Saturday, June 18, 2011

New Windows Home Server Installed

Over the last couple of weekends I installed a replacement Windows Home Server. I was moving from Windows Home Server v1 (based on Server 2003) running on an old Dell Dimension 8400 (a Pentium 4 660 running at 3.6 GHz) purchased in February of 2005 to Windows Home Server 2011 running on a newly purchased HP Pavilion 1080-CTO with a core i5-2500s quad core processor running at 2.7 GHz. Yes, the Dell was 6 and a half years old. It had been modified (by me) to hold 4 drives and was pulling between 228 and 288 Watts as measured by my UPS. It was getting to the point where that old space heater was going to die of old age and it needed to be replaced.

Since the new Home Server had recently shipped and was now available through NewEgg, I thought it would be a good time to upgrade from the also dated Windows Server 2003 based Home Server v1. I knew about Microsoft’s oft-decried decision to drop Drive Extender, but thought I could make do with hardware based SATA raid and just go with a pair of 2 TB drives in a mirror set (RAID 1). The old server had two 1 TB drives and 2 500 GB drives and it still had plenty of free space so this should have worked out fine, right? So what did I learn in this process?

First what I learned about HP’s consumer Pavilion line

HP makes it a bit difficult to figure out what you are buying and what is in it. For example, the machine I bought was sold as a “HP Pavilion p7qe series”. It said this on the page I ordered from, the receipt that they emailed me and the packing list that it came with. However, the support site will not admit that this machine exists. I figured I could wait a few days – as they said this was a new product and maybe the support site had not caught up. What I was wanting was to download the drivers required since I was not going to be running the supplied Windows 7 Home Premium. By the time the computer arrived, the support site still disavowed all knowledge of the p7qe’s existence. However, I managed to figure out that the support site wanted me to look up a “Pavilion 1080-CTO” instead. I did this and found only a modicum of drivers. Not even all the ones you would need to load a plain vanilla Windows OS on the machine. I downloaded the 7 or so that were there. It was obvious that HP doesn’t plan to even update these as they were all called “original driver” and appeared designed for you to use to revert to older drivers that came with the machine after some disaster in updating occurred. I powered on the machine, went through setup and proceeded to make sure all the supplied hardware worked. I also copied the c:\swsetup folder from the machine to a USB flash drive in case it had some of the drivers needed.

Everything worked, but it turns out that HP consumer level machines don’t bother to continue the very nice job their corporate focused line does on providing extra screws and mounting hardware. I had a second drive to mount, but could not mount it due to:

  • No power connector. The power supply in this box has 5 molex connectors, 2 SATA power connectors, and 1 floppy drive style connector. Of course the two SATA power connectors were in use by the existing hard drive and the DVD drive. Shipping a machine like this is silly as new drives do not have molex connectors. It is an option on the HP site to add a second optical drive (although why you would do so is a mystery). If you added it, they would have needed to use an adapter to connect the power. Fortunately a co-worker had such an adapter in his stash, so I used that.
  • No supplied mounting screws. I’m spoiled here by HPs fine corporate machines where the extra screws needed to add storage are nicely arrayed in the case by default. Not so on the consumer line. I scrounged several different types of screws from the old Dell and got the drive mounted.
  • No SATA cable. In the old IDE days you used one cable for the drive and most everyone shipped those cables with two connectors on it. In the new SATA days, I don’t think any of the vendors ship you a second cable. Had to get one from the old Dell.

One I got the drive mounted, I went into the “BIOS” (actually UEFI on this machine) and attempted to setup the RAID 1 mirror set. Alas, I could not do so. I’ve done this before on several different work machines so I didn’t think it was just the computer being smarter than me. I looked more closely at that support site now that I knew I could find it by the 1080-CTO moniker. I drilled down on the mainboard. I don’t know why they make their own mainboards instead of using an Intel or ASUS board, but apparently they do. This one was a “caramel” board. It has an Intel H61 chipset. No more information than that. So, I went to Intel’s site and much to my chagrin found that the H61 does not support SATA based RAID. Since I had been using that at work for about 5 years I didn’t think there would be any new chipsets that couldn’t do it but apparently there are. So, the SATA RAID was out. I decided automatic folder duplication would probably work for this and moved on. It wouldn’t protect the OS from a drive failure, but should work for the data.

