A cheap, effective home server — using Windows 8

Woody Leonhard

Windows 8 has taken it on the chin for all sorts of transgressions — both real and imagined — but for one application,it’s an excellent option.

As a home or small-office server, it might be just the excuse you need to take advantage of Microsoft’s discounted Win8 pricing.

Why an average PC user might want a server

First, a bit of history on Windows-based home servers. Released in 2007, Microsoft’s Windows Home Server (WHS) was a product that never got its due from most PC users. However, I liked it so much I wrote a Windows Secrets article and a book extolling its many virtues. My admiration for the product has only grown with time.

Unfortunately, I was part of a small minority of PC users who used WHS — and our number is dwindling rapidly. WHS never sold well, and Microsoft earlier this year put a nail in its coffin (along with Small Business Server), announcing that henceforth Windows Server 2012 was its small-office server product — with a starting price of U.S. $450, just for the software. I don’t know about you, but $450 sounds reasonable for a home-server price — with hardware included.

That change pushed me to look at Windows 8 as a possible home-server platform. Windows Home Server had many features you can’t duplicate with Windows 8. But Win8 does provide what matters most to me — simple, cheap, fully redundant, and easily extended storage. And it does so quite well via Windows 8 Storage Spaces, which lets you set up a bunch of hard drives as one big drive. (I wrote about Storage Spaces in the Jan. 12 Woody’s Windows.) You can, for example, have three, four, or five separate, physical discs and access them all as a single D: drive.

Somewhat similar to RAID 5, Win8 keeps redundant copies of everything. If one drive dies, all files are automatically preserved and available without a hiccup. If you run out of space on that virtual D: drive, just install another hard drive (internal or external) and Windows 8 absorbs the additional space in the D: drive.

For backup, Win7 Pro, Vista Home Premium, Vista Business, and all versions of WinXP can automatically archive files to a network drive. (You use the File History applet to back up a Win8 workstation PC to a network drive.) To back up those systems to a Win8 server, simply point them to the server and specify a backup schedule.

The one major catch? Windows Home Server backs up workstation system files — a competency not equaled by a Windows 8–server setup.

Windows 8 plays brilliantly on mixed networks, in my experience. It connects with Windows XP, Vista, Win7, Xbox, and various Mac machines faster and easier than any previous version of Windows I’ve used (and I’ve used them all at one time or another). Win8 supports HomeGroup, making it easy to share files, printers, and media with Win7 machines. It also has the most extensive printer and peripheral support of any Windows (at least for any recent peripheral — yes, some of the old drivers still require XP), the best power management, and the best built-in antivirus protection.

In server applications, Windows 8 works just fine in a headless configuration: connect a monitor, keyboard, and mouse for the initial setup; then disconnect them and use them elsewhere. The server can now be put somewhere out of the way — up on a high shelf, in a cabinet (with ventilation, of course), etc. It needs only power and a connection to your router.

Thereafter, accessing the server via Windows’ Remote Desktop works like a champ — at no extra cost. Use any workstation that supports Remote Desktop (even an iPad, as detailed in the Aug. 18, 2011, Top Story). You can also set up a SkyDrive connection and access any file on the server from the Internet, with proper authorization.

Here’s the part that should be really appealing: it’s cheap! If you have an older Windows computer lying around, you can get the Windows 8 Pro upgrade (site) for just U.S. $40.

Assuming the system has 2GB of RAM, the only added cost might be larger hard drives. Win8 works with every kind of hard drive imaginable: internal, external, and even those old IDE drives (which could mean trying to figure out how many drives can be crammed into the box).

If you’re already running a Windows Home Server, set up a Win8 server on the network and pull the plug on the WHS machine after you’re comfortable with the new setup.

Given the hype over Cloud computing, it would be easy to assume that local servers are passé. Yes, you can subscribe to Cloud-based, server-like services such as Microsoft’s Office 365 (see the April 28, 2011, Top Story for more info) or Google Apps, but they come at a cost. Storing that rapidly growing collection of music, digital photos, and family videos on SkyDrive, for example, runs $50 per year for 100GB of storage space — the maximum for one account. (Google offers up to 16TB of storage for $800 per month.) Even if you buy a couple of terabyte drives, a Win8 server is faster and more flexible than the Cloud — and is still a relatively inexpensive option.

Putting the Win8 server pieces together

Here, in more detail, is what you need for creating a first-class Windows 8 server:

1. A PC that can run Windows 8: Just about any PC made in the past five or six years will work. It needs 2GB of system memory (though Win8 will run with 1GB) and a reliable connection to your network, which usually means a LAN cable. That should also let you access the server via the Internet, such as when you’re on vacation.

In my experience, processor speed is not all that important. Most relatively recent PCs have sufficient CPU horsepower. Any graphics card will do, especially if the server is run headless.

