Windows Home Server – How did I ever live without it?

In January last year I was introduced to a new product: Codename Q Server, or what would eventually become Windows Home Server. I joined the beta program, discussed it with other MVPs, but never got around to installing it. Well last week I did, and I am kicking myself for not having done so earlier.

Like many IT Professionals (and hobbyists) I have a rather extensive infrastructure of servers and workstations that I am responsible for at home, and at times it has seemed that the shoemaker's children really did go barefoot – although my data was always backed up (probably once per week) the same could never be said for my fiancé or son. In total there are four workstations in the house – my laptop, Theresa's laptop, the family PC and the Media Centre PC. Because I am always building and rebuilding networks it did not seem to make a lot of sense to join them to a domain for centralized administration (although I did try that once with less than stellar results). I had a spare PC sitting around that I used to use as my desktop – in the days when I still had a desktop.

A few weeks ago in conjunction with the infrastructure contest I ran I decided to take that idle PC and install Windows Home Server (WHS) onto it. It had a single 80 gigabyte SATA hard drive in it, which I replaced with a 150GB SATA drive. I installed WHS without changing any of the defaults. I created accounts for each family member – although this was not really necessary. I then installed the WHS Connector onto my laptop to see how it felt… and frankly it felt pretty good; simple to use, easy to understand, and basically what I call PhD (Press here, Dummy!) Computing. I kicked off a backup of my PC with three mouse clicks.

Once I was comfortable that it was not going to blow up I added Theresa's laptop, and kicked off a backup. At this point I noticed that I was going to need more hard disk capacity in the WHS box, if only because all of our machines had so much different information in them, and for four PCs with a total of 600GB of hard disks, it was not an unreasonable expectation. That being said, the way WHS backs up the PCs under its control is incredibly efficient – if the same file exists on multiple PCs in multiple places it only backs up the file once. Imagine you have a fifty megabyte video on four PCs that no longer needs 200MB to back up, but 50MB! WHS-1

I added a 500GB drive to the home server, and it immediately asked me if I wanted to add it to the WHS storage capacity (warning me that all data would be lost). I did just that, and the drive disappeared… and the capacity of my home server increased by 500GB.  The WHS Console now showed that I had two Storage Hard Drives (that made up the WHS capacity) and two Non-Storage Hard Drives – in this case two external USB drives that were temporary.

Within a few minutes all of four computers had the WHS Connector installed (no reboot required – just install the connector from \\WHS\Software and away you go!), and were backing up their entire systems.  At the end of the day the WHS Computers and Backup tab showed the name of each computer, the description, the operating system and the status of their last back up (successful in all cases).  It also shows (with a slight greying) the PCs that are not currently on or connected to the network.

WHS-2

The next thing I decided to do was to play with the Shared Folders.  By default there are Five (Music, Photos, Public, Software, and Videos), as well as one for each user created.  I took all of my music and added it into the appropriate share, and suddenly instead of my being able to listen to my music on my PC, I could access my entire library from any PC… as could anyone else with access to that share (by default everyone).  I then did the same with my photos, and surprised Theresa when she looked at the Media Centre PC – the screen saver was no longer Windows Vista, it was our memories.  Videos came next, and this includes videos of the family but also some movies I recorded at one point.  The Shared Folder tab let me know exactly how much each took, and the Shared Folders screen also let me know how much of my entire drive (or drives) were taken up by Shared Folders.  You can of course add additional shared folders as you like, and grant (or deny) users permissions as you see fit.

WHS does much more than just shared storage and backups – it offers home users features such as Remote Web Workplace (RWW) and a way to host your own websites, but because I have my Essential Business Server working I do not need the same features again.  However as a huge long-time proponent of the benefits of RWW I can hardly stress enough how great a feature this is – previously you needed a full install of SBS to have this functionality – now it is available with WHS, the least expensive server solution Microsoft offers.

