Windows Home Server – Work in Progress

Let me preface this by saying that I understand that this is a Beta product, and therefore I am neither surprised or upset by current shortcomings.  The team that is developing WHS seems to be on top of things and I’m confident that they will close the gap with future builds.  From what I’ve seen so far, the Beta would work great for 95% of people.  I’m just in the other 5% right now.

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After getting word that I would be included in the beta, I decided to get a new box to run WHS.  This was mostly due to the fact that I cleaned out my computer graveyard a few months back, and could not manage to scrounge together enough pieces to come anywhere near the minimum hardware specs.  I ended up getting a Dell E521, with a Gig of Ram and a 250GB Hard Drive.  I purposely omitted the Keyboard, Display and Mouse, and just planned to borrow these items from my desktop machine in order to complete the install.

When my machine arrived and I sat down to install WHS, I realized that there was no where to plug my PS/2 keyboard into the E521, and my PS/2 keyboard didn’t come with the magic USB adapter.  Rather than paying through the nose for a overfeatured keyboard at the local Best Buy, I ordered a cheap USB keyboard from Amazon.  A couple days later I was ready to roll.
The install process was easy, and took roughly 1 hour to complete.  You can see an exorbitant number of screen pics here.  There was no real questions to answer, so I had nothing better to do than to sit there and click away with the digital camera.  The Beta install has way to many reboots, and could go quicker. I’m hoping they can address this with image-based install after development settles down a bit.

After the server installation was complete, I returned the cannibalized parts to my desktop, and set out to install the connector software on my Laptop.  This installation went smoothly as well.  I was eager to start a backup, so I ran the “Backup Now” option from the connector tray icon.  A while later, I absentmindedly closed the lid of my laptop, which puts is to sleep.  After waking the laptop up, I saw an error message that indicated that the backup had failed because the TCP/IP connection had been terminated.  Restarted the backup, and left the machine plugged in and open overnight so that it would complete.

The real test for WHS would come from my desktop machine.  This machine has a failing hard disk.  It has had 2 episodes of corrupted data (fixed by chkdsk/f).  I was excited about getting this machine backed up for several reasons. Most of the important data from this machine is being backed up via FolderShare, but it’s hard to know when you’ve captured everything.  Also, I don’t know if a disk error is going to corrupt files and then have the changes get copied through FolderShare.  The other reason is that a good backup to WHS would mean I could swap in a new hard drive and restore everything in short order.  To put this in perspective, the desktop is the machine that my wife uses.  It holds her data, her email contacts & archives.  Unless it’s in her Hotmail account, it’s on this computer.  In other words, this machine is at least 10 times as important as my laptop.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like WHS Beta 2 is going to save this machine.  At least not yet.

The connector software installed just fine.  Everything appears normal.  Since my Laptop was in the process of backing up, I figured I’d just leave the Desktop to start automatically overnight.  In the morning I checked the desktop and it was displaying an error about the backup failing.  A check in the event log shows a FileNotFoundException.  I figure that maybe the disk had choked again, so I ran it through another round of ChkDsk with all the options.  ChkDsk ran clean, without indicating any errors, so I started the backup again, only to have it fail in the same manner.

I’ve tried hitting this from a few different angles, but no matter what I try, I still get either the FileNotFoundException error, or a Volume Shadow Copy Service error.  I’ve filed a bug report and provided logs, but have not heard anything back yet.

I don’t want to whine too loudly because I know the hardware is going bad, but I do want to point out that recovering from errors gracefully should be a top priority for the WHS team.  By gracefully I mean that the software should probably alert the user to the problem, but then continue the backup.  In the case of the failing hard drive, it’s even more important to backup whatever files you can!  In the case of my laptop, interruptions in network connectivity ate the norm for WiFi, and I would guess that most of the target market is using WiFi for their home network.

Now that I’ve finished griping, I would like to offer some positive impressions.  Overall, the functionality is very simple to set up.  The user interaction required for the server and connector setup has been stripped to the bare minimum, and that is a good thing since less questions means less opportunities for mistakes.  The only interaction that stands out as possibly a bit difficult or error prone is the selection of a server password.  An option to save a generated key to a USB stick or burn it to a CD would be a welcome alternative (Sort of like the Wireless Network Setup Wizard in XP or Vista).  But remember or writing down one password is a pretty low bar to set considering the functionality that WHS provides.

The user interface is attractive.  The colors are an interesting mix of MCE and Vista stylings.  So far most things are pretty obvious and intuitive.

As soon as I figure a good secondary backup method, I’ll be moving a lot more of my files into the WHS Shared Folders.  I’m not comfortable trusting the family photo album entirely to the Beta software yet, but I’m going to keep trying to expand my habits to include WHS functions where I can.

I’ll include more thoughts, rants, etc. when I have time to pull together another post. If you are interested in getting in to the Beta, you can sign up for consideration, and there’s also a publicly accessible community forum site.

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