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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

How many gigabytes of movies, music, and photos do you have on your local hard disks, external drives, and random USB keys? We're willing to bet a lot. We'd also wager that the vast majority of this media never gets accessed--what a waste. Worse yet, all your accumulated data is just one inevitable disk failure away from being lost forever. It's time to give your media a safer and smarter home in the form of a Home Server. We'll show you how to build an inexpensive but powerful server to back up, share, and stream your files.

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Read on to learn how we decided between Intel and AMD builds (spoiler: we built both), how to set up Windows Home Server, and what third-party programs to add to leverage the power of a dedicated server.

The Performance Test: AMD vs Intel
When we started building our home server, we knew we wanted a price around $500, but we weren't sure what CPU architecture to use. Our budget limited us to around $100 for CPU, which meant we could choose between a dual-core Intel Core i3 530 ($115) or a quad-core AMD Athlon II X4 630 ($99). The problem? We wanted to be able to do light video transcoding and file container repackaging on the server. Our previous experience with lightweight, NAS-style Windows Home Server machines made us skeptical that dual-core machines would have the CPU juice needed to handle any transcodes, much less transcoding HD resolution source material.

Naturally, the only thing we could do was run a test. To compare performance, we built two otherwise identical machine--one using the Athlon in an Asus M4A78LT-M motherboard. The other, using a Core i3 530 in a Gigabyte GA-H55M-S2H motherboard. We tested file transfers large (a MP4/H.264 Blu-ray rip that weighs in at about 3.4GB) and small (a folder filled with 1100 small files, ranging in size from 20KB to 150KB for a total of 43MB). We tested using Windows default network transfers as well as a FTP connection (across an isolated LAN, natch). We also tested video transcoding by setting PS3 Media Server to shrink a 1080p Blu-ray rip until it would stream across 802.11g Wi-Fi. Both machines passed the transcoding test with no problems. Finally, we tested power usage while at idle and under load using a Kill A Watt meter.

Windows File Transfer Test
Using Windows default file browser to transfer our test files, we saw a fairly clear performance victory from the AMD machine in every test other than the large file download. No matter what we did, the AMD system just choked on the 4GB file, it took almost 30 seconds longer to download the file from the AMD server than it did from the Intel one. The Athlon-equipped server handled the smaller files better than the Intel server, turning in the only single-digit transfer time we saw.

Windows File Sharing
Athlon II X4 630
Core i3 530
Large File Download (sec)
76.7 48.2
Large File Upload (sec)
49.1 54.2
Small Files Download (sec)
8.7 16.8
Small Files Upload (sec)
41.5 41.8

FTP Test
Our FTP test showed different results. The AMD machine took two tests, the Intel machine took two tests. While most of the scores were close, the small files upload was dominated by the Intel machine. We're not sure why the discrepancy, but as with the Windows file transfer test, it's not a big enough problem to knock either machine.

FTP File Transfer
Athlon II X4 630
Core i3 530
Large File Download (sec)
51.7 50.9
Large File Upload (sec)
51 53.12
Small Files Download (sec)
14.2 16.6
Small Files Upload (sec)
81.23 61.82

Power turned out to be the big differentiating factor on our Home Servers. While the dual-core Intel machine drew a meager 49W at idle and 70W under load, the quad-core Athlon was a juice guzzler in comparison--pulling 71W at idle and 90W under load. While it's true that it's a little unfair to compare power use between a dual-core and quad core, the performance (in video transcoding and network transfers) and price are close enough that we're comfortable making the comparison. And, the fact that the Intel machine was fast enough to do what we wanted while pulling less power was enough to make it the winner of our Windows Home Server test.

Power Usage
Athlon II X4 630
Core i3 530
Idle (W)
Load (W)
90 70

The Complete Parts List

Once we worked out the best CPU to use for our Home Server, the rest of the parts fell into line. The key to good performance on Windows Home Server is to make sure you have lots of RAM and to install WHS on a relatively speedy, but still very spacious, hard drive. You don't need a SSD or Velociraptor for a WHS box, but because all the data that will eventually end up on your storage array has to go through a partition on your main hard drive first, it's important that that drive be fast and big enough that you won't accidentally fill it up. Here's are the parts we chose for our WHS. It's also worth noting that the additional 2TB drive is optional--if you don't need the storage space now, it's better to buy the drive later. After all, it's easy to add storage to a Windows Home Server and drives are only going to get cheaper.

Category Part Price*
CPU Intel Core i3-530 $115
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-H55M-S2H $88
Case Cooler Master Elite 310 ATX $40
Primary Hard Drive Seagate Barracuda 1TB 7200rpm $84
Operating System Windows Home Server OEM $100
Memory Crucial DDR3 4GB kit $112
Power Supply Antec 500W $50
Additional Hard Drives (optional) Western Digital Caviar Green 2TB $136

TOTAL: $725 ($580 w/ 1 drive)
*All prices are from Amazon, as of May 25.

Setting Up Windows Home Server
Once you've build your server, it's time to get Windows Home Server installed. Without this OS, there's really nothing different between the server and any desktop PC. In fact, that's why you can easily repurpose an old desktop as a home server just by installing WHS. The install process is fairly straight forward, but we'll walk you through the important steps and offer some pro tips.

Install from a USB key
Depending on how you obtained Windows Home Server (either by buying an OEM DVD or downloading the trial version), your install process may differ a bit. For our purposes, we're using the downloaded trial ISO, which we've then mounted on a hard drive using Slysoft's freeware Virtual CloneDrive utility. The reason we've done this is because, well, our Home Server doesn't actually have a DVD-Rom drive! It doesn't need one, either, because we're going to install the OS using a USB key. The web ISO is also more up-to-date than currently shipping OEM DVDs, so you can avoid having to install as many OS updates.

