One of the short comings of the original 32 bit Windows Home Server (WHS) for me was the lack of any built in tools to backup the primary WHS boot drive. While using a RAID 1 boot drive would protect me from a disk drive crash, it didn’t offer the capability to “rewind” back to a former backup copy to fix a system drive corruption issue. To compound the problem, my favorite Windows disk image backup utility doesn’t support server based operating systems, presumably because they have a higher cost enterprise class version they sell into the classic server markets.
So for most of us, the problem remains on how to easily backup and restore the primary boot volume of the WHS server or upgrading the entire server hardware without losing the current WHS configuration. The good news is that backup and restore for a primary boot drive becomes significantly easier when you are running as a virtual machine. Better still, these come for free if implementing WHS on VMware’s ESXi hypervisor as illustrated in At Home with ESXi posted earlier.
Additional Backup Options Provided by a WHS ESXi Setup
With VMware ESXi, you automatically get two ways to create backups of your primary home server boot drive via the vSphere utility run from your regular PC:
Snapshot – takes a point in time copy of the complete WHS virtual machine on the same physical drive as the primary WHS boot image. Total time around 3 mins and take as many as you have room for on the disk.
Full Image Copy – the complete WHS virtual machine is copied via the network to your local PC or a network drive. Total time will be several hours depending on your network speed (70GBytes take a while to copy across home network)
I have now been running WHS since Dec 2007 on a small self-built VIA based ITX system, chosen because it was small and ran on much lower power and generated less heat and noise than a conventional PC or low cost server allowing me to leave it on all the time. It’s worked like a charm since it was turned on in 2007 and not crashed once! Since then I’ve added a second WHS using the VIA Artigo shoebox PC which I use for projects like the Earthquake monitoring project referred to on this site a few months back.
We have a pretty active PC home. I have gamer kids (I’m one of them) in the house with 3 dedicated gaming PCs mixed in with 3 laptops (2 college, 1 work), a digital audio workstation for audio and midi recording, plus a home built media center PC in the family room. Operating systems are a mix of Windows XP, Vista 32 bit, Vista 64 bit and Windows 7. All of the PCs have the WHS Connector software, though only 2 of them (my home desktop and home laptop) wake up automatically to do backup all the time as I found that the laptop would wake up in my hotel room looking for my WHS when travelling! The rest, I tend to run manual backups or turn on the automated backup only when I know the work laptop is going to be stationary for a while or I have a lot of new content I’m creating.
Having lost data from my pre-WHS writing days, I’d already developed a healthy habit of making sure I had multiple copies of important data (e.g. photos, audio/midi projects) in multiple locations so I’ve managed to avoid catastrophic loss of personal data with a little careful management so far. WHS really helped automate and simplify this previously manual process. On occasion however, there are situations where a recovery of a complete PC or file is still necessary beyond the normal “copy off your backup USB drive” scenario.
What started out as a simple experiment to help me learn more about VMware ESX has now turned into a full blown experiment running my current Windows Home Server setup, along with two Linux servers used for an online FEAR Combat gaming server (for the kids of course) and a private WordPress website development environment running on a single Dell T110 server.
I am now able to create and tear down “server sandboxes” right next to my “leave alone” server setups (i.e. Windows Home Server) given the relative ease with which I can now create new virtual servers. More experimentation is necessary to get to streaming high definition videos which seem to struggle, but standard resolution and audio seem to work fine so far. This certainly seems like virtual servers are now well within the reach of the tekinerd and small home office type setups.
In addition to the Dell server, I also created a low cost iSCSI box using the free OpenFiler software and the VIA Artigo A2000 shoebox sized computer to expand the storage capabilities of ESX and primarily the virtual Windows Home Server which required additional storage to handle my total home PC backup requirements. Details of the final setup are included below, with a more detailed writeup on the Tekinerd Server Pages at http://tekinerd.com/server-pages/at-home-with-vmware-esxi/.
Dell T110 server (2x 160G drives in my particular setup), 2G DRAM (~$399 special at Dell)
VIA Artigo A2000 for the iSCSI storage box with 2x WD 500G drives (~$350 all in)
Dell: VMware ESXi v4 (free download from VMware)
Dell: Client OS#1: Microsoft Windows Home Server ($99)
Dell: Client OS#2: OpenSUSE 11.2 ($0) setup as a FEAR Combat Server ($0)
Dell: Client OS#3: OpenSUSE 11.2 ($0) setup as a WordPress Development Server ($0)
VIA Artigo A2000: Openfiler v2.3 ($0) configured with 2 iSCSI targets (317G + 465G available)
I just completed a fun project hooking up a dedicated low power, shoebox sized Windows Home Server to a University of California, Riverside project called QCN, or Quake Catcher Network. My home server now measures vibrations and sends the results to a central network. Very cool.
If you have a home server (or any recommended PC/laptop) and live in an area where the ground shakes a lot, you may want to take a look at using some of those cycles when your server is idle. More details on my setup and project at http://tekinerd.com/?page_id=123.
I’ve been running a Windows Home Server for about 2 years now using a low cost VIA based home built system, and I’m very happy with it. Just a few examples of how useful it’s been:
I’ve used it to rescue my laptop twice from a corrupt C: drive
Temporarily rollback my laptop to a point 9 month earlier to find a lost email
Restore the family gaming machine more than once due to excessive build up of internet “plug ins”
Create a set of bootable images for my various test servers so I don’t have to update to the latest OS as my master CD/DVD is getting old
Though the backup capability is nice (I have a lot active PCs in my house), the real value of WHS came home to me when I needed to find some old emails from 9 months back that I thought I’d kept when upgrading my laptop from Windows XP to Vista. My home server had been configured to keep both the old XP backups I’d been making regularily up until Nov 2009, then it was keeping a new set (under the same PC name) for the newer Vista Operating system I’d installed.
Here’s the steps I went through to get my now Windows Vista laptop temporaily reverted back to it’s Nov 2009 Windows XP state:
Manual/instant backup of my current laptop
Insert WHS provided Home Restore CD and reboot my laptop
Let the restore program boot up (which can take up to 5 minutes….)
When asked to select which machine, select the version of my laptop that contained the Nov 2009 Windows XP backup
Click restore and let it run through it’s 1.5 hr process of copying everything back to my hard drive (blowing the exiting Vista copy away)
Reboot the laptop back to it’s Nov 09 state and recover the needed files onto one of the WHS network directories I needed
Reboot again with the Home Restore CD and restore the Vista backup I’d made earlier
A long winded process that took several hours (actually left some of it running over night on the last restore step), but it did the trick and worked pretty nicely. Of course, not as nice and instant as the Apple Time Machine (which wouldn’t have been able to go back to a prior OS install), but achieved the same functionality.