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.

Microsoft builds up Windows Home Server features, ecosystem

Microsoft's Windows Home Server is built using the same code base as the company's robust Windows Server 2003, but it's been streamlined (and somewhat limited) for consumer use. In addition to automatically backing up every Windows XP and Vista computer on your network, WHS can monitor the health of all the Vista PCs on its network. If the server is equipped with two or more drives, it will automatically duplicate all its files to provide data redundancy in case one drive ever fails.

It also allows file and printer sharing; it can stream audio, video and digital photographs to any device that supports Windows Media Connect (including the Xbox 360 gaming console); and it can be configured to allow remote access, so you can access and control your server and all the machines connected to it from anywhere you have an Internet connection.

The recently announced Windows Home Server Power Pack 2 adds important new features to the server operating system -- including much-improved support for Windows Media Center Extenders and client PCs running Windows Media Center -- and fixes a number of bugs.

Note that Windows Home Server is limited to 10 client computers. Windows, Linux and Macintosh computers can connect to the server (either locally or remotely over the Internet) and access shared files, but only computers running Windows XP and Vista can take advantage of automated backup on home-brew Windows Home Servers.

Several manufacturers currently offer prebuilt servers based on WHS, but you can also buy the operating system by itself and easily build out your own server. We'll show you how. For the chassis, you can either recycle an otherwise past-its-prime computer or buy a bare-bones system such as the VIA ARTiGO A2000 we'll use in this example.

Getting a copy of Windows Home Server

Windows Home Server isn't sold as a retail product, but that doesn't mean it's not available to consumers. You can buy a "system builder" copy from many online retailers for about $100. You should be aware that Microsoft does not allow you to reuse this license if you migrate to different hardware down the road.

IT pros and commercial developers can also acquire the software as part of their subscriptions to Microsoft TechNet or Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN).

If you're not sure you want to commit to Windows Home Server, there are two ways to obtain a trial version of the operating system: You can pay the postage for Microsoft to mail you a DVD, or you can download it for free (in the form of an ISO disc image) and burn it to a DVD using a program such as Nero or CyberLink's PowerDVD. Visit Microsoft's Windows Home Server Web site for details.

The trial version will run for 120 days; after that time, you'll need to purchase the aforementioned system builder disc and perform a server reinstallation (don't worry, the reinstallation will preserve all your backups).

Installing WHS from a DVD is the easiest method; if the computer you're using doesn't have a DVD drive, your next best option is to use an external DVD drive that attaches via USB. Alternatively, you can copy the required files to a USB hard drive or USB flash drive and install WHS from there. See "No DVD drive? Installing WHS from a USB drive" for more information.

Old PC or new bare-bones system?

The advantage of recycling an old desktop PC for your home server is obvious: You might not need to buy anything other than Windows Home Server. (Although it can be done, we don't recommend using an old laptop as a server -- among other things, the hardware isn't optimized to run as a server, finding drivers can be difficult, and most laptops have limited storage capacity. Furthermore, Microsoft doesn't officially support running Windows Home Server on a laptop.)

But setting up something like the ARTiGO A2000 has its advantages, too: It will produce less noise, take up less space and consume much less power than the typical desktop computer. In our tests, the ARTiGO drew between 30 and 35 watts of juice, compared to 180 to 200 watts for a desktop PC.

The ARTiGO A2000, which sells for $300, consists of a 1.5-GHz VIA C7-D microprocessor, a motherboard with a VIA VX800 core-logic chip set, a Gigabit Ethernet interface, a power supply, and an enclosure with two internal SATA hard drive bays and three external USB ports. You supply the hard drives and memory (the motherboard will accept one SO-DIMM with up to 2GB of DDR2).

The total cost for our project, including the operating system and two 750GB drives, came to $585.

Keep these points in mind whether you build your server using new or repurposed gear:

Fast, high-capacity hard drives and a Gigabit Ethernet interface will have the most impact on your server's performance.

An abundance of memory will increase its performance if you install many add-in programs (you'll find lots of free utilities that perform all manner of useful functions -- and more should be coming now that Microsoft is providing professional developers additional support via MSDN). WHS requires a minimum of 512MB of RAM, but we recommend having at least 1GB.

And don't forget to install antivirus software on your server; you'll need a program that's designed specifically for server software.

And here's one last tip before we jump into the how-to section: There is a very good chance that the next version of Windows Home Server, expected to arrive sometime in 2010, will require a 64-bit CPU, which means that a computer with a 32-bit processor -- including the ARTiGO A2000 -- will probably not be able to run it.

Step 1: Prepare the hardware

The first step to deploying Windows Home Server is to get the server hardware ready.

If you're recycling an old machine, be sure to save any old files stored on its hard drives, because the installation will completely reformat them. Next, open up the case and use a can of compressed air to blow out any dust bunnies that have taken up residence.

Leave the hard drives installed, but remove any nonessential peripherals, such as a sound card. If the system has a DVD drive, leave it in place because you'll need it for the installation, but you can remove it afterward because any future software installations will be performed over the network.

