Jun 192012

I’ve previously described the approach I use to backups; in a nutshell, I use Windows Home Server (2007) to back up our home PCs and store media content on an old PC with redundant storage, and I back up important things to the cloud (with SmugMug hosting the content that’s most important to me, my photos).

Unfortunately, the 8-year-old Dell desktop that I’d been running the home server on finally died.  Perhaps it was old age. Or perhaps it was the copious amounts of sawdust that came from a construction project conducted right next to the home server  (no, I wasn’t around, but I did notice a beloved old mechanical keyboard I kept around was completely covered in sawdust, so…). I considered trying to find a power supply and/or motherboard replacement, but I would have needed to find a setup that supported the old Parallel ATA drives I had in that machine. It would have been a temporary solution, but it might have kept things going until a new Windows release triggered a familiar cycle: my old PC becomes Valerie’s new PC, and Valerie’s old PC (my old old PC) becomes the home server. But a total lack of interest in Windows 8, and acceptable performance from my current PC even 2.5 years in, and an upgrade didn’t seem imminent.


So, I decided to take the plunge, and build a completely new home server that’s now up and running.  Here’s what I went with, from newegg.com:

  • AMD FX-6100 6-core processor, Biostar A880GZ motherboard, 8GB DDR3 RAM, Seagate 500GB HDD, and a generic 500W case; on special for $320.
  • 2 x Hitachi 2TB disk drives for primary media storage, $130 each for a total of $260.
  • Windows Home Server 2011 OEM for $50.

So it was $630 total for a new system with 4.5TB of storage, enough processor/memory to hopefully act as a good media server even if some transcoding is involved.   The core system seemed like a pretty good deal, though I didn’t wait for deals – I just bought what was available the day the old machine died.  Newegg did a good job of getting things to me immediately, even though my failure to type in a coupon code on their product page probably cost me $20 :).

I stopped building PCs from scratch 13 years ago, when pre-packed systems from Dell started to simply be more cost effective than anything you could build yourself.  So it was a bit of a shock to have to figure out which holes the mounting screws needed to go into to fasten the motherboard in place, or to try and make sure I got the right polarity when plugging LEDs into headers on the motherboard so they’d actually light up.  This was not one of those screwless, everything-slides-into-place cases that I’d become accustomed to.  But ultimately, everything worked.

WHS 2011 vs. WHS 2007

Windows Home Server 2011 seems like a fairly solid experience so far, and it addresses some of the performance issues that WHS 2007 systems seemed to eventually run into. At the same time, it’s a sad reflection at Microsoft’s total failure to produce a server product for the home, because everything that was cool for a non-techie about WHS 2007 is gone.  I once thought about getting a WHS 2007 system for my Dad; I’d never even think about it with a WHS 2011 system. What changed?

  • Perhaps the most visible change is that Microsoft dropped Drive Extender, awesome technology that finally took things beyond the confines of hard drives and drive letters.  If you needed more space, you just plugged in more drives. You didn’t ever have to worry about what file was on what drive. If you marked a particular folder important, WHS 2007 would make sure it was spread across multiple drives so there’d be no data loss. This was the coolest feature of WHS 2007 – something one hoped Microsoft would bring to the rest of the Windows line – but it died. And the Internet literally hated Microsoft for this decision.
  • Of equal importance is that there aren’t any more pre-packaged WHS machines.  With WHS 2007, you could buy an HP from amazon that would do everything out of the box and that had the form factor of a server.  With WHS 2011, the options are few and far between. You pretty much have to buy the OEM version and do things yourself.
  • Doing things yourself doesn’t turn out to be as easy as just installing Windows.  Besides having to borrow a SATA DVD-ROM from another machine to install things (who needs them anymore?), WHS 2011 lacked drivers for my NIC, and it wasn’t obvious how to remedy the problem.  Post-install, a common bug prevented installation on both of our client keys until you go make some changes using Regedit. That’s right, even though this was reported many months ago, the shipping version of WHS requires some registry editing just to install.
  • Achieving redundancy needs careful planning around WHS storage limits.  WHS can’t by default handle drives more than 2TB in size, and it can’t span shares across volumes.  So if your videos or photos collection is ever bigger than 2TB, well, you’ll have two of them.  Worse, it’s backup functionality is limited to 2TB in total.  Once you cross 2TB, you can’t make a backup of your server. While I have a comfortable amount of headroom before I reach this limit, it seems pretty ridiculous and I’m hoping Microsoft patches it before I hit that limit.

In short, WHS 2011 only seems to have appeal for techies who build their own system with the very reasonably priced OEM version of the software. This certainly isn’t the typical home, and that’s sad, because people all over the place really need to do a better job of backing up their content. Fortunately, there’s many more cloud options now and for most people, that’s a good option.

There are some high points for WHS 2011; the media serving software is much better, and performance is vastly higher than before. I’m noticing that higher performance now – our home in Kirkland relies on wireless, and WHS 2011 easily saturates the Wifi network while doing backups or copying content. Hopefully once things become incremental, this won’t be a big deal, but right now, our home network is fairly unusable. There’s also fewer random errors even right out of the box, and the fact that it’s not doing anything in fancy makes it easy to get directly to things if you know what you’re doing. So it remains a good solution for me – I just can’t recommend it broadly as I did with WHS 2007.

 Posted by at 7:48 am

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