Windows Home Server 2011: Perfect for the smallest offices

If you have fewer than 10 users, it delivers easy backup and file sharing -- even for novice admins

I've been given the chance to play with the RTM of Windows Home Server 2011 OS. At first my focus was on the home environment, how a 64-bit PC with this server OS would help a home of several systems and users to function a bit better. But after working with it for a few weeks, I have come to appreciate that it has all that a small business would need as well.

Consider this: Do you have 10 or fewer users? Do you have a need for an identity management system like Active Directory? (If you are not using Active Directory already, the answer is probably no.) Do you currently use hosted email or other hosted services, such as Microsoft Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS) or Google Apps? Do you have a need -- perhaps one you've been neglecting -- to monitor and back up your desktop systems? If you answer no to the Active Directory question and yes to the other three, consider getting Windows Home Server 2011.

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On the surface, an x64 PC running the 64-bit-only Windows Home Server looks like a NAS (network-attached storage) device. The box I'm working with has two 1.5TB disks; the first disk is set up for storage, and the second one backs up the first disk. That amount of storage is plenty for storing data for all sorts of small businesses, such as digital photographers or videographers, doctors' and dentists' offices with high-res imagery, law firms, online-only software development shops, and architectural firms.

From my own experience running a software development shop, I find that I take often copy my data to external disks. Every once in a while I update an external disk for off-site backup. But now I have five of these disks with multiple copies of the same data. So, having a single box with all that data is really nice. And knowing that one disk is backed up to another is even better. And if I still want an off-site copy, I can plug in an external disk when I choose or store data in the cloud from Windows Home Server 2011. (Note: When I merged all those disks into the disk that came with Windows Home Server 2011, I needed to deduplicate at the same time. Easy Duplicate Finder, from the company of the same name, was cheap and worked perfectly, saving hundreds of gigabytes of space.)

But the Windows Home Server 2011 is not just a NAS box. It also can connect with your client systems through a simple Launchpad download that lets users log in and access different aspects of Windows Home Server 2011, based on the permissions assigned. This is different from Microsoft Small Business Server (SBS), which provides identity management services through Active Directory, as Windows Home Server doesn't use Active Directory. In addition, Windows Home Server 2011 doesn't include Exchange or SharePoint, but then again neither does SBS Essentials because in both cases, Microsoft hopes that you will use the forthcoming Office 365.

Some of the small business value to using Windows Home Server 2011 is that once you install the client connection software it immediately enables automatic backup, so the users' PCs are backed up nightly. It also monitors the health of client systems, so a novice or hobbyist admin can quickly see if users' PCs have the latest updates, are protected by antivirus software, and have been backed up. And it lets you configure remote administration of your clients from anywhere.

Obviously if you need to go beyond 10 users, you want to look at SBS 2011. SBS also makes more sense if you need a higher performance server: Windows Home Server 2011 can support one CPU socket with 8GB of RAM, whereas SBS Essentials supports two CPU sockets with 32GB of RAM and again, it is a domain controller with a 25 seat limitation. SBS Standard goes to the next level and offers up to 75 users and is also a domain controller.

Windows Home Server 2011 does have three cool, home-user-oriented features that you won't find in SBS: One is Silverlight streaming, which lets people connect to each other remotely (with permission) and see slideshows and access music and video through their Web browser. The second is Media Center archiving for saving recorded TV shows. The third is Home group support for Windows 7 Home groups.

There are some great add-ons for Windows Home Server that you may find helpful. Michael Leworthy, Microsoft's senior technical product manager for Windows Home Server, mentioned several add-ins (most of which can also be used with SBS 2011):

  • Proxure Keepvault, for cloud backup of critical media files
  • Windows Phone 7 add-in, which when it is released later this year will let you view the health of your server and do some easy admin from a Windows Phone 7 device
  • Awieco Remote launcher, for launching more admin tools straight from the dashboard

Built on Windows Server 2008 R2, Windows Home Server 2011 is a powerful, feature-rich server OS for the smallest businesses -- affordable (about $1000 for a fully configured server box) and easy enough that even a novice or hobbyist can get it up and running.

This article, "Windows Home Server 2011: Perfect for the smallest offices," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of J. Peter Bruzzese's Enterprise Windows blog and follow the latest developments in Windows at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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