Windows Home Server 2011 Resurrected

My Ubuntu Home Server caseI previously declared Windows Home Server v2 (aka Vail) as dead to me when Microsoft announced the removal of drive extender from the product. Now with the passing of time and the availability of the release candidate I’ve resurrected Windows Home Server 2011. Part of the reason for my change of heart is the way I’m now storing my video library. It’s taking considerable space and rather than going with redundancy and a backup I’m thinking of staying with just a backup. I’m less concerned about the down time than I am about the time that would be needed to re-rip and re-encode the library. So I’ll be looking at redundancy (such as RAID) to provide better reliability for the files I consider critical, and I’ll stick with just backups for less critical files such as my video library, While the way WHS not manages disks seems cumbersome, it may actually make managing my backups easier since the video library doesn’t change once the video is there.

Initially I started with a plan to install the WHS 2001 Release Candidate on a test box to give it a spin, and I did that. But after some poking around the test server I gave into my impulsive nature and flattened my Ubuntu Home Server and installed the WHS RC1 software. I’m using the exact same hardware.

I decided to fully commit to the new drive extender-less Windows Home Server philosophy and not try to shoehorn in my old way of doing things. So my initial configuration is:

  • The OS will be installed on the 320GB WD notebook drives which I’ll mirror using the motherboard RAID.
  • The 3Ware 4 port SATA RAID controller will be configured for RAID 5 in hardware and provide a single drive with 5.5 TB of usable space (RAID 5 with four 2 TB drives)
  • The remaining six SATA ports each has a 2 TB drive attached. There’s no RAID

My video library is the largest single consumer of disk space, requiring nearly 10 TB, so it’s going to have to be split apart. Slightly related, I’ve decided this is just too big so I’ll be re-encoding the videos to smaller files, but this will take time. But at least I don’t have to consider adding even more disk space, at least for the short term.

So my critical files will go on the RAID array to provide redundancy should a single drive fail. This way a poorly timed drive failure won’t keep me from being able to work with the files. I’ll rely simply on backups for my video library since I can live without them until a restore is done.I’ll be splitting my video library into many shares since a share can’t span drives. This has the added benefit of limiting the impact of a single drive failure to just the share.

Installation & Configuration

The installation was straight-forward. I hooked a monitor and installed from DVD. I configured the two 320 GB drives as a mirror using the motherboard RAID for the  Gigabyte SATA ports (re-branded JMicron). My standard practice is to do any windows installation with just the OS drive connected and that’s what I did here. An unanticipated benefit of the modular power supply was the ease of disabling drives by just disconnecting them from the PSU rather than having to pull cables from each drive. Once the OS was installed I connected the remaining drives. I’ve ended up with 9 drive letters (logical drives). The system drive is divided into two partitions (60 GB for the OS and the rest as a D: drive) and I’m not using D: for anything. I did try copying files to D: (just once) and this had a noticeable impact on performance. Then there’s the RAID array and the six 2 TB drives which are now independent.

My WHS 2011 drive listEverything except the video library goes on the RAID array, with room to spare. Space requires some of my video library on the RAID array too, but most is split across other drives. What I ended up doing is splitting the directory structure of my video library into separate shares. I split my library by genre and topic but had to get even more granular to keep shares under 2 TB. All totaled, I have 44 shares on the server. This sounds extreme but hasn’t been a problem in practice. I’ve never been one to map drives browsing, typing or scripting the share name isn’t a change for me, I’m actually finding it a little easier to manage than having to browse through a directory structure,

I had played around with software mirroring in WHS 2011 RC1 and it didn’t give me a lot of confidence,  In some test t wouldn’t RAID the entire drive, only the system partition (which would probably be OK if there was a reason, but sometimes it would and sometimes it wouldn’t for the same drive and partitions), But the motherboard RAID has been even worse, Even after a clean shutdown the array comes up as needing a rebuild on every reboot. It also frequently boots with a “conflict” error, requiring me to pick a drive as the master to rebuild from. This is also after clean shutdowns (every shutdown has been clean) and led to a problem I’ll talk about later. I’m still running the mother board RAID for the OS but pretty much consider it unreliable. Only reason I haven’t removed it is because I don’t want to be force into a re-install or rebuild just yet. My plan was always to do a clean install of the final release so I’m hoping things last until then. I’ve bitten the bullet and have spent some money to buy a hardware RAID controller. It’s still in the box so I’ll wait until it’s in use before I write about it.


