I’ve been part of the top-secret beta program over the past month or so of Microsoft’s new Home Server product, and since it’s now been released CTP, I can finally talk about it.

The software is actually really cool in concept. You basically allocate a box as your “home server”. Many of us are getting so many computers around the house that it’s becoming impractical not to have a dedicated server machine for sharing files and running printers, so it’s a good idea to offer software that helps automate some of those tasks.

The Microsoft Home Server software looks like a kind of stripped-down version of Windows 2003 Web Server, but with a few dedicated applications for interacting with your home network. You access the main control portions of the Home Server via a “Terminal Services”-like client. It only allows you to connect to your Home Server, and does not provide you access to the Home Server OS, but a dedicated Home Server control application. When sitting at the Home Server system itself, you have access to a very pared-down version of Windows Server.

The thing that is specifically both nice and bothersome about Home Server is the backup software which is one of the key features.

On each computer where you want to interact with the server, you install a component (Windows-only) that runs from the system tray. The icon gives you a quick display of the “health” of your network. If green, healthy. If red, ill. I guess – I’m still a bit confused about that.

The backup occurs every day automatically at a time you schedule. The scheduling takes place on the server, which is the big problem. If you leave a desktop computer off during its scheduled backup time, Home Server complains about the fact that the desktop did not perform a backup. In fact, it’s pretty insistent about it, setting the network alert level to red across all desktops on the network.

It’s very troublesome that if I leave a computer off for several days (like Abby’s, which she uses infrequently) then it generates this type of error.

More concerning is that you can’t set the backup schedule of the computer in the control console unless that computer is on and connected to the server. It simply gives you a message like “This computer is not connected, so you can’t do that.” So you have to turn on the computer that doesn’t need backed up (because it’s been off) in order to turn off the backup, thus the notification.

I understand that if a desktop is actually on and fails to contact the server, that could be a serious problem, since data loss on that machine would not be recoverable. But the annoyance factor is really high when you don’t want to follow such a rigid schedule.

Forget about using Home Server notebooks that are not always home, and frequently on the road, still trying to “phone home” to the server that doesn’t exist.

The Administration console shows backup status of every registered network PC, and can show you nice pie graphs of disk usage based on purpose (backup vs files). It’s also supposedly pretty easy to set up storage redundancy in USB drives, where the additional drives will function like a RAID array. I didn’t have any spare USB drives to try this out, but I’m told the process is fairly plug-and-play.

When the backup does work, it’s seamless, quick, and amazing. You can get old versions of files from any backup you’ve retained on the server, and the server has rotation rules that will keep many versions back.

Oh. Wait. I could never get that single-file restore feature to work. It universally failed to work, actually. It’s supposed to create a folder on your desktop that gives you access to the files from that backup. Although it created the folder on my desktop, double-clicking it to open it resulted in a strange system error each time, something like “Network resource no longer accessible”.

One would think that being part of a beta program, I would have better records of this. You know, I did. But here’s another issue: The bug reporting on their beta site requires that you submit a log from a special tool along with your report. I can’t be bothered to install this additional tool, and cause the server to fail again just to create your bug report. I’m not Microsoft QA, this thing is supposed to work reasonably well out of the box. If you want my feedback, make it easier for me to report. As a matter of fact, while I’m complaining about it, the beta support site really stinks.

Where was I? Oh yeah, Windows Home Server…

The shared folders feature worked really well. It’s based on the tried and true SMB network format, so I would expect that it would work well. I was able to connect to the server’s regular shared folders and move files in and out.

One of the cool things about Windows Home Server is that it works with the XBox 360. I could see the Server on my network and play music and videos from it. It could play MP3 and WMA audio, which is what I have all of my music encoded in, but it can only play WMV video, which is terrible because I can’t be bothered to convert all of my Xvid or DivX videos to yet another format for playback.

Also, it doesn’t support well any realtime streaming to the XBox 360 like a Media Center PC might. That’s disappointing. There are no tools that I know of that will do live conversion of local files from one format to the format needed by the XBox 360, even if downsampling is required. This one feature seems like a braindead “gotta have it” feature for anyone who would actually buy Windows Home Server. Otherwise, it would be better to buy a whole Media Center PC and some off-the-shelf backup software or service.

There is apparently some feature that lets you access the Windows Home Server remotely via the web. Sadly, there are problems with this feature. Verizon (my ISP) blocks incoming port 80 requests, making it impossible to connect to a server on that port. Many ISPs do this because they don’t want you to run servers when paying residential prices for your broadband.

Geniuses who constructed the software say basically, “Connect to http://your.domain.com, and click ‘Log On’.” Well not everyone has a domain that points to their home internet connection. I do, but that’s beside the point. Even so, being on DHCP, you would think that the server would offer some way to update a DynDNS (or other dynamic DNS provider) entry so that you could connect this way. Nope.

Searching in help for “port” yields no results, so even if I wanted to change the incoming port for the web server, I have no idea how that would be done.

I admit that I did not bother to axe my system so that I could try the restore disk. I have a functioning home network, not a testbed.

The Home Server offers no other server-like features. No email. No FTP. No DNS. It cannot be used as a firewall. For all of the security focus Microsoft has had over the past few years, you would think that they might provide some server-based firewall/web-blocking/filtering/proxy/whatever support with Windows Home Server. Maybe that’s not a good idea?

I don’t know what Windows Home Server will cost. For free, I can set up a Linux server with SMB support. I can use rsync to sync my important files to the server on a schedule of my choosing, and I can do it from systems that are not Windows-based in addition to those that are. I can also run a full-featured web server on a port of my choosing, in addition to email, DNS, firewall, and DynDNS updater.

What does Windows Home Server make easy? It is really easy to install. That part went very smoothly. If they improve the backup after the beta release I have (you’d almost have to to keep users from routinely ignoring the little perpetually red tray icon) then backups are so easy that fish could do it. Sharing files over SMB doesn’t get easier than with the platform that made it standard.

Administration with Windows Home Server is a snap. If you’re not tech wiz, it’s really easy to get things going. I’m left scratching my head though, wondering how much a person who is not a tech wiz needs a dedicated home server. I suppose that it’ll become more prevalent, but the day after I installed Windows Home Server, I saw two push-button Linux-based look-alikes announced. They’re probably not as seamless, but with a little elbow grease they’d probably work just as well, and I imagine that anyone who would drop some Benjamins on a server box and the Home Server software is at least that invested in the process.

The worst thing about Windows Home Server is that the upgrade from beta 2 to CTP is going to wipe out my data. And there doesn’t seem to be a way to backup my server. This seems like a very strange oversight.

I’ve put a lot of my data on the server to give it a reasonable test run. I’m really disappointed that I’ll have to practically reformat to upgrade to the latest version to see if it fixes any of my issues. Even though I couldn’t report them.

In spite of all of the above, Windows Home Server is a really neat product. I’m excited to see Microsoft have interest in this area, which I think will grow quickly as many people are growing their home networks.

Pat’s probably never going to invite me to beta again…