How to build a Windows Home Server to back up your PCs and stream all your movies, music and photos
Your PC’s hard drive is probably packed to the platter’s edge with hundreds of ripped DVD videos, gigabytes of digital photos from your camera, and tens of thousands of songs. And that’s not even counting the high-definition digital video from your last family vacation that you’re still planning to unload. But with terabytes of media just gathering dust on your desktop PC, you risk losing years of aggregated files when your hard drive inevitably gives out (don’t even think about backing it all up to the cloud). Our solution: Keep all your data backed up on a Windows Home Sever. More than just a generic NAS box, Windows Home Server maintains backups, streams media files, and works as a file share across your home network. And the best part is that you can build one yourself—we’ll show you how!
Windows Home Server: An Overview
More than just a stripped-down version of Windows Server 2003, WHS has numerous features that make it ideal for small home networks
WHS’s primary function is providing automatic backups for computers on your home network. You can schedule daily backups for up to 10 Windows machines, and you have the option of picking specific local drives or excluding individual folders from backup. The backups aren’t image-based, either: WHS looks at the file system and stores only one copy of every file on its data partition, regardless of how many PCs that file appears on. WHS also monitors the antivirus and firewall status of all client PCs, a useful tool for home admins.
Intuitive File Sharing
The WHS administrator can create user accounts that give friends and family members access to shared files on the server, as well as a password-protected account folder to store personal files. Users’ PCs access the server like they would any other network-attached storage device, and they have the option of enabling data redundancy to duplicate selected folders across multiple physical drives on the home server.
You can add up to 10 Windows machines to back up with WHS, as long as their drives are formatted using the NTFS file system.
Robust Remote Access
Getting access to your files and managing backups on WHS remotely is easy as well. Users can use the provided Console Connector client software to change their own backup settings, navigate the file system in Windows Explorer with a network address, or even remote desktop into the server. Read more about remote access later in this article.
Versatile Media Streaming
Built into the latest version of WHS is the Windows Media Connect UPnP server software, which lets any compatible digital media receiver (like the Xbox 360, PS3, or Windows Media Player 11) stream movies and music off the home network. WHS’s Power Pack 2 update added support for MP4 video files and metadata, and third-party add-ins and server software enable advanced features like real-time video transcoding, so you can stream almost any file type.
One of the coolest things about WHS is its ability to seamlessly integrate any new hard drives into its data partition. Whether you’re adding new internal SATA drives or plugging in additional USB hard drives, WHS will automatically format new storage devices so all drives are treated as a single unified storage space. Replacing older hard drives is also relatively easy, though the removal process may take several hours as WHS relocates backup files to the remaining physical drives.
Build Your Own Windows Home Server
Why settle for the limitations of a store-bought server when you can build one that's even better?
Even though several PC manufacturers offer complete Windows Home Server solutions (like the ones reviewed later in this article), there are many advantages to building one yourself. Most WHS packages are limited to a maximum of four storage drives, and generally include a 1TB drive to get you started. Our build allows for up to six internal SATA drives, with a starting capacity of 4TB (two 2TB drives). Additionally, we included a dual-core Athlon processor, which is far better suited for video transcoding tasks than the typical Atom or Celeron that’s included in current WHS builds. Finally, even though our build is a little more expensive than pre-assembled offerings, WHS software runs perfectly on normal PC hardware, so we recommend that you scavenge parts from old PCs to save on costs.
We omitted a DVD drive ($20) from our parts list because, aside from installing the OS, you're never going to need an optical drive for your server. WHS can be installed from an external USB DVD drive, but we also recommend installing from a 2GB USB key ($10).
