Tuesday, 04 December 2007

UPDATE re CompUSA: I'm still not sure where the $150 price cut came from, but Reuters and everyone else is now reporting that CompUSA is being sold and, from the sounds of things, pretty much shut down. Stores will remain open over the holidays with some likely fire-sales, so might be the time to see what can be had over the next few weeks... This might explain why the company didn't try to sell me their obligatory extended service plan when I purchased the home server...

I bit the bullet this past weekend and went online over at CompUSA.com and found that a HP MediaSmart Server (the new Windows Home Server OEM device) was in stock at one of the Portland stores (Jantzen Beach, specifically). So, I reserved it online for in-store pickup and headed into the city to get it.

HomeServer2 Much to my (very pleasant) surprise, when I got to the store and they rung it up, the $599 price was automagically reduced by $150 as an instant savings at the register (nice!), so I ended up with the 500GB model (the EX-470) for $450 -- which was just fine by me! All that saved money can go toward another hard drive to add to the system's storage capacity.

When I picked up the new server, I was on my way to the Van Halen concert in Portland with a friend (more on that later and in another post), and then we spent the entire next day skiing at Mt. Hood Meadows on Sunday, so the Home Server didn't even get unpacked until late on Sunday night.

HP's packaging is top-notch, and the documentation was excellent. Seriously, the quick setup steps for the hardware are literally three simple steps - Connect the power cord, connect to your LAN router with the Ethernet cable that comes in the box, and push a button. After that, go to a computer on your LAN, pop in a CD, and follow the instructions on the screen.

Windows Home Server is a very cool system. It allows local LAN and remote access, including web-based access for visitors (friends, family, etc). It will back up your computers each night in case something goes wrong with them (Unless you're running an x64 version of Windows - more on that in a minute) and creates a centralized place on your network for media files (audio, video and pictures) as well as installable software. You can copy any type of file to the system (in backup mode or otherwise). The multimedia capabilities allow you to use your Xbox 360 to play the multimedia content stored on the server. The HP flavor also includes iTunes integration (one central library for all your computers) and some other nifty stuff. I pretty much hate iTunes these days (more 64-bit compatibility gripes plus its just so frustratingly bloated), so I am not sure I will actually use that capability, but it's nice to have.

I have one compliment and one gripe at this point in my story about setting up the Home Server out of the box. On the positive side, the setup software is run on a client PC attached to your LAN, and the setup wizard is very user friendly, simple and quick to execute. You don't have to be anything close to a computer expert to install and run this system, which is a huge victory for Microsoft - Great job! However, when I tried to do the setup the first time I did so from my main laptop, which I bought a few months back at a consumer store (also from CompUSA). It would not work. The problem is that my laptop has Vista Ultimate 64-bit installed on it by HP, and the Home Server Client software simply does not support 64-bit Windows. This strikes me as pretty ridiculous in this day and age, and I was more than just a little disappointed. I suppose I could (should) have done my Google homework before I purchased, but seriously... Bill Gates was stating Microsoft's commitment to 64-bit computing back in 2004 and 2005 (and since), and with 64-bit operating systems being installed on consumer computers and sold in retail stores, it seems to me it's time to be shipping 64-bit support in all software right up front. It's really not just about early adopters anymore. And Microsoft's not the only culprit here - there are a number of manufacturers of software that decide for whatever reason not to build in 64-bit support. But I think that's a mistake. That said, word is that 64-bit Home Server Connector bits will be available in early 2008. Okay, so I wish the situation was different but it's not. And yes, building software is expensive and complicated, etc. etc. etc... I know. End of rant.

Once I set up the server using a different client computer (one running 32-bit Vista this time), things went very well. It took very little time and was flawless. My DLink router has UPnP enabled, but for some reason Home Server was not able to automatically configure the Home Server's remote access settings on it, so I had to set that up manually (just three port-forwarding settings after establishing a fixed IP address for the home server on the router). Once the router was configured (the setup program provided all the information I needed in clear and plain language), everything checked out just fine.

From the 32-bit machine I can access the Home Server via a slick console application that lets me configure and access data. It's really a terrific interface, especially for a v1 product. It shows the value in building a clean, network-enabled Windows application over a browser-based web app, for sure. I especially like the remote application capability, which is basically a limited RDP connection for administrative purposes. In order to access the server from my 64-bit machine I can map a drive and/or access the file system via a UNC share name(\\servername\sharename), so I was able to upload a slew of pictures to a shared library that way. I can also RDP into the server from the 64-bit laptop with the standard Windows remote desktop client and launch the Home Server Console that way from the server's remote desktop (a stern warning page is displayed when you login via plain-old RDP, saying be careful and that the preferred method is to use the management console installed on a remote client machine). I'll be glad when the 64-bit client software is available so I don't have to do that anymore.

HomeServer1 The hardware is nice, looks good, is fairly quiet and has plenty of expansion room. I've started looking at 750GB and 1TB drives online to determine what I want to buy to build the system out. It has three internal drive bays free and three USB ports as well as an eSATA port on the back, so expansion is pretty flexible. In a podcast that my friend Scott did a while back where he interviewed Windows Home Server product unit manager Charlie Kindel (it's a great show, so you should go listen), Charlie said they had one test system where they added something like 26 drives - wow... The way the system works is cool. You add new drives to the system and it recognizes them and basically through the magic of the underlying software your storage pool grows larger. So, you don't have to worry about multiple drive letters or anything. Also, once you add drives beyond the first one you can set up duplication of folders between different drives for data redundancy. That way the content you mirror will survive the failure of any given drive. Not quite the RAID level of fault tolerance but a good and easy-to-use compromise that provides novice-level flexibility and usability you don't tend to find with RAID controllers. In all, the whole Windows Home Server disk/file subsystem is pretty darn cool.

Perhaps one of the most exciting aspects of Windows Home Server, which I plan to check out over the next few days, is the fact that they opened the system up to allow developers to create add-on applications that expand and enhance the Home Server capabilities. There are already a number of really cool apps, which you can check out here.

So, that's my first impressions. Initial software frustrations aside (and with a future resolution on the horizon), the HP hardware and software and the Windows Home Server operating system check out with very high scores. I can recommend this system without hesitating, and even if you don't know much about computers or networking you'll be able to set this system up and start backing up and sharing information both on your home network and over the Internet with family and friends.

Add/Read: Comments [5]
Tech | Home Servers
Tuesday, 04 December 2007 14:56:27 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
Tuesday, 04 December 2007 18:25:18 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
Dave Mc
Tuesday, 04 December 2007 21:16:24 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
At $450 it seems to be a no-brainer. Do you know how would one get this deal? (I checked the local availability around Boston, and it does not seem to be here yet)
Tuesday, 04 December 2007 21:21:13 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
Oh, yeah, I forgot another thing -- what kind of I/O performance do you get out of this thing? Is it able to read/write large files at roughly disk speed?
Wednesday, 05 December 2007 05:47:38 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
Hey Now Greg,
Great content to post about. I personally really like the concept for this product & it was really interesting to hear your professional opinion after using it. I've read some posts on channel 10 on this product however your post is very informative.
RunAs fan,
Wednesday, 05 December 2007 11:03:07 (Pacific Standard Time, UTC-08:00)
Hey Greg,
I'm interested to know why you went with home server versus storing all your goods on a NAS solution(which you blogged about a while ago)? Also, can home server be a domain controller?

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