How I Use It: Windows Home Server

With the next version of Windows Home Server just around the corner (I hope) and having built a new server for when version 2 is released, I figured this would be a good time to write about how I use Windows Home Server. In this article I describe how I currently use WHS.

Update: A couple days after I wrote this Microsoft announced they would discontinue drive extender and the features it provides. This means WHS is not a long term option for me and will leave my home after version 1.

With the next version of Windows Home Server just around the corner (I hope) and having built a new server for when version 2 is released, I figured this would be a good time to write about how I use Windows Home Server.

I wrote about the add-ins I use back in March. The only change to that list is that I no longer use Perfect Disk (or any other defragmenter) on a regular basis.

I have duplication turned on for all shares (well, except the empty Public share). This doesn’t count as a backup, but I like the redundancy that keeps this available should a drive fail. If a drive does fail, it will be at the worst possible time but all my files will still be available.

File Storage

Because I use Windows Home Server as a primary storage location for my data it can’t also be a backup, even with file duplication. I previously covered my backup strategy in detail, but I’ve included a note about how I handle backup for each share. The amount of data I have (~4TB) makes a single backup destination unfeasible.

Shares on my Windows Home ServerFirst and foremost I use WHS to store files. This screenshot shows the shares I’ve created (click for larger pic).

The Archive share contains files I don’t want to delete but don’t change. This is mainly music and videos I’ve purchased electronically. It also contains some old backups I’m saving for posterity.

Backup: These files get backed up to KeepVault for offsite storage. They’re also copied to a Drobo so I have a second local copy.

The DVDImages share contains ISO images of a subset of software DVDs I use. I subscribe to Technet and many of the downloads are ISO files so they are copied directly. I also make ISO images of physical DVDs with ImgBurn. When it comes time to read the images I use Virtual Clone Drive. This share contains software I’ve testing or evaluating, not anything I use for a real purpose. Despite the name I do mix in regular software downloads. The DVDImage name comes from when I saved all my ISO’s here, no matter their intended use.

This is a recent addition once I got tired of always looking for DVDs to go with my software. I’m not well organized in the physical world.

Backup: I said this contained a subset of my software DVDs. That’s because all the DVDs here are not critical. These files are not backed up offsite. They are copied to a local drive but I would stop doing that if space became an issue. The reality is most of these are available from website (such as Linux iso’s) so they are available elsewhere. I just may not be able to get the exact same iso version.

The Music share contains my iTunes Library and any other music files I have. It also contains any videos I’ve purchased directly through iTunes (a rare occurrence). I run the iTunes application from my Mac Mini but it’s set to use the library on this share.

I’ve been running the iTunes library from my WHS since I first set up the centrally managed iTunes library 3 years ago. I had originally anticipated using the share so I could open the library from any PC or Mac. And while it’s true that I can do that, I just don’t use it that way.

Backup: The Music share is copied to a Drobo every night. The Drobo is attached to the same Mac Mini that runes iTunes so it’s easy enough to load the iTunes library from there if I need to.  I have a ChronoScript job that runs every night to copy my electronically purchased/downloaded music and video (and only purchased stuff) to the Archive share so it gets backup up as part of that share. For music I’ve ripped from CD I’ve got that copied to a hard drive I keep in my office. The offsite backup has everything covered, but it’s messy in order to save money.

Photos & Pictures are two shares that seem to serve the same purpose. But they are different and so split to accommodate those differences. The Pictures share contains images I’ve collected over time. Downloaded from the internet or created for web use. One thing separates these from the Photos share – none of these are in a RAW format, all are mostly jpg, gif or png. The Photos share contains pictures I taken. These do contain many RAW images with some jpgs.

Backup: I use Picasa to manage the photos in the Pictures share. I have Picasa set to sync everything to web albums so I get an offsite backup. Because restoring them all would be tedious (almost 1,000 albums one at a time) I also back them up with Jungle Disk. If I can find a way to restore in bulk for Picasa Web I would eliminate the Jungle Disk backup. Since I have two offsite backups I don’t need a second local backup, but since I still have enough space the files also get copied to the Drobo every night.

The Photos share gets backed up using Jungle Disk. Picasa doesn’t handle the RAW files well, and won’t save them to the web, so I don’t use Picasa to manage these. This was the primary reason for splitting images into two shares. This share also gets copied to the Drobo every night.

The Ray share contains my data files. This also happens to be where my most critical data is kept. So this gets some special backup treatment.

Backup: This is backed up by Jungle Disk on an hourly basis. Jungle Disk is also set to save these files for 10 days if they are deleted or modified. Hourly is probably overkill, but I provides some safety if I corrupt a file while working on it. Since changes are small, I don’t see a performance impact. They also get copied to my Drobo every night.