1. Prep the Case
We picked the Antec 200 because it’s an inexpensive chassis with six 3.5-inch drive bays. It also one-ups other budget cases by including an external easy-swap SATA bay, which is convenient if you plan on frequently replacing your WHS’s drives. The included 14cm fans also have adjustable rpm switches, so you can turn them down to keep the system whisper-quiet. To start, you’ll have to snap in the motherboard’s included I/O shield in the back of the case (image A), and then screw nine motherboard stands into the belly of the chassis (image B). We also took this opportunity to install the power supply (image C).
2. Insert the CPU
Next, place the motherboard on a static-free surface and install the CPU. Make sure to align the CPU properly (matching the triangle on one of its corners to the mark on the motherboard) before locking it into the socket (image A). Once the CPU is in place, plant the stock cooler on top of the proc and clamp it into the plastic bracket (image B). Then plug the cooler’s three-pin fan connector into the motherboard.
3. Drop in the Motherboard and RAM
With the case flat on its side, carefully place the mother-board inside, aligning its screw holes on top of the standoffs (image A). The Asus M4A78 is a full ATX-size motherboard with six SATA ports. It also has onboard video output, which we’ll use to access the BIOS and also install the WHS software. With the motherboard screwed into place, insert your two 1GB RAM modules into slots 1 and 3, which allows the DIMMs to run in dual-channel mode (image B).
4. Mount the Drives
Now it’s time to install your WHS’s hard drives. With the case side panels removed, slide each drive into an open bay until its screw holes are visible from the side. Affix each drive using four screws. We went with two large-capacity drives to give our server ample storage space without having to worry about replacing drives anytime soon. WHS partitions 20GB for the operating system, and then corrals the rest of the disk capacity into one extended storage space using symbolic links to trick the file system into thinking you have only one really big hard drive.
5. Attach SATA Cables
Use the included SATA data cables to connect both of the drives to the motherboard (image A). We also connected a third SATA cable to the case’s easy-swap drive slot, which rests right above the internal drive bays. After the data cables are attached, connect the SATA power cables from the power supply to the drives as well (image B).
6. Wire It Up!
With all of the physical hardware in place, it’s time to wire up the loose ends. We want to be able to plug USB keys and portable hard drives into the front of our WHS, so we plugged the case’s two front-panel USB cables into the motherboard (image A). The other front-panel connectors, including the power switches and LEDs, are easily attached to the motherboard using Asus’s motherboard adapter (image B). You’ll also want to direct power to the case fans using four-pin Molex connectors from the power supply (image C). Finally, give your motherboard some juice by attaching both the main 24-pin ATX connection and four-pin CPU power connector to the motherboard (image D).
7. Install Windows Home Server
On to the software! If you opted for an optical drive (either internal or external), you can just pop in the Windows Home Sever installation disc and run the traditional install. Alternatively, you can create a bootable USB key (instructions here), copy the contents of the WHS disc (about 800MB) to the key, and install from there. You’ll need to enter the BIOS (by hitting the Del key at startup) to configure the appropriate boot order—make the first boot option DVD for an optical install and USB for the key. The installation process is very straightforward (even simpler than a normal Windows install)—you’ll only be prompted to give the server a name and input an administrator password. Once the installation is complete, attach the server to your home network.
8. Add Clients to Your Server
To configure your server and administer backups, you’ll need to install the WHS Connector password on client PCs. The software is included on a disc with your copy of WHS, but we found it easier to install it straight off of the network. Open a web browser on your personal PC and enter http://servername:55000 into the address bar, with “servername” being the network name of the server you assigned earlier (image A). You should be taken to a page called Windows Home Sever Connector Setup, which has a link to download the Connector software. Download and run the install program, which will automatically detect your server on the network and prompt you for the server’s administrator password (image B).
Once the Connector software is installed, launch it to enter the WHS Console. The first thing you should do is click the Settings button on the upper right and click the Update Now button under the General tab. This will run Windows Update to download and install the latest patches and security fixes for WHS, as well as any WHS Power Packs that might be available (image C). In the next section, we’ll go over the features and functions of the Console.
