Having transitioned from Windows Home Server 2011 to Windows Server 2012 Essentials RC, and then from that to the final version of Essentials 2012, I thought I’d provide a few notes about my experience doing so.

Note that this is not a complete guide to migrating to Windows Server 2012 Essentials. These are instead some notes and observations, based on my own experiences, about the process of moving from previous home office/small business server—in my case, Windows Home Server 2011, to Essentials.

Up front, however, a few warnings.

These products, WHS 2011 and Essentials 2012, and also related releases like WHS v1, and Small Business Server Essentials 2011, were designed primarily as first server/single server solutions. They’re basically plug and play appliances that exist outside of the normal Windows Server/Windows client way of doing things, and while that brings with it many ramifications, the big one for purposes of this article regards upgrading: There isn’t any traditional upgrade path from previous servers (WHS/SBSE 2011) to Essentials 2012.

Second, remember that there may be no huge reason to move to Essentials from whatever home/small business server you’re currently using. If the server is sitting there working, doing PC backups, and serving up your stuff, why mess with something good?

Finally, this you’re data we’re talking about here. If you’re really using one of these products as the center of your own environment, and storing your important personal and/or professional data on it, you very specifically want to be careful about backing up that data first. Just because something worked for me, as noted below, doesn’t mean you should do it without backing up first. Be careful.

OK, here’s what I’ve done.

Migration 1: WHS 2011 to Essentials 2012 Beta/RC

For about 18 months or so, I based my own environment around Windows Home Server 2011. I wrote about that transition in I'm Betting on Windows Home Server 2011, and about that product, generally, in Windows Home Server 2011.

WHS 2011 worked just fine and the only reason I’m moving forward to Essentials 2012 now is that I need to keep up on the latest technologies. The key word in that sentence, however, is “now”, in that I could have simply kept using WHS 2011. But Essentials 2012 is absolutely a no compromises Windows Server versions, as noted in my recent review of the product, with lots of very interesting functionality that’s not present in WHS. (That said, I did briefly flirt with using Windows 8 as a replacement for Windows Home Server: See Replace Windows Home Server ... With Windows 8? for the rundown on that choice.)

If you’ve been following along with my evolving use of various servers, you may recall that my WHS 2011 was a repurposed PC tower that had several terabytes of internal storage attached to it. I was using a single 3 TB USB 3.0-based external hard drive with Server Backup for onsite data replication (everything but videos) and Crashplan for offsite backup of everything.

Because I wanted to maintain the WHS 2011 install alongside a test Essentials 2012 server running first the Beta and then the Release Candidate (RC) version of that latter system, I installed Essentials on an excellent and highly recommended HP MicroServer that I had upgraded over time with 8 GB of RAM (up from 2 GB). Like the original HP home servers, this neat little box features four SATA drive bays (non-hot-swappable, not that such a thing matters in a home office/SMB scenario) and even a couple of expansion ports.

I don’t recall the exact process, but over a period of time I experimented with Windows Server 2012 Beta/RC and Storage Spaces on this box, using two 3 TB hard disks, and trying to figure out whether there was any point in using ReFS over NTFS. After not seeing a real world difference on this box, I decided on the known—NTFS—and when Essentials Beta hit, that became the test box. By the time the RC arrived, I had decked out the server with a third 3 TB drive, in addition to the other two and the 250 GB boot disk.

For the Beta version of Essentials 2012, I simply wanted to test the server and make sure it worked as expected, copying over some subset of the data on my WHS 2011 server. This was a simple and manual network copy, something that ran once overnight, and it let me test client and external connectivity.

By the time the RC version of Essentials 2012 arrived, I figured I’d be able to do a simple migration to the RTM version later, so I started the process of moving completely to Essentials. This involved a wipe and reload of the OS (using the RC version this time), and configuring the storage exactly how I wanted it. And that’s a story in its own right.

Like its predecessors, Essentials 2012 requires a boot disk that’s at least 160 GB in size. By default, the server creates a set series of server folders, which are essentially (ahem) shares that clients can access on the local network. By default, there are five—Client Computer Backups, Company, File History Backups, Folder Redirection and Users—and if you enable media sharing, you’ll see four others: Music, Pictures, Recorded TV and Videos. So this boot disk will include the whole shebang: The hidden system reserved partition plus the C: drive with Windows and all those server folders.

essentials12-diskmgr

Essentials doesn’t like a single disk configuration and the Best Practices Analyzer will quickly start bothering you via Alert Viewer that “one or more server folders are located on the system hard drive.”

alerts

Of course, I didn’t need BPA to tell me that a single disk configuration is not just bad but unacceptable. And my plan all along was to use that 9 TB of space, spread out over three 3 TB disks, as efficiently as possible. That way, my data would be separated from the OS, physically. And my most important data would be replicated on two different physical hard drives. Both of these changes, combined with offsite cloud backup, give me the peace of mind I need.

And while there are different ways to handle this, I created a storage pool and storage space using two of those disks in a mirrored configuration. That is, while the two disks combined provide about 6 TB of space, the storage space actually looks like 3 TB of space to the system. It’s just that everything in there is duplicated across both drives. This space, which I inventively call “Storage Space” and assigned to drive letter S:, contains all of the server folders except for Videos. The third 3 TB drive, which is not replicated, was assigned drive letter V: (go figure) and is used solely for videos.

Once these configuration changes were made, I added a single 3 TB external hard drive, as with the WHS box, for use with Server Backup. The new disk layout resembles the following:

disk-mgr2

From here, it was a simple matter of copying over the data from the WHS 2011-based server—which took quite a while, as I used a combination of network file copy and a portable hard disk to make it happen—and setting up Server Backup to use the external drive.

