WHS 2011

 

Introduction

 

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
  • Features
  • Reliability
  • Ease-of-use
  • Price
  • Support

Summary

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.

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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.

Dashboard

 

Screenshot (191)

Web Page

 

WHS 2011 Web Page

Installation

 

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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If you have more than one disk, choose the disk that will house the OS and check the box saying you understand the drive will be wiped. I highly suggest running WHS 2011 from an SSD drive. If you need to load drivers, do it now. Setup can fail if you don’t have the correct drivers for your network card.

WHS 2011 will begin the installation process and could take a while depending on your hardware.

Your server will reboot and continue the installation inside of Windows setup. Keep in mind that if you haven’t loaded the drivers for your network card you will never get past this screen!!! If you see this screen for an unreasonably long time, you can press Ctrl+Shift+Esc, go to File, New Task (Run…), type cmd  into the run box, then press Enter. Type ipconfig  into the command prompt window and verify you have an IP address!!! If no IP address (i.e., a 169.254.xx.xx address), check your network cable connections as well as your drivers.

If everything goes smooth, you will be presented with this screen. Choose your options accordingly.

Click the Change system date and time settings link to change your timezone.

Choose/verify your time and date settings. Ensure the timezone is set correctly, i.e., it matches the computers on your network.

Read the Microsoft terms and conditions, otherwise check the I accept box and press the Next button.

Now it’s time to name your server. Create a strong administrator password, and a hint in case you forget what it is, then click the Next button.

Choose your Windows Update options. I’ve never had a problem using Use recommended settings.

WHS 2011 will continue the installation process. After a few more restarts, the process will be finished.

Alright! Now that we’ve arrived at the Desktop, it’s time to move on to configuring the server by opening the conveniently placed Dashboard shortcut.



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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We’ll start with Set up Remote Web Access.

If you have a UPnP (Universal Plug ‘N’ Play) router, you can let the server set everything up automatically. I prefer setting up the router manually. This process varies by router, and requires a minimum of port 443 to be properly forwarded to your server’s address. I highly recommend, if you have another device on your network that requires port 443 (such as pfSense), you change that device’s default port to another one. Otherwise, you may break your WHS 2011 Remote Web Access page. Click Next to continue.

Next, you’ll begin setting up your domain. Click Next to continue.

If you already own a domain name, you have the option to use that domain instead. For a home server environment, I recommend clicking I want to set up a new domain name option and using a Microsoft email account to set up the domain name.

Click Get a personalized domain name from Microsoft unless you already have a domain name provider (the paid options are GoDaddy or eNomCentral).

If you don’t have a Microsoft email, you can sign up for now. Simply head over to Outlook.com and follow the on-screen instructions. If you already have a Microsoft email, your current credentials should work (Outlook.com, Hotmail, Windows Live Mail, etc.). Be advised though, WHS 2011 domain registration may have problems with complex passwords that use symbols. If you are having trouble registering the domain, try changing your email password temporarily.

This may take a minute.

You can read the agreement if you want to, otherwise click Accept.

Determine a name for your server. This will be the dynamic DNS address you will connect to in order to access your server remotely. So in this example, you will go to https://tigstallone.homeserver.com to log in. All domain names for WHS 2011 will end in “homeserver.com”. Now click the Check availability button to determine if the site you want is available. The cool thing about this is that you won’t have to remember a public IP address to get to your files. And even if you move or your ISP changes your public IP address, you will still be able to access your server at the same dynamic DNS address!

Your website may not be setup for several minutes, so just click close.

You’re now presented with the Remote Web Access tab in Server Settings. Notice that if you manually set up your router, you will see Router IP and Model shown as Unknown. This is normal. You’ll also see your domain name, and you can run the setup wizard again at any time by clicking the Set up button. Finally, there is the Customize button under Web site settings. Let’s click it.

I prefer to use the defaults, but be aware that you can add custom images for the background and logo.

Next, add some custom links or remove the default Microsoft links (I don’t think I’ve ever used them anyway). After you’re done customizing your website, close the dialog by clicking OK and then Apply in Server Settings.

You are now back at the Home tab in the Dashboard. Now click Set options for sharing.

You’ll be able to add users to your server and website (administrators cannot log in remotely for security reasons). So to access the website you just created, you need to add a user. Click Share with user accounts (Recommended).

Now add your user’s name and logon credentials. I recommend the most complex password you can remember, but one that is not used on any other website.

It’s really simple to enable permissions. If you want to create a logon for a friend, but don’t want them to have access to your photos, then choose No access under Pictures. Want them to have access you Music, but not be able to accidentally cut and paste from your collection? Then choose Read only. Be aware…if you choose No access this will NOT prevent a user from viewing media through the media server if it is setup for that user!!!

Next choose the Remote Web Access options that you want the user to have, or choose to not allow it at all. Finally, click the Create account button to finalize the user.

You will get this confirmation dialog with instructions on setting up the user’s computer. We’ll hold off on this for now. Let’s head back to the Home tab in Dashboard to continue server configuration.

Next click Set up Server Backup.

Click on Set up Server Backup to run another wizard that will guide you through the process. I personally skipped this step because I’m using Acronis to manage my backups. I highly recommend setting up some sort of automatic backup protection to ensure maximum server uptime, and more importantly, to protect against loss of data!!!  Click Next.

