I’ve been using Windows Home Server 2011 (WHS 2011) for several years now. It’s built on the same architecture as Server 2008 R2, and has a wide range of capabilities. The built-in applications are where this server version really shines. Automatic network backups, file & media sharing, and remote access via the web are its biggest strengths, making it perfect for home or SOHO use. But it doesn’t have to stop there. Toss in file replication software, and you have your own cloud to sync your devices. Mix in Plex Media Server, and you have a complete entertainment package, whether at home or on the road.
Update 5/29/16. Although this product has been discontinued for a couple of years now, if you can get your hands on a copy of it, it’s still worth it. If you need a home server, the closest thing to WHS 2011 now is Server Essentials. You will need to shell out some money for it (about $400) and also learn how to administer a domain with Active Directory, which won’t be worth it for most consumers. Windows 10 Pro , however, is a viable alternative. You won’t be able to connect and monitor all of your home computers to it like you could with WHS 2011, and you would be limited mostly to file sharing and using it for home entertainment purposes.
WHS 2011 was a fairly reliable home server built on Server 2008 R2. For a Windows operating system (especially a server OS), it was extremely cheap at launch (just $99 for up to 10 clients). However, it has since been discontinued. If you find that you still need a home server, you'll need to shell out some money on a Server Essentials OS. Otherwise, most people could just get by with using Windows 10 these days.
There are some perks to using server software. Remote Web Access, Server Dashboard, Launchpad, and automatic client backups help simplify administration of file sharing and aid in monitoring the health of client computers on the network. In reality, with Microsoft discontinuing the home server series, these few benefits don't justify the price of currently available server options.
If you can get your hands on a cheap, valid copy of WHS 2011, I would still recommend the product. Though discontinued, security updates should continue through 2021.
So why do I need it?
If all you need is a basic file server on your local area network, WHS 2011 may be a little overkill. You could accomplish this with any version of Windows. You could even set up remote access to get to your files, which is actually how I learned that I needed a server to begin with. The administration of such a setup was cumbersome, and WHS 2011 allowed me to simplify remote access to my home network. WHS 2011 is built for this, with a dashboard for administration, and a web portal for day-to-day file manipulation and entertainment consumption.
If you’ve ever installed a Windows operating system, then WHS 2011 will look very familiar. If not, then no worries. Newer hardware will need drivers to be loaded during installation. It’s not too bad as long as all of your hardware is operating correctly.
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Configuring WHS 2011
Now that you have the WHS 2011 operating system installed, you will need to configure a few things to maximize the value of your OS. Once you fire up your Windows Home Server 2011 Dashboard, you’ll see a list of tasks to complete on the Home tab. These include:
- Set up Server Backup. Protect your operating system! Although WHS 2011 is a solid performer based on Server 2008 R2, things can go wrong and you’ll definitely want a backup on-hand to minimize headache and make it easier to restore your valuable data.
- Set up Remote Web Access. One of the major attractions of using WHS 2011 is the ability to easily and remotely access your files using an http or https connection. WHS 2011 can automate the process of fowarding your router’s ports if you have uPNP turned on, otherwise you can just manually forward the ports. One of the huge advantages of setting this up, especially if you frequently access your files while away from home, is that you have the option to set up a free “homeserver.com” website. This comes with a free DDNS service provided by Microsoft, so you won’t ever need to know your router’s public IP address again! Instead, you will access your files by typing http://yourservername.homeserver.com/ into the address bar in your browser.
- Set options for sharing. Much like any other version of Windows where standard users cannot access files and folders of other users, you can quarantine specific folders for individual use by denying access to a specific user or multiple users. Or, you can choose to share data by giving multiple users access to the same folder. These options are set when you create a user, but can modified later on if you so wish.
- Configure media settings. Media settings give you control over what media can be accessed through the Remote Web Access website. So even if you deny a user access to your Pictures folder by setting the sharing option to “No access”, if you leave the Pictures folder enabled in the media library, the unwanted user would still have access to view your photos using the website’s built-in media viewer.
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WHS 2011 Client Configuration
Once you have installed and configured the operating system and added at least one user account (the adminstrator cannot remotely access the server through a remote Dashboard or Remote Web Access session, for security reasons), you are ready to configure a client. To do this, you’ll download the connector software from the server and then let the software perform the configuration. The server needs to be on the same LAN network as the client computer. You will be guided to make a few selections, but for the most part, it’s a quick and painless process. The connector software enables you to:
- Connect your computer to the server. After the connector finishes installing, you will log into Launchpad with your user credentials to finish connecting to the server. You’ll then see links for 1) Backup, 2) Remote Web Access, 3) Shared Folders, and 4) Dashboard. This makes accessing the server a breeze. You can also choose to save your username and password information to automatically log in from now on.
- Monitor the health of your computer. You will receive alerts and warnings for all clients connected to the server. These messages can be related to missed backups, failing hard drives, the server’s status, etc. Most commonly, you will be nagged about pending updates that need to be installed for each client.
- Back up your computer daily. The connector software will automatically backup your selected partitions (the default is to backup all partitions) at a random time within a set time frame. If you elected to wake the client computer to perform a backup during the connector installation, then Windows will attempt to bring the computer out of sleep or hibernate to perform the backup.
- Manage your server using the computer. This gives you access to the Remote Web Access website and shared folders in a single click from Launchpad!
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