Weekend Project: Building a Windows Home Server (Part 1)

Posted by Minnaar Pieters 17 Sep 2009

Many homes these days have more than one PC and also have amassed quite a lot of media in the form of photos and videos. One of the small duties most people forget about with their home machines is to do regular backups - and yeah it is quite tedious, especially with more than one computer. While many methods exist to automate these backups, many of them are not particularly easy to use and stable. Microsoft has had a product called Windows Home Server available for a couple of years, and yes it is relatively unknown. But for multiple PC households, it is truly a great solution. So over the next few weeks I will document my experiences with this software and also the hardware I will use.

I recently got hold of a new low end tower server machine, a HP ML110 G5 (you can find it here)  and decided how best to use it. Seeing as it is a server machine, it has a terrible integrated graphics card and some strange proprietary PCI Express slots, so using it as a desktop machine was out of the question. In fact I tried installing Windows 7, but the machine refused to even play a h264 SD video. You can order the machine with Windows Server 2003, but I decided to rather go for Windows Home Server (which is also built on Windows Server 2003). WHS runs as a "headless" server, so you only need a screen and desktop set for the initial setup. Thereafter, you log into the server with other machines in your home.

Windows Home Server can run on quite old hardware, in fact using it on some retired old desktop machine would work fine. Microsoft says a minimum of a 1GHz Pentium 3 and 512MB RAM would work - but I would recommend a bit more. The machine I am using is a Pentium Dual Core 1.8GHz, with 4 Gig of error correcting RAM with a smallish 250gig SATA drive. Having some quad core Xeon processor will be an absolute waste - unless you plan on doing things like real time transcoding and streaming, and even then such a high end processor might be excessive.

I would recommend more than one drive, bigger the better. Also, since it is a server that is on 24/7, you might want to take note of the number of components in the machine which will save electricity in the long run. So if you using an old overclocked gaming machine you might want to first remove some of the excessive fans and components. The more bare bones, the better.
Microsoft however recommends using new components, seeing as they will probably last longer than some tired old component. Seeing as it is a server which will probably house some valuable data such as your old photos, it might be smart to take note of their advice.

When looking at storage, enterprise grade hard drives will probably last longer, but "green" hard drives that consume less electricity might be an even better idea seeing as redundancy can be catered for by the operating system. So far I only have the one drive in the machine, but I will soon start adding some additional drives I have laying around. Every time you add a new drive, the OS will simply remind you that its contents will be erased and then adds it to the storage pool. A system partition holds the OS, while all the storage is pooled into a D: partition, which caters for redundancy as well.
In terms of memory, MS says 512MB would be fine, but memory is so cheap these days it might be a good idea to get more memory. In fact pre-built HP Home servers these days ship with 2GB RAM, so I decided to get 4GB memory. The server machine I am using can use error correcting RAM, so I decided to stick with that, which cant hurt. I was quite surprised to see that ECC RAM does not go for much more than normal RAM.

So far I think I have hardware covered, but I need to create some more storage - my WHS will primarily serve as a backup device for all my machin,e but also as storage for all the media I play on my Xbox 360. WHS can stream movies, videos and photos to the Xbox, so having enough storage will be very important. So I will probably increase the storage with two additional 1TB drives, keeping in mind that the more hard drives you add, the more electricity the box will use, but using additional drives will also increase data redundancy.

What I will look into in the next few days is the actual setup, the backup functionality, media streaming and also mac compatibility. Seeing as I use Mac OSX on my main machine these days, I really want to see how I can do Time Machine backups to my server. Also, support for Windows 7's connector software is currently still in Beta, so I look forward to see how well Windows 7 plays with it.

Windows Home Server is $99, so you can find it in SA for around a R1000. Most places dont seem to carry stock of it, so you have to order it in most cases.

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I am a R&D Analyst in Stellenbosch South Africa who has a immense passion for all things tech related. I embrace technology, open source and web standards, and I participate and contribute to the social web.