How to Build Your Own Windows Home Server Rig

The attraction of a home server, such as Windows Home Server, is obvious for any household with several computers. But even if you have just one PC, the technology offers significant benefits -- such as automatic backups that will let you survive a catastrophic hard drive failure without losing any of your precious data.

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7. In the final step of the installation, you'll be asked to type an administrator password that you'll use to access Windows Home Server. Since this will be the gateway to your entire network and every computer connected to it, you should come up with a strong password; Window Home Server requires one that's at least seven characters long and consists of upper- and lowercase letters, numbers and symbols. You'll also need a hint that will help you remember the password. When you're finished, click the right-pointing arrow at the bottom of the screen.

8. At the next screen, choose whether or not you want Windows Home Server to automatically download and install updates; we recommend that you turn this feature on. Make your choice and click the right-pointing arrow at the bottom of the screen.

9. In the next screen, indicate whether or not you wish to join Microsoft's Customer Experience Improvement Program. Microsoft claims it doesn't collect any private information using this tool, but sticklers for privacy typically decline this option. You'll be asked to make a similar choice regarding error reporting on the screen that follows.

10. Your Windows Home Server installation is now complete. But you'll need to perform at least one more housekeeping step before you can begin using the server: install the driver for the server's NIC. Copy the appropriate driver to a USB drive and install it from the Windows Home Server desktop. Launch Windows Explorer, locate the installation file and run the executable. You might need to restart the server to complete the driver installation.

11. When you're finished, you can remove the display, keyboard, mouse and external drive, and run the machine as a "headless" server. If you ever install new software or utilities on the server, you'll do so remotely.

Step 5: Install WHS Connector on your PCs

To manage your server from a client PC and to enable automated backups for your PCs, install the Windows Home Server Connector software on every Windows PC on your network. (There is no version of the Connector software for Mac or for Linux machines; they connect to the server using the tools in their own operating system.)

If you purchased a packaged copy of Windows Home Server, you'll find the Connector software on a separate disc. If you downloaded your copy, you'll find it in both the Windows Home Server folder and your server's shared software folder.

1. Copy the entire folder to the client PC, double-click the file "whsconnectorinstall.exe," and follow the instructions.

2. Once you've installed the Connector software on a client PC, you can open the Windows Home Server Console from that machine by double-clicking the Windows Home Server icon in the Windows taskbar.

3. Enter the Windows Home Server Console administrator password that you created previously, and the console will appear, showing the status of each machine that has the Connector software installed and that has access to the server.

Only one person -- whomever you've designated to administer the network (probably you) -- needs to know the WHS Console password.

Step 6: Set up automatic backups

Next, configure Windows Home Server to automatically back up each of the Windows computers on your network. Once you've installed the Connector software on each machine, you can configure all of them from just one PC.

1. Open the Windows Home Server Console, click on Computers & Backup in the top menu bar, right-click on the computer you want to configure and choose Configure Backup from the pop-up menu.

2. When the backup configuration wizard appears, click Next.

3. Windows Home Server will examine the computer and report on the hard drives that it finds. Place a checkmark next to the volumes you'd like backed up and click Next.

4. Windows Home Server will automatically exclude some files (e.g., the contents of the Recycle bin) from the backup. You can add any other files you don't want backed up by clicking the Add button and browsing through the content on your drives. When you're finished, click Next and then Done at the next screen. Repeat this step for each of the computers on your network.

5. If you want to control additional details about how and when backups are performed, click the Settings menu (at the top right of the console menu bar) and then click Backup in the window that appears. From within this menu, you can specify a time window during which backups will be performed, manage how long backups are retained and delete old backups (although Windows Home Server will also manage backups automatically). Close the Settings window when you're finished.

Step 7: Configure users and shared folders

You will also need to establish a user account (with a log-on ID and password) for each person who will connect to the network. You can also create a Guest account, which has no log-on requirement. Only one person at a time may log in as a Guest. If you enable the Guest account, consider restricting it to certain shared folders and limiting even that access to read-only status.

Note: In addition to being limited to serving 10 PCs, Windows Home Server is also limited to 10 user accounts -- 11, including the Guest account.

1. Click on User Accounts in the top Windows Home Server menu to start the User Account Setup wizard.

2. Decide whether or not you want to activate a Guest account. (Again, if you do so, we recommend limiting the Guest account's access.)

3. Click the Set Policy button if you wish to change the user password policy from its default value of medium strength (passwords must have at least five characters, but there are no other restrictions). Click OK when you're finished.

4. To add a user, click the Add button (you'll find it under the primary menu row). Use the same log-on information to create a Windows Home Server account that the person uses to log on to their regular PC; otherwise, they'll have to provide a name and password every time they need to access a file on the server.

