Build It: The Ultimate Windows Home Server

Nathan Edwards

Despite Microsoft’s apparent lack of love for Windows Home Server 2011—the company stripped Drive Extender from the final version, and good luck finding a retail Windows Home Server 2011 box in the U.S.—it’s still a great server OS for a Windows-heavy home environment. Backups are effortless, streaming is hassle-free, it’s easy to administer, and there are tons of add-ins available.

Given a choice between buying an off-the-shelf product and building one myself, I’ll opt for the build any day. And since you can’t get a retail WHS box in the U.S. anyway, I figured what the heck. I pinged Michael Brown, our home network guru, for advice, and together we spec’d out a Home Server Dream Machine, with a real CPU to handle on-the-fly transcoding and all the storage you can eat. No, you can’t buy a home server this nice anywhere. But if you like what you see, you can build one, too.


Fractal Design's Array chassis is a sleek and attractive home for my Home Server.

Ingredients
CPU Intel Core i5-2405S
$220
Motherboard
Gigabyte GA-H67N-USB3-B3
$115
RAM
4GB Corsair CMV4GX3M2A1333C
$30
RAID controller
HighPoint RocketRaid 2720SGL
$145
RAID cables
HighPoint Int-MS-1M4S (x2)
$30
Case Fractal Designs Array R2 Mini‑ITX
$190
Storage
Seagate Barracuda XT 3TB (x5)
$900
OS Storage
Seagate Barracuda XT 1TB
$80
OS Windows Home Server 2011
$60
Total $1,770

Building the Perfect Server

A home server is a different animal from a standard rig. Since they’re designed to run headless, you don’t need a monitor, keyboard, or mouse, except for the initial setup. Administration thereafter can be done remotely. You also don’t need a discrete videocard. What do you need? A decent CPU and RAM, a boatload of hard drives, and the means to run them.

Most off-the-shelf home servers ship with anemic Atom or ARM processors. I don’t play that way. Intel’s Core i5-2405S offers a quad-core 2.5GHz Sandy Bridge CPU with low power consumption and heat output. Its onboard video is nothing fancy, but good enough for the rare instances I’ll need to use it.

For my motherboard, I chose Gigabyte’s GA-H67-USB3-B3. The H67 chipset lets me use the CPU’s onboard graphics when I need to, its Mini-ITX form factor is perfect for a home server, and it’s inexpensive. It also has 6Gb/s SATA, which will be useful for the boot drive, and USB 3.0, in case I need to plug in additional external storage.

Fractal’s Array R2 chassis was an obvious choice for this WHS build. It’s beautiful, has a built-in 300W PSU with six SATA power leads, and has a drive tray that can hold up to six 3.5-inch hard drives.

The most important part of this build, of course, is the storage. Windows Home Server needs at least 160GB for its install partition, so I picked a 1TB boot drive because they’re not much more expensive than smaller-capacity drives. Because this server will hold backups of all my computers, as well as movies, music, and family photos, redundancy is important. Windows Home Server doesn’t have native data redundancy or RAID support, so I had to roll my own. HighPoint’s RocketRaid 2720SGL is a PCIe RAID card that supports up to eight SATA or SAS drives at 6Gb/s. I’m pairing it with five 3TB Seagate Barracuda XT drives.

Assembling the Hardware

Building the box was the easy part. The Fractal case is roomy and—once you remove the hard drive cage—easy to build into. I just mounted the CPU to the motherboard and installed the stock fan and RAM, then installed the motherboard and I/O shield into the case. The RAID card slots into the motherboard’s solitary PCIe connector and fits into one of the case’s two PCIe expansion slots. I secured the six hard drives into the hard drive cage with four screws each, then plugged the 1TB boot drive into one of the motherboard’s 6Gb/s SATA ports with one of the mobo’s included SATA cables, and the five 3TB drives into the HighPoint RAID card via the mini-SAS-to-SATA cable adapters.

Since the build doesn’t include an optical drive, I had to connect a USB optical drive in order to install Windows Home Server, the motherboard drivers, and the RAID software. If you don’t have an optical drive, you can snag one for around $30, or you can use ImgBurn on your PC to create a disk image of your WHS install DVD, and use Microsoft’s Windows 7 USB/DVD Download Tool to make a bootable USB drive.

Configuring the Software

If you’ve ever installed Windows 7, you know how to install WHS. Pick your language, select the primary hard drive (remember, we’re installing onto the 1TB drive, not the 3TB drives), and go make a pizza or something. In about 20 minutes, the installer will let you know that it can’t find a network driver (image below).

