Any minute, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates will take the stage at CES and reveal for the world Windows Home Server. Before he does, here is everything you need to know about the Home Server product. Every word below, except when I editorialize, is 100% confirmed accurate (as are the two logos, screenshotted from a recent build of Home Server).
There’s a lot in here, so here’s the main stuff up front: A Windows Home Server is a simple box that lies at the center of your home network. The Server works without interaction (it doesn’t run programs like typical operatings systems, doesn’t even have a monitor port), simplifying some very complex tasks among all the computers in your home.
Home Server is where your family will store all of its important files. All music, video, photos, documents and even some software will sit on the Home Server, and all the computers in the home will be able to access it over your network (wired or wireless) as if they were on the computers themselves. You will even be able to access your files over the internet (don’t worry, everything is protected), and the killer feature: Home Server streams to the Xbox 360 and other
Media Center Extenders devices that use Windows Media Connect.
Home Server also keeps your computers protected from disaster, by backing up every byte of data on every computer in the home. It can take an unlimited amount of storage space, backing up to internal and external hard drives the entire contents of every PC, not once, but twice, letting you restore files or entire PCs immediately. It even stores versions of files, so you can roll back that important spreadsheet to how it looked two weeks ago, or undo four days of awful video editing by your talentless sibling.
Now, sit back, relax, because here comes all the fine details, looking closely at almost every major aspect of Home Server.
There are three primary purposes of Home Server:
- Automated Computer Backup – Home Server will sit in the middle of your house and completely backup the entire hard drives of every computer connected to it, automatically. Lose anything, even an entire computer, and you will be able to restore it. You will even be able to restore older versions of files, taking advantage of a valuable feature in Windows Vista.
- Access Everything From Anywhere – With a Home Server, you will be able to access all of your files from any computer, inside or outside your home, as well as accessing your home computers from outside the home. You will centrally store your files to make them easier to access at all times.
- Grows With You – Home Server will be designed to make it easier for users to expand its capabilities, especially making it easy to add more hard drives.
Home Server will be sold in two forms, just like Windows XP Media Center used to be: As a full hardware/software package by manufacturers, and as a software package to system builders. Home Server is designed as a “headless” system, which means that it is not designed to be accessed with a mouse, keyboard or monitor. In fact, the integrated hardware/software solutions are designed to be built without a monitor port!
According to Microsoft’s projections, Beta 2 of Home Server will arrive in just two weeks, on January 22. Pre-Beta 1 was reached last July. They are also projecting Release Candidate status by May 15 and the final Release To Manufacturing on June 22.
Some details on the features:
Backups are automated and daily. In typical usage, it is plug and play, you never have to work with any settings or configuration. Only new or changed data is backed up, but everything will be backed up. In fact, if several copies of the same data is saved on different computers, Home Server will only back it up once on the server, and keep track of the various versions, not just by date, but by originating computer.
At any point, if something goes wrong, you can boot up a computer with a Home Computer Restore CD and it will connect to the Home Server with a simple wizard that will restore it from the backup. At any time, you can also access the Windows Home Server Console from any home computer and restore individual files and folders.
Storage can be internal or external hard drives (USB or Firewire) connected to the Home Server, while functionctioning as a RAID system. It comes pre-configured with shared folders named Music, Photos, Videos, Public and Software. Permissions for the various folders can be specified, and you can create any new shared folders you’d like. Moving files back and forth from the Home Server and the computers is as simple as dragging and dropping, just as if the Home Server was your computer’s own hard drive.
Everything in the shared folders is backed up, with snapshots taken twice a day. Every shared folder has two copies, on seperate hard drives. Previous Versions of files in shared folders will be available, so in Windows XP or Vista Ultimate/Enterprise/Business you can go to the Previous Versions tab in the properties of any file or folder and restore an older version of the file or folder. Previous Versions is not available in any Home version of Windows Vista.
Home Server monitors your network to ensure that everything is running smoothly. It makes sure that backups are being completed successfully and as scheduled, that all Server hard drives have enough space to ensure two copies of everything, and even checks the security status of all the computers on the network. Home Server collects the status from Windows Vista Security Center of all the home computers, and lets you monitor the security status of all the computers from the Windows Home Server Console.
A properly configured user account can remotely access the Home Server from any networked computer, or even access it remotely using a web browser. Remote users can download and upload files in shared folders. You’ll need to open up ports in your router for this, so if you want your Home Server isolated from the evils out there, that’s doable too.
Home Server can be used for media streaming, sending music, photos and video to an Xbox 360 console or supported digital media receiver (
presumably Media Center Extenders and other Windows Media Connect devices) on your home network. Of course, playing back any of that media on any of your computers is just as easy, if not more so, streaming to Windows Media Player or Windows Media Center.
You access the Home Server through the Windows Home Server Console, which lets you view the backup status of all your connected PCs, configure up to 10 user accounts, configure shared folders, manage hard drives (including watching their status and even attempting to repair them), view network health. Shared folders can be configured on a per-user basis, and each user gets their personal folder on the server, that is private by default and can be shared with any other users. Any shared folder can have folder duplication turned on or off, so long as you have two or more hard drives. The default shared folders cannot be deleted, so applications and hardware can be built to expct them, but you can create any more you need.
File backup works on the block cluster level, not on the file level. Windows Volume Snapshot Services tracks the hash values of every block on the disk and compares the hash values with those of blocks already backed up. If the hash value changes, it sends those blocks to the Home Server. Thusly, Home Server knows when only portions of a file has changed, and tracks those changes. By default, Home Server will backup every hard drive on every computer, internal or external. You can manage your backups from Home Server Console, choosing which to keep and which to delete.
All storage on the Home Server is treated as a single drive, no matter how many drives you have, how they are split up, and whether they are internal or external, and there is no need for the user to configure what data goes on what drive. Hard drives do not have to be of equal size or type or speed, and Home Server will add them to available storage and determine which will be used for necessary duplication. Before you remove a hard drive, Home Server determines and explians to you how removal of that wdrive will affect the system, and will move critical data from that drive to other drives in the server.
Home Server owners will be able to set up a free internet address, like username.homeserver.com, to remotely access their servers. Remote access can be configured or even disabled on a per user basis. A guest account can also be configured, for example if you want to share music or photos with anyone who visits. I have not heard confirmation of this, but presumably, if the Zune adds wifi-to-computer sharing, it could be enabled to grab music from a Home Server.
Minimum system requirements:
- 1 GHz Pentium 3 (or equivalent)
- 512 MB RAM
- 80 GB internal hard drive as primary drive
- Bootable DVD drive
- Display (only for software installation)
- 100 Mbps wired Ethernet
- Keyboard and mouse (only for software installation)
The home network must have a 100Mbps or faster Ethernet connection and computers running Windows XP SP2 or Windows Vista. The Home Server requires a wired Ethernet connection to the router, but client PCs can access it via a wireless connection.
Some features are only available with Windows XP SP2 or Windows Vista Business (or higher) systems, making the only way to get certain features is through Vista Ultimate. In other words, Home Server is going to be a major reason to buy Vista Ultimate, and Media Center aficionados will have to have at least one Ultimate PC to use certain features I can’t talk about and take advantage of Previous Versions.