The next generation of Windows Home Server enables video streaming and transcoding operations, so we built a WHS system that can handle the load
[Editor’s Note: This story was originally written in November 2010 and published in our January 2011 issue. In early January 2011, Microsoft ended the Beta program for Windows Home Server Vail, and announced that the next version of Vail would ship without the Drive Extender technology it had previously used. The new Drive-Extender-less Release Candidate for Windows Home Server 2011 was released in early February, and we have updated this guide accordingly.]
If you buy a Windows Home Server system off the shelf, you typically get an anemic processor—usually an Atom of some kind—and the original version of WHS, updated with various power packs. Recently, Microsoft released a beta of its next-generation Windows Home Server, code-named Vail (Update: It’s now known as Windows Home Server 2011). This new version offers some pretty cool features, which we’ll dig into shortly, but it looks like you’ll want something beefier than an Atom to take full advantage of them. My aim here was to build a system that will get the most out of Vail.
An adequate CPU is just part of the story. I also needed adequate memory—most off-the-shelf WHS systems tend to skimp on RAM. The system also needed to be small enough to fit into tight spaces, but large enough for all the gear I want to cram into it. I also wanted to build a system that had room for future growth—particularly storage. Mind you, I’m not skimping on storage in this initial build. But I wanted to have power and free bays for expansion.
Let’s dive in and take a look at the component list.
- Case Lian-Li PC-Q08 Mini-Q $110
- PSU Seasonic SS-460FL Fanless 460W $160
- Mobo Zotac H55ITX-A-E $130
- CPU Intel Core i3-530 $114
- Cooler Intel OEM $0
- RAM Crucial 2 x 1GB DD3-1333 $45
- Drives 2 x 2TB WDWD20EADS $240
- OS Windows Home Server “Vail” Preview Build 2011 Release Candidate $0
Choosing the Hardware
I wanted to get more performance out of this Windows Home Server build than I’d get out of an off-the-shelf system, without breaking the bank. In the end, the total cost of components, including a beefy (but noise-free) power supply and four terabytes of storage came in at just under $800.
The dual-core Intel Core i3-530 runs at 2.93GHz, and should handle my transcoding chores just fine. However, I hedged my bets, choosing the mini-ITX Zotac H55 motherboard—which has an available PCI-E x16 slot. So, if I decide I need more transcoding horsepower, and find an application that supports GPU-accelerated transcoding, I can add a GPU just for that purpose later. I also like that the Zotac board has six SATA ports—most mini-ITX boards have only four.
Any home server handling lots of media needs plenty of storage, and Western Digital’s 2TB GreenPower drives deliver that in spades. These are the newer, three-platter versions that cut down a bit on power consumption and deliver improved throughput.
Another desirable item is a fanless power supply, and the Seasonic is certainly that. It’s true that 460W seems like overkill for a home server, but the 400W sibling to the 460W unit couldn’t be found. If a GPU or additional hard drives are added in the future, the 460W unit will look like a smart choice.
Finally, the case needed room for expansion. The Lian-Li PC-Q08 mini-ITX chassis has room for six hard drives—though the two-drive bay may need to be removed if a GPU is installed. I’d also want to pull out the Lian-Li 14cm fan, with its annoying blue LED, and drop in something a little quieter, without the glow.
Building the System
As with any small form factor system, it’s important to consider the order components are installed. The good news is that the Lian-Li case is a tad larger than most mini-ITX cases. No knuckles were skinned or blood shed during the building of this particular system—that’s not always the case when building a tiny PC!
Make sure to line up the notches on the side of the CPU with the tabs in the CPU socket before you drop it in place.
For this particular system, I installed the CPU, memory, and CPU cooler prior to popping the motherboard into the case. One of the minor annoyances with aluminum cases is that they flex—that made inserting the ATX I/O shield something of a chore. Attaching the internal wiring—front-panel and USB ports—was fairly simple (including front-panel audio, though it’s not really needed for a server.)
