Home System Backup in a Windows World

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Save often, and to multiple destinations. Everyone hears that piece of sage advice, but it's not always followed. An application that makes backups easier to perform and manage is worth a first, second and third look.

Microsoft unveiled Windows Home Server at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January. Based on Windows Server 2003 Service Pack 2, the software connects multiple PCs and can store, manage, back up and protect digital content. The company said the OEM version will be available in the fall.

Home integrators can use Windows Home Server to offer a straightforward backup solution to small and home-based businesses. While vendors such as Hewlett-Packard, Fujitsu-Siemens and Gateway have all announced plans to ship products with Windows Home Server pre-installed later in the year, system builders can turn any machine into a server, provided it meets the minimum requirements. Windows Home Server's remote access capabilities also allow the backups to be accessed and monitored from off-site.

For this TechBuilder recipe, the Channel Test Center used Windows Home Server to backup machines on a Windows network. The test network, designed to resemble a small or home-based business, consisted of two desktops and two laptops in addition to the machine designated as the server. Engineers installed the RTM version of the Windows Home Server.

1. Prepare the Environment: Microsoft has positioned Windows Home Server for the home market, and the software's minimum requirements reflect that. For the home server, engineers repurposed a white box with 512 Mbytes of memory, 120 Gbytes on an internal hard drive, a 1-GHz Intel Pentium 3 processor, a DVD drive and a 10/100 Ethernet port. Windows Home Server requires a minimum of 70 Gbytes of hard drive space but recommends 300 Gbytes on at least two drives to support data mirroring. A broadband Internet connection is required.

Windows Home Server requires the server to be connected directly to a firewall/router; it does not support wireless for the server. Client machines can access the server wirelessly without a problem, but the server itself must be connected on a wired network. The server should also obtain its IP address from the firewall/router device. And finally, the router must support the UPnP protocol so that Windows Home Server can configure the router to allow remote access capabilities.

Prior to installation, all external drives must be disconnected. External SCSI, USB, and FireWire drives can be added to the server's storage pool afterwards. Windows Home Server also supports USB 2.0.

2. Installing the Server: Insert the Windows Home Server installation DVD into the DVD tray on the machine designated as the home server. Installation is simple and straightforward, but a little slow. After a quick scan to ensure that hardware components meet minimum requirements, the installer detects and lists all the internal hard drives. Missing internal drives can be added by clicking on "Load Drivers" and installing the files.

Once all the drives in the machine have been detected, installation can proceed. After selecting the "New Installation" type and choosing the appropriate regional and keyboard settings, the installer will request the product key and a name to assign to the server. The name should not exceed 15 characters and can contain only letters, numbers and hyphens. No periods, underscores, or special characters can be used.

The installer is designed to ensure that the not-so-tech-savvy user understands that all data on the drives will be deleted. Once the server name is assigned, the installer lists all the detected drives in the system and offers a checkbox stating, "I acknowledge that all data on these drives will be lost." A modal dialog box also confirms the action before the installation finally begins.

Installation on the test machine took about an hour and a half. After the main software installation, some updates were installed, which required the machine to frequently reboot. Since no user input was required, engineers stepped away at this point to grab a sandwich.

After the final reboot, a dialog box prompts for a server password. To ensure strong security, the password is case sensitive, must be at least seven characters long and must contain at least three of the following: uppercase characters, lowercase characters, numbers or symbols. After the password is created, the installation software configures Automatic Windows Updates, Customer Experience Improvement Program and Windows Error Reporting. Engineers turned on Automatic Windows Updates to keep the system up-to-date, but turned off the other two features to prevent the system from dialing back to Microsoft.

With the system installed, the desktop is very bare. There are two shortcuts on the desktop: one for the Windows Home Server Console and to access shared folders. A browser window automatically opens, warning that the tools on the desktop can potentially "break" Windows Home Server. The message helpfully suggests performing all administrative tasks from a different computer and not directly on the desktop. Since the server is intended to run headless, engineers logged off the machine but kept the server running, and disconnected the monitor, keyboard and mouse.

