When I was recently asked for a recommendation of a home network storage solution it gave me an excuse to research something that had been on my todo list for a long time. Being a Linux guy I always assumed I'd go with a Linux based NAS (Network Attached Storage device), but my results surprised me.
My criteria for picking a solution was:
There are many solutions for backup/restore, but you'd be surprised at how many of them handle backup well, but fail on the restore part. Windows Home Server has a nice and easy to use solution. All machines set up as clients of the WHS box get backed up every night and the system will wake up the machines if they are suspended to back them up. I was quite surprised that this worked for machines using a Wifi network connection as I thought Wake Up on LAN only worked for wired connections, but it turns out WHS cheats a little - the client machine is scheduled to wake itself up and check if it is its turn to back up yet. I've noticed that laptops will only wake up if they're plugged in to power which I think is very smart - you don't have to worry about a backup draining your battery or causing a laptop to overheat in a carrying case. The backups are incremental so it only needs to back up what has changed since the last backup. WHS is smart about server storage as well - if an identical file is backed up by multiple machines it'll only keep one copy on the server to save space. Managing of backup aging is handled automatically - by default it stores 3 daily, 3 weekly, and 3 monthly backups, but you can change this.
I've tested the bare metal restore solution several times and it works well. You boot a CDROM and it'll guide you through connecting to the server and restoring an entire hard drive. There are some quirks, but they are minor. You can only restore to a hard drive equal to or larger than the one that was backed up. This means to restore a 100G drive with only 10G used on it you need a 100G drive - a 50G drive won't be accepted. I hope they fix that eventually. Also the boot CD runs 32 bit Windows so it needs 32bit drivers for your drives and network adapters. If your client machine is running 64bit Windows Vsta or Windows 7 you'll probably need to find the 32 bit drivers for that machine and put them on a USB key for the restore CD to load. This isn't that hard to do, I'd recommend having a USB key with the drivers for all you rmachines so you don't need to think about this later.
When you are going to store every picture ever taken of your kids on a network server you've got to be able to trust your data to survive a hard drive crash. A RAID system at first sounds like the solution, but Microsoft has come up with a better solution. A RAID solution requires a special controller which formats your hard drives in a non-standard way. In a RAID solution all the drives need to match, so if you need to upgrade your storage capacity you need to back up the entire device to something else, upgrade ALL the drives, then restore it. RAID also works at the drive level so EVERYTHING on the drive is backed up with the same redundancy. The WHS solution is different. Drives in a WHS system do not have to be the same size as each other, they are all lumped together in a storage pool. On a per share basis you configure WHS to provide redundancy or not, on redundant enabled shares when you write a file to the system it will make sure to store two copies of that file on different hard drives. This means that you get to decide which files need super protection and which you don't care about losing in the event of a drive crash. Backups of client computers are not replicated because the client computer is the second copy of this data and there is less need to take up twice the space to double back it up. Adding storage is easy, if you have an empty drive bay you just stuff a drive in and tell WHS to add it to the storage pool. Replacing an existing drive requires you to run the drive removal wizard first to move all data off that drive, then you can replace it with a bigger one.
My biggest concern with a RAID solution was the end of life of the server. Someday the motherboard or RAID controller was going to fail and since the drives could only be read with that controller I'd have to try to find a replacement identical controller or else lose everything on the server - unacceptable and/or expensive. The current version of Windows Home Server (the next version might change this) does not format the hard drives in some weird format, it uses plain old NTFS. This means that if your WHS box power supply or motherboard dies you can simply take the drives out and hook them to just about any machine and copy the data off the drives. You'll have to do that for each drive in the WHS system, but it's your way out to the new solution. This is VERY important!
A Windows Home Server machine has special features for media sharing and some will act as an iTunes server. You can also enable remote access via the Internet. These features aren't important to me but they are there if you need them.
The Windows Home Server product is based on Windows Server 2003, but simplified to be easier to manage and affordable enough for home use. The two restrictions I see limiting its appeal for small business use are:
A Backup/Restore solution is as unexciting to spend your money on as other types of insurance. This means that far fewer people will buy one than really should. This is a shame because most people only understand its importance when it's too late. However Microsoft has come up with a truly wonderful product in its Windows Home Server operating system and several top computer manufacturers have done a great job building machines dedicated to it - personally I prefer the HP solutions as they've been doing it longer than anyone else. In fact I think this might be one of Microsoft's best products ever.
The Windows Home Server seems to be an example of a great product being screwed up by its creators not understanding what's important to its customers. Microsoft has announced that the Drive Extender functionality will be removed from the next version of Windows Home Server and a RAID solution will be put in its place. This means that a number of key features I reviewed above will not be there. You will not be able to easily add more storage without reformatting your server, and the drives will all have to be identical to each other. You will not be able to extend your system easily. Also if you remove a drive it will not be readable without the RAID controller it was formatted with, so when the hardware dies you will have no way to get the data off if you don't have matching replacement hardware - this means you need to backup your server to another set of drives so you'll be able to handle the end of life situation above.
Existing Windows Home Server users have been very vocal in condemming this decision. HP has announced that they are discontinuing their home server line with the excuse that they are focusing on other product lines, but expecially with the timing of the announcement everyone knows it's because HP understands that Microsoft just screwed up the product.
Windows Home Server was an amazing product, I told people it might be one of their best products ever, so of course they had to screw it up. There is a little hope left, Steve Ballmer has said they will review this decision in view of the backlash. I just hope they change their minds so I can start recommending it again.