as some workarounds to some of the product’s less desirable functionality. But for now, here are some notes from my current usage, which involves using that Micro server as a secondary, testing server, albeit one with a near complete collection of my data.

The Hardware

The hardware I’m using is an HP ProLiant MicroServer N40L. From the factory, this ships with a 1.5 GHz AMD Turion II Neo processor, 2 GB of RAM, and a 250 GB hard drive, at a cost of $350. There’s no OS preinstalled on this server, which is of course fine. But the real allure here is the expandability. This small box has four (non hot-swap) drive bays plus a spot for an optical drive, all SATA-based. It has a fairly incredible six USB ports (four of which are on the front), though they are all USB 2.0, an E-SATA port, gigabit networking, and two smallish expansion slots: 1 half-height, half-length PCIe x16 Gen 2, and 1 half-height, half-length PCIe x1 Gen 2.

Looking at this machine, you’d be correct to describe it as the spiritual successor of HP’s original line of Home Servers, the MediaSmart. But it’s actually even better since it sports a VGA plug so you can connect a monitor and work with it more easily. (The MediaSmart was headless.) This is ideal during testing and initial install, though I position the server in the basement once it’s up and running.

Of course, 2 GB of RAM and a single 250 GB hard drive isn’t going to cut it. And while upgrading the internals is a bit tricky given the tight quarters, I’ve bumped up the RAM (to 8 GB) and have added three 3TB hard drives. I’m thinking about replacing that 250 GB drive when the final Essentials version appears as well. (And while I will not be adding an optical drive to the machine, I’m wondering if I can repurpose that space, and its SATA port, for another hard drive.)

Since there are no USB 3.0 ports on this box, I’ll be looking into adding USB 3.0 via one of the two expansion slots as well. Another item for the “wait for RTM” list.

The Configuration

I spent some time earlier this year experimenting with Storage Spaces in various configurations, and trying to figure out whether there was any important performance and/or reliability difference between using ReFS over NTFS. But this amounted to nothing, and by the time the first Essentials 2012 release happened, I was committed to sticking with the more familiar NTFS. So I’ve not even tried ReFS on this machine.

I’ve configured two of the three 3TB drives as a 5.45 TB storage pool, which contains a single storage space, assigned to drive letter S:, in a two-way mirror configuration. This storage space is used for the Music, Pictures, and Users server folders, as well as for a new server folder I’ve created called Software. The final drive, V:, is used to store videos.

(I’ll discuss Essentials 2012’s use of server folders in a future article, but the short version is that these folders are points of sharing, so they appear when you browse the server from Explorer on other PCs.)

Additionally, I currently have a single 3TB external hard drive being used for Server Backup. This backs up the operating system (everything on C:) and everything on the storage space (S:). I don’t backup videos locally, but once the RTM version of Essentials hits, I’ll connect this server to the cloud-based backup on Crashplan (which I use for Windows Home Server today).

Even with this simple set up, I’m realizing some interesting benefits over Windows Home Server 2011. First, that system supports hard drives up to 2 TB only, so even with data duplication on, I have about the same storage on the new server. (Otherwise, it would be about 3TB more, or 1 additional TB per HDD.) And of course, thanks to Storage Spaces, I’ve got a more resilient and compatible set of storage. If anything does happen to the server, I can plug the drives into any Windows 8 PC and it will just work.

Essentials vs. Windows 8

I previously wrote about potentially using Windows 8 in Replace Windows Home Server ... With Windows 8?, where I noted that Microsoft’s new client OS would likely be a reasonable contender as a home server of sorts. Using that article as a guide, let’s step through the list of home server features and see how or if they work in Windows Server 2012 Essentials.

Data redundancy and single pool of storage. Like Windows 8, Essentials includes a feature called Storage Spaces that provides data redundancy and storage pooling functionality like that provided by Drive Extender in WHS. Actually, it’s a lot better, and unlike with Server Standard or Datacenter, you even get the simpler Windows 8-style management interface.

Centralized PC backup and restore. Essentials includes the next generation version of the centralized PC backup and restore functionality from Windows Home Server 2011 as well as centralized File History storage for all your PCs. You could configure a Windows 8 “home server” to act as a central location for File History (for your other PCs) but would need to configure it manually.

Centralized PC and server health monitoring. Essentials includes health monitoring, both for the server itself as well as all of the connected PCs, as did WHS. There’s no such functionality in Windows 8.

Document and media sharing. Essentials includes the same document and media sharing features as does WHS and Windows 8, though the latter needs to be enabled first. What’s missing is homegroup support.

Remote access. Like WHS, Essentials includes a decent web-based client for accessing home documents and media, and you can remote desktop into the server if needed for other purposes. I use other solutions for this, however, obviating this benefit when compared to Windows 8. (I use LogMeIn Hamachi for VPN/remote desktop and LogMeIn for remote access, including FTP-like file access.

Final Thoughts

Of course, it’s more nuanced than that.

Windows Server 2012 Essentials is a lot more complex than Windows 8. It creates an Active Directory domain, and while I’ll write in the future about how you can largely ignore this functionality and just use the server in a more home-like workgroup mode, it’s still a level of complexity to deal with, one that may be untenable for the typical home/home office user.

Given the promo pricing on Windows 8 ($40), Essentials 2012 ($450) is also significantly more expensive than the client OS, though there are a couple of caveats on that one. First, most people acquire Windows Server with new hardware, and that will likely be the case with Essentials 2012. For example, the micro server I’m currently using can be purchased with Essentials 2012’s predecessor, Essentials 2011 for $899 (and better specs, including more RAM and a second hard drive) today. Second, like its predecessor, you’ll probably be able to get Essentials 2012 in an OEM version today for a bit less money. The OEM version of Windows Small Business Server Essential 2011 costs $390 at Newegg today.

But if you can put up with a bit of complexity—which I’ll try to help you overcome in subsequent articles—and the cost, what you get in return in a real server. That means a lot to me. It may not to you. But it’s the direction I’m going, and if you’re interested in learning more, I’ll be writing about this transition throughout the fall.