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Why you should avoid a Windows Home Server

I've used a Windows Home Server for about 6 months, from betas to Release Candidates to the final shipping version. I used it quite heavily, with multiple PC backups to storing 50GB of music and about 40GB of digital photos and thousands of other random files (including a subversion repository).

Last weekend, I took Windows Home Server (WHS) out back of our house and put it down. Permanently. BOOM! I couldn't stand it anymore.

Here's why (this is my review of Windows Home Server version 1):

  1. Automatic backups. A brilliant idea so poorly executed. Nearly every morning I would head into my den to check e-mail, and one of the best features of WHS had been at work ... the backup. Except it could turn my computer on automatically every night, yet it couldn't turn it back off after completing the backup. It didn't matter what software was running on my PC -- most every day it was on. I adjusted the schedule for backups so my PC would be ideally finishing the backup when I'd arrive in my den on an average morning to minimize the amount of unnecessary time my computer was running.
  2. When a hard drive dies, so does the WHS. Or so it would seem. Supposedly, WHS will warn you a hard drive is about to die, and give you time to make some adjustments and properly remove it from the system. If you're lucky that is and happen to be around in the hour before the drive fails. What a MESS it made when I had to remove the drive without going through proper procedures! It took HOURS of manual editing and tweaking (using Remote Desktop to get access to the raw file systems) to get things back to barely working order.
  3. The performance of basic file operations SUCKS on average. Having used Windows 2003 Server as a networked file system at home, I could definitely see/feel the difference. From sluggish file copies to even more sluggish file writes.
  4. Odd interactions with software -- my wife couldn't save Microsoft Money files safely on the network without errors. I saw that there were some reports of that problem ... but if that was a problem, what other problems are there?
  5. File corruption. I'm about 80% certain a handful of music files (80-100?!), by ripping directly to the WHS, were corrupted at some point by the file server. I'm re-ripping them tonight. Yeah, that's fun.
  6. WHS Console software. Neat, but inconsistent. It would report that my password was out of sync consistently and offer to fix it. Well, it did fix it -- yet it continued to insist that it wasn't consistent. This same problem continued to happen on other PCs as well. It was also strange how the console would warn everyone about network problems ... even though most only ran the connector software for backups.
  7. No Mac backup support. Not shocked by this ... just disappointing.
  8. Expensive -- even as an OEM license. Much too expensive to grow the early adopter market. Microsoft blew it on that one.
  9. No cool Media Center integration support. (Not that it matters to me -- I ditched that product 2 months ago in favor of a Dish 722 DVR).

All of these boil down to one problem: my lack of trust in WHS. The lack of trust went so far as I had setup a scheduled task to copy files from the shares to an attached external hard drive once a day.

Since this software is all about trust, I finally decided it was time to go. I had a licensed copy of Windows 2003 Server which I installed, made a few drive shares, and setup a script that copies all the files via robocopy every 90 minutes to a secondary drive. It's of course not up to the minute accurate, but it's good enough for me.

Of course, I don't have the remote access feature of WHS (never used it, didn't trust it anyway). And, I don't have a daily backup strategy that is as good anymore -- but I'm setting something up that will be decent. We put most of our important stuff on the network drive anyway.

I wouldn't recommend Windows Home Server to anyone at this time. I think there are better and cheaper options out there that will give you the peace of mind and few features that most people need for less money (or at least less up-front money). It's a neat idea that isn't ready for the masses.

Comments

I think it is a great software for doing disk image backups. I don't use it for anything else - actually the reports of what happens when you pull a disk out scare me.

Thanks for the comment Miha.

It makes great backups -- if you can rely on them. :)

When my HD in the WHS failed ... all backups were lost.

I'm switching to Norton Ghost 12. The "automatic" turn your computer on feature I can duplicate quite easily with a WAKE-on-LAN service, and I can also add script to turn the computer back off, which the WHS connector doesn't seem to do successfully.

Hi Aaron,

Actually the most important feature for me is current disk image backup - this is what I care most. So it wouldn't be a tragedy if backup disk fails - I would put in a new one and re-backup all of the computers.
I hope that WHS would tell me if there is a problem with backup integrity though. :-S
What I like about WHS is how it manages disk space - it is smart enough to avoid file duplication which is a priceless feature if you are doing disk image backups (I have something like a TB content from my computers stored into ~400GB including a week long history of files). AFAIK no other software is capable of keeping backup sizes so small (I've tried Acronis stuff and looked into couple of others).

As per putting computer in OFF state, I agree it is annoying (actually WHS is capable of putting my laptop back into off, but not my workstations). That's why I scheduled my backups when my computers are ON and idle (evening) to avoid this problem.

During the period of time when the disk failed, the entire WHS server was very unresponsive as it tried to "resolve" the issue.

My computers are either on and in use or hibernated to save power ... so there's never an "idle" period I can guarantee where a backup could run and my computer could be put into a lower power state.

I definitely agree that the backup compression system is slick. But, I have two Macs that can't use it at all, and two PCs that we use around the house that can (but we store all of our important files on the network), so I've started using Norton Ghost to make backups of the core OS disk occasionally to an external HD attached to my server (the same drives I used for the WHS). It's working well enough for now.

Thansk for the comment!

Just a few quick thoughts after reading your posting:

1) I don't think WHS ever advertised Mac backup functionality so you made a mistake when you chose it for that purpose in the first place. (read: how can you slam it for something it never intended to do?)

2) Same as above for a "Sleep-On-LAN" feature that you wish it had. Granted, that would be nice -- but it was never part of the deal!

3) Regarding, "I'm about 80% certain a handful of music files" were corrupted. Wow, that's playing it pretty loose to lay your suspicions of a handful of corrupt music files at the feet of WHS without any supporting evidence, don't you think?!

4) That is a bummer your drive failed and the WHS didn't restore well. I know the PC backups are excellent as I've tested them, but if the WHS OS fails I guess I'd need to scamble to use the restore CD or something. I do backup the WHS across the internet to a server in my office in case my house goes up in flames (crashplan is fantastic for this -- much better than any hosted option like mozy. Tip: you can use Remote Desktop to install the crashplan service on the WHS box).

For my purposes, I'm a big WHS fan. The add-ins available that provide free media server/DVR and nice photo album (Wiist) make it even better.


DW -- thanks for the comments.

#1) I suggested I was disappointed by this missing feature -- that's all. Just want to point out its not there (rumors that it might show up from what I've read ...).
#2) Actually -- it's supposed to work. It worked some times on my PC and more often on my wife's PC. Just not always.
#3) What proof could I offer? It's circumstantial at best, but....I've never had a problem with Windows 2003 server storing files and ripping directly to that after using it for about 3 years full time. So, in the period of about 2 weeks, while re-ripping 8000 songs, to have about 100 songs be corrupt .... I couldn't point at anything but the file server. Sorry, but I don't have anything more than that as proof.
#4) How are you backing up the WHS via Crashplan? It doesn't d o a complete OS level backup. Does CrashPlan correctly handle symbolic file links like are used on WHS?

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