5. You'll also need to grant or deny each user remote access (the default choice being to deny it). Granting a user remote access enables them to access shared folders on the server from anywhere they have Internet access, and also to access and remotely control any client PC connected to your Windows Home Server machine -- provided that it's running Windows XP Professional or Windows Vista Business, Enterprise or Ultimate editions.

This feature is not supported by Windows XP Home or by Windows Vista Home Basic or Home Premium editions. You must use a strong password to enable remote access; the privilege cannot be granted to the Guest account.

6. Next, decide which shared folders the user will be able to access on the server. Windows Home Server defaults to granting full read/write access to the user's own shared folder only (which it will create at the end of this step), but you can change this to grant each user full, read-only or no access to any other users' folder and to any shared folders (e.g., Music, Photos, Video) located on the server.

Note that Windows Home Server Power Pack 2 greatly improves the way in which Windows Media Center Extenders connect to the home server. Previously, these devices had to rely on a Windows Home Server guest account; now media in shared folders (e.g., Music, Photos, Video) can be streamed directly from the server to the extender.

7. Click Finish when you've made your choices. Windows Home Server will establish the permissions and create the user's shared folder. Click Done when it has finished.

If you ever decide to change a user's access privileges, click on User Accounts, right-click on the user's name and click on Properties from the pop-out menu. You can change which shared folders the user can access, change the user's password, disable the user's account or remove the user from the system entirely using this same process.

Finally, if you intend to stream media from your Windows Home Server machine, open the Settings menu again and click on Media Sharing in the left-hand column. You can turn sharing on or off for all files stored in the Music, Photos and Videos folders. Be aware that if you enable sharing on these media folders, anyone who has access to your network will be able to access their contents regardless of the individual user-account settings.

No DVD drive? Installing WHS from a USB drive

If the machine on which you wish to run Windows Home Server lacks a DVD-ROM drive and you don't have a portable DVD drive that connects via USB, you can copy the installation disc to a bootable USB flash or hard drive and use that instead. You will need to reformat the drive you intend to boot from, so be sure to back up any data from the device before you proceed.

You'll need a PC running Windows Vista in order to do this with a USB flash drive, and the drive must have least 2GB of capacity. If you have access only to a PC running Windows XP, you'll need to use a USB hard drive because XP isn't capable of creating a bootable USB flash drive. (In truth, there are convoluted work-arounds for this limitation, but they are beyond the scope of this article.)

Whichever device and operating system you use, you'll need administrator access.

1. Click the Start menu, All Programs, Accessories and then right-click on Command Prompt to run the program as an administrator. A black-and-white command prompt window should now appear on your screen.

2. Type diskpart in this window and hit the Enter key. The command prompt should change to

DISKPART>

3. Type disk list at the command prompt and hit the Enter key. A list of all the disks connected to your computer should now appear. Make a note of the number assigned to the disk you wish to reformat. (You can identify the USB drive by its capacity, which will most likely be different from that of your other drives.) We will reformat that drive in the next step, erasing everything on it, so make sure you've selected the right drive before proceeding.

In this example, the USB drive we intend to use as a boot disk is identified as Disk 2. When you type the following commands, replace "2" with whatever number is assigned to the drive you're using.

4. At the DiskPart command prompt, type select disk 2 (again, it's critical that you use the correct number that's assigned to your drive) and hit the Enter key. The DiskPart program will respond with the message Disk 2 is now the selected disk.

5. Type clean and hit the Enter key. The DiskPart program will respond with the message DiskPart succeeded in cleaning the disk.

6. Type create partition primary and hit the Enter key. The DiskPart program will respond with the message DiskPart succeeded in creating the specified partition.

7. Type select partition 1 and hit Enter. The DiskPart program will respond with the message Partition 1 is now the selected partition.

8. Type active and hit Enter. The DiskPart program will respond with the message DiskPart marked the current partition as active.

9. Type format fs=fat32 and hit Enter to instruct DiskPart to format the drive using the FAT32 file system. When the program has finished formatting the disk, it will respond with the message 100 percent completed. DiskPart successfully formatted the volume.

10. Type assign and hit Enter to instruct DiskPart to assign a drive letter to your disk. The program will respond with the message DiskPart successfully assigned the drive letter or mount point.

11. That was the last step in the disk-preparation process, so type exit and hit Enter to leave the DiskPart program. You can now close the command prompt window by typing exit and hitting Enter a second time.

12. Now copy the entire contents of the Windows Home Server installation disc to your portable drive. Grab a cup of coffee while this is happening, because it will take 20 to 30 minutes.

13. When it's finished, plug the USB drive into the machine you want to transform into your server, reboot it from that drive, and install the operating system just as you would from a DVD.

Michael Brown, a freelance journalist living in northern California, has been writing about computers and technology since 1987. He can be reached at brownmdj@gmail.com.

This story, "How to Build Your Own Windows Home Server Rig" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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