The Windows Home Server Console
The Console puts all common server chores into one convenient location
Computers and Backup
Every computer that you install the Windows Home Connector software on will appear here. Up to 10 PCs can be queued for backup, and you can initiate instant backups or view backup files from this tab. To utilize backups, WHS creates a read-only virtual volume on your client PC, mounting the backup files so you can retrieve individual files. One caveat to backups is that you can configure only one backup time window for all your PCs. WHS runs through all the PCs sequentially, so if you don’t allot enough time, not every client may be backed up in one session. We recommend that you create a wide enough backup window (during the day or at night) so that every computer can be backed up daily.
Backed-up volumes don't automatically get sorted into the Shared Folder categories unless you're running HP's proprietary Media Collector software.
You can use this tab to add user accounts, which are separate from the list of machines marked for backups. Users have individual logon names (ideally the same logon name they use for their Windows desktop), and as the administrator, you can toggle remote access permissions for each user. WHS also lets you enable a Guest account, but this can end up being a security hole. We recommend that you create a generic user account that you can share with friends whom you want to have access to public folders on the server.
By default, WHS creates five category-specific shared folders that you can use for file sharing and media streaming. Media files found in backups won’t be shown here, but some Add-ins will automatically find and sort files found in attached portable storage devices to these shared folders. Adding a shared folder is easy, and you can toggle on file duplication for individual folders if you want to store redundant copies on multiple hard drives in case one disk fails. We enabled duplication for our build, since the 2TB drives can easily handle both system backup and folder duplication duties.
This tab shows the status of all the physical hard drives connected to the server. A pie chart provides a visual representation of how different types of files (shared folders, backups, and duplication files) are distributed on the server, and you can also use this tab to manually add or remove connected drives from the hive. While this tab is useful, we recommend installing the Disk Management Add-in for a more informative view of how data is being stored on individual drives.
The Settings window, which we accessed earlier to apply updates, is the most powerful component of the Console. Here, you configure the backup session time period, passwords, and remote access settings. It’s also the place where you install and manage third-party Add-ins.
Getting There: Four Ways to Access Your WHS
This is the only way to get your PC set up for backups and to configure user accounts (as explained above).
Users can browse Shared Folders or their own user folder by typing \\servername into Windows Explorer, with your server’s network name in place of “servername.”
Remote Access Website
Enabling website connectivity in Settings lets you set up your router to accept connections from users off of your home network. Your WHS license entitles you to a personalized website under the homeserver.com domain, so you and your users don’t have to remember your IP address.
If your PC is using Windows XP SP2 or newer, you can use Remote Desktop to access your WHS’s desktop. This is useful for installing non-Add-in software like TVersity. Older PCs can download the Remote Desktop connection software manually at microsoft.com/downloads.
Third-party apps can extend the functionality of your home server
In addition to its native features, Windows Home Server allows you to install community-developed Add-ins that introduce new features and security to your server. To run an Add-in, download its .msi install file and place it in the server’s \Server\Software\Add-ins folder using an administrator user account. The Add-in will show up within the Settings window, under the Available Add-ins tab. Just click the install button and you’re set. Some of these Add-ins are still in beta stages, so you might encounter bugs.
Advanced Admin Console
This Add-in creates a new tab in your WHS Console window. From here, you can access your server’s Control Panel, Administrative Tools, Start Menu, and even Recycle Bin, just as if you were using Windows XP. It’s particularly useful when you want to tweak registry settings or remove programs installed on the server using remote desktop. The newest version incorporates support for Internet Explorer 8 and limited Windows Search integration (which works well because files stored on WHS are automatically indexed).
The more hard drives you add to your home server build, the more you’ll want to know how WHS is managing disk space across your storage pool. Disk Management provides detailed data about each drive, including real-time network activity, temperature, capacity, and file type usage. With this information, you’ll know which drives to replace first when upgrading, and which drives are acting up before an impending crash. The coolest feature: a fully customizable 3D wireframe of your entire storage array.
