This is the first of a multiple part review of Microsoft’s Windows Home Server (WHS). A big thank you to my friend John Obeto from Absolutely Windows who provided the copy of WHS.
A quick intro before getting started:
I am an avowed LINUX server guy. I have multiple LINUX servers in the basement and use a LINUX-based NAS box. However, all of my desktop machines run Windows and so the opportunity to try WHS was compelling. In the review, I will compare WHS to LINUX alternatives including an integrated Netgear NAS box.
Before we get started, let me share my system configuration:
- Server: DL380 G3
- Dual Xeon 2.8GHz
- 4 GB RAM
- 6x36GB SCSI HD in a RAID 5 configuration
- Base OS: VMWare ESX 3.5
- WHS is based on Windows 2003 Server which is qualified with ESX. However, it does not appear that the WHS flavor of Win2003 has been qualified.
In general, I have had good luck installing Microsoft products. The process is smooth, but there can be some gotchas particularly when it comes to installing custom drivers. You have to press F6 at the right time or you miss the limited window. Fortunately, I have rarely needed to install custom drivers.
WHS arrived in a single DVD and the the process to install it could have been problematic since my DL380 only has a CD-ROM drive. However, VMware resolved the problem by allowing me to use my desktop’s DVD drive. Kudos to VMware!
I inserted the DVD and booted up the virtual machine and a nice graphical installer appeared. Very nice! The process continued and then a small window opened saying something like “Your storage is unrecognized. Do you want to install a driver?” This was to be expected since I was running in a VMware configuration, but the same message would apply to anyone running a storage system whose driver was not included in the base WHS image. I was prepared and selected the appropriate driver and the install continued. At this point, I was thinking, “this is great and could not be easier.” The installer finished its process and asked to reboot and so I obliged and was excited to try out WHS. Not so fast…
After the reboot, I was treated to the classic Windows blue screen install. What? I just spent 45 minutes installing installing WHS and now it wants to install Windows? What did it just do? I was and still am mystified. As the bluescreen install continued, it briefly mentioned “Press F6 to install a custom driver.” I was not sure what to do since I had already added the custom driver during the first install. I assumed that it would use the driver I previously added and so I ignored the message. Bad idea, the installer threw an error message shortly thereafter saying “Cannot recognize disk!” Arrrgggghhhh! How bothersome and so I started the install again.
The second time around, I installed the appropriate storage driver both during the WHS install and then the Windows install. It went smoothly. Finally, Windows finished installing and I thought I was done and ready to use to WHS. Again, not so fast.
After installing Windows, the installer then provides system updates. This seemed like a good idea except that they were installed serially and after each update, a reboot was required! I had to reboot the system about 10 times after finishing the base Windows install to enable all of the updates! It was crazy.
WHS installation scripts seem like a work in progress. If WHS is truly a standalone product then why have two entirely separate installers? Granted, the first installer automatically ran the second, but still there appeared to be no connection between the two. At the very least, they should include some sort of document during the install process to clarify that you need specify your custom drivers during each installation.
The number of reboots required during the process is ridiculous. I can understand one or maybe even two, but 11! (11 includes the one reboot between WHS and Windows install.) It is maddening, and needlessly consumes large amounts of time.
In summary, I installed the system successfully, but the process took much longer than expected. Microsoft’s two stage installer and large reboot requirement made the process inefficient. In contrast, I recently installed CentOS 5.4 and the process was much more efficient and user friendly. WHS installation process does not feel like a finished solution and I hope that Microsoft addresses this in next release.