Double-check to ensure the CPU is completely flat in the socket before closing the ZIF lever. Also make sure the latching notch slides under the bolt.
After the motherboard is installed, the next step is to attach the component cables. The Seasonic PSU is completely modular, so it was easy to attach the main (24-pin) power supply cable and the 4-pin ATX12V connector to the mobo before the power supply. I also attached the two SATA cables that would route to the pair of 2TB hard drives.
Route all cables before you slide in the PSU, including SATA cables (shown here) and the 4-pin ATX12V CPU power connector.
The PC-Q08 chassis includes a pair of removable hard drive bays—one supports four drives, the other, two. The pair of Western Digital drives slid nicely into the four-drive bay, with space between them for airflow. The two-drive bay was left empty, in case I want to remove it later to install a GPU. Note that some entry-level GPUs, like Nvidia’s GTX 430 or AMD’s HD 5450, would likely still fit with the two-drive bay in place, but anything longer means removing that bay.
Our hard drives are mounted to maximize airflow.
Once the drives were installed, the remaining cables were attached. The SATA data and power cables routed to the hard drives, and the two power supply cables to the PSU. Then the PSU slides in. Note that the PSU is something of a tight fit, mainly due to cable bulk, so I gently bent the PSU cables as much as possible.
The only cables external to the motherboard you need are hard drive power and front-fan power.
One change I’d make is to switch out the default 14cm front case fan with something a little quieter, possibly a Yate Loon low-speed fan. That would also eliminate the blue LED built into the default fan, which is a good thing in my book.
Next up is installing Windows Home Server—which means temporarily attaching a keyboard, mouse, and monitor, though the system will mainly run in headless mode once we get Vail up and running.
Setting Up Windows Home Server ‘Vail’
[Update 03 Feb 2011: Today Microsoft announced the Release Candidate of Windows Home Server 2011, formerly code-named “Vail.” This guide was written during the beta phase of “Vail,” so instructions and screenshots may be slightly out of date.]
Obtaining the Vail beta is straightforward if you’re already a Windows Connect user (http://connect.microsoft.com/WindowsHomeServer). Otherwise, you’ll need to sign up for an account.
The beta is in the form of a downloadable ISO, so you’ll need to burn a DVD from the ISO, or install it onto a USB flash memory drive using the Microsoft Windows 7 DVD-to-USB tool (http://store.microsoft.com/help/iso-tool). Since no optical drive is included in this build, setup was run from an 8GB USB flash memory stick.
You no longer have to install the WHS Connector from CD or USB key. It’s just a URL to the server for download.
The base installation proceeded without incident, but when the system rebooted to the WHS desktop to download updates, a weird problem cropped up. Vail had no built-in drivers for the Intel gigabit Ethernet hardware. It did recognize the Atheros Wi-Fi adapter, but couldn’t log into my home network since security is enabled.
Instead of either prompting me for a password (for Wi-Fi) or prompting me for a drive (for the gigabit port), the system would pop up a screen that told me no network connection was available. The only option was “Reboot.” If you reboot, you’ll get the same result—in other words, it’s an infinite loop! Obviously, this is a bug—but hey, it’s beta software, right?
The way around this bug is to hit Ctrl-Alt-Del while the system is looking for a network (but before the “network not found” dialog pops up). Bring up task manager, kill the process that’s looking for updates, and then manually install the driver.
Installing the Connector software for an individual user is easier than in the original release of WHS. You no longer need to copy the app to a CD or USB key, or manually navigate to the server to download it. Instead, you pop up your browser and type http://server name/connect, where the server name is the name you gave the server during setup. Then you can download WHS Connector and install it on the target system. Note that a version of Connector is downloadable for Mac OS X as well as Windows.
If you have your PC set to automatically log in when you start up Windows, the WHS Connector install will want you to disable that feature. Until WHS is up and running, and all passwords are consistently set, you’ll need to manually log in. Since this is a home server, not a business server, you’ll want your system login and your WHS account login to be the same. Once the logins and passwords are created and are the same, you can re-enable auto-login on your PC.
