How to build your own Windows Home Server rig

Recycle an old PC or build out a bare-bones system with Windows Home Server

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Old PC or new bare-bones system?

The advantage of recycling an old desktop PC for your home server is obvious: You might not need to buy anything other than Windows Home Server. (Although it can be done, we don't recommend using an old laptop as a server -- among other things, the hardware isn't optimized to run as a server, finding drivers can be difficult, and most laptops have limited storage capacity. Furthermore, Microsoft doesn't officially support running Windows Home Server on a laptop.)

But setting up something like the ARTiGO A2000 has its advantages, too: It will produce less noise, take up less space and consume much less power than the typical desktop computer. In our tests, the ARTiGO drew between 30 and 35 watts of juice, compared to 180 to 200 watts for a desktop PC.

VIA ARTiGO A2000 Barebone Storage Server

VIA ARTiGO A2000 Barebone Storage Server

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The ARTiGO A2000, which sells for $300, consists of a 1.5-GHz VIA C7-D microprocessor, a motherboard with a VIA VX800 core-logic chip set, a Gigabit Ethernet interface, a power supply, and an enclosure with two internal SATA hard drive bays and three external USB ports. You supply the hard drives and memory (the motherboard will accept one SO-DIMM with up to 2GB of DDR2).

The total cost for our project, including the operating system and two 750GB drives, came to $585.

Keep these points in mind whether you build your server using new or repurposed gear:

  • Fast, high-capacity hard drives and a Gigabit Ethernet interface will have the most impact on your server's performance.
  • An abundance of memory will increase its performance if you install many add-in programs (you'll find lots of free utilities that perform all manner of useful functions -- and more should be coming now that Microsoft is providing professional developers additional support via MSDN). WHS requires a minimum of 512MB of RAM, but we recommend having at least 1GB.
  • And don't forget to install antivirus software on your server; you'll need a program that's designed specifically for server software.

And here's one last tip before we jump into the how-to section: There is a very good chance that the next version of Windows Home Server, expected to arrive sometime in 2010, will require a 64-bit CPU, which means that a computer with a 32-bit processor -- including the ARTiGO A2000 -- will probably not be able to run it.

Step 1: Prepare the hardware

The first step to deploying Windows Home Server is to get the server hardware ready.

If you're recycling an old machine, be sure to save any old files stored on its hard drives, because the installation will completely reformat them. Next, open up the case and use a can of compressed air to blow out any dust bunnies that have taken up residence.

Leave the hard drives installed, but remove any nonessential peripherals, such as a sound card. If the system has a DVD drive, leave it in place because you'll need it for the installation, but you can remove it afterward because any future software installations will be performed over the network.

If you plan to install Windows Home Server on a bare-bones server, install the memory, hard drives and any other components you'll need. You'll also need to temporarily attach a keyboard and a monitor.

In both cases, locate the driver disk containing the device driver for the Ethernet network interface card (NIC) and keep it handy. Plug the machine into a power outlet and connect it to your network with an Ethernet cable. Client PCs can connect to the server through a wireless router, but the server itself cannot operate wirelessly.

Step 2: Adjust the boot settings

BIOS screen

The BIOS screen

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Since we'll be installing a new operating system from either a DVD or an external USB drive, we need to configure the target computer's BIOS to boot from that drive.

1. Start (or restart) the computer and repeatedly tap the Delete key to access the computer's BIOS. (This works for most computers; if it doesn't with yours, try the F1, F2 or F8 key, or check your documentation to find which key to press.)

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