When I set this server up in a virtual machine environment, I didn’t add another virtual hard drive so I received this error message. Any partitions that aren’t on the hard drive where the OS is installed will work though, including USB or network drives.

Back on the Home tab in Dashboard, click on Configure media settings.

This where you will control the options for viewing and streaming media. When media server is On, it can be accessed through Remote Web Access. Set the streaming quality for your server, keeping in mind this will put an additional strain on your CPU. With that said, I keep mine set on Best and haven’t ever had a problem with CPU utilization. Under Media library, click the Customize… button.

Here you can choose which folders will be allowed on the Remote Web Access media server. If you share this server with friends and family, you do not want to give them access to embarrassing photos or videos. Be careful who you share your media with!!!

While we’re under Server Settings, we’ll take a look at the two other tabs. Under General, you can set the server’s time and date, choose various options about the data you want to send to Microsoft, and how to you want updates to behave.

Finally, if you want the server to be part of a Homegroup, you have that option. I’m not sure why you would do this instead of using the connector, but it’s there if you want to use it.

There’s a few more things you may want to do before we start setting up computers to use the server. One thing I do is move all server folders to a second drive (non-OS) to protect my data against Windows itself. To do that head over to Server Folders and Hard Drives in Dashboard, and ensure the Server Folders tab is selected. Highlight the folder you want to move. On the right-hand side under Client Computer Backup Tasks, you’ll see the option Move the folder. Click it.

This will start the Move a folder wizard. Read the information then click the Next button.

Choose your location. If you have more than one hard drive, select the destination drive and click the Move folder button. I’m showing only one hard drive because this is a test setup, but if I had another drive installed, it would show up here.

What if you want to add a custom folder? No problem. Click Add a folder under Server Folder Tasks to start the wizard.

Choose a name for your new folder and a location if the default isn’t what you want. You can also add a description if you want.

Next, select who can access the folder.

The last step of adding the folder is setting it up in Server Backup. Since I use Acronis to backup my server, I skipped this step.

There’s no configuration here, but just to round out the tour of the Dashboard, under the Users tab, here you can find information on who can access which server resources, as well as set the password policy. Clicking View the account properties will display the user’s General, Shared folders, and Remote Web Access properties that we set earlier.

Under the Computers and Backup tab in Dashboard is where you will be able to see your server-connected network at a glance. This will include all PCs and/or Macs that have been connected. There are various tasks that you can choose, including performing a backup, restoring files and folders, or removing the computer from the server.

Next we’ll go over to Server Folders and Hard Drives tab in Dashboard, and click on the Hard Drives tab for more information about each drive and/or partition. You can see the status of each drive here, as well used vs. free space. If you use an add-in like Drive Bender, you’ll see additional columns such as which pool each drive belongs to.

By clicking on the alert icons next to Server settings in the top right, you open another window that will show all server alerts, as well as any alerts for computers that are being monitored by the server.

In the left pane, you’ll see the alert, warning, or information message. In the right pane, you’ll see the details, as well as links at the bottom to fix the problem, if applicable.

If you clicked on any of the help links during setup, you probably noticed the annoying Internet Explorer popups that are part of Internet Explorer’s Enhanced Security Configuration. That gets REALLY annoying. It’s not recommended that you permanently disable this feature, but if you need to download drivers, you will save a lot of time by disabling it. Go to Server Manager and on the right hand side of the screen, you will see a Configure IE ESC link. Click it.

Now choose to turn it off for either the administrator or the user (whoever you’re logged in as). Don’t forget to turn it back on when you’re done. Your server is configured, let’s jump to client configuration.







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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Click which type of OS you want to download the connector software for (Windows or Mac only). This is the software that will allow the server to monitor the health of the computer, as well as perform automatic backups. You’ll also be able to perform the same administrative actions that you could do from the server’s Dashboard.

Acknowledge the UAC dialog to approve the installation with administrative rights.

You can read what the connector software does. Begin the installation by clicking the Next button.

If you’re using an older version of Windows, you’ll need to download the .NET 4.0 software. Modern versions of Windows won’t need that update, and installation will go fairly quickly.

The connector begins the installation.

Enter the server’s administrator password you set up during server installation. Click Next.

Type in the name of the computer you want the server to recognize the machine as, then click Next.

Choose whether to allow the computer to wake up for automatic backups. This can be spotty, and it really depends on how the Windows client power management is configured. WHS 2011 will try the automatic backup if it can wake up the computer, but there’s no guarantee that the computer will stay awake during the process. If you miss an automatic backup, you can always perform a manual backup or wait for the next automatic backup. Make your selection and click Next.

Choose whether or not you want to send anonymous data to Microsoft to help them improve their operating system. I usually choose not to participate. Click Next.

The connector software will now begin the configuration process.

Sign in using your server’s administrator password.

Once logged in, you’ll now see the same Dashboard that we used on the local server to configure it. You’re actually connecting to the server’s Dashboard via RemoteApp.

Now we can begin the client configuration process, such as choosing the drives on the client to backup. By default, all drives are selected. Also, if you are using a computer with a UEFI BIOS, you’ll want to make sure you have your server updated via Windows Update or you won’t be able to perform a backup.

You can also choose to complete disable the backup. Here we’ll choose Add or remove backup items.

It’s pretty straightforward to choose the drives or partitions you want backed up.

You’ll receive a confirmation window letting you know the backup was altered. There’s really nothing left to do, the computer is connected to the server.



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