The website interface for remotely connected users is functional, but simply not powerful enough for extensive data transfers (especially since you must use Internet Explorer). With Web Folder 4 WHS, online users can access your WHS with mapped network drives created under My Computer or My Network Places (in XP). Shared WHS folders then appear as network folders, and you can drag and drop files like you would any local directory.
This Add-in monitors your server’s shared Photos folder and automatically uploads found photos to a linked Flickr account. You can customize subfolders so the Add-in won’t upload all of your photos, and also adjust the frequency with which the software will check for new photos. This tool is especially cool when combined with the Web Folders Add-in, so multiple users can contribute and add photos to one community Flickr album.
If you plan on storing a lot of movies and music on your WHS, you’ll want to download the My Movies Add-in, which runs through your media library and adds community-generated meta-data to all recognized files. This makes browsing through movies in Windows Media Center much easier, since it facilitates browsing movies by their DVD covers. Additional conveniences such as automatic CD and DVD ripping are also available, but have to be unlocked with a $50 donation to the creators.
To truly master your digital domain, you'll want to optimize your home server's performance
Beef up the Swap File
Enlarging and optimizing WHS’s swap file can help when you’re running multiple Add-ins and streaming lots of media. It’s especially useful if you purchased a Home Server with just 512MB of RAM. To change the size of the swap file, install the Advanced Admin Console Add-in and access WHS’s Control Panel. Double-click the System icon in the list to bring up the System Properties window. Under the Advanced tab, click the Settings button to bring up the Performance Options window.
Under this new window’s Advanced tab, click the “Change” button under the Virtual Memory section. Now select the C:[SYS] drive and change the page file’s custom size to Range. The Initial Size should be set to 1.5 times the capacity of the RAM installed on the system, while the Maximum Size should be set to three times the amount of RAM. For example, in a system with 1GB of memory installed, the initial size of the page file should be 1,500MB and the Maximum Size should be 3,000MB.
Don’t Just Back up, Sync!
If you download a lot of media files or use BitTorrent to schedule downloads to your local drive, you can set up Windows Home Sever to automatically perform a one-way sync of files from your desktop to WHS using Microsoft’s SyncToy software (microsoft.com/downloads). SyncToy pairs two folders from anywhere on your network and ensures that all the files in one folder are duplicated in the other. For example, you can set up SyncToy to watch a video downloads folder on your desktop and automatically copy any new files that show up to the Videos Share on your WHS, which then makes the file available for media streaming. SyncToy is ideal because you can configure the pairing to be in “Contribute” mode only, meaning it won’t remove files from your WHS if you delete the original version.
Transcode High Definition Video
Windows Home Server includes media server software that is recognizable by other computers and game consoles like the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Unfortunately, these receiving devices don’t have a wide selection of video codecs to process all video file types, including the popular Xvid codec and the Matroska multimedia container (.mkv). To play these files, you’ll have to install a media server that can transcode your videos into supported formats. The trick is that these programs aren’t WHS Add-ins—you’ll have to download and install them on your server’s desktop just as you would any normal program in Windows.
We’ve had success with TVersity (follow the instructions from our Streaming Guide), but another program we recommend is the PS3 Media Server, which also works on the Xbox 360. Just download the latest Windows build, copy the file to a folder on your server, and run the install wizard using remote desktop. The PS3 Media Server will automatically run on startup, and you can configure its transcoding settings to downsample audio or lower video bitrate to accommodate your network’s bandwidth limitations (i.e., streaming video over Wi-Fi versus wired).
Set your WHS's automatic update time to be different and far removed from the scheduled backup time.
Split up your files into many Shared Folders (i.e., TV and Movie folders instead of just one Video folder) to facilitate more efficient file duplication.
Disable WHS active notifications on client machines by right-clicking the Console icon in the taskbar (for the more computer-illiterate users on your home network).