Windows Home Server

In the previous posts in this topic, I have referenced migrating my  HP MediaSmart Server (EX470) to to Windows Home Server (WHS) 2011. During this journey, there have been a number of questions that I have needed to answer to decide on my strategy moving forward. Some of these have really helped me fine tune my approach towards the upgrade:

1: What do I actually want my Home Server to do?

Primarily most people want their server to be exactly that… a server, but WHS 2011 can do much more and some of these issues will likely dictate whether you even use the HP MediaSmart server or resign it to history. One of the features WHS 2011 comes with is the ability to stream content (video, music, pictures etc) through DNLA to a range of devices such as Xboxes,  TVs, BluRay players, smartphones, tablets and more. One issue is that streaming video especially requires a reasonable amount of CPU power and memory, not typically found in the MediaSmart EX 470 / 475 servers.

Remote access: Another interesting feature is the ability to provide web based access (including through a Windows Phone 7 device). This requires you to enable Remote Web Access and install the Phone Connector software. By the way, this was a very straightforward process to get up and running. Download the connector from here, and search for ‘My Home Server’ in the Windows Phone 7 Marketplace.

Video / Movie content: One of the functions I used my old Home Server for was archiving my DVDs and home videos. Here is an interesting question.. today we have a huge amount of media streaming available from a range of companies. However, what about your own content. Do you upload it to a cloud based service such as YouTube, do you host the files on cloud storage such as SkyDrive? I am a security and privacy guy and so for me the answer is that I prefer to keep the things in house… To this end, I have been using a piece of software called MyMovies to import, store and organize my video content. The big advantage with this type of software is also being able to convert and store media in a format that can be used throughout the house. The minus is that there is a large amount of storage space required, and a short term hit on CPU and memory during the processing of the video content.

Backup: If you have ever had a hard drive fail, or deleted something you later regretted, you will know how important backups are. If you have yet to lose any data, feel free to chime in with your solution as despite our best efforts, it happens to the best of us. There are a number of solutions I use, from mirrored drives to full PC backup and real time sync using software such as Windows Live Mesh. These all take their toll in terms of storage, CPU and memory requirements.

I know there are many other things you can do with your Windows Home Server, but these were the key ones for me.

2: What are the resources I need to make all of these things work?

There are really only three major components, some of which can be upgraded and some of which cannot:

a, CPU. The MediaSmart EX 470 / 475 Server has limited upgrade capability, but essentially is stuck with older AMD processors and so does not lend itself to CPU intensive activities. i.e. anything that is listed above that I can off-load may be a good idea. I did discuss in my previous post performing an upgrade to the 2.6GHz AMD LE-1640 Orleans processor. There are others that have upgraded to a dual core CPU, though this requires altering the BIOS.

b, Memory. I had previously upgraded the memory when I got the server to 2GB, but with WHS 2011, I upgraded again to 4Gb. Note that you will only get approx. 3.5Gb of addressable memory, but this makes a big difference to the overall performance.

c, Storage. If you are like me and have a reasonable collection of videos, music and files, the idea of having a single large partition spread across multiple drives with mirrored data is appealing (such as can be achieved with tools like DriveBender and DrivePool from my last post), but I discovered that this caused issues with CPU and memory utilization and so went back to native drives and using native mirroring. I do want to point out that after having tried it on the server, using Windows Live Mesh and DriveBender on the same server caused 100% CPU & memory usage and lead to data corruption.

3: Is there a better way to achieve these things, especially keeping in mind that the Windows Home Server may be a single point of failure for many things on the network?

I would encourage you all to ask the question… just because I can, does not mean I should? …and think about any load you are applying to a server and asking if it could be done better elsewhere. A good example is… if I am using MyMovies on the server, should I rip / convert all of my files on the server (therefore using up CPU / memory during the process) or use a workstation and convert the videos in to a format that is easily readable by the 3rd party devices so that I don’t have to use media streaming… food for thought.

This may seem like a bit of a long post to discuss a topic as subjective as performance, but if you take nothing else away from this post, I would encourage you to think carefully about the workloads you ask your server to do, given that it is not hard to overwhelm all but the biggest machines if you are not at least a little careful…

Enjoy!