Adopting new technology is often a difficult journey. In the beginning the idea is simple, you want a home server. But then you begin to expand on the idea, add some requirements such as power efficiency, low noise, small form factor, good storage options. You take a look at the Mac-Mini and think it is interesting, but not for you, you still want something bigger. Eventually you come upon this little black box from HP. The HP MediaSmart Server is a good idea, right? It even comes with Windows Home Server, a customized version of Windows 2003 that is suppose to give you all these features. You even find a good price for an EX490 model on the Internet. Eventually it comes out of the box and you decide, the hardware needs upgrading, you install a faster CPU and max out the memory to 4GB and then add some 2TB SATA drives and you have yourself a pretty good looking box.
In the back of your mind though, you cannot help thinking that the HP customized version of Windows Home Server really is not performing. After all, it is 2010 and it is all about 64-bit software now. Windows 2003 looks as ancient as well, Windows XP. Microsoft keeps talking about Windows Home Server 2011 and how it will be based on Windows 2008 Server instead. You wait and you wait and you wait and well, you wait. Then finally you find an Internet retailer that has WHS 2011 OEM for sale! You order your copy and get it a few days later. You get to play with a new Windows version again and this is where the real story begins…
WHS 2011 is not an upgrade, so the first thing to do is to copy all your data off of the MediaSmart box. This was quite easy for me, since all I had was music and video files. Ironically the original reasoning for buying the MediaSmart Server was to use it to backup my main Windows 2003 Server. Something which for some reason I never was able to get it to do. I have had the pleasure of restoring the MediaSmart EX490 from the HP discs and that process was pretty complicated and involved using another WindowsXP machine. For WHS 2011, the installation process was so much easier, that I cannot understand why the recovery process was so much more difficult. I followed Sean Daniel’s excellent How To Install WHS 2011 Guide and was up and running in no time. I even used my Windows 7 (VMWare Fusion) on my MacBook to make the USB boot drive install. For my install I setup WHS 2011 to use the entire 1TB drive. This was perhaps the easiest Windows installation I have ever done.
Once I was up and running, I used RemoteDesktop to connect and administer the box. The “Mass Storage Controller” driver is not installed by WHS 2011, so you will need to download the driver for it from Silicon Image Support. The driver to download is labeled: SiI 3531 64-bit Windows SATARAID5 Driver for Windows 7. You will want to download the latest version of course. To install the driver, unzip the file download and then go to Device Manager and click on the Mass Storage Controller and Update Driver, point it to the unzipped files and Windows will do the rest for you. Restart the machine.
Next up, was to modify the network settings. Setup the box with a static IP address, and gave it the right DNS Server and Gateway addresses. Set the Network Card to 1GB Full Duplex if your network devices support this. The Windows Firewall is a lot more complicated in WHS 2011 and more useful than the old Windows 2003 one. If you decide to leave it on, be prepared to modify it frequently because it will shutdown a lot of applications and services.
Setup Applications & Services:
For Anti-Virus, I use ESET Nod32, so that was my first application to install and setup. Even though WHS 2011 is a server operating system, I had no problems installing the Home edition of Nod32 64-bit. After this came Mozilla Firefox, iTunes, Adobe Flash Player, VLC Media Player, and PlayOn.
Initial Pros and Cons:
WHS 2011 is faster. It is more responsive on the same hardware than WHS v1 ever was. Disk access is better without Drive Extender. Speed wise, WHS 2011 is a no-brainer, if you want a faster machine and you have a 64-bit CPU and 4GB of RAM, do it.
HP included Twonky Media Server, FireFly for Music streaming, and even an iPhone streamer with their WHS v1 setup, but I always found these solutions to be slow and buggy. With WHS 2011, there is only Windows Media Player which seems to work for me much better than HP’s solutions. Even before the WHS 2011 upgrade, I was already using PlayOn to serve my media, so I just ended up reinstalling PlayOn after the upgrade.
Backing up machines was suppose to be the main reason behind a home server, but in this respect, I really can’t take advantage of WHS. My main problem is that the only real Windows box besides WHS is my main domain controller, which is Windows 2003. WHS v1 always had problems creating the backup and so I ended up giving up on this. WHS 2011 is worse, because it does not even come with a connector for Windows 2003. It is not a supported client OS. This was a big let down, but oh well, I already had another backup strategy for the Windows 2003 Server. Most of the machines in the home are Macintosh. There are about three laptops and one iMac machine. Here is where the HP software actually worked better than Microsoft, at least for wireless Mac clients, because if you are on a wired connection, the HP solution did not work due to Apple limitations. With WHS 2011, Microsoft has no backup solution for Mac clients. There are ways to make wireless Macs work but you have to do the setup yourself and I still have not been able to make wired Mac clients work. Here is a situation where Microsoft really could have done better and chose not to.
This leads me to another point about Microsoft, mainly that Microsoft does not get consumers. Here is a product that they are selling as a Home Server and which they expect other companies like HP and Acer to improve upon to make it better for consumers. Out of the box, WHS 2011 does not support Macs very well, and it is pretty much as complicated as the original Windows 2008 Server. Other than a computer geek like myself, I am not sure who else would buy this, when there are simpler solutions like Apple’s Time Capsule and WD NAS drives.
No Support From HP:
It is kind of disappointing that HP stopped making the MediaSmart Servers and announced they would not support WHS 2011 on these machines. I think HP embraced the idea of a home server and they did not get it totally right, but I think Microsoft did not help either. With the EX490 running WHS 2011, I now have dead drive lights, never to be lit again due to lack of driver support from HP for WHS 2011, and a blinking activity light.
Additional Links & Resources:
At this time there really is not much out there in regards to WHS 2011. There are not really any new Add-Ins that are available. Hopefully there will be some soon. If you are looking for a manual, I do recommend purchasing Microsoft Windows Home Server 2011 Unleashed (3rd Edition). This book was an overall good reference to WHS 2011 and provided some interesting insights, like installing SharePoint 2010.