How to build a Home Server with Windows 8
Saying that Windows 8 is a major shift in strategy for Microsoft is pretty obvious at this point. Between the Metro interface, complete dismissal of the start menu, focus on touch screen devices, and myriad other changes; this is not the Windows of the Bill Gates era. One change which hasn’t received much discussion is the idea of Windows 8 being Microsoft’s next iteration for not only Windows 7, but for Windows Home Server.
If you haven’t heard, Windows Home Server has been discontinued by Microsoft. For those not familiar with the Windows Home Server product line to begin with, it was designed to be the central hub of your home network; providing easy access to large amounts of easily expandable storage, simple backups, media functionality, and synchronization of usernames and passwords throughout your home network. The good news is that Windows 8 provides much of the same functionality previously found only in Windows Home Server.
Our in-depth guide here will show you everything you’ll need to build a Windows 8 home server.
Windows 8 offers some new tools which make it easy to create large amounts of redundant storage that may seem familiar if you’ve used Windows Home Server in the past. The storage spaces feature lets you group multiple physical hard drives together into a single storage pool and even provides options for redundancy. Storage spaces are probably a good idea even if you only have a single drive at the moment due to the ability to dynamically expand the size of your volume by adding more drives, much like the drive extender feature familiar to Windows Home Server users.
Power users can quickly access a number of tools using this hidden menu.
To begin configuring storage spaces, you need to access the Control Panel, which can be a little tricky in Windows 8. The two easiest ways we’ve found to get there are:
1. Go to the Start Screen, type “Control Panel”, then click on the Control Panel shortcut.
2. Move your mouse cursor to the bottom left of the screen to bring up the Start Screen shortcut, right click on the shortcut, and choose the Control Panel option. (There are some other goodies here as well, so keep this trick in mind for later use.)
Once you’ve navigated to the Control Panel you can find Storage Spaces under the System and Security category. The first step in getting storage spaces up and running is to create a storage pool and add physical drives to the pool. One thing to know is that storage pools use the full capacity of your hard drive, so if you have existing data it needs to be copied off before you add the drive into a storage pool.
Storage spaces let you create RAID-like storage on the cheap.
Within the Storage Spaces applet in the Control Panel you should see a link that says Create a new pool and storage space. Click this link and confirm the user account control pop-up to begin adding drives to your storage pool. The next screen will ask you to choose the drives to use in your storage pool. Select the drive or drives you want to use and click the Create pool button at the bottom of the window. Notice you can use any combination of internal and external drives to create your storage pool (we’re using two 2TB Backup Plus Desk drives from Seagate connected over USB 3.0).
Once the storage pool is created we move on to creating a storage space. There are several options when creating a storage space, some of which require some additional explanation. The name and drive letter are probably obvious to Maximum PC readers, these configure how the storage space is displayed in File Explorer. You would think the pool size would be another obvious option, but storage spaces can be configured to be larger than the amount of physical storage you have available. To be clear this is not usable space, but it does allow you to create a large storage space and expand through new physical drives as needed.
Configuring a storage space is extremely simple.
Resiliency is probably the most confusing of the storage space options. A storage space can be built to protect against drive failure by storing a duplicate copy of your data on more than one drive in a mirroring configuration. The caveats to using resiliency are that you must have multiple drives in your storage pool and the maximum storage capacity is reduced because some of the drive space is being used for resiliency. A storage space can even be configured to store an additional copy of your data in a three-way mirror. Sadly you cannot add or change the resiliency configuration of a storage space simply by adding another drive at a later date. What you can do later is add additional drives, configure a new storage space with resiliency, and then move your files to the new storage space. Also keep in mind that you can have multiple storage spaces in a single storage pool. This means you could have a resilient storage space mirroring your important documents, and a second storage pool with no resiliency used for music or videos which you could recover through another method.
