Windows Home Server – first impressions, mass storage drivers and clients that won’t connect

Windows Home Server logoIn my post about Microsoft’s Vista after hours event, I mentioned Windows Home Server (WHS). Over the weekend, I installed the April CTP of Windows Home Server (build 1371) on a PC at home and I’m pretty impressed.

WHS is based on Windows 2003 Small Business Server and consequently has a pretty solid codebase. In the April CTP, the product’s lineage is very visible, with a the title Windows Server 2003 for Small Business Server Setup during text-mode setup, a Windows Server 2003 splash screen and the desktop displaying the version information as:

Windows Server 2003 for Small Business Server Evaluation copy. Build 3790 (Service Pack 2)

I installed the product on an aging Compaq DeskPro D500SFF (Pentium 4 1.5GHz CPU) upgraded to 768MB of RAM (I’m sure 512MB would have been fine but I’d already upgraded it) with a Sony DWG120A DVD±RW dual layer recorder, white-box Serial ATA (SATA) controller (Silicon Image SiI3112A SATALink BIOS v4.2.83) and a Seagate ST3500641AS (500GB SATA) disk.

Rather than reviewing WHS (as other people are better at that than I am – Paul Thurrott has a review of the WHS April CTP and APC has a review of WHS beta 2), I’ll just highlight a couple of issues that it took me a while to resolve:

  • The WinPE 2.0-based installer didn’t recognise my SATA controller (but it did give me a straightforward interface for loading the correct drivers) – I know that SATA support in Windows is still patchy, but I would expect a new product to have been updated with current mass storage drivers for a common chipset (ironically, Windows Update pushed some updated drivers after installation)! I downloaded the latest SiI3x12 32-bit Windows base driver (v1.3.67.0, dated 30 March 2007) and, when prompted by the installer, I supplied them on a USB key; however this failed setup once it entered text-mode (it couldn’t see the USB key) so I tried again using a CD. Again, text-mode setup failed as it will only accept updated drivers (after pressing F6) from drive A: so I ran the whole process again, this time using a floppy disk (which felt like a return to the 1990s). Even though the GUI-mode and text-mode setups both require their own drivers to be loaded, it seems that they have to be from the same media.
  • I had a few issues with my media (file copy errors), despite downloading the ISO twice (on two different machines) and writing the DVD (using two different drives) at the slowest possible speed; however I decided to skip the files that couldn’t be read (mostly non-English language files but also one hotfix for Microsoft knowledge base article 929644, which is not available publicly). This may have been the cause of a later error – Windows Home Server setup error. Updating Windows Update Redirector failed: cannot complete this function. (error code 0x800703eb) but after setup consequently failed, I restarted the computer, after which it resumed installation, updated the Windows Update Redirector and ran the rest of the setup routine with no further issues.
  • When installing the client connector (on a Windows XP SP2 PC), I was unable to connect to my home server. As product intended for home users, WHS expects all devices to be on the same subnet; however my home network is split across multiple subnets (I also elected not to use the default server name). The WHS help text refers to this as an advanced network configuration and WHS requires that a manual connection is made. Unfortunately, connecting directly via IP (or name) also failed, informing me that A network error has occurred. Please verify that your network connection is active and that Windows Home Server is powered on. Then, I found a very useful troubleshooter for WHS client joins which let me ascertain that all was well with my server so I started looking at firewalls. After enabling firewall logging on the WHS network connection, I could see connections being dropped from one of my own subnets. I then edited the firewall exceptions list, changing the scope from my network (subnet) only to a custom list of subnets for the following services (any externally-accessible services were left at their defaults – i.e. HTTP on TCP 80, HTTPS on TCP 443 and Windows Home Server Remote Access on TCP 4125) and successfully joined the client to my WHS:
    • File and printer sharing (TCP 139 and 445, UDP 137-138).
    • HTTP (TCP 88).
    • HTTPS (TCP 444).
    • Remote Desktop (TCP 3389).
    • Windows Home Server Computer Backup (program exception).
    • Windows Home Server Diagnostics (TCP 5247).
    • Windows Home Server Transport Service (TCP 1138).
    • Windows Media Connect (TCP 10243, UDP 10280-10284).
    • UPnP Framework (TCP 2869 and UDP 1900).

Despite these problems, I want to stress that WHS is shaping up to be a great product. It is beta software and that means that problems are to be expected (I have filed a few bug reports already, as well as a couple of feature requests – namely that I would like to be able to join WHS servers to a domain and apply group policy and that I would like to be able to access WHS on my own domain name, rather than via a Microsoft-supplied address).

There’s more information about WHS at the Windows Home Server blog.

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