Saturday, April 3, 2010

Windows Home Server - the good and bad

About ten months ago I bought and setup a Windows Home Server on my home network. Since that date I've used it twice for recoveries.

I follow the three rules of "backup reality", i.e. if these 3 criteria aren't met then I don't consider it a real backup:

  1. If must be automated.
  2. It must be redundant.
  3. It must be duplicated off-site

This is a must for any business (even though many don't do this) but it's a pretty tall order for a home network. I find that Windows Home Server with Amazon S3 syncing gives me all this.

They say that an untested restore of a backup is no backup at all.

The first time I got to try out the restore feature of the server was when I upgraded the hard disk on a Server 2003 server from 250GB to 2TB. This was the perfect opportunity to try out the WHS restore feature. I let the nightly backup complete and in the morning I swapped out the drives, put in the restore disk and rebooted the machine. WHS recognized the machine and picked the correct backup and target and a few hours later the server was back up and running on a new hard disk. I was a bit surprised at how long the restore took, I remember it being several hours. I know that it also had to format the hard disk but still thought that it was longer than I would have expected.

The second time I got to try the restore was when I was unable to sign on to a Windows 7 Ultimate machine. Win7 just told me that my password was invalid. I could boot in safe mode and sign in but not in regular mode. I signed in using safe mode and moved the most recent data set to a USB drive and tried a number of troubleshooting recovery steps. Searches showed that this type of problem was being experienced by many Windows 7 users but no fix has come from Microsoft yet and none of the suggested workarounds had worked for me. So I attempted to do a restore from WHS. On booting with the recovery CD it wasn't able to correctly mach up the disk. That machine has 128GB Solid State Drive (SSD) as the boot drive and a 2TB drive as the secondary drive. The restore automatically picked to restore the boot drive to the 2TB drive which was the wrong one. That was easily changed using the restore UI but after the restore had been running for a couple of hours and completed about 80% of the restore it failed with a networking error. That networking error was also found all over the net with plenty of people experiencing the same type of error almost at the end of their restore. None of their workarounds worked for me. So my next and final recovery step was to re-install the OS. I did this and it still had problems booting.

Now the one thing that I didn't tell you about this machine was that when I put it together I had inadvertently wired the SSD boot drive as drive 1 and the 2TB data drive as drive 0. After putting the case back together and starting the machine I saw the problem and when into the bios and changed the boot drive to be the non-default 1 (from the default 0). This I believe was the source of most of my problems. My theory is that deep in the bowels of Windows 7 and many other pieces of device software written by many companies the boot drive is frequently assume to be 0 and this is often hard coded. Because the boot drive is rarely anything else this type of bug is hardly ever seen.

I opened up the case and switched the wires around and made the boot drive 0 and the data drive 1 and that was the first time in days that the machine had operated in a normal manner and this time it finally booted with my re-installed OS. Since then it has been running way smoother and I attribute this to the non-standard drive wiring that I had done. Even though it's supposed to be able to work the other way I just don't think that it's worth the risk to do that again. Drive 0 will always be my boot drive in the future if I have any choice.


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