People these days are using their home computers for two different, and sometimes incompatible, purposes. On the one hand, PCs are what they have always been—tools for e-mail, Web browsing, writing, managing finances, and myriad other chores. Increasingly, however, the computer is also becoming a repository for the stuff of your life that used to fill shoeboxes and filing cabinets: That means photos, music, and video recordings, as well as documents, financial records, and more. Much of it is valuable, and some is irreplaceable.
Desktops make lousy storage centers for these personal artifacts, and laptops are worse. While both can hold huge amounts of information, it can be difficult to share the contents with other computers on your home network, not to mention noncomputers such as game consoles and media players. Even if you overcome the networking challenges, there's the minor nuisance of computers lapsing into sleep mode, curtailing your access to the goodies inside. Forget about sharing once the laptop leaves the house. And then there are hard drive failures. They're rare, but catastrophic if data haven't been backed up, which is almost always the case.
Tech-Friendly Server Solution
Microsoft (MSFT) believes the time is ripe for consumers to behave like businesses and turn the job of storing, distributing, and safeguarding data over to a server, a specialized computer designed for those tasks. Windows Home Server is a software package based on the enterprise-grade Windows Server 2003 operating system but with a friendly face that makes it easy to use, even for consumers with no technical background.
Home Server software is available only as part of a new hardware package, such as Hewlett-Packard's (HPQ) Media-Smart Home Server, which comes in two sizes: $560 after rebate for a 500-gigabyte version, and $710 for 1 terabyte.
I tried the latter, which includes some HP extras. Other products, such as standalone network storage units from Netgear (NTGR) and Seagate Technology (STX), offer many of the same features, but none is as easy to use as Home Server. (See Billions and Billions of Bytes, BusinessWeek.com, 12/6/07.)
Setting up the MediaSmart equipment is refreshingly simple: You plug the box, which has no display or keyboard of its own, into your home network and power it up. Then pop the software CD into any Windows XP or Vista computer on the network, run the install program, and follow the on-screen instructions to configure the server. Storage, at 1 terabyte, is nearly unlimited, but I added a second terabyte by plugging an external storage device into the server's USB port.
Serving Up Your Music
Once you have installed the software on a PC, the computer will automatically back up its hard drive to the server once a day. To connect other PCs on the network, just repeat the procedure. If you have a Mac, it will be able to read and write files on the server, but it will not do automatic backups. Any device can play music stored on Home Server. And in a nice touch added by HP, the server can automatically arrange music into an iTunes library that can be played on any Mac, PC, or other device, such as a Slim Devices' Squeezebox (LOGI) music player.
Home Server can perform other important tricks. It can monitor the security status of all the Windows PCs on the network and tell you when antivirus software needs updating. A forthcoming add-on from SageTV will let the server receive and record TV shows and stream them to other devices. Home Server can also be set up to provide remote access to your files. And it can act as a Web server that lets friends and relatives view your photos from the Internet. Microsoft has made access secure, but the setup to let your friends peek is likely to prove daunting.
Microsoft may have some difficulty convincing people they need a server in their homes—and the name itself is a bit off-putting. But as home networks get more complicated, the idea of centralized storage, backup, and control is appealing, and Microsoft deserves credit for making a slightly scary idea truly user-friendly.