3. Setting up the client: Engineers next turned their attention to the client application. Windows Home Server ships with a Windows Home Server Connector CD. Each machine on the home network that will access the Windows Home Server needs to have this client software installed. Only Windows Vista and Windows XP are supported at this time.

The installation software starts a wizard to find the server on the network. Once found, the application prompts for the server password before installing the client console. As part of the installation, a backup job for the machine is automatically created and inserted into the Windows Home Server. This CD should be run on every single computer in the network that will be making backups to the server and accessing the shared files.

When completed, there is a shortcut on the desktop to access shared files on the server, Windows Home Server Console is in the Start menu, and a Windows Home Server icon is in the system tray.

NEXT: Starting with the basics4. Starting the Home Server Console: The console is used to create, manage, and restore backups. The Windows Home Server Console is accessible through the Start menu. Accessing the console requires the server password.

The console has a toolbar at the top with five tabs: ComputersBackup, User Accounts, Shared Folders, Server Storage and Network. There are smaller links at the far right for Settings and Help. Menu options for each tab appear underneath the toolbar. When the console opens, the ComputersBackup tab is selected as the default and the available menu options are View Backups, Backup Now, Configure Backup and Remove Computer. In the bottom pane, all the machines that have Home Server Connector installed are listed. Each computer has a field for description, operating system, and status. Since this is the first time accessing the console, this machine's status would most likely be, "Not yet backed up."

The Network tab indicates the home network. If there are any problems, such as requiring new updates or a problem with network connectivity, the tab will change colors. Otherwise, it will have a white check on a green shield and read, "Healthy." All issues should be resolved immediately to prevent any backup delays or problems.

Since the Home Server currently has no users, engineers decided to create some before looking at the backup job.

5. Create User Accounts: Clicking on the User Accounts tab open up a list of all the users who have access to the server. By default, Windows Home Server creates, but disables, a guest account. Clicking on "Add" in the sub-toolbar brings up a dialog box to create a user account. Windows Home Server recommends the log-ons match the user accounts that already exist on the client machine. Having matching log-on names make it easier to access shared folders. It's not required, however. It just means that the server would prompt for a username and password when accessing the server.

Remote access is granted on an individual user basis and can be granted during user creation. It can be turned on or off at any time by going into the Properties menu option for that user. Each user can also be granted varying levels of access (full, read, none) to various folders on the server.

Engineers changed a few settings that apply to all backups.

6. Changing the default backup settings: When the server created the backup job, it set the backup window to the default time, or from midnight to 6:00 AM. This can be changed to a more convenient time, or to a smaller window. From the main tool bar, clicking on Settings opens up a two-paned window. In the navigation pane, select Backup to access backup-specific options. The details pane shows three options: Backup Time, Automatic Backup Management, and Backup Cleanup.

The start time and end time for the backup window can be set under Backup Time. If there are multiple machines in the network configured for backup, they will run one at a time, sequentially. Any machines not backed up during the backup window will go first in the next backup cycle. However, since each backup will run to completion, if the backup window ends halfway through a job, that job will continue to run. To start an automatic backup, the machine must be on, in sleep or hibernate mode, or in the case of a laptop, be plugged in. Battery-powered laptops will not start an automatic backup.

Performing daily backups of all the computers can add up over time. To manage how long the backups should be kept, Windows Home Server uses Automatic Backup Management. In the details pane, there are three settings that determine how many backups to keep: the number of months to keep the first backup of the month, number of weeks to keep the first backup of the week, and number of days to keep the first backup of the day.

The final option, Backup Cleanup is an automatic process that deletes old backup files. All backup data considered too old by Automatic Backup Management is deleted during the backup window on Sunday. It can be run manually from this pane.

And now, back to ComputersBackup to tweak the individual backup jobs.

7. Specifying what to backup: By default, the job is created to backup the entire computer. Perhaps the backup should focus only on data and not application files or system files. By right clicking on the machine name or selecting Configure Backup from the menu, a wizard opens, listing all the drives that are attached to the local machine. Since Windows Home Server supports only NTFS volumes, all FAT32 drives in the machine will be ignored. Select the drives to backup.