Sharing your Files
Microsoft introduced the HomeGroup feature in Windows 7, and it’s returned in Windows 8. The feature allows you to set up a relationship between the Windows PCs on your network and eases the process of sharing files and devices between computers. There are two parts to sharing files using HomeGroup on your network.
HomeGroup creates a random password during the initial configuration.
First we need to create the HomeGroup and add computers. HomeGroup settings can be found in the Control Panel under the Network and Internet category. If there is already a HomeGroup on your network, you will be invited to join the existing HomeGroup, otherwise you will be prompted to create a new HomeGroup. There’s really not much to actually creating the HomeGroup itself. The system will generate a password which you must use to join other computers to the group. This password can be changed later to something you can remember.
Sharing files using a HomeGroup is most easily done by using Libraries. The HomeGroup Control Panel allows you to choose which libraries get shared with other users in the HomeGroup. If you want to simply share a single file it can be done by adding it to a shared library.
For our scenario, we’re looking to share entire folders within our new storage space. By creating Music, Video, and Pictures folders we can easily organize our media files. Additionally we can add these folders to the existing libraries by simply right clicking and choosing Include in library to start sharing them to the HomeGroup.
Sometimes we don’t want to do things exactly like Microsoft designed, so using the existing libraries isn’t always going to be a workable solution. Fortunately you can add libraries and then share them with the HomeGroup or simply share an individual folder without using the libraries. To test this, let’s create a Backup folder in our storage space. Once the folder is created, right click on the folder, choose Share with, and choose HomeGroup (view and edit).
Libraries shared to the HomeGroup integrate directly into Windows Explorer.
Now that we’ve created our HomeGroup and shared all of our files open up File Explorer (this is another option in that power user menu we showed you earlier). In the left panel of File Explorer you should now see a HomeGroup section with your username underneath. Expanding your username should show the computers you have access to, and should provide a list of shared folders on that computer.
Another feature of a HomeGroup is the ability to stream media over the network using DLNA. This can be configured using the Media streaming options in the Network and Sharing Center Control Panel. The Media streaming options will allow you to allow or disallow individual media devices on your network from accessing certain types of files.
Protecting your Data
One thing we can’t recommend highly enough is backing up your data. Few things are worse than losing years of pictures or documents because of a failed hard drive or accidental deletion. There are two aspects of data protection we want to take a look at, using your Windows 8 server as backup storage and backing up the storage volume itself.
Windows Backup isn’t gone from Windows 8, it’s just hiding.
Using your Windows 8 server as backup storage is as simple as using the Backup folder we created earlier as your storage volume. This can be done with most backup tools, including Windows Backup and File History (which we’ll talk about in a minute). Interestingly, Windows Backup is a deprecated feature in Windows 8, which means two things. First, it’s hard to find. Second, it’s a feature that may disappear completely in future versions of Windows.
To use the traditional Windows Backup features in Windows 8 you need to go to File History in the System and Security category. Once there you will see an option for Windows 7 File Recovery in the bottom left corner of the window. Another option is to switch to the Control Panel’s icon view and find the Windows 7 File Recovery option there. Once you are in Windows Backup/Windows 7 File Recovery you can create a system image, back up your libraries, or choose individual folders to back up. These steps can be used to back up other computers to your central storage or to back up your centralized files and folders to another location.
File History is a feature we wish we had before deleting that massive Word document.
Another option to back up critical files in Windows 8 is by using the File History feature. File History is primarily used for backing files up from other computers to your centralized storage, but it offers some increased flexibility over traditional backups. File History can be configured by simply choosing the backup location and turning the feature on. In addition to having a backup copy of your files you also have the ability to open a previous version of a file. This is particularly handy if you’ve accidentally deleted something contained in a file, such as paragraphs from a document or a slide from a presentation.
Windows 8 is certainly a shift from previous versions of Windows, but it’s not all about the new interface and the start screen. If you know where to look there are some sweet new features that open up new possibilities in how we use our computers on a daily basis.
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