Turn Windows Home Server into a Small Business Server

Wednesday Mar 10th 2010 by Ronald Pacchiano
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Think you can't afford a small business server? Think again. Windows Home Server offers enough power to earn a position in the workplace -- and enough simplicity to be a welcome addition.

As an IT consultant I work with a lot of small business owners. One thing that continues to surprise me is how many of them don't use a server. Most of them run their entire business from a handful of desktop and/or laptop computers. Why? They all say their business isn’t big enough to justify the expense of installing a small business Windows server.

While this approach might save you money in the short-term, it puts the company at serious risk. PCs configured in a peer-to-peer environment don't provide much security or file management capability and can lead to questionable reliability or even data lost. A true network server does more than just provide centralized data storage. It also provides file and network security, increased reliability, remote access capabilities and even a unified backup solution.

The catch is that servers are not cheap. Unlike a regular PC, servers are designed to run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 356 days a year. They need heftier hardware specifications, such as redundant hard drives and power supplies, hot swappable components and are scalable to meet current, as well as future needs.

A server also requires a special operating system which is more expensive and far more complex than your standard Windows desktop. As a result, they often require someone with technical skills greater than your typical small business owner to setup and maintain, adding to the overall expense.

Considering how important a genuine server is though, I’d like to suggest an alternative. A few years ago Microsoft introduced Windows Home Server (WHS). This operating system has modest hardware requirements and acts as a central data store for all of your digital media, making it easy to access files, photos, videos and music from any PC on your network. As the name implies, this product was developed for a home with multiple PCs.

The server was designed to make it very easy to perform numerous tasks that once may have been considered beyond the technical knowledge and skills of the average consumer. WHS consolidates all of the complex administration utilities used on a typical server -- such as the capability to manage disks and create users -- into a single, simplified interface. Numerous wizards walk you through most of the tasks you might need to perform, such as backing up your data, creating and sharing folders for storing and streaming your digital content, and securing your data through restricted user accounts.

Despite its name, this server is more than just some low-end consumer product. Based on the wildly successful Microsoft Windows Server 2003 operating system, WHS  provides small and home businesses with many of the same features found in high-end network servers, but at about a quarter of the cost. And since it was designed for people without extensive technical knowledge, it's very easy to setup, administer and maintain.

While a WHS is by no means a replacement for a genuine server, it does have lot going for it. Let's take a look at some of the most important features that apply to small business owners.

Automatic Backups

One of the greatest tech sins people commit is a failure to perform regular backups. As a result, a failed hard drive or accidentally deleted file can be disastrous. With WHS, this is no long a problem. When you install the Windows Home Server Connector software on each of your computers, WHS creates an automated backup schedule. Simply ensure that your computer is switched on and connected to your network when the backup time arrives, and your backups will be performed automatically.

You can use these backups to restore individual files, folders and even for entire systems. WHS performs an image-based backup of your PC, just like Norton Ghost or Acronis TrueImage would. So in the event of a hard drive failure or unrecoverable Windows error, instead of having to reinstall Windows and all your applications and devices, all you do is start the PC using the Windows Home Server Home Computer Restore CD and select the backup image you’d like to restore.

Remote Access

Imagine arriving at a client’s office with laptop in hand only to realize that you left your presentation on your office PC. WHS provides you with a unique domain name so that you can access any of the shared files stored on your network when you are away from the office, using any Internet-enabled PC. If you happen to make any changes to that presentation, you can upload the modified file to your server for safe keeping.

Some desktop versions of Windows (like Windows 7 Professional and Ultimate) even support the Remote Desktop feature. With this feature you can actually connect to the desktop system in your office, via the WHS and work on your computer as if you were sitting directly in front of it. This lets you access e-mail, files, applications and printers from wherever you happen to be; be it a client site or on vacation.

Centralized Storage

One of the most flexible and economical features about WHS is the way it handles storage. Using a technology known as Drive Extender, WHS makes it incredibly easy to increase your storage capacity. Simply plug in additional drives, whether they are internal or external, and the server will automatically allocate the new space.

You don’t need to partition or format the drive or remember which drive letter you stored your data on. It’s all seen as one large storage space, regardless of whether you’re using one drive or six drives. The same is true if you want to remove a hard drive from the system. WHS handles everything automatically -- including moving any data that may be stored on that drive to another drive (assuming you have enough free space).

To help protect your data, WHS lets you duplicate folders among multiple drives. So in the event of a single drive failure within your server, your data will still be fine and accessible on another physical drive within the system; completely transparent to the user.

So for example, if you have two hard drives in the server and folder duplication enabled on your “Clients” folder, WHS will create a copy of the “Clients” folder on both hard drives, updating each one in real-time. You will only see the one folder, avoiding confusion while providing redundancy.

Add and Restrict Users

You can easily add and remove users and grant them specific privileges. You can configure individual user accounts to access only the shared folders that they need access to, and not the files that don’t concern them. For instance, a part-time employee doesn’t need access to accounting records, but he does need access to client files. WHS lets you manage this easily. It is also very simple to add or remove systems to your WHS.

You can associate a maximum of 10 systems and 10 user accounts to your WHS at a time. Should you need more then 10, I would seriously suggest you invest in a real server running Microsoft Small Business Server.

Small and Compact Design

A variety of vendors, including IBM, Acer and Hewlett Packard, offer dedicated WHS hardware platforms. They don’t require a keyboard, monitor or mouse and are very quiet and unobtrusive. They also have a very small footprint, so you can place them almost anywhere. The only thing the server requires is power, good ventilation and an Ethernet cable running to the router.

Best of all, they are very inexpensive. For example, the Acer Aspire AH340-UA230N Home Server currently sells on Amazon for only $393.97. For that price you get a system powered by an Intel Atom processor 230, plus 1TB of storage.

If you’d like something a bit beefier, then I suggest the HP EX495 Mediasmart Home Server. At $659.99, the HP EX495 is powered by an Intel Pentium Dual Core 2.5 GHZ processor and comes standard with a 1.5 TB SATA 7,200 RPM hard drive.

Both of these systems come with multiple USB 2.0 ports, one eSATA port, gigabit Ethernet, 2GB of RAM and three additional hot-swappable drive bays. This makes it incredibly easy to add storage to your system as it’s needed. Depending on which model you choose, the maximum storage capacity will range from 7TB to 9TB -- more than enough to meet the needs of any small business.

If you’re currently running without a server and money is tight, investigate the possibility of adding a Windows Home Server to your network. It could be one of the best business investments you make.

Ronald Pacchiano is a contributing writer for SmallBusinessComputing.com.

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