You'll need to turn a 1GB USB key into a bootable drive. The process is relatively simple, and this guide will show you how to do it in Windows Vista or 7. Once the thumbdrive is formaltted properly, just copy the entire contents of the Windows Home Server mounted DVD onto the key. The files take up 860MB, so if you're using a 1GB key, you'll have some extra storage space. We recommend searching for and downloading your motherboard and network drivers (make sure they're compatible with Windows Server 2003) and putting those files on the USB key so the OS install wizard can recognize your hardware.

Configure your motherboard BIOS to boot from the USB key to start the WHS installation process. The install wizard will ask for you to input some basic preferences, such as the server name and a strong administrator password. It'll also show you what hard drives it's detected in your machine, so make sure both drives are present. When prompted to choose a primary drive for the OS, select your fastest hard drive. In our case, that's the Seagate 1TB drive. WHS will format all installed drives and configure them with its unique filestructure. When setup is finished, the server will restart and be ready for use. The OS will resemble the Windows you're familiar with, complete with the Desktop and Start Menu. Head into the Control Panel and finish installing any missing drivers to get the server network-capable.

Add and manage clients

Each Windows PC that you want to utilize your Windows Home Server for backups needs to have a WHS Connector Client installed. You can download this software straight from the server, which is a good way to initially test if your computer can find the server on your home network. On a web browser, type in "http:// servername:55000", with servername being the name you gave to the server during the OS install. This takes you to a server's Connector setup page, where you can download the Connector software. Run the executable, and the Connector will automatically search for your server and pair them. You'll need to type in the server's administrator password, as well as set when to allow backups to occur.

Download and install the Connector software on every machine you want your WHS to back up (up to 10). When installed properly, the Connector should appear in your Windows system tray. This is where you'll be manually start backups, access network shares, and load the Windows Home Server Console to manage backups, add users, monitor storage, change server settings, and install Add-ins.

Set Up Remote Access

Most of the settings in the Windows Home Server console are self-explanatory, but there is one feature that we want to call out specifically. Remote Access lets you get access to your WHS from any computer over the internet, using a web address. To set this up, enter the Settings panel of the WHS Console. Select the Remote Access menu, and click the "Turn On" button at the top. WHS will attempt to configure your router, though you may need to manually forward ports 40, 443, and 4125 to allow remote access to work. To learn how to forward ports on your specific router model, read the guides at Port Forward. You will also need to set a static local IP address for your WHS. Every computer on your local network is assigned a local address, though the assignments may change depending on which systems are connected. You need to ensure that the server is always given the same address. This guide shows you how to do that.

Once WHS verifies that your Server can be accessed from the web, you can set up a subdomain. Click the Configure button under Domain Name and run through the setup wizard. WHS will require that you have a Windows Live account to use this feature--this is the same as your Xbox Live login. Once you approve Microsoft's terms and conditions, you can choose any subdomain that is still available. If everything is done right, you'll be able to access your server's files using this address.

Backing up a Mac

Even though Windows Home Server only officially supports PC backups, you can still use your server to back up your Macs and MacBooks with Time Machine. This is done using a program called iTimeMachine, which lets you partition off hard drive space on your server that your Mac will recognize as USB drives, which are compatible with Time Machine (network shares aren't). Read our guide to setting up Mac Time Machine backups on WHS here.

Additional software and services
Windows Home Server supports Add-Ins, which are third-party extensions that enhance the functionality of the server from within the console software. We list our six favorites here. But while Add-Ins are useful for maintenance and administrative tasks, power users will want to install additional server software to make the most out of the machine's multi-core processor and generous stock of memory. Since WHS can run Windows software, this is a breeze. The only thing you should keep in mind is that these programs should be installed as Windows Services, so they automatically load up without any user logging onto the machine. To install these programs, you'll need to move the files over using network shares and log into your Server using Windows' Remote Desktop utility.

PS3 Media Server

Our favorite DLNA media server software is the best way to get your movies and music to your home theater. Despite its name, this free app performs real-time video transcodes and streaming to the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, with numerous configuration settings to tweak streaming quality to match your network bandwidth. Follow our guide to properly setting that up here.

Air Video
Getting video to a networked game console is one thing, but streaming wirelessly to an iPhone or iPad requires another server service. Fortunately, there's an app for that. Air Video ($3) is an iPhone and iPad app that can play video streamed to it from a desktop or server software counterpart. Getting Air Video running on WHS requires configuring it as a service, and we show you how here.

FileZilla FTP Server
Even though you can use Remote Desktop or Remote Access to log into your Windows Home Server to transfer files, using an FTP server is far more efficient and versatile. Using FTP, you get built-in error checking for file transfers, queue transfers, and create user accounts to share with your friends and associates. WHS's unique filesystem makes setting up an FTP server more than just downloading and running an executable, so we'll show you what you need to do to get a FTP server running on your Windows Home Server.

Microsoft SyncToy

Finally, one easy way to keep your local media folders synced with the network shares on your Home Server is using Microsoft's free SyncToy utility. SyncToy doesn't actually require any software installed on your server -- you just need to have it set up on your Desktop. You then can pair folders and configure SyncToy so any changes made to your local folder (ie. downloaded or ripped a new movie) are reflected on the counterpart on the server. We recommend putting SyncToy in Contribute mode, which limits syncing to one-way only so you can safely delete files locally without losing them on the server.

And that's it! In a Home Server, your data and media files are more secure, versatile, and accessible. With disk storage prices at all time lows (2TB for approaching $100!), you'd be foolish not to run a server, if only for backup. And if you're already running a server at home, share your experiences in the comments below!

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