Bringing the Server Home

Microsoft Home Server is a new network operating system from Microsoft that’s intended for use with home networks. Home Server won’t be offered as a stand-alone operating system. Instead, you’ll have to buy it already installed on an appliance. The first of these devices is the HP MediaSmart server. The HP appliance should be available by the second half of 2007, but no price point has been announced yet. Other manufacturers have designs in the works, but no products have been announced yet.

The HP MediaSmart server along with other servers running Microsoft Home Server is intended to be used as a headless appliance that resides in an out-of-the-way place such as a closet. The box is called headless because there’s no monitor attached to it. You interact with the device using client PCs. The HP box is a small black box slightly taller and skinnier than a Shuttle PC. It has bays for four SATA drives, four USB ports in the back, plus two SATA ports in the back. There’s an ethernet port in the back to attach the device to the home network. The server is a networked attached storage (NAS) device with no hardware management capabilities. You just slide or plug in your SATA or USB drives and the device creates a giant pool of storage with no drive letters.

Home users interact with the server using shared folders, similar to a file server. The OS, even though it’s based on Windows Server 2003, doesn’t support centralized authentication. There’s no Active Directory to manage. Instead, the OS has a feature called Users and Accounts which is conceptually similar to user management in Windows XP. The OS synchronizes the usernames and passwords from client PCs with the Home Server. From what I could tell, there doesn’t appear to be any centralized account management. This seems akin to the classic security mode that people are using currently with peer to peer to networks. In a peer to peer network of Windows XP computers, each computer has its own set of local accounts. By creating accounts on each computer with the same username and password, you can authenticate on all your computers. For example, I have a Windows XP machine that I utilize as a file server. I have a user account with the same username and password on my laptop and the file server. I can access file shares on my file server without entering a username and password. Windows Home Server seems to work similar to this.

Home Server supports remote access to file shares via the Internet. Each Home Server gets a unique Web address that users can use to access the content from their server via the Web. I’m not sure if you can use Web Folders or if you’re restricted to using the browser only.

A big feature of the Home Server is the ability to perform centralized backup and restore. The server performs a full backup of the entire client PC. Their new backup technology can perform a full backup of an 80GB hard drive in about 25 minutes. Incremental backups only backs up the blocks that have changed across the entire network. In other words, if two client PCs have the same movie, it only gets backed up once. You can restore an entire PC or select individual files to restore. The server automatically supports disk mirroring. When a user places a file on the server, the file is automatically copied to two hard disks. There’s no user configuration required for mirroring, and the disks don’t have to be the same size.

The administrator experience on Home Server consists of a single console application that’s installed on a client PC. It’s used to monitor the health of the network and the server and to manage file shares. The console application is extensible which means that third parties could add additional features to the server.

You can find more information about Windows Home Server at these sites: