At CES this year his Billlness sprung a surprise on the audience, Windows® Home Server. The product aims to act as a central sharing, backup and remote access machine that you can sit in a corner and forget about. It forgoes the Windows Server UI in favour of something smaller, lighter and easier for everyone to use.

The Login Screen Logging In
Computers and Backups Users

Shared Folders Server Storage

A couple of weeks back Microsoft opened it up to beta applications and I managed to get a slot. An overnight download of a 1.5Gb ISO image, a trip to PC World to get a small box to run it on and off I went.

Installation is rather Heath Robinson. The install right now has a bad case of schizophrenia, alternating between believing its Windows Home Server, Windows Server 2003, Windows Small Business Server and even, at times, sports a Vista like startup graphic. You are warned at the beginning that any storage devices attached to the target machine will be erased but after confirming this is acceptable and entering your license key away it goes. And reboots. And goes. And reboots. And goes. And reboots. I stopped watching after a while, and went back two hours later to see if it had finished. The installation as it stands is not particularly configurable, you can't set the server name or workgroup (there's no AD support, this is for home after all) and you must resort to firing up Remote Desktop and connecting to the box to configure the network settings. At the same time you may as well set the time zone and keyboard, as these default to US during installation with no chance of changing them.

Once configured you need to create usernames and passwords (there is a hard limit of 10 users), mirroring them against the username and password you will normally use on your XP or Vista box. There's no support for server clients, so if you are running Windows 2003 at home you're out of luck. The system comes with six default shares, Music, Photos, Public, Software (which, by default, contains the client software and and ISO image of the restore CD, along with a command line utility to burn it to physical media), Video and Users (which will contain a private directory for each user you create). Each machine needs to have the client software installed before it appears in the list of computers you can backup or remote control.

Network HealthStorage and backup is the main aim here; the simple to use backup solution that takes a snapshot image of client drives then differential backups every night is provided (although Microsoft admit that the initial imaging should be done using a wired network as it produces rather large files). The backup system watches for duplicate files, so if you and your partner both have a ripped (legal of course) copy of Step's Greatest Hits on your individual PCs only one copy of the files will be stored on the WHS server. As you can imagine that shrinks the size of most backups where OS and application data takes up the majority of space. If a backup fails the ubiquitous notification tray icon will turn a fetching shade of yellow, indicating your "network health" has problems. This information is mirrored in the network health section of the WHS client. For those of you worried about leaving your machines on all the time the backup system can bring a computer out of "sleep" to backup then send it back to that state again.

File sharing is provided by SMB (so Linux and Mac users can access the shares) and via Windows Media Connect UPnP, so your XBOX 360 will be able to see and play music and video stored on the WHS (assuming you aren't using any formats other than WMA, WMV and MP3). It should be noted that Media Center Extenders do not support Windows Media Connect and so won't see WHS at all.

Of course as you dump more and more Steps music on the WHS it is going to fill up. Anyone that's had to deal with inserting new drives into Windows machines will know the fun of remembering drive letters and moving content around; this is no more with the WHS Drive Extender. Storage is treated as a pool and exposed via the shares, the addition of a new drive simply expands the pool and content location is handled by WHS without end user intervention (although the administrator does have to add the new drive to the pool).

That's great when you're at home, but what if you're out and about and need access to your files or to remotely control your PC? WHS provides a web interface as well. This, for me, is where it all breaks down.

The web interface is exposed via HTTPS, with IE specific code to load the self generated certificate onto the client machine (although Firefox users can simply tell Firefox to ignore the certificate errors). There is no way to load "proper" certificates onto WHS using the MS supplied interface (although the IIS admin tools are still there for those who feel comfortable treating the box like Windows 2003), nor does WHS currently support ports other than 443 (so for anyone already running an SSL web server at home you're going to have problems). The self generated certificate is assigned to the simple machine name, so once you start trying to get to it via an IP address for FQDN there are certificate errors all over the show. Encouraging home users to ignore certificate errors is a dangerous road to start down, however the beta feedback site does show responses that indicate Microsoft are addressing this issue.

Once logged in (but don't expect keyboard shortcuts or any nods to accessibility right now, they simply aren't there) you have a couple of options, Computers and Shared Folders.

Web UI Splash Screen Web UI Menu
Web UI Computers Web UI Shared Folders

The stated intent of "Computers" is to allow you to remote control both your WHS and any computer that the client software is installed on. I simply can't get it to work as it never accepts that my XP SP2 laptop is remote controllable, from either inside my home LAN or outside. If it worked then you would be presented with a Remote Desktop window (via an ActiveX control, tough luck non-IE users) for the machine you choose. WHS acts as a Remote Desktop gateway (something coming in Longhorn) with support for multiple client machines without having to worry about setting up separate ports on each system. However this all depends on your OS supporting Remote Desktop. For XP users that will be XP Professional, Tablet or MCE, for Vista users that will be Vista Business, Ultimate or Enterprise. Considering the target audience for WHS is "home users" not supporting XP or Vista Home editions severely limits this feature.

The "Shared Folders" interface allows you to download, upload and manage any share you have access to on the WHS, providing zipping on the fly for files and folders. Searching for files is provided via Windows Desktop Search on the server, which means any file format that can provide an iFilter will be searchable once you install it. The download feature is undoubtedly handy for files in, for example, Software or your specific User share it becomes painful when browsing music. Ideally you would simply click on the file you wish to play and the normal download process would begin, however once you select more than one file the automatic zipping comes into play rather than creating a playlist and streaming to the client. An obvious feature missed. The music listing doesn't show album art either, even if it's present, a bit annoying now that WMP11 has finally made it easy to add missing CD covers.

Browsing a shared directory The file list UI

So what else is missing? There's no virus scanning on the server right now (and as it's Windows 2003 under the hood you can forget about using your normal, "cheap", client scanning software). Printer sharing (assuming it's coming) for home users with printers from manufacturers who don't believe that their printers should be used on a server OS (that's you Hewlett Packard) are going to have fun. There's no way to delete a client PC once it's been registered against the system (which means once the system sees it hasn't been backed up for a while you're going to see unhealthy network notifications, at least until you hop onto the server and search for the client via MAC address under HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows Home Server\Transport\Clients). There's no way to insert a CD and have it ripped to the Music folder. MS say they will support multiple WHS boxes on a network, but until you can rename the things without jumping through a hoop it remains unclear to me how that's going to work. Currently you need to manually configure your firewall to let the necessary ports through; which is rather strange considering MSN Messenger manages to use UPnP to map ports under XP perfectly well. There are also a few unnecessary services installed and running, such as an SMTP server, which I assume will end up culled when the RTM hits.

However I don't care. I want it. I want it in a headless, silent box that can live in my living room (they are coming apparently, MS have showed off boxes from HP and others), that I can fill with storage and never have to worry about finding that Steps CD again. Any hardware manufacturers out that that want to send me kit, feel free. I'm not sure you'll get it back mind you ....

Addendum: I'm kidding about having Steps CDs people. I only put that in to entice Pat whose weird musical taste often pops up on his MSN Messenger account. He has Five Star. Five Star!