As if to stress just how simple WHS is to install, use, and maintain there is a book available for it – a children’s book – called 'Mommy, Why is There a Server in the House?’ that literally explains to a three-year-old what a server is, and why it is there.

I am hooked on the product, but why shouldn’t I be… I’ll never have to touch it again! :)

A Gotcha to Installing EBS in an Existing Environment

I encountered a problem this week-end that baffled me for a while… Here is the infrastructure, the problem, and the solution.

image This network diagram is a rough sketch of the relevant portions of the network.  At present I have a server (HP DL585 G2) working as my virtualization parent, with my Windows Small Business Server 2008 (SBS) running in a child machine.  This SBS box is very new to the environment, and will likely soon be used to record migrating from SBS 2008 to EBS 2008… but for now it does its thing.

I was given a clean server (HP DL385 G5) and tasked with creating a virtual Windows Essential Business Server 2008 (EBS) infrastructure for demonstration purposes at an upcoming event.  I installed the server with Windows Server 2008 (x64) Enterprise Edition with all of the necessary patches, installed the Hyper-V role, making sure that I patched Hyper-V as well (KB950050).

This was probably the twentieth time I have gone about installing EBS since I joined that beta program, and although there are a lot of ‘gotchas’ I am fairly adept at avoiding most of them.  Both the Management Server and Messaging Server have multiple virtual hard drives (each running on its own drive); I had pre-created two virtual networks (SWMI_Int and SWMI_Ext).  The EBS Security Server had two virtual NICs… one connected to each network, while the Management and Messaging Servers were connected to the Internal network.

I was fairly certain that I had followed the ‘measure twice, cut once’ rule to the best of my ability, and the installation was going very smoothly.  I ran the EBS Preparation and Planning Wizards, and the installation of the Management Server and Security Server went smoothly… but in my experience they always do, and it is the Messaging Server that causes the most issues.  Sure enough…

The first problem I encountered was an Intermittent Network Issue.. during the Domain Configuration pass.  This was not the first time I had seen this happen, and the Retry button allowed me to continue without doing any maintenance. 

The Exchange Server Installation pass failed, and also offered a Retry option… but to no avail.  The message told me to look in the C:\ExchangeSetupLogs directory for guidance.  The relevant portion of the log file (always the last few lines :)) are listed below:

[10/25/2008 10:24:07 PM] [2] Running <C:\Windows\system32\ldifde,exe> with arguments <-i –s “vSWMI-Msg.swmi.local” –f “C:\Program Files\Windows Essential Business Server\Bin\EXCHSVR80\Setup\ServerRoles\Common\Setup\Data\PostWindows2003_Schema0.ldf” –j “C:\Users\Administrator.swmi\AppData\Local\Temp” –c “<SchemaContainerDN>” “CN=Schema,CN=Configuration,DC=swmi,DC=local”>.

[10/25/2008 10:24:39 PM] [2] Process C:\Windows\system32\ldifde.exe has finished with exit code 8206.

[10/25/2008 10:24:39 PM] [2] [ERROR] Unexpected Error

[10/25/2008 10:24:39 PM] [2] An error occurred when executing ‘ldifde.exe’ to import schema file ‘C:\Program Files\Windows Essential Business Server\Bin\EXCHSVR80\Setup\ServerRoles\Common\Setup\Data\PostWindows2003_schema0.ldf’. Error code: 8206. More details can be found in the error file ‘C:\Users\Administrator.SWMI\AppData\Local\Temp.ldif.err’.

I followed the clues to the ldif.err file, which was much more succinct:

Entry DN: CN=ms-Exch-Access-Control-Map,CN=Schema,CN=Configuration,DC=swmi,DC=local

Add error on entry starting on line 1: Busy

The server side error is: 0x21a2 The FSMO role ownership could not be verified because its directory partition has not replicated successfully with at least one replication partner.