Once the file copy was done and I checked the file counts and sizes to ensure I’d copied everything successfully, I switched over to the new server, MICRO, while leaving the old one, VAIL, online for the time being. My use of WHS and now Essentials 2012 may differ a bit from yours, but for me it’s mostly a data store, and then for data that I’m not accessing regularly anymore. This includes both work-based data and personal photos, home videos, and other files dating back over 15 years. For my daily workflow, I use SkyDrive to replicate files between PCs and as articles or article series are completed or retired, they get moved up to the server. So it was a simple matter to start using MICRO rather than VAIL.

Between Essentials 2012 RC and RTM, two things changed. First, I started backing up MICRO to Crashplan as I had been doing with VAIL. And after ensuring that MICRO worked as expected and could be accessed when I was away (via LogMeIn Hamachi in my case, though others can of course use the product’s built-in remote access functionality) from home, I eventually just switched off VAIL, but left it set up just in case. Worse case, if MICRO failed, I’d be able to restart VAIL and have lost very little if any data.

And then Microsoft RTM’d Essentials 2012.

Migration 2: Essentials 2012 RC to Essentials 2012 RTM Eval/GA

As noted previously, I’d migrated to the RC version of Windows Server 2012 Essentials. Crashplan was partway through backing up my non-video data (i.e. the important stuff). VAIL was offline. And then Essentials 2012 was finalized, and Microsoft provided me with an evaluation version of the software so I could write a review.

(Actually, it was the final version of the software with an evaluation product key. So I figured I could eventually use the Windows Activation software to apply a full RTM product key and remove the evaluation timeout. This assumption proved correct.)

How do you make such a migration?

Pretty easily, as it turns out. Not as easily as I had bet, but easily enough.

Since I had offloaded all my important data to S: (a storage space) and my videos to V: (a single hard disk), I knew I’d be able to simply wipe out the primary disk, install the RTM version of Essentials 2012, and then re-configure the server folders to the appropriate locations.

I knew too, from previous experience, that storage spaces are incredibly malleable. You can remove one disk or all of the disks from a space, plug it (or them) into another Windows 8 PC or Windows Server 2012 server, and the contents will be immediately and seamlessly available. Even better, the storage space survives the move intact. This meant that the S: drive I created, with all its data, would simply be there after installing the RTM version of Essentials 2012. I’d just have to connect everything up again through the Dashboard.

This worked almost exactly as expected. There was just one wrinkle.

The install went fine, and as with previous installs, Essentials 2012 had all of the server folders configured on the C: drive. So the first order of business was getting S: and V: online and moving the appropriate server folders to the appropriate drives. The next stop was Disk Management (WINKEY + X, Disk Management), where I changed the drive letters on the storage space and videos drive to be S: and V:, respectively. The next step was to use the Dashboard’s Storage/Server Folders interface to manually move each server folder to the right location.

I figured this would be as simple as selecting the folder (say, Users), choosing the right location in the wizard (S:) and then clicking OK. And it was, except for that one wrinkle. Detecting that a folder of the same name already existed on the destination drive, the Move a Folder wizard inexplicably wouldn’t allow me to merge the contents of the two folders (the source, which was empty, and the destination, which had all my data). So I had to go through a dumb but simple enough process where I renamed the folders on the storage space and videos folders (to Users2, Videos2, and so on), moved each server folder location from the Dashboard, moved the contents between the old locations (Users2, etc.) to the new locations (Users, etc.) and then deleted the old locations. Yes, really.

At least it was simple. And sure enough, once it was done, everything was up and running as before. Even Crashplan had a nice surprise for me: Reinstalling the software, it noted a feature by which you can associate a new backup with a previous one. So it examined the current backup set (basically C: and S:), compared it to what was previously backed up, and just started backing up the new stuff. Nice!

A few more notes

Now, if you’re using Windows Home Server today, you may have noticed that this migration of mine involved only data, the files and folders I’m storing on the server and sharing via server folders. That is, I didn’t migrate PC backups, which is a concern for many of you, based on my email. While I don’t personally use the centralized PC backup feature in Essentials (or, previously, in WHS), my advice on this count: Start over when it comes to PC backups.

Ideally, you’ll be using a different server, and while I understand that’s not always possible you will want, at the very least, to have everything on that server—including the PC backups—backed up to external drives per my original warnings. The data on PCs is important, sure. But backups are only sort of important, and can and should be redone if you’ve re-made your infrastructure with Essentials 2012.

Aside from the actual migration of data, I of course have configured other aspects of the server, including media sharing, domain connectivity, centralized File History backups for my Windows 8 clients, and so on. I’ve written about these features in other articles in my ongoing series about Windows Server 2012 Essentials, and of course there’s a lot more to discuss. But moving from a previous home office/small business server like WHS 2011 to Essentials 2012 probably has to be time consuming, but it doesn’t have to be hard. But in my own experience, what I’ve arrived at is a superset of what I started with: A home office infrastructure based on Essentials 2012 instead of WHS 2011. Much of what I do is identical to before—file sharing, media sharing and remote access—but there are new, very interesting features that come along courtesy of the Windows Server 2012 base in Essentials, including Storage Spaces and File History integration, and of course the domain stuff which was absent in WHS.

Depending on your needs, this article may have raised more questions than answers. But again, this is an ongoing conversation. Let me know what I didn’t cover, or what you still have questions about, and I’ll see if I can’t answer any questions in future articles in this series.