The Vail dashboard resembles the old WHS dashboard, but offers more user-friendly help. You’ll want to create logins for other users on the network. The backup wizard steps you through the process of setting up backups for all the users, as well.
The Vail Dashboard is more user-friendly, and actually has useful built-in help and walk-throughs.
You can also more easily configure backups of the server than in the original WHS—after all, if the server goes down, you’ll lose your backups, so having a backup of the server is pretty important.
You’ll want to configure automatic backups once you’ve got all your systems set up.
Vail also offers a built-in media server, which is fully DLNA-compliant. If you plan on streaming media from the server, you’ll want to configure the media server.
It’s easy to configure the new media server capabilities, including transcoding-quality settings.
Once you’ve got users and the server itself configured, you’re ready to go.
About Features and Add-ins
Unlike the first WHS, Vail now natively understands Windows 7, including Win7 homegroups. Note that Vail is 64-bit only, so systems running it will need a native 64-bit processor. This means that some Atom-based systems (Atom N2xx, Atom Z500, and Z600) will not run Vail. This also means that upgrading from the current WHS to Vail will be difficult. Even if the CPU is 64-bit capable, the current Windows Home Server is 32-bit with PAE support. So, if you plan on migrating an existing Windows Home Server installation to Vail, you’ll want to back up your data, then reformat your hard drives before installing Vail.
Vail has the familiar Windows Home Server Dashboard. However, there’s also a new Launchpad. The Launchpad allows an individual user to access shared folders, configure, or launch a backup.
The media server built into Vail surpasses the original WHS, and reduces the need for a third-party media server add-in, like Twonkymedia. Given its full DLNA support, you can even connect from DLNA-equipped consumer electronics devices and game consoles. Note that the transcoding support currently doesn’t work with Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005.
The new WHS is built on top of the Windows Advanced Server 2008 core. The WHS dev forum is full of messages regarding various add-ins that don’t work or have limited functionality. (Remember, this is beta software!) If you’re running WHS with either free or commercial add-ins, consider your migration carefully. Current-gen WHS add-ins won’t work with Vail. However, companies are busy developing add-ins, such as Awieco’s WakeOnLan (www.awieco.com/Products/WakeOnLan). If you’re dependent on an add-in you’re currently using (for, say, home automation), you’ll want to make sure it’s Vail-ready before making the switch.
Remote access is now more robust, and will even support streaming media to remote devices. So you can show off your home movies and photos of the family while you’re on the road. As with the original WHS, you can also log in remotely and perform system management chores.
Inside the Machine
- INTEL CORE I3-530: Using a beefier CPU will improve transcoding performance.
- TWO 2TB GREENPOWER DRIVES: A more robust media server needs boatloads of storage. Our server can accomodate four more drives.
- 2GB DD3-1333: Memory is cheap, so add enough to your server for transcoding performance and future growth.
- SEASONIC FANLESS PSU: 80+ Gold rating means greater efficiency; the lack of a fan means less noise.
The first generation of Windows Home Server offered functionality that wasn’t much better than existing NAS (network-attached storage) boxes. You could build a better server, however, given the vast array of add-ins that arrived on the market after WHS shipped.
Vail looks to be more of a true server out of the box. The built-in media server is now DLNA-compliant, and can transcode digital media files on the fly. Vail will also be a true 64-bit server, which means that most add-ins will need to be updated to work with the new OS. But it’s also likely we’ll see newer and more robust add-ins, particularly for home automation.
Even given Vail’s higher level of sophistication and added features, it’s easy to set up and easy to manage. We’ve no doubt that the next-generation Windows Home Server will do well in the market. But if you plan on using your home server for anything more than just a repository for files, you should think about building or buying a system with a stronger CPU and the option of adding a GPU later, as I did with this build. You’ll be able to take full advantage of Vail’s new features and the wealth of add-ins that will become available.
Never Built a PC Before?
Your case, motherboard, and cooler all come with useful instructions, but be sure to check out our most recent step-by-step guide at http://bit.ly/bldcreed.