As we complete the first decade of the 21st Century, home networks are becoming the norm and the rise of home servers is inevitable. Microsoft foresaw this and created Windows Home Server, a stripped-down version of Windows Server 2003 with a lot of ease-of-use features added and a storage system that is not available on it’s higher end products. HP is one of the OEM partners in the Windows Home Server market and manufacture several machines built around this OS, dubbed the MediaSmart Server (MSS). We were very fortunate that HP allowed to extensively test the EX487 model. [Editor’s Note: since this article was written, HP has released two new MSS models: the EX490 & EX495] Does the MediaSmart Server have a place in the 21st Centrury home? These and other burning questions will be answered after the jump.The EX487 is a Celeron-based device in a mini-tower configuration with built-in removable drive-trays (two available). The unit is headless, with no ports for video or keyboard/mouse. It does have several USB ports and a network port. Powered by Windows Home Server, it has no need for a locally attached keyboard, mouse or monitor. Just plug it into the network, power it up, wait for the lights to turn blue, and load the client disc into your Windows PC (can’t use a Mac for this part) to get the party started.
One of the major reasons to get one these systems is for backup. The WHS client software can automatically backup your client data every night and you can even perform a bare-metal restore in can of total drive failure on a workstation. New to this version (and so far, outside of Apple’s Time Capsule, unique to HP) is the ability for the MSS to act as a Time Machine target for Mac clients allowing them to automatically back themselves up over the network.
If the system starts to get full (Windows clients get status messages), you can just pop in another drive and the server automatically add it to the drive cloud. Windows Home Server uses a software based file duplication system to make sure your data is safe. Adding drives, even mismatched sizes, just add to the pool of storage. Already filled up the bays? You have two choices here: add another drive externally via one of the 4 USB ports and/or 1 eSATA port, or take one of the smaller drives offline via the console and replace it with a larger drive. The system will automatically clear the old drive of data, making sure it is safe, and then rebalance after the new drive is added.
For the Windows-only home network, this system is a godsend. Backups can be performed even from sleeping workstations, and WHS anti-virus programs (like Avast Antivirus for WHS) can even monitor the state of the Avast clients on the network. In mixed networks (Mac & PC) the server talks to both clients reasonably well and allows for easy file sharing.
HP tacks on a few extra goodies such as automatic online backup of the WHS server data (caveat emptor: this system uses Amazon’s S3 storage cloud services to house the data and can get very expensive if you are a media professional using this system for storing your work. I stored my RAW files from a ballet I shot (close to 2,000 images) and the transfer costs for that month would have been over $230!), an iTunes server that really works, automatic video conversion and a host of others.
You can also add third-party server applications. I chose to add Frey Technologies’ SageTV server for WHS which allows you to record TV shows from your cable/satellite box and play them back on any PC/Mac on the network (with the client installed), remotely over the internet (with the streaming client installed), or on the living room TV with an extender client.
While the feature set and expandability are very impressive, I found a couple of shortcomings to this system.
First, for all it does, the system is a bit underpowered. Video conversion bogs the system down and if you install 3rd party apps (like SageTV) it will get bogged down even more. This requires you pick and choose what features you activate on the server. If you upgrade the SageTV to capture HD content, this server is woefully underpowered to stream the data. The files are recorded just fine and can be played locally, but streaming HD content results in skipping video. [Editor’s Note: the newly released EX495 is powered by a dual-core Pentium and is likely more capable of streaming HD content.] Please note that if you capture in SD format, the system is more than adequate.
Second, the eSATA port does not support port multiplier enclosures and thus you are limited to 1 eSATA drive. This was the deal-breaker for me as I was planning on using a Weibetech external eSATA enclosure to add 4 more drives to my system.
Third, using this system as a Time Machine target requires that you pre-allocate all of the space used for TM at once. Also, the amount of space cannot exceed the size of any single drive. Don’t set it to duplicate that data or you will have no storage left.
Aside from that, the server is a solid piece of work. Extremely quiet and, if configured corectly, very capable of serving the needs of a home network very handily. I highly recommend it.