The Software share is needed for the WHS client software and Add-Ins. But I also use it for storing the software I use. None of the software is installed directly to the share, I just save the install source files there. I previously mentioned I use the DVDImages share for software I’m evaluating. I use the software share for software I need and use. I create ISO images or physical DVDs and save them to the share. Both Mac and Windows software is saved here.

Backup: This gets backed up to KeepVault for offsite backup and copied to my Drobo every night as a second local copy.

The Videos share is the big one. This contains 3.5 TB of video I’ve encoded for use in iTunes. Most of the source is the DVDs I own.

Backup: The size makes this difficult. There is no second local backup (unless you count the DVDs themselves, which would have to be re-ripped). For offsite backup I use Robocopy and some batch files to keep a set of bare hard drives updated. These drives get stored in my office.

The Public and Recorded shares are standard with WHS and I don’t use them. The Virtual Machines is no longer used but had been a place for storing VirtualBox virtual machines.

Remote Access

Windows Home Server comes with the ability to do remote access. I don’t use it. I use LogMeIn Pro instead. It’s the one computer for which I have the paid subscription, all the other computers use the free version. I like the features of LogMeIn so have kept using it. I can also access it from my iPad which is nice.

I don’t do a lot of remote access, occasionally I grab a file while at work or on the road, but not much else.

Video Streaming

If you consider what my WHS spends most of it’s time doing, this is it. We can argue semantics as to whether it’s streaming or just reading a file, but the video lives on the server. I use VLC as a client to play the video on a Windows PC (I won’t install iTunes on Windows). but most of the time the video plays through iTunes on my Mac Mini or on my Apple TV (Gen 1). I’ll occasionally stream, via iTunes, to a iMac connected wirelessly in the bedroom, but that’s rare.

Music

I don’t stream music around the house. I keep it on my iPod and my stereos/radios have jacks that I can connect to. But the music is synced with iTunes which has the files on the Windows Home Server.

PC Backups

It’s been a long time since I kept real data on a PC’s local hard drive, so PC backups are less critical for me. I have been using the PC backup feature since I have had WHS. I’ve occasionally done single file restores. Early on I had some problems with restores due to bugs (like locking up at 80% of reading the backup).

The one time I wanted to do a full restore was when I was moving to a smaller (but faster) drive. While there was plenty of space for the files, it wouldn’t rebuild to a smaller drive so I wasn’t able to use WHS. I could open the backup and drag file, but not do a system restore.

I’ve yet to regain my confidence in it. I consider it similar to tape backup with which I always had reliability problems. One problem and the whole backup would be lost. I’ve hadgood luck with just backing up data, so while I use the WHS client backup, I don’t rely on it.

The Future

I have a Vail test server installed and I’m working on evaluating it for my needs. It will certainly meet my file storage needs and I like the added file protection features such as shadow copies.

Many of the new features were available in version 1 via hacks, but with all the data I have on the server it’s important to me for it to be reliable, so I’ve avoided hacks. It will be nice to have them as official features.

I like my iPod for music (but not video) so the way I handle my music probably won’t change. I’ll look for iTunes alternatives, but I’ve accepted I may need to stay with it. It will still be iTunes running from a share.

I’m looking to completely change up the way I do video and to get it out of iTunes. Windows Home Server will certainly be where the files live, but I’m undecided how I’ll be viewing them on PCs and TVs.

My Windows Home Server use is based upon simplicity, nothing complicated here. But it works for me. How do you use your Windows Home Server? Post a comment or post a link if you’ve written about it elsewhere.

2 thoughts on “How I Use It: Windows Home Server”

  1. Your usage is amazingly similar to mine, although I am mad and using Vail as my 'production' server. Everything that is dear and I can't create again is of course backed up substantially. (multiple machines, offsite, and Carbonite).

    I don't use iTunes for video due to wanting to avoid conversion pain, The DVDs I use (well mainly the kids) are just ripped straight and not converted at all, although I am thinking of encoding them all just to save some space.

    My main issue is in fact video playback. The latest Apple TV looks magnificent, except I have to go convert everything. I have an Xbox360, PS3, Media PC and WD Live, and I find none of them adequate for one reason or another.

    Boxee on my media PC is working 'best' for me, however as much as I like Windows 7, it makes a frustrating device connected to a TV.

  2. @Chris. Interesting that your using Vail. I kind of skipped over Vail in this article to keep things simple. I've moved everything but my Music and Video to my Vail server. That's the main reason I went to hourly backups on my important data. I also copy everything from Vail back to WHS v1 every night so I can switch back to if it Vail dies completely. So we're both mad.

    The main reason I haven't moved Music and Video over is I'm looking to change up the way I do it so using Vail to test things out. I have a gen 1 apple TV and like it, but don't plan to switch to the new one.

    Your comment about Windows 7/Media and other is interesting because I've been considering a media PC with Windows 7 but I've been concerned about usability.

    I'm heading the other way and if I go through and rip again I'll probably stick with the raw files, and maybe encode on the fly if I want the video on a portable device (a rare occurrence).

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