Two months ago I purchased a new HP MediaSmart Server LX195. It is a low power computer and disc drive in a small box, with Windows Home Server, an operating system intended to help with some of the common home computing chores, like:
- Automatic backup (both onsite and offsite)
- Photo upload
- Media storage
- Media streaming
The initial purchase price was slightly over $200 for a unit with a 640 GB hard disc. That was close enough to the purchase price for a comparable sized hard disc that I was willing to experiment with the system just for the value of experimentation (and hope for easier backup).
Miserable Initial Experience
The initial installation experience was poor. The computer has no display adapter so it must boot, connect to the home network, and be reachable from within that home network without any interaction with the user. The total user interaction is through the power switch (on or off) and three front panel LED’s.
I was fascinated by the challenges hiding in making Microsoft Windows boot and configure itself on a network without user interaction. There are so many ways to configure a network, so many conditions which could fail, so many potential problems, and a general assumption among the Windows development teams that a Windows server always has a display.
The first time I switched on the power, the lights went red (disconcerting), then eventually glowed a yellow color. That was not a good sign. I pressed the power button to stop the machine and nothing seemed to happen. I pressed and held the power button for 5 seconds and the power went off (learning to control the box…)
The second time I switched on the power was similar to the first. I was short of time, so I left the box on for a period and did other things. It stayed in the same condition. I didn’t have time to fight with the box, so I sent a message to the seller asking for instructions to return the device.
The seller was very considerate and offered to accept the return (impressive by itself, since this appeared to be a small shop selling through amazon.com). The “I’ll accept the return” message also included a suggestion that I contact HP.
A week or so later, I had time again, so I went searching for the 195LX Windows Home Server support team on the HP web site. After some digging, I found a phone number (800-474-6836). I had initially been unwilling to spend any technical support time with the device, but decided I’d “try the experiment”.
Considerate Technical Support
I assumed the technical support would be provided by someone lacking native language skills, and the support call would be a deep struggle. I was wrong. The technical support call was handled by a well spoken, considerate individual with clear communication skills, a cheery attitude, and no detectable accent in their speech. I appreciated that!
I didn’t have much time that day, and we quickly exhausted that time before the problem was solved. However, the experience was so positive (compared to my expectations), that I decided I might try again another day.
Home Networking Complications
The second technical support call was just as pleasant an experience as the first call, and was much more successful at solving the root problem. The technical support person asked some questions about my home network configuration, and I offered some things I had observed. With the “back and forth” of that conversation, I think I persuaded him that I knew enough about networking to be interesting, and he persuaded me that he knew enough about the typical behaviors of the box that I should trust him.
The tech support person had me insert the IP address of the 195LX into the hosts file of the Windows computer I was using as the client and display for the little server. Apparently, Windows Server 2003 and Windows client operating systems did not like my attempt to use purely the IP address to configure the computer. I don’t have a DNS server at home, I don’t have a WINS server at home, and at the time I was not running my own DHCP server either, choosing to use the DHCP server provided by my Linksys wireless router.
Inserting the IP address was the “magic key”. The computer was now reachable, and ready for configuration.
Success At Last
Once that initial installation hurdle was overcome, the rest of the experience was great. I’m a software tester type, and I expect software to disappoint me. That’s the nature of software testing. In this case, rather than disappoint me, the configuration experience delighted me. It has been a long time since I felt delight like that in working with software. Thanks Microsoft!
I configured the server to backup the computer I used for initial installation. After installing a little client software and entering a password, the backup hid itself and ran very nicely. I moved to the other 3 computers in the house and did the same thing, with the same easy experience. That was already impressive, since those computers have operating systems of widely varying ages. Two older Windows XP machines, a Windows Vista x64, and a Windows 7 x64 machine were all easily added to the backup process, and safely copied their files to the server.
The server also has places for shared folders. One of my concerns has been losing our digital photo collection, so I copied files from the client computers to the digital photos folder on the server. That was easy, and well behaved. There was also a setting to allow the server to search for photos on its own (thanks!).
The same for music, although the music is a more replaceable item, since we should have the CD’s for all that music anyway.
A week or two after that positive experience, I remembered that I had seen mention of being able to use the MediaSmart to send backup data “offsite” for safety. I found the configuration panel easily, and answered a few prompts for the offsite backup process. It configured an Amazon simple storage service instance for me and started pushing my data to that offsite backup location.
Several days later, I checked the status and it was still pushing my data to Amazon.
I was curious why it was taking so long, so I checked the hard disc capacity of the server. I had already consumed about 500 MB of the 640 MB disc. Most of that was backup. Apparently my computers contained more data than I realized.
The backup process eventually completed successfully, and has been running happily since then.
Searching for a Lost File
In the midst of all this fun with the server, my son lost a homework assignment. He had forgotten to save it from within Word, and was desperately trying to find any remnants of the assignment. I opened the restore wizard and was able to comfortably navigate around the files in the backup device. Unfortunately, the file was not there, but my confidence was increased that the backup might actually be usable, not just a “write only” device like most backups I’ve had in the past.
Since the home computers were needing more backup space than I expected, I could see that I would exhaust the disc space on the server in a week or two. That was a nice opportunity to expand the disc storage. I purchased a 2 TB USB disc drive and connected it to one of the 4 USB ports on the back of the server. The server recognized the drive, and offered me choices in how I’d like to use the drive. I used it to add additional file system space to the server, and then configured the existing folders on the server to “mirror” themselves.
The “mirror” concept seems to be a “poor man’s RAID”, an operating system provided option that will periodically copy the contents of selected folder from its original drive to another drive on the system.
That worked well also.
One of the low points in my life is the requirement from work that I must change my password every three months. Changing my password has been a hassle on a number of computers, and I worried this would be a similar experience. I was wrong. It was an easy process. I changed my password on one of the client computers, and the Windows Home Server icon prompted a short time later that it is best if the client and server passwords match. It let me make the change, with options to force the client and server passwords to be the same (nice touch!)
I’m thoroughly impressed with the device. The initial install experience was “rocky”, but the experience with Windows Home Server has been delightful ever since that initial rough spot.
As a caveat to software creators, the initial install experience is high risk that you will lose the customer before they’ve even seen your product’s features.