As I mentioned, the OS RAID has caused me problems. At one point the system failed to boot with a conflict error from the mirror and required me to pick a master to rebuild from. I picked the wrong one and when the system had booted I found that most of the shares I created were gone as were some other OS changes. Since the shares are simply directories on the drive with this version I could just recreate the shares and point them to the directories. Tedious and frustrating to have to repeat work, but no files lost.

Two add-ins were also broken as they kept their data on the system drive. Rather than try to recover I simply uninstalled the add-ins, deleted their data, and re-installed them.

I had been remiss and this conflict problem happened before I set up a backup for the server OS drive so a restore wasn’t an option When I did try to set up a backup it consistently failed. It’s possible that the corruption affected the OS so I can’t say for sure what the backup problem is. At this point if push comes to shove I flatten the OS and re-install. I haven’t bothered trying to get any sort of OS backup working (but the data is backed up) since it’s only a matter of time before  do a re-install. The backup did work on my test server so there’s nothing inherently wrong with the backup.

Initial Observations

I like that restoring the shares after OS corruption was easy and problem free, Having the separate drives does have it’s benefits. While I have a RAID array for maximum update of critical files I no longer consider it important for my video library. I’m also wondering if I need RAID at all. It’s not like all my hardware is redundant. I will keep the OS  on a mirror (but a hardware mirror) since that seems prudent. But I’ll be thinking about which would be the bigger hassle, losing a drive and having to wait for “critical” files to be restored, or losing a RAID controller and having to reconfigure the drives and do a longer restore. To truly be safe I’d have to keep a spare controller of the same model & firmware on the shelf to allow a quick replacement and I can’t say my needs warrant that cost.

The release candidate has been a solid performer. The problems I’ve had were caused by hardware and not the software. I haven’t done any benchmarks but this doesn’t feel as peppy as my Ubuntu Home Server. I’ve been hitting the server pretty hard with file copies and backups running but file copies to and from the server have been about 30% slower even when nothing else seems to be happening. On the other hand performance stays the same when multiple copies or streams are being run. I can’t say the decrease is the server or something else going on with my PC or network so I’ll withhold final judgment.

The wizard to move shares sounds gimmicky but it’s actually pretty nice. I had to use it to move all the original shares off the system drive after the initial installation. I’ve also used it to move around existing shares to re-arrange disk usage, Naturally it takes longer when there are files since the files are copied. The share is unavailable during the move, but all other shares are still up and running,

For all the complaining I and others did about the loss of drive extender it wasn’t perfect. I will miss the ability to pool drives but folder duplication wasn’t the most efficient use of disk space. And disk migrator could be a resource hog when it ran. So rather than dwell on the losses I’ll try to find the strengths of WHS 2011. I don’t want the complication of software RAID all around. While this was more than reliable and viable with Ubuntu it seems brittle under Windows. Maybe my impression is tainted by long distant fights with early software RAID in Windows, but I can’t bring myself to trust it.

I expected to see more integration with Windows 7 libraries (there really isn’t any in my setup) so I’ll have to do more reading and research in that area, I had hoped that despite all my shares I could integrate them into my video library on Windows 7 but have been unsuccessful so far.

I do miss Ubuntu, especially when I see those file copies going slower under WHS than under Ubuntu. Unfortunately my OS drive issues do provide an excuse for the less than stellar performance. Performance isn’t bad and if I hadn’t run Ubuntu I’d probably say it was fine,  It’s entirely possible I’ll wake up one morning and decide to switch back.

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