Back in February, I wrote about my decision to bet big on Windows Home Server 2011 (previously codenamed "Vail"), despite Microsoft's lamentable decision, late in 2010, to kill the Drive Extender technology that was so central to the first version of this software. Since then, I wrote about the process of migrating from the Vail Beta to the release candidate, and then to the final version of the software. And in the intervening four or five months, I've simply used WHS 2011, day in and day out. I wanted to make sure it stood up to my expectations, and worked the way I wanted, no needed, it to work.
And I'm happy to report now, after these many months of usage--I first started using pre-release version of WHS 2011 way back in 2010--that Windows Home Server 2011, while not without some minor issues, is rock solid, and just as viable a solution for home users as was its predecessor.
What's missing, so far, is a decent collection of WHS 2011-specific hardware--an Acer RevoCenter is on the way, Microsoft reports, but not in the market yet--so I've had to manually install the software on my own PC hardware, which I'm using as a server. This works just fine, of course, and since WHS 2011 is based on Windows Server 2008 R2, which shares a code base with Windows 7, the underlying hardware compatibility is excellent and there are no surprises.
So what I'd like to do here is provide a short recap of the many useful features that WHS 2011 provides, and explain how I use it. I write this with the benefit of tremendous experience: I've been a fan of Windows Home Server since the earliest, pre-release days of the first version, which was codenamed "Q" and then "Quattro" inside of Microsoft during the Longhorn era. If you're not familiar with my body of work around WHS, please do check out Windows Home Server: A Look Back, which chronicles everything I wrote about the first version of the software for this site.
Windows Home Server 2011, like its predecessor, is designed to be used with appliance-like PC server hardware, sitting in the logical center of your home network, as a central storage and sharing point for all of your documents and digital media files (music/audio, videos, photos, and so on). In a general sense, it provides for the home network what a more traditional Windows Server product does for the workplace: It centrally back up your PCs (and the server itself), monitor the "health" of all the PCs on your network (as well as itself), provide remote access to the server contents and to PCs on the home network, and so on.
This may sound complicated, but the beauty of WHS is that Microsoft makes this functionality pretty simple for the most part. There are still some niggling issues around the remote access stuff for people like me that have antiquated networking hardware that can't be automatically controlled via UPnP technology. And there are a handful of weird limitations I'll get to in a bit that may bite very advanced users, as well as a lack of decent pre-configured server hardware. But for the most part, WHS 2011 works as advertised. And if you use PCs around your home to store valuable home and/or work-related data, you really should consider WHS or a less full-featured solution that at least provides the data redundancy you need.
Here's what you get with Windows Home Server 2011.
Automatic, centralized PC backup
Up to 10 PCs on your home network that are connected to the home server via the included Connector software can be automatically backed up to the server on an ongoing basis. So if you need to later restore a PC from the so-called bare metal, WHS 2011 is a great solution. As it turns out, I don't personally use this solution, but that's because I tend to blow away my PC installs pretty rapidly, as they're always changing as I install and test software.
Automatic server backup
New to WHS 2011 is a server backup solution that provides an answer, sort of, to the lack of Drive Extender's data duplication functionality. In WHS v1, you could turn on data duplication and ensure that everything stored on the server was written to two different physical disks, and if one failed, the data would be safe on the other. This feature is gone in WHS 2011, but server backup provides twice-a-day backups of whatever data you want backed up. This gives you the data duplication you need--the data is on two physical disks--albeit not on the fly. But come on: How often do you really need your data to be duplicated? I suspected that twice a day would be fine. And it is.
There is one issue, however. Server Backup can only work with 2 TB or smaller hard drives. I recently purchased a 3 TB USB 3.0-based hard drive, thinking this would be ideal for Server Backup. But even though the WHS console recognized the disk, and said it was configured, the backups never worked. After futzing around with this a bit, I discovered the 2 TB limit. And then I discovered another issue: You can't partition the disk down to overcome this. It's the disk that must be 2 TB of smaller. Argh. So hopefully this will get fixed in the future.
Home network health monitoring
Via the aforementioned Connector software, you can optionally monitor the health of your home network--which includes the health of individual PCs--backup status, whether anti-malware solutions are up to date, and so on--as well as the server itself. This is useful because it means that you, as the titular head of your own network, can keep tabs on all the PCs in the house--your kids' PCs, your spouse's--without having to manually visit each from time to time. (If you're familiar with Action Center in Windows 7, it works a lot like that, though it's a bit more message-happy and applies to many PCs, not just that one.)
Content storage and sharing
Since this is a home server, WHS 2011 comes preinstalled with server-based folders and shares for Documents, Music, Pictures, Recorded TV (for your Media Center fans), and Videos. I use these locations extensively, and have added one called Software that houses my network-based software installs. (I don't use Recorded TV.)
The shares that are attached to each folder work normally with any Windows-based PC, of course. (And with Macs, too.) But if you have Windows 7 PCs, as I do, you may want to share using the optional Homegroup-style sharing scheme, which is even simpler. And like Homegroup configuration on individual PCs, you can choose which WHS-based servers to share via the homegroup. However, you also get configurable permissions: Full access, read only, or no access. I set all the shares to Full access. If you've joined the homegroup, you can access the server shares.
