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IT for Sole-traders: Windows Home Server

18th Jan 2010
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ANY business, regardless of its size, should invest in some basic minimums on the IT side of things.  One important investment is a server - good quality data-storage that lives in your office - keeping your core records safe and isolated from the day to day issues that can beset a laptop or desktop PC.

Many small/sole businesses (with maybe one or two employees), see this as something that's all a bit too complicated or expensive - particuarly if the technical aspects of getting it all set up looks a bit daunting, Microsoft does have a product called 'Small Business Server' which bundles a set of products in a single box for up to 25 users, but even SBS can require a fair amount of time and effort to get running properly.

There is, however, a Microsoft product called 'Windows Home Server' which, despite its name, can be ideal for small/sole-trader businesses. I've been experimenting with a copy.

Windows Home Server is designed to be as simple to manage as possible - while providing a genuinely useful set of features that some more expensive systems would have trouble matching.

It stores stuff - and that's it.
WHS is about safe, centralised storage of data, and that's it.   It won't run big databases or Microsoft Exchange, but that's not really what one-man bands are after from their first server.

It automatically creates a series of 'shares' that are given friendly names such as 'Music', 'Pictures', etc.   For use as a business device, you can easily remove these and create your own (maybe called 'Clients', 'Accounts', 'Personal' and so on).

Simple, effective, security
While a 'proper' server requires you to delve into Windows Active Directory, domains, and so on, WHS users can be added via a very simple administration screen, which asks little more than a user name, a password, and a choice of three levels of access rights to the different shared areas of the server's storage.

To connect your laptop or desktop PCs to the WHS server, you install a small 'WHS Client' on each machine, which ensures that WHS knows about your other computers.

Self-managing data-storage
Windows Home Server automatically organises all of its disk-drives into a single, unified storage area.  If your server, for example, has 50 Gigabytes of space, and you find yourself running low, you might install a second (100Gb, say) disk drive and Windows Home Server automatically merges the the two drives together into a single, 150Gb storage area).  This means you never need to worry about whether your data is on drive C: or drive D: - because all of that is hidden from view - WHS takes care of putting data wherever there is space, across whatever motley collection of disk drives you happen to have installed.

If, at a later date, you decided you wanted to replace that 100Gb drive with a 500Gb drive - Windows Home Server will even help you to shuffle all the data about so that the old drive is emptied of data for safe removal (It'll tell you in advance if you have enough free space on the other drives to do that).

Duplicate data-storage
The only moving parts on most servers are the spinning disk drives.  Inevitably, these are the parts that are most subject to failure.

One of the most effective answers to this is to automatically store TWO copies of everything on two different disk drives inside the server (This is called 'Mirroring' or RAID1).  If one drive fails, you still have your data safe on the other one, and you can then replace the faulty device at your leisure while the server runs happily on one drive for a few days.  (The chances of BOTH drives failing at the same time are miniscule).

Normally, setting up this kind of system demands that you purchase two identical drives, and carefully configure your server.  Windows Home server, however, offers a very simple but effective version of this that takes all of the hassle out of the process. All you do is decide which areas of your data storage are vital, and tick a box for 'File Duplication'.  WHS then ensures that a copy of your files is placed on one of the other disk drives (it doesn't matter which one - the system takes care of it for you).  If one drive fails, then you can simply access the copy on the other disk without missing a beat.

This feature uses up double the amount of your disk space, of course, but remember you can just add another disk at any time.  (External disk drives are fully supported, so you can buy an external drive, plug it in and see your extra space appear- all without even turning the machine off)

Automatic backups
WHS includes a feature that will automatically take full backup copies of the data on any laptop or desktop PC on your mini-network - putting all of the files onto its own drives.  This process can be entirely automated.  If you leave your PC on overnight, then WHS will connect to the laptop and trigger a backup automatically at an agreed time.   If your PC has 'gone to sleep', then WHS can even wake it up, carry out the backup, and let it go back to sleep afterwards.

Remote Access
WHS includes a facility for remote access over the Internet.  If you are away from the office or home, and suddenly find yourself in need of a piece of data or document, WHS lets you access your files from your laptop PC over the Internet.  Needless to say, the system includes a range of security settings to protect your data, and the feature is not activated until you decide you want to start using it.

What DOESN'T it do?
WHS is designed to act as a simple but effective data-repository for domestic use (music, photos, etc), but it has found a niche in very small businesses as well. As long as you don't need it to run big databases, or handle your email traffic, or any of the other things that 'proper' servers can do, then it can be very effective.

Getting One
The WHS software can be purchased for use with existing hardware for about £65. This will support up to ten users.  It took me about half an hour to set up, most of which was spent watching the installation process, and occasionally pressing 'Next'.

A number of manufacturers are now offering ready-built Windows Home Server systems that can just be unpacked and switched on.  Hewlett Packard offer a 'MediaSmart' server, wiith 1 Terabyte of storage (and space for more) for £500.  The picture at the top of this article is an HP MediaSmart, and it really is small enough to go on a bookshelf (no screen or keyboard needed).

If you are a sole trader or a freelancer, keeping all your data on a laptop PC, then WHS is seriously worth consideration as a flexible, low-cost data archive living quietly on a shelf at home.

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