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Windows Home Server – mac-compatible and more than just media

guest blogger today is: Mike Salomon (Performance Guide and Co-Founder,  Sherpa Performance Guides)

Why I am blown away by a tiny new server OS (operating system) called Windows Home Server (WHS)…


I have been playing, working, installing, and doing R&D with a new Operating System lately.  It is called windows home server.  It is the most amazing, useful, enjoyable, and most problem-solving OS I have seen in years.  It has been out for over a year but just got really good with the last release of the OS.  It also got very Mac friendly (not what you would expect from something that is funded by Microsoft).

In the beginning we played around with it in the way it is most used. We played around with all the “home entertainment hub” features, and installed for a small amount of media-loving clients. We quickly found cool things to do with in in that area, but then it got boring.  6 months later it had a new release and it suddenly got very interesting.

To see some videos and demo check out this site (or skip it and move on to my article):

History (as I was able to piece together from interview and podcasts)
It came out of MS labs 3 years ago.  They were looking for solutions to make RAID obsolete (via a new technology called “Drive Extender”, provide a low cost NAS (network Attached Storage) (Andrew showed me live how it runs circles around things like free-NAS and other very expensive enterprise solutions), become the digital hub of a home/small business and all its media, documents, software, etc, and all kinds of other new technologies. I hear MS will incorporate some of this new technology in future versions of Windows Server (in 2008 maybe).  Apple will probably try to come out with something like this, since Apple TV is just for watching stuff.

Backup Different
Microsoft came out with a new concept in backup that Apple later productized and made into Time Machine.  These guys had the same thing working in prototype 3 years ago.  They never came out with a cool name for it.  But it does the same thing, maybe even better.  It waits till laptops and desktops in the house are idle and then adds everything in them to a daily backup set, a weekly backup set, and a monthly backup set. On the next round it only looks for the delta, what is different then the first round, but it does this on a byte or a block level, so if you change a small part of a video or Photoshop file, it only saves the changed pixels (this is a simplified exploitation but you get the jist).  On top of that, if other people backup Photoshop of pictures that have similar pictures or songs, or whatever, it only stores 1 ver of the new data, and a bunch of small deltas.  This means you can backup to many sets, and many people can use the backup store, and it stays small!  It also means when you go to recover a file, they have a killer recover tools that (like Time Machine) let’s you get to a various versions of that file of your entire computer.  you can restore earlier versions of files, even retrieving data that was backed up from PCs or Macs that are no longer on the network. If your drive dies you can simply have it recreate your entire drive as it was before it died, or even from an earlier date.

The newest versions are so Mac-friendly, they even have a layer over the backup system to make it look, feel, operate exactly like an Apple’s Time Capsule, so you can just use Time Machine with it.

I like Mac
Speaking of Mac, it operates as an iTunes server, will steam movies, TV shows, music, etc to any iPhone, MacBook, or PC within wireless or wired range or even across the world using a special web site it auto generates.  Photographers are using it to store their thousands of digital photos, and then index them with iPhoto or ACDSEE, create Sub-Galleries to take with them on their laptop and sync them back if a change is made, make some galleries available to family or clients via a simple URL that goes right to that gallery on their server (no uploading to Flickr or Facebook), and on and on.

Super low cost OS
This OS only costs $100!   That is amazing considering that in many ways it is more advanced an server OS than Win Server 2008, which starts at $800 (for 5 users)

Cool little boxes that glow blue – Buy it bundled into dedicated and ultra powerful but cheap hardware:
If is bundled into dedicated little boxes (called MediaCenters, or other such names), from HP, Accer, Dell, etc.  These boxes are like small cubes with soft blue glowing lights.  The come with hot-swap bays, so you can open up a door, put in a terabyte or 1.5 terabyte 3gig/sec SATA drive (which are down to $100 now).  Some models have 4 such bays.   That makes them able to store 6 terabytes, which I have bought and seen constantly on sales as two-packs of 1.5tb drives for $200. They are whisper quiet (much quieter then any laptop I have sat next to), even if you pack them with 6tb.  These units cost between $400 and $700, depending how many terabytes you want to start with.  HP makes the best one. It is called the HP MediaSmart Server EX487.  It is this tiny, also silent, little black box that looks attractive enough to sit on your bookshelf.  No monitor, keyboard, or anything.  It is a “headless unit”.  You access it over it’s build in web console from any computer or iphone (mac or PC).  These little cubes are amazingly fast and powerful. They feel faster then my Intel Dual-Core. I don’t get how they can be that cheap, come with a min of 2/3rds of a terabyte, blow away any NAS I have tested at any price, server 10 different client computers at the same time, and manage a huge amount of data.  Considering $100 is just for the OS, and the drive it comes with is $100, I don’t see how they make money on the $400 and $500 units.