2. Three hard drives: If you want full, automatic, real-time, redundant backup, you need a small drive for the system (30GB should suffice) and two drives for data — the bigger the better. No need to get solid state drives; they’re overkill on a server. (Partitioning a drive will work, but it increases the chances of losing both C: and D: drives at the same time.)

3. Windows 8 Pro: The Pro version includes Remote Desktop Server, which enables remote connections — especially useful if you’re going headless. The basic version of Win8 can also work if you use one of the dozen or so Remote Desktop alternatives such as LogMeIn (site).

4. A Microsoft account: On a Windows 8 workstation, a Microsoft account is useful but not necessary. On a Win8 server, however, a Microsoft account makes it easier to set up SkyDrive and its Fetch feature, discussed below. (You can sign up for an Outlook.com account without divulging any personal information.)

That’s all it takes. Some Windows Home Server users have already discovered that WHS boxes work nicely as Win8 servers, and they are making the switch — presumably for the princely sum of $40. All they need is enough temporary network space to store their WHS data during the upgrade.

Installing and running Win8 Pro as a server

In a nutshell, here’s how hard it is to install and run a Windows 8 server:

Step 1. Install Windows 8 on the server box and hook it into your network.

Step 2. Set up the folders you want.

Step 3. You’re done.

OK, it’s not quite that simple, but it’s mighty close. Here’s what I did to put a Windows 8 server on my home-office network:

► Install and connect Windows 8: There are numerous ways to install Win8 Pro — any of them will work.

You’ll want some basic instructions in using both the traditional Windows 7–style desktop, which hasn’t changed much, and the new Metro interface (which you’ll rarely use or even see on a Win8 server). I would, of course, recommend my recently completed Windows 8 All-in-One for Dummies (shameless self-promotion, I know), but it won’t be available until October. For now, others have posted tutorial snippets on YouTube.

When the time comes to specify or set up a homegroup, be sure to join the current homegroup or start a new one.

► Set up user accounts: I created separate user accounts on the Win8 server for every user on my network. You don’t have to do it, but it will make it easier to assign specific access permissions to every nook and cranny of the server. Hold your nose, however; you have to use Win8′s Metro interface to set up the new accounts.

► Get Storage Spaces working: I have detailed instructions on setting up Storage Spaces in my Jan. 12 Woody’s Windows article, which includes links to additional information in a Building Windows 8 blog. If you want to dive right in, start in the Control Panel’s System and Security/Storage Spaces applet. Don’t go crazy setting up multiple Storage Spaces, because you need only one. (It can span all of the available data hard drives on the Win8 server.) Set up a Storage Space called, oh, “Server,” and assign it drive-letter D:. Make it a mirrored space, which automatically sets up dually redundant, real-time copies of everything put on the Storage Space drive.

► Set up folders inside the D: drive: To have Windows 8 server work much as Windows Home Server does, you need to create folders called “Music,” “Photos,” “Public,” “Software,” “Users,” and “Videos.” Otherwise, give each new data folder any name you like.

Now set up access restrictions for each folder — or open the folders up to anybody on the network. Click each folder in File Explorer (formerly Windows Explorer) and select the Share tab. If you want to share folders with everyone in a homegroup, choose either HomeGroup (View) or HomeGroup (View and Edit). Thereafter, those folders will appear in the Libraries list of every PC connected to the homegroup.

►Set up SkyDrive and Fetch: From the SkyDrive home page, download and install SkyDrive. There’s a description of Fetch, and instructions on how to install it, on a Building Windows 8 Team blog. If set up properly, Fetch lets you access files on the Win8 server from any Web browser anywhere in the world.

► Attach each workstation to the new server: I suggest you start by putting a shortcut to the server at the top of each workstation’s Start menu. Then add shortcuts to appropriate server folders in Windows Explorer. While you’re at it, install SkyDrive on each workstation. On Win7 Pro, Vista Home Premium and Business, and all XP machines, point the Windows backup program to the server’s D: drive. Yes, you can set up access to the Win8 server from Macs, too — the name of the server appears in Finder as a Shared device.

A reminder: The one backup feature provided by WHS but not by Win8 is archiving workstation system files. That you’ll have to do separately. The Win8 server is providing the most important backup task: redundant storage of your data.

If all that sounds daunting, don’t worry — it’s really straightforward. And you can make your own tweaks as you go along — such as adding Dropbox or Google Apps or video-streaming across the network. Remember, it’s fairly easy because your new Windows 8 server is, in fact, just a regular, everyday Windows 8 machine.

Disconnect the monitor, and you don’t even have to deal with Metro — unless you want to play some of those fancy new Windows Store games. Who could ask for more?



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Woody Leonhard

About Woody Leonhard

Woody Leonhard is a Windows Secrets senior editor and a senior contributing editor at InfoWorld. His latest book, the comprehensive 1,080-page Windows 8 All-In-One For Dummies, delves into all the Win8 nooks and crannies. His many writings tell it like it is — whether Microsoft likes it or not.