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Initial thoughts of Windows Home Server

Tags: Windows Home Server Software
This weekend we had a winter holiday in Norway, and traditionally everybody head off to their cabins to ski and play in the snow. Well, not so for my familiy. Both my youngest son and my wife caught fever, and we all had to stay at home.

Well, if you look at the bright side of things, I finally got the chance to upgrade my server to Windows Home Server (WHS)! I couldn't wait to get the backup-all-you-connected-machines services and dynamic extender-thingy into play!
Here's my initial impressions;
  1. Prepare yourself with the correct disk setup in your machine. The Dynamic Extender technology in WHS will easily let you add additional disk later, to increase the size of your "storage pool" bit by bit. Yes, you almost don't have to care about drive letters like C, D and E any more, and you don't have to be so much aware about the disk capacities either. WHS will magically add your disk and automatically utilize the available space.This sounds almost too good to be true! Very briefly WHS creates two partitions on your first disk, a 20 GB SYS partition for the OS, and a whatevers-left DATA partition. All other disk are regarded as extenders to the initial DATA partitions.

    The initial size of the DATA partition turns out to be pretty important!! Why, when you add files to WHS, the files are first copied to the initial DATA partition, just as any normal file copy.This means that the machine you are copying from  (such as your laptop or workstation), will see the size of the initial DATA partition only. This means if your initial DATA partition is very small, it will quickly fill up, no matter how many other  disks you have installed. For example, if you can have 2 TB of other disks, and an initial DATA partition of 50 GB., the other machines will never see a larger disk than 50 GB, and you can never copy anything larger than this size in one go. Also, you may very fast have problems with too small DATA partition if you copy many files too, which in sum adds up to this initial DATA partition size.

    What goes on behind the scene then? The Dynamic Extender will eventually move the files from the initial DATA partition onto the other installed disks. As the files are moved, a small so-called tomstone file is left behind. The tombstone file is essentially a small stub-file telling other machines that there actually is a file here. This means that other  machines will see that the DATA partition contains a file with a given size, but they will not necessary see the actual file, because that may have been moved to another disk. Since the tombstone-files are very small, even a small initial DATA partition can contain a bunch of them. Please note that it's first after the Dynamic Extender has done it's job, that you can see the (almost) full size of your initial DATA partition again. That's the cool behavior of the Dynamic Extender!
  • Very easy to install.  However, be very aware about the need to have backuped every single bit on your installed harddisks, as WHS formats all installed disks!

    Also, if you're using SATA disks, please take your time to get those Intel Matrix Storage drivers onto an USB stick. Otherwise the installation process may not find all your files. In my case, WHS installer reported correctly my initial 120 GB IDE disk and my two additional 500 GB SATA disks. However, they neither formatted or found later on due to my missing USB driver stick!
  • I love the Remote Console! The way you control the WHS, is via the Remote Console, which is a variant of the Remote Desktop Connection. Looks good, albeit it could process more in the background!
  • The advanced features of Dynamic Extender and "Duplication" is very well hidden! There's no need to use RAID as a protection mechanism in your WHS. In fact, it's discouraged! That's because WHS has a sophisticated way of simulating RAID via it's "Duplication" option. Just select that a share like your Photos  should have duplication on. WHS and Dynamic Extender will then completely automatically ensure that those photos are stored on two or more disks! You don't care about where, you don't care about when! Beautiful!
  • The backup of all connected machines rocks! The WHS can backup any of the connected machines to your disks. Normally the backup occurs between 12 an 06 AM. WHS ensures that equal files are stored just once, so this means that you don't have multiple complete installations of Windows XP backed up. In fact it seems like the backups occupy much smaller amounts of space compared to tools like Acronis True Image. I have not done any restore yet, so I don't know about the capabilities or more important, reliability of the restore process.
  • Dynamic Extender - hmmm, it doesn't run all the time?!? As soon as I tried to copy some large ISO images to WHS, I was astonished to see the the message about my drive was full!!! What!! I have 1 TB of storage ready to store files! The reason was of course due to the small initial DATA partition on my machine, and the fact that the Dynamic Extender doesn't work all the time. Seems more like it's working once a day!! This essentially means that you have to copy some files, wait until Dynamic Extender moves those files onto addition disks, and then copy the other files ....
  • Hmmm, strange errors during file copy!  I have been getting strange errors when I copy large amounts of files to WHS. Error messages like "The specified network name is no longer available" and "The request could not be performed because of an I/O device error" has been frequent. Common to all those messages are that the file copy are broken, and that I have to start again. NOT GOOD!.

    According to may forums and usenet, those messages can typically be related to network cards, cables and switches. In my case, the server previously used the same cards, cables and switches without any of those messages. I therefore momentarily conclude with that this must be some problems within WHS.
  • Use WHS as a storage, not for "files in progress". I must confess that I thought of WHS as an advanced file server too. But I have seen all kinds of problems if the files you place on WHS are in use! This means for example word processor files etc. Right now the problem seems to be related to the Dynamic Extender trying to move the file around in WHS, which obviously must introduce to difficulties if the file is in constant use!!!

    One of my cases was for instance related to the excellent image tool ThumbsPlus, which I use to catalogue my images and photos. I first copied all my photos to WHS (with some messages like above!), and then I tried to use ThumbsPlus with a WHS present index (in other words, the index database is also stored on WHS). This didn't work for long, until ThumbsPlus crashed with an esoteric error message. The reason is probably that Dynamic Extender move the whole database away to another disc, so I can't really blame ThumbsPlus!!

    Conclusion; Some good and some bad, and I'm awaiting updates and follow-ups from Microsoft with enthusiasm!
  • Comments

    Gravatar Image1 - The errors you get are a know and confirmed error by Microsoft. Read more here (Norwegian): { Link }

    As long as you only have one disk it's ok (because then the Dynamic Extender does not mess things up). This seems to my like Microsoft did not test this product before shipping.

    Gravatar Image2 - Yes, I've seen those reports too. WHS is closer to a static file-repository rather than a full, dynamic, working file-server. Hopefully they got some of the problems ironed out!

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