Insert the motherboard’s driver disc, then open Device Manager and navigate to Other Devices. Right-click the Network Adapter and select Update Driver Software, then “Browse my computer for driver software”. Navigate to your optical drive directory, then Network, then RLT8111. Select “include subdirectories.” Your driver should install and prompt you to restart. Then the Home Server installer will continue configuring, before asking you to set the system time. Sync the time to the Internet and move on.

Installing the RAID Card

Soon you’ll be presented with a familiar-looking desktop and a prompt to install device driver software for your RAID card. If you don’t see the prompt, right-click the RAID card entry in Device Manager. Download the most recent Windows Vista/2008/7 drivers, as well as the WebGUI installer, from bit.ly/qgKOkc , extract the driver, zip to your desktop, and, following the same procedures as above, navigate to the x64 folder and let the device driver install. Reboot.

Extract the WebGUI folder, right-click Setup.exe, and select Run as Administrator (image above). Follow the prompts to install it, then click the WebGUI shortcut on the desktop. Login using the username and password you got during install (default: RAID/hpt).

Creating the RAID

Navigate to Manage > Drives, and select Initialize Drives. You should see all five 3TB drives listed (image below, top). Select them all and hit Submit. Then go to Manage > Array, and select Create Array. Select all the drives and hit Submit. Now you have to choose a RAID level (image below, bottom). Since this is home backup, redundancy is important. I opted for RAID 6. RAID 6 is similar to RAID 5, except it uses two parity volumes, so it can tolerate failure of up to two drives without losing data. RAID 5 would have given us 12TB of usable space instead of the 9TB that RAID 6 gave us (out of 15TB total), but I felt the additional redundancy was worth it. Select Foreground initialization, Write Back cache policy, and 64KB block size. Create the maximum size RAID you can.

It’s very important that you select the 4K sector size instead of the default 512B; otherwise Windows won’t be able to see the whole 9TB array. Click Create. Now go away for about seven hours while the RAID builds. When you come back, verify that the RAID creation was successful, then you can go to the Dashboard.

Moving the Shares

Click Event Viewer, which should tell you that, hey, you have an unformatted hard disk available! Select “Format the hard disk” (image below) and you’ll see the 9TB (well, 8,393GB) array you just created. Format it! Now, here’s where it gets a little weird. Because WHS uses the .vhd virtual hard drive format for backing up, you can’t actually create a volume larger than 2,040GB. Therefore, your 8,393GB array is now four 2,040GB partitions plus a 223GB partition. That’s fine with me, as it provides a convenient way to categorize my shares.

Click “Server Folders and Hard Drives” in the Dashboard. You’ll see folders for backups, documents, music, pictures, and video shares. I used the “Move the folder” command to assign each to a different partition, just to be fancy (image below).

Now you have a Windows Home Server! From here, you can connect to your home server from each of your home computers to set up backup and remote administration. Feel free to disconnect your monitor, keyboard, and mouse now, and do the rest of your administration and configuration remotely. Just navigate to http://[your server’s name]/Connect from any of your home computers to download the Home Server Connect software.

Serving Up Awesome

Properly configured, a Windows Home Server is a joy to own because it hooks in so well to the rest of the Windows ecosystem. It’s easy to set up server-side backups of your home computers, designate per-user or HomeGroup read/write access, and configure media streaming options and remote web access, all from within the Dashboard on your PC (image G).


The server's six hard drives are positioned right in front of its 14cm intake fan, so they get the cool air first.

With 9TB of storage, my Windows Home Server offers plenty of space to back up my home computers and serve as the central repository for all my media. Add-ins can offer additional functionality; for tips on good add-ins I like the community site WeGotServed.com.

If this Home Server build seems like overkill to you, there are a number of ways to lower the price. If you don’t need two-disk redundancy, you can go from RAID 6 to RAID 5; this will let you go from five disks to four while still tolerating single-drive failures. Or you could save $170 by eliminating the RAID card and cables altogether, and just use the SATA ports on the motherboard. You’ll be limited to four drives, and you’ll lose the hardware RAID options, but Windows Home Server doesn’t require RAID, and given the 2TB limit on its virtual volumes, you might prefer independent disks anyway.

Windows Home Server is a lot easier to configure than was FreeNAS 7 the last time I took a look at it. I’ll be taking a look at FreeNAS 8.1 when it arrives, but this build has me convinced that the $60 for Windows Home Server 2011 is well worth the price, especially if you have a Windows-centric home.

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