If you plan to install Windows Home Server on a bare-bones server, install the memory, hard drives and any other components you'll need. You'll also need to temporarily attach a keyboard and a monitor.

In both cases, locate the driver disk containing the device driver for the Ethernet network interface card (NIC) and keep it handy. Plug the machine into a power outlet and connect it to your network with an Ethernet cable. Client PCs can connect to the server through a wireless router, but the server itself cannot operate wirelessly.

Step 2: Adjust the boot settings

Since we'll be installing a new operating system from either a DVD or an external USB drive, we need to configure the target computer's BIOS to boot from that drive.

1. Start (or restart) the computer and repeatedly tap the Delete key to access the computer's BIOS. (This works for most computers; if it doesn't with yours, try the F1, F2 or F8 key, or check your documentation to find which key to press.)

2. Once you enter the BIOS, open the Boot menu. (If you don't see this menu displayed at the top of the screen, look for it to be nested in one of the other menus, such as Advanced, or check your operating system documentation.)

There might also be two distinct menus: One for selecting a DVD drive as the boot device and another for a USB hard drive.

3. Change the boot device priority list so that the first boot device is either the machine's DVD drive or a drive connected to its USB port, depending on which you'll be booting from.

4. Choose the Save & Exit Setup option and allow the machine to reboot.

Step 3: Begin the WHS installation

Now it's time to install the Windows Home Server operating system.

1. If you'll be booting from a USB drive, plug it in and start the computer; if you're booting from the DVD drive, just start the computer.

2. As it boots, it should display a message that reads "Windows is loading files. ..." If you don't see that message, if you get an error message, or if the system tries to launch a previously installed operating system, you'll need to get back into the BIOS and double-check your boot settings.

You can't proceed unless the computer boots from the drive on which the Windows Home Server installation files are stored.

3. In the next step, you'll set the time and currency format and keyboard type (most people will accept the default values).

4. Click Next, and Windows Home Server will display the hard drives that it has detected.

5. Click the Next button again, and Windows Home Server will ask what type of installation you'd like to perform.

6. Choose New Installation, read the warning about erasing all the information on the hard drives in the system -- the first of three such warnings -- and click Next.

7. Accept the license agreement and click Next.

8. At this point, Windows Home Server will ask that you enter a product key. If you're installing the trial version, leave this field blank and click Next; otherwise, enter the product key that came with the disc you purchased and click Next.

9. Now you'll need to give your server a name. You can use up to 15 characters (letters, numbers, and/or hyphens) with no spaces. Click Next when you're finished.

10. If you're installing the operating system using a USB hard drive, you'll see a message instructing you to remove the drive before proceeding. You'll need the drive connected to complete the installation, but go ahead and unplug it for now and click the OK button.

11. Windows Home Server will now display a message showing the drives and volumes it has detected. Any data on these drives will be erased in the next step, so place a checkmark next to the message that reads "I acknowledge that data on these drives will be lost" and click Next.

12. You'll get one more warning about the data on this drive being deleted. Click the Yes button here and the Start button at the prompt that follows.

Windows Home Server will create and format a 20GB system partition on the C:\ drive and then create a second partition for data storage using the balance of the available space on the drive. It will also automatically format any additional drives in your machine; the bigger the drives, the longer this step will take.

You can leave the machine unattended at this point, but if you're using a USB hard drive to install Windows Home Server, you must reconnect that drive while the first internal drive is being formatted -- otherwise, the installation will fail and you'll have to start over. Windows Home Server won't touch the external USB hard drive during the formatting process, but it will find it again when it needs to move to the next step in the installation.

Step 4: Finalize your installation

After the drive(s) have been formatted, the setup process begins in earnest, although you won't have much to do until the operating system automatically restarts (at which point you'll need to access the BIOS again; more on that in a moment).

1. When you see the Windows Home Server setup message, click the Next button.

2. It's important that you monitor the progress of the installation and start tapping the Delete key (or whichever key you use to access the BIOS) when the machine reboots. If you don't access the BIOS and reconfigure it to boot from the internal hard drive, you'll wind up at the beginning of the installation process again when the computer boots from the USB or DVD drive.

3. In the BIOS, change the boot device priority list (as detailed in Step 2: Adjust the boot settings) so that the first boot device is the internal hard drive.

4. While you're still in the BIOS, there's another adjustment to make. Later on, after the entire Windows Home Server installation and setup process is complete, you'll use other computers on your network to access and control the server. This renders its mouse, keyboard and display unnecessary; you'll be able to remove them when you're finished. As we mentioned earlier, you won't need the optical drive, either.

So, to prevent the machine from hanging when it boots without a keyboard or display attached, go back into the BIOS settings, open the Standard CMOS Settings menu and change the Halt On value to "No Errors."

5. When you've made the necessary changes to the BIOS, save your new settings and restart the machine once more.

6. The next step in the installation process will take an hour or so; you can leave the system unattended while it finishes (the computer will restart several times during this process).

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