I went ahead and installed Home Server. During the install it decided that I didn’t have a network connection and wanted me to load drivers. I fed it the USB key I had made and it was happy. Later I had a whole bunch of devices in Device Manager that needed drivers. These ran the gamut from video to sound. I tried the drivers I had downloaded from HP. Unfortunately, even though Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2 (upon which Home Server 2011 is based) run the same drivers, HP had locked the installers so that they would only extract on Windows 7. Imagine going out of your way – spending money even – to prevent people from running free drivers on an operating system on which they work. Would you do it? Does it even make sense? I can’t see any way in which it makes sense for them to do that. It is almost like these crazy cell carriers who try to prevent you from using the features your phone software originally came with. Hell, if the machine wasn’t working and I wanted to extract the drivers on an old Vista machine so that I could put them on a memory key why should they stop me? Ridiculous. So it was off to Intel, RealTek, etc. to collect drivers. HP – fix this. Make drivers available so that a clean install of Windows has all the drivers it needs and don’t lock them to just a single flavor of an OS. You know as well as I do that Server 2008 R2 and Windows 7 use the same driver binaries.

What I learned about Home Server 2011

During the installation I mentioned that it wanted me to load network drivers. Fine, I did that. Then it would only allow a reboot. What? A reboot to load a network driver? I’m sorry – this install is based on Windows PE and you can dynamically load drivers all day in it. Even Windows Server 2003 on that old Dell which required a driver from floppy disk for the ICH6 based disk controller would load that storage driver and go on without a reboot. Not sure what someone at Microsoft was thinking there, but it smacks of just being lazy. Once I got the server up and running I realized that even though I knew Drive Extender was gone, that it also meant that automatic folder duplication – that amazing feature by which each data file is automatically written to at least 2 spindles – was also gone. I decided that I would go with some robocopy scripts to sync the data to the second drive for recovery purposes and resolutely moved on. At this point I was getting a bit frustrated with the new software since it was so many steps backwards, but was pretty committed to getting off of the ancient Server 2003 platform to something that at least supported SMBv2.

Next, I tried to access the Home Server from work. This was something I had done periodically before and it always worked well. I had my machines at home go into sleep mode, but I had written a Wake On LAN add-in for Home Server 2003 and used that to wake them if I needed something that was only available on my home machines and not just on the server. However, this new version of Home Server no longer lets you access the server “Console” from a remote session. (They call it the “Dashboard” now). But you cannot access the Dashboard remotely. After some digging, it looks like I need to write a “Gadget” for Wake On LAN that can be hosted in the Home Server web page. I’d have done that already but the SDK is a crock of crap. The documentation on MSDN isn’t in sync with the downloaded SDK at all – it tells you to install files that don’t exist (they are there, but with completely different names), tells you to do things in the wrong order, and doesn’t really provide a step by step “hello world” example that goes from start to deployed. Oh well, I will figure it out over time. For now, no more Wake On LAN for me.

Next I setup the backup. It was a simple matter to setup my robocopy scripts as scheduled tasks to do the work that automatic folder duplication should have been doing. But, I needed a real backup since there was no hardware based RAID. The new version has a backup – and it insanely requests that you run it twice a day. In fact, their documentation suggests that you tailor it to the needs of “your organization”. Did they forget that this is Windows Home Server and that your organization is your family? Anyway, I originally went with their recommendation for twice daily backups. Then I realized that the backups fail all the time, randomly. This appears to be a problem others share. The backup program was apparently some sort of last minute bolt on that doesn’t work well. In fact, with only 500 GB of data, the backup often takes 7 hours to complete. Imagine if I had maxed it out at 2 TB. Let’s see that would be 28 hours to do a backup. That’s when it doesn’t fail. I found that it fails almost all the time if it runs during the same window when client PC backups happen. Unfortunately the log will just tell you that at least one file wasn’t backed up successfully. It won’t list the ones with problems. So I cut the backups to once a day and moved them to 8 AM. Sometimes they finish at 3:00 PM. Other times they finish in 23 minutes. Other times they fail. Sometimes they run until 3:00 PM and still fail. This part of the product is really bad and needs a lot of help.

The new “Dashboard” is a mess. For example, if you are on the page that shows computers and backups while a backup of either a client or the server is happening the dashboard screen will flicker and redraw (changing your focus each time) so often that it becomes very difficult to right-click a machine and choose something from the context menu. I know it is written in .Net, but my god it is slow – even on a quad processor machine with 8 GB RAM. Apparently the developers don’t use the “InvalidateRect” function when they need to update their percentage complete on the backup and just redraw that small rectangle. Instead, they redraw the entire frame (which is silly and wasteful).

So, to sum up:

  • No drive extender
  • No folder duplication
  • Backup program is broken, and can only back up 2 TB max
  • No access to the “Console” (Dashboard) from the remote access page

All in all it looks to me like they are trying to kill off the product. Too bad to as it used to be really nice. If it wasn’t for the automatic backups of all the client computers, I would just go with a NAS setup like a Drobo or something.