It monitors the health of your drives and computers
The OS also has a feature to monitor drive status and health of not just the server but the computers that connect to it. It even check for things like outdated virus definitions, low disk space, bad blocks on drives.

When these servers are going all out they only take up 60 watts under full load (with two 1.5 terabyte drives running). These servers go in and out of sleep seamlessly as needed.  They wake up when any computer needs anything.  They will even control any computer in the house helping it sleep or wake up when needed. When in sleep they are said to use less then 1 watt per hour.

Remote Control
They use a new secure proxy/RDP gateway to if you leave a computer at home and need to log into it, you can use the WHS to create a remote control bridge into that computer (assuming that person gives you control rights), even behind a firewall. It is like gotomypc on steroids. You can even create Terminal Services session and control a Vmware-like pseudo-virtual machine that lives in the server. So you can access the server itself, a life in one of your shares (music, documents, photos, movies, etc), just 1 photo gallery, a Virtual Machine, or a computer on the network.  All with SSL-based encryption and security and all from your own private website run on your own web-server.

All the “Home Media Hub Hype” (it is real, but it is the least interesting thing this thing does)
The unit is also designed to be the central media and entertainment hub of your house. Everyone puts all their MP3 music, videos, movies, DVDs, photos, etc on there and these resources can be access by any device in the house or my logging into your private website outside the house.  It will stream music and movies and photos to your iPhones, laptops, desktops, and when you are always it will stream via your private website.

The key to really making this effective is to hook your TV and living room speakers into it.  This is done with a Media Extender.  A little settop box that interfaces to your TV and/or speaker system.  It has a tiny computer inside that finds your server on the network, scans your server, reads all the music files, downloads all the album artwork, reads all you movies, downloads the poster art, looks for galleries of photos, and creates a easy to use TV-style menu so you can run the whole show from your TV.  It comes with a remote, so you can sit back on the couch and enjoy your own private channel.   These are made my manufactures like Linksys, netgear, popcorn, and many others.  They run $100 to $240.  Having one also turn your server into a TVIO letting you record shows or pause live TV and all that. You can record TV and later dump it onto your iPhone.  Ohh ya, it can do all this stuff in High-Def.  You can even use this to stream your favorite YouTube videos and facebook videos to your TV;

This part of a home server is what most people are focused on, but I find it the least useful and interesting part.

A constant stream of new software that you can download free to expand the capabilities of your server
As this OS is now in its 3rd year, it has caught on like wildfire with small programmers, especially in the UK.  There are 1-2 sites devoted to letting you download the newest plug-ins to make your server do all kinds of cool things.  They are almost always free.  Everything from streaming Hula or Netflix to disk or to your TV, to downloading Bit Torrents and NZB files.  Even computer centered tasks like OCR, auto-organizing of photos, duplication removal for your music and videos, photo-editing, accessing your email, monitoring your network traffic, creating child-safe web browsing, and you name it.

That is just the tip of  the iceberg of what a server (or any good computer with WHS running on it as the OS) can do.  More plug-ins and program and being made available every week so it just gets better and better.

An office server, a home office server, and a personal server
If you ignore the media stuff, these devices are now being used by a few bold companies as office servers.  Our group and a few others have been pioneering a bit, by installing these tiny and inexpensive things (made for the home) into companies. They are idea for a business with 10 staff members or less. To get the same features from an “office server” you’d pay at least $2000, or much more. The device also has an eSATA port, USB ports, and all the rest of it.  It can be a print spooler, handle off-site and on-site backups, a fax, and tons more stuff.

If you have any extra $500 or $600 in your budget, I would highly recommend one of these, over say, buying a new laptop, or getting a new office copier.

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  1. Posted September 26, 2009 at 9:35 pm | Permalink

    Windows Home Server is one of the greatest computing values ever introduced to the small business and consumer market. Finally, Microsoft has done us all a favor. Machines running the Home Server with 10 licenses can be purchased for well under $500.00. Great idea.

  2. Posted December 15, 2009 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    If you have any doubts or lack of confidence in getting a Windows Home Server setup, just call your local computer consultant. They are glad to help for a good price.

    I highly recommend Windows Home Server

    Rob – Deltec Systems

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