Running Windows Server at home

Who needs a server-level operating system at home, and why?

Windows Home Server: Best of both worlds?

As it happens, Microsoft is on the verge of rolling out a server product specifically for the home market -- Windows Home Server . Five years ago, Windows Home Server probably wouldn't have been as interesting to consumers. For one, there weren't as many PCs per household, so offering a product with these functions wouldn't have been as appealing. Today, it's not uncommon for everyone in the family to have at least one PC, sometimes two.

To that end, Microsoft decided to respond by working with hardware vendors to create a version of Windows Server that will come bundled with a stand-alone, appliance-like device. It's obviously not intended to be a replacement for Windows Server in all environments; its features are aimed mainly at home users. But they're likely to be incredibly handy to that audience.

Aside from file and printer sharing, Home Server also includes things like network-wide backup and recovery, PC health monitoring (e.g., antivirus) and remote connectivity to both the server itself and to your desktops. The real beauty of the system is that it's sold as an appliance, much like your typical firewall/router product. The idea is that you'll just be able to uncrate it, plug it into the wall and the home network, and then run the client software on each PC to get each machine set up for backups. The client software works only on XP or Vista as of now.

WHS itself is also touted as being highly self-managing, so you don't need to learn how to administer yet another computer -- and a server at that -- to get it to work.

Those with IT-savvy might wonder how the guts of Windows Home Server shape up against Windows Server in general. As it turns out, Home Server's essentially a variant of Windows Small Business Server 2003, but with a different shell that makes it a lot easier to accomplish the tasks it's built to do. However, it's also closed -- you're not allowed to install arbitrary software on it, since it's being sold and marketed as an appliance product.

That might be frustrating to admins who are used to being able to do as they please, but WHS isn't really intended to eclipse existing editions of Windows Server anyway. And Microsoft has a sort of plug-in architecture that makes it possible to extend Home Server's functionality without needing to hack it.

The single biggest strike against running Windows Home Server is likely to be the cost. Since it's meant to be sold with a hardware device, essentially a low-end PC, the cost may be as high as $1000. The cost hasn't been set yet and will probably be established first by the hardware OEMs. But as one means of comparison, Windows Small Business Server 2003 includes full implementations of SQL Server and Exchange Server right in the box.

What makes Home Server the more appetizing of the two choices is not price alone, but the feature mix, which is geared more to home users than other versions of Windows Server would be, unless you have a family of SQL or Exchange developers.

Conclusions

Most of what you probably need a server for in a home network setting can probably be handled with existing products. Desktop versions of Windows may be crippled by how many connections they're permitted to handle at once, but in a home environment, you will likely never approach those limits. If you do need to get around those limits, it is possible to use Linux to do so, provided you don't run into any hardware-support issues. Even for those who want or need it, Windows Home Server isn't quite baked yet. It's scheduled to be released along with its corresponding hardware in the second half of this year. Still, it promises to solve a lot of problems all at once, for those who need it and are inclined to drop the cash.

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Serdar Yegulalp

Computerworld

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