HP MicroServer – Software (Part 1)
About 3 or 4 years ago I wanted to setup a PC that I could use to backup my data.
My collection of photographs and home videos were slowly but surely growing, and I wanted a machine that I could keep them safe on, even if a hard drive crashed and that would be accessible from anywhere in the house.
I looked at RAID and played around with a Linux distribution called FreeNAS. At that stage FreeNAS was still very new to the scene – I think it was like version 2 or 3 theb…I see it has progressed to version 8 today… Unfortunately the hardware I tested the software on was slow (Asus A7V133 motherboard with a low spec AMD CPU) and when I tested worse case scenarios (pull out a drive and see if you can still access the data) it took a long time to recover from the failure…
I started looking around at other software options and somewhere along the line I saw a write up about a Microsoft product called Windows Home Server. I might hear some of you say “a Windows Home Server? What is that?” Well let me explain…
Windows Home Server (version 1)
Yes I know it is dangerous trusting a version 1 product of Microsoft 🙂 , but in actual fact the software is based on Windows Small Business Server 2003. When installing the one part of the setup actually displays Windows Small Business Server 2003 in the corner!
Windows Home Server (WHS) is designed to be run on a machine, with minimum maintenance and easy enough for a non-IT certified person to operate. It REALLY is easy to use. Want to create a User, click Users and New. Want to create a new Share, click Shared Folders, New, give it a name and say who should have permission. Easy! To drive the point home Microsoft even had a book titled: “Mommy, why is there a server in the house?” 🙂 as part of the marketing campaign in the USA.
WHS also afters a backup solution for 10x Microsoft Windows machines, which will allow you to restore a machine to the last backup without issue. You can stream from the machine your music, photos or movies. You can also use it as a file server.
But back to the main reason why I chose WHS…RAID.
RAID vs Disk Extender
RAID for those of you who may not know, is a way of setting up a hard drive to provide either speed or redundancy in case of a hard drive failure. Have a look here if you want to learn about the different RAID levels. Now I was looking at RAID 5 but the only drawback is that you are basically stuck with the size of the RAID volume (max of 2.1Tb per drive letter) as well as the smallest size of your drives in the RAID set….let me explain…
If I bought 3x 500Gb Hard Drives, set them up in RAID 5 I would have 1000Gb usable space and the other 500Gb would be available for redundancy.
Now say now I could get 1000Gb drives on special and I wanted to upgrade my RAID 5 to 3x 1000Gb drives (so that I could then have 2000Gb of usable space). I would first have to backup the current 1000Gb of data in the 3x 500Gb volume. Then I would have to “break” the RAID volume and create a new RAID volume with the 3x 1000Gb drives. I would then finally have to restore the backup and only then be able to carry on.
Although Windows Home Server is compatible with RAID it uses a Microsoft technology called Drive Extender. What the server does is it places drives into a Storage Pool. You can add and remove drives into and out of this pool. You can an any size to the pool, greater, smaller – any size. You are not limited in size of the storage pool (so no maximum 2.1Tb drive limit) and you can define which files you want made redundant in case of a drive failure. Let me repeat that last bit – you can decide which files you want “protected” should a drive fail – unlike RAID where everything is made redundant. Those files in the folders that you want redundant, are then copied across to other drives in the system, thereby spreading your risk.
Another thing that I really liked about Drive Extender was that say now you have a “worse-case scenario” hard disk failure in your server, you can still access your data…whats left of it…
For example you have a RAID 5 volume consisting of 4x Hard drives. If one drive fails you are safe. If you two drives fail at the same time – you are screwed and I hope you had backups…You cannot just slap in 2x drives and hope your data is back. If you try read anything on the 2x working drives – good luck – that ain’t gonna happen…
Drive Extender is different. Say you have 4x Hard drives in your Windows Home Server and 2x drives failed. You can either send those drives in to a data recovery agency, or you can take out the 2x working drives and read the data on them still. In the next post I will explain this a little more in depth…and remind everyone again why I have grown to dislike Seagate.
Ultimately Drive Extender won this round over RAID for me…
OK where can I get it?
If you want some fun, walk into an Incredible Connection or PC store and ask if they sell Windows Home Server…the reaction will be like you have walked in and spoken Klingon to them. Another reaction is that they “make” like they know what you talking about and then try and bullshit their way out of it…sad but true…
The only way to get it, is to either import it (Ebay, Amazon) or contact a large vendor like Axis or Workgroup and ask if they will sell it to you. This is really a pity as Microsoft South Africa had an awesome product that they could have moved to SME’s but missed the opportunity. I ended getting it from DataCentrix who sold it to me for R999,99 ex VAT. Not bad considering it was less than the cost of Windows 7 Ultimate edition and it came with 10 CAL’s….
If you want to “try before you buy” then I suggest you hurry and head over to http://www.microsoft.com/windows/products/winfamily/windowshomeserver/eval.mspx where you can download a 30 day fully functioning version to play around with.
Why not Linux?
Well at the stage that I purchased it I want not running Linux on my home desktop PC, I was running Windows XP. Also although there is a “WHS Linux Alternative” called Amahi, it was not at the stage of development where I was comfortable to trust all my family photos with it, also it did not have an alternate to Drive Extender at that stage.
For those of you interested in Drive Extender for Linux, check out Greyhole.net for an alternative (I have not personally tried it yet) – YMMV.
OK so why did you tell me this whole story?
You see when I lost drives in my original home server I still had the WHS license available to use. I had paid for it, knew how to use it, so I decided to load Windows Home Server on the HP Microserver.
The next bit is a tip for EXISTING WHS owners who find themselves in the same position as myself. If you own a legit license for WHS and you are in the same situation as me that you need to reinstall the server, I highly suggest you look at downloading the “X:\Files” Windows Home Server DVD from Breaking Home Server. What this dude has done is take a WHS Setup DVD, slipstreamed PowerPack 3 (this is what the Service Packs are called in WHS) as well as a whole bunch of add-ins that are scripted to install easily. He also provides the ability to increase the size of C drive when setting the server up – by default Microsoft sets the size to 20Gb (I prefer at least 80Gb). It still asks you for your licence etc, so this is not warez in case you are wondering…but merely an awesome tool to setup your server fast with minimal effort.
In the next post I will explain why I love Drive Extender…