The extended server error is:

000021A2: SvcErr: DSID-030A0AF2, problem 5001 (BUSY), data 0

An error has occurred in the program

If the FSMO (Flexible Single Master Operation) role ownership could not be verified there was a problem with a domain controller… but the DC was installed from scratch in a pristine environment less than ten hours earlier, and had not been altered.  I pressed Retry knowing it wouldn’t work, and went up to bed.

In the morning I was greeted by the same error in the same spot… why weren’t my FSMO roles verifiable?  More importantly, what was different from the last time I installed EBS in September?  I was working off the same source files on the same platform… the only additions to my infrastructure were the SBS 2008 server, and my Windows Home Server (WHS).

WHS is not an Active Directory server, so it wouldn’t have anything to do with FSMO roles.  The Small Business Server, on the other hand, is… and what the two (SBS and EBS) have in common is that they both MUST hold all five FSMO roles on their primary server… and failing to do so not only is a licensing breach, it will also cause any number of unexpected errors.

Could it be that simple?  I configured the settings of the EBS Security Server’s external NIC… the one that was on the same subnet as my SBS box.  Lo and behold, when I pressed Retry the installation continued without any issues.

…And the Leaves That are Green Turn to Brown

I am sitting in William's Coffee Pub in Oakville (my home town, outside of Toronto) watching the leaves blow the last of the leaves from the trees.  It is barely above the freezing point, and I am beginning to wonder (as I tend to do this time of year) what quirk of fate brought my grandfathers both to Canada… wondering if it wouldn't have made more sense for them to settle in Myrtle Beach.

The shift from summer (as it were this year) and winter in Canada is a harsh one, and I wonder if the beautiful though often blustery autumns that we enjoy are not G-d's compensation for that… the last three weeks have given us a symphony of colours hard to imagine any other time – during summer the greens are so lush that we can hardly fathom they could end, and in winter the cold and bleak are so harsh that you try to remember if it was ever any other way.

School children mourn the end of summer on the first day of class but that is not really when summer ends; I cannot imagine shedding a tear for the end of winter, and the transition from spring to summer is (in Canada) an imperceptible one where it just seems to be a little warmer and a little drier (again, not this year).  But the end of autumn is a sad one indeed… and despite what science might tell us it is not on the equinox in December, but really it is the first frost on the ground, the first time the radio warns that it is going to dip below freezing not overnight but while we are out and about.  It is when the last coloured leaf hits the ground, and the bare trees look like they could never possibly have hosted the fall foliage.

Last night Theresa came running into the room telling me it might snow; it did not, but the fact that the weather forecast said that it might brought a little sadness.  We told Aaron (our son) that there will be no more Crocs without socks this year; Jacob (puppy) woke me in the middle of the night to go out, but when we god to the door he changed his mind… too windy, too chilly.

Autumn is a hard time of the year to plan for… you simply don’t know what it will offer. Theresa and I got married last week-end, and rather than the outdoor wedding we were thinking about we decided to get married indoors… trading possible beauty for guaranteed comfort. As it turned out the day was glorious and everyone wondered why we did not marry under the gold and red leaves of the apricot tree in our back yard; as nice as it would have been I can imagine the complaints if it had been five degrees colder, windy, and drizzly. You just never know what this season will offer on any given day, and betting on a weather forecast seven days in advance is never the safest bet.  If you are wondering, it was still a glorious affair that was enjoyed by all.

Seasons are so important to us that they have been woven into our language as adjectives and similes – the winter of our discontent, spring fling, summer love.  Autumn has two names used interchangeably… Fall.  Sure, we fall in love… but we also fall down, fall from grace, fall on hard times.  Years ago I participated in a student film project called ‘The Fall’ which was about falling leaves, falling down… and falling out of love.  It was sad…

As one who has fallen out of love before I know that as hard as it was to imagine, love will come again… so it is that as I look at the bare trees outside the window I know it is impossible to believe now, and it will get cold and depressing first, but spring will come again, and I know that as it does we will wonder how we ever were depressed about the coming winter.