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[Update 03 Feb 2011: Today Microsoft announced the Release Candidate of Windows Home Server 2011, formerly code-named "Vail." This guide was written during the beta phase of "Vail," so instructions and screenshots may be slightly out of date.]
Obtaining the Vail beta is straightforward if you’re already a Windows Connect user (http://connect.microsoft.com/WindowsHomeServer). Otherwise, you’ll need to sign up for an account.
The beta is in the form of a downloadable ISO, so you’ll need to burn a DVD from the ISO, or install it onto a USB flash memory drive using the Microsoft Windows 7 DVD-to-USB tool (http://store.microsoft.com/help/iso-tool). Since no optical drive is included in this build, setup was run from an 8GB USB flash memory stick.
You no longer have to install the WHS Connector from CD or USB key. It’s just a URL to the server for download.
The base installation proceeded without incident, but when the system rebooted to the WHS desktop to download updates, a weird problem cropped up. Vail had no built-in drivers for the Intel gigabit Ethernet hardware. It did recognize the Atheros Wi-Fi adapter, but couldn’t log into my home network since security is enabled.
Instead of either prompting me for a password (for Wi-Fi) or prompting me for a drive (for the gigabit port), the system would pop up a screen that told me no network connection was available. The only option was “Reboot.” If you reboot, you’ll get the same result—in other words, it’s an infinite loop! Obviously, this is a bug—but hey, it’s beta software, right?
The way around this bug is to hit Ctrl-Alt-Del while the system is looking for a network (but before the “network not found” dialog pops up). Bring up task manager, kill the process that’s looking for updates, and then manually install the driver.
Installing the Connector software for an individual user is easier than in the original release of WHS. You no longer need to copy the app to a CD or USB key, or manually navigate to the server to download it. Instead, you pop up your browser and type http://server name/connect, where the server name is the name you gave the server during setup. Then you can download WHS Connector and install it on the target system. Note that a version of Connector is downloadable for Mac OS X as well as Windows.
If you have your PC set to automatically log in when you start up Windows, the WHS Connector install will want you to disable that feature. Until WHS is up and running, and all passwords are consistently set, you’ll need to manually log in. Since this is a home server, not a business server, you’ll want your system login and your WHS account login to be the same. Once the logins and passwords are created and are the same, you can re-enable auto-login on your PC.
The Vail dashboard resembles the old WHS dashboard, but offers more user-friendly help. You’ll want to create logins for other users on the network. The backup wizard steps you through the process of setting up backups for all the users, as well.
The Vail Dashboard is more user-friendly, and actually has useful built-in help and walk-throughs.
You can also more easily configure backups of the server than in the original WHS—after all, if the server goes down, you’ll lose your backups, so having a backup of the server is pretty important.
You’ll want to configure automatic backups once you’ve got all your systems set up.
Vail also offers a built-in media server, which is fully DLNA-compliant. If you plan on streaming media from the server, you’ll want to configure the media server.
It’s easy to configure the new media server capabilities, including transcoding-quality settings.
Once you’ve got users and the server itself configured, you’re ready to go.
Unlike the first WHS, Vail now natively understands Windows 7, including Win7 homegroups. Note that Vail is 64-bit only, so systems running it will need a native 64-bit processor. This means that some Atom-based systems (Atom N2xx, Atom Z500, and Z600) will not run Vail. This also means that upgrading from the current WHS to Vail will be difficult. Even if the CPU is 64-bit capable, the current Windows Home Server is 32-bit with PAE support. So, if you plan on migrating an existing Windows Home Server installation to Vail, you’ll want to back up your data, then reformat your hard drives before installing Vail.
Vail has the familiar Windows Home Server Dashboard. However, there’s also a new Launchpad. The Launchpad allows an individual user to access shared folders, configure, or launch a backup.
The media server built into Vail surpasses the original WHS, and reduces the need for a third-party media server add-in, like Twonkymedia. Given its full DLNA support, you can even connect from DLNA-equipped consumer electronics devices and game consoles. Note that the transcoding support currently doesn’t work with Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005.
The new WHS is built on top of the Windows Advanced Server 2008 core. The WHS dev forum is full of messages regarding various add-ins that don’t work or have limited functionality. (Remember, this is beta software!) If you’re running WHS with either free or commercial add-ins, consider your migration carefully. Current-gen WHS add-ins won’t work with Vail. However, companies are busy developing add-ins, such as Awieco’s WakeOnLan (www.awieco.com/Products/WakeOnLan). If you’re dependent on an add-in you’re currently using (for, say, home automation), you’ll want to make sure it’s Vail-ready before making the switch.
Remote access is now more robust, and will even support streaming media to remote devices. So you can show off your home movies and photos of the family while you’re on the road. As with the original WHS, you can also log in remotely and perform system management chores.
The first generation of Windows Home Server offered functionality that wasn’t much better than existing NAS (network-attached storage) boxes. You could build a better server, however, given the vast array of add-ins that arrived on the market after WHS shipped.
Vail looks to be more of a true server out of the box. The built-in media server is now DLNA-compliant, and can transcode digital media files on the fly. Vail will also be a true 64-bit server, which means that most add-ins will need to be updated to work with the new OS. But it’s also likely we’ll see newer and more robust add-ins, particularly for home automation.
Even given Vail’s higher level of sophistication and added features, it’s easy to set up and easy to manage. We’ve no doubt that the next-generation Windows Home Server will do well in the market. But if you plan on using your home server for anything more than just a repository for files, you should think about building or buying a system with a stronger CPU and the option of adding a GPU later, as I did with this build. You’ll be able to take full advantage of Vail’s new features and the wealth of add-ins that will become available.
Your case, motherboard, and cooler all come with useful instructions, but be sure to check out our most recent step-by-step guide at http://bit.ly/bldcreed.