Sharing in WHS 2011 is now DLNA-based as well, so it should work with more device types than before, out of the box, and not require add-ins as was often the case in v1. All my Windows Media-compatible devices--like the WDTV--work just fine with WHS 2011. (Apple devices, however, do not. Perhaps an "iTunes server" add-in will appear in the future; see the Add-ins section below.)
One issue you'll need to deal with in WHS 2011 that is a bit unfortunate is the lack of a single block of storage; this was a feature of Drive Extender in the previous WHS version. In this version, you can accept the default location, or you can configure where each folder/share lives. And if you move a preexisting folder/share that's full of content, WHS 2011 is smart enough to move the content for you automatically as well. This works fine, except that you can now run into the limitations of the drives you've installed. For the typical 2 TB drive, this isn't a huge problem, but my Videos folder is already bumping into a space issue. So I may need to create a second Videos folder and share, which is inelegant, and point that to a new drive.
For most people, of course, this will never be a problem. But if you store a lot of stuff on the server, as I do, it could be. This is something I've monitored closely this year, and aside from the Videos folder, it's worked out just fine.
When you're away from home, WHS 2011 offers a variety of ways that you can gain entry to your home network, and the contents of the home server. There's a web-based front-end to the server content, which is functional and somewhat improved from the solution in v1. And you can use a remote desktop-like solution to remotely control PCs on your home network, though they need to be running higher-end Windows versions (like Windows 7 Professional, Enterprise, or Ultimate) for this to work.
I don't use any of this functionality, mostly because of the router issues I mentioned earlier. But the truth is, even if I could coax WHS 2011 into managing my router and enabling this functionality, I wouldn't. And that's because I've found a better solution. I've installed two remote access products, Logmein Hamachi and Logmein Pro, on the server, and on the PC laptops I use when I'm on the road. And these two products provide me with a much better remote access experience than what's available in WHS 2011.
Logmein Hamachi is a free VPN product. It allows me to access my home server using the Explorer-based shares when I'm on the road, just as if I were sitting at home, using my home network. It's a bit slower, of course, but not noticeably slow (except during file transfers, of course). And since I make extensive use of server share shortcuts, everything just keeps working. Hamachi also lets me use the Windows 7 Remote Desktop Connection solution for remote desktop; this offers a much higher quality display than wha's available natively in WHS, and unlike with that solution, it doesn't require certain Windows versions.
Logmein Pro is a full-featured remote access solution, but I use it primarily for file transfers (using an FTP-like interface) between my road-based laptop and the home server. I use this because its faster than the drag and drop Hamachi interface. Logmein Pro is not free, but there is a free version that will likely do everything you need.
Even if you don't use WHS, you should look at these solutions. They're a great way, collectively, to interact with your home-based PCs while you're away from home.
The original version of WHS supported an extensibility model, but with WHS 2011 this has been dramatically expanded and improved, and the add-ins are now compatible with related products like Windows Small Business Server 2011 Essentials and Windows Storage Server Essentials. Native WHS add-ins can extend the WHS management console, though I don't currently use any on my own home server. Frankly, these things are more promise than reality at this point.
Windows Phone 7 support
This is not a huge deal, actually, but you can control your WHS 2011 server with a new Windows Phone 7 app called Windows Server Solutions Phone Connector. It's a decent little solution, for what it is, with access to the network health (Alerts), servers and PCs (Devices), users, media, and more. I don't find myself needing or using it very often, but it's there if you want it. (I can't get it to work remotely, so it must require the WHS remote access features.)
WHS 2011 natively supports Apple's Mac computers now, and you install the Connector software on Macs just like you do on PCs. This includes automatic, Time Machine-based backups and remote access functionality, not just file sharing.
Windows Home Server 2011 does not support cloud backup out of the box, but the extensibility provided by the new add-in model means that cloud backup providers can integrate their services with WHS. I'm currently using a cloud backup solution called Crashplan, which is inexpensive and offers decent performance, and while it does natively support Windows Home Server, including WHS 2011, it does not offer a WHS add-in. And frankly, that's fine: It works well regardless.
What I've not thoroughly tested, of course, is the disaster scenario: The server fails, so I rebuild it and actually have to resuscitate my data from the cloud. This is something I've intended to test for months now, but life is busy and so far I've not done so. So take it with that grain of salt. The point here is that cloud backup is possible through WHS 2011 even though it's not built-in.
For my own personal and work-related data storage and sharing needs, Windows Home Server 2011 works wonderfully, and is as seamless a part of my home network as was its predecessor. I do wish we had more of a selection of pre-configured servers, especially some with more than four drive bays given the new storage needs of this post-Drive Extender era. But WHS 2011 works great as-is, and even those who choose to purchase an OEM version of the software on Newegg.com or Amazon will find the setup and configuration of this solution to be straightforward and simple. I use and rely on Windows Home Server 2011, and recommend it highly.