The next screen lists items that are excluded from the backup. By default, Windows Home Server won't back up cache files, temporary files, system paging and hibernation files, or data in the Recycle bin. To restrict the backup even further, click on the "Add" button. A window will open with the directory tree. Folders that should be excluded from the backup are selected individually. The chosen folders join the defaults in the exclusion list. Once all the directories to exclude have been selected, Windows Home Server displays a summary page of the job that indicates the number of volumes to backup, the number of folders that were excluded and an estimated size for the entire backup.

NEXT: The nitty-gritty of backup8. Run a backup job: An individual backup can be started immediately. Each manual run requires a text description that will be used to differentiate this job from other backups. For example, if a backup will be performed prior to installing an application, the name can be "Before Installation." Giving a generic non-descriptive name will make it difficult to later find the correct backup file to restore from.

When the backup job is started, the systray icon will change colors to blue (from green, for healthy) to indicate it is performing a backup. Rolling over the icon displays what percentage of the backup has been completed. It's not necessary to keep the console open during the backup since there will be nothing on the console to indicate the job is in progress. When the job completes, the systray icon will change back to green and the machine status under ComputersBackup will read "Backed up." Depending on the size of the backup, this can take a while.

Later backups will be shorter than the first one because Windows Home Server looks at the clusters and backs up only the files that have changed. In addition, if the same file exists on two different machines, Windows Home Server stores just one copy on the server (and thus saves disk space), but lists the file in the backup for both machines.

9. Browsing the Backup History: Double clicking on the machine name will open a dialog box listing all the backups that have been performed for that machine. Along with the history, this window gives the option to manage and restore backups.

For management, each backup has three options: manage automatically, keep or delete. Selecting the backup to be managed automatically subjects it to the rules defined in Settings. Keeping the backup just means the automatic management rules do not apply and that backup is kept indefinitely. Selecting the backup to delete means it will be deleted next Sunday, regardless of how new it is.

10. Looking inside a backup: Selecting Details from this window opens up the details window for the highlighted backup file. The window indicates when the backup was performed and how long it took. The files and directories that had been excluded from the backup are listed. A small icon at the top also indicates whether this backup is being managed automatically.

To look inside the backup file to see all the individual files, click on Open.

11. Restoring from backup: Restoring is as easy as click and drag. Clicking on Open from the backup detail view will launch the file viewer with all the files that had been saved. After browsing the directory tree, files and folders can be dragged from the view to any location on the local computer.

12. Restoring an entire computer: In case of a machine failure, Windows Home Server can also be used to restore an entire computer. The second CD that ships with the Windows Home Server is a Home Computer Restore CD. Insert the restore CD into the CD drive for the home computer and wait for the machine to boot up. The computer will automatically connect to the server and find a previous backup of that particular machine. Using a simple wizard, data can be restored for all the hard drives that had been backed up. This is a vote against excluding too many directories when configuring the backup. The restore will copy back only the information that had been backed up " all the other information in the excluded directories would remain lost.

13. Modify storage sizes: When you add a second drive, Windows Home Server allows folder duplication to automatically store copies of the files in that folder on multiple drives. The system offers the benefits of RAID without the headaches of setting it up.

Regardless of how many drives are formatted and attached to the server, they appear as one single storage device. Unlike RAID, the drives don't have to be the same kind or size.

Adding a drive is simple, whether it's internal or external. First, physically attach the new storage device (internal installation, USB, etc.) to the server. Boot up the server with the new drives and then launch Windows Home Server Console from a client machine. Click on the Server Storage tab where the new devices would be identified as a Non-storage Hard Drive. At this point, the drive can be formatted by clicking on Add on the menu. Once it is formatted, the drive's capacity is added to the total storage pool.

Before removing a drive, for whatever reason, it should be removed from the Console first. The removal process may take a few hours, but it can be physically removed only after Windows Home Server has stopped looking at that drive.

The server's storage requirements would gradually increase as more machines are added to the network and backups are maintained for longer periods of time. Making it easy to expand storage capacity is one form of future-proofing for a backup appliance because it will be able to accommodate the increased amount of data that needs to be saved.

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