Backups – Introduction
Backups – Data Backups vs. Drive Images
Backups – External Hard Drives
Backups – Software for Data Backups
Backups – Online Backups
Backups – Image-Based Backups
Backups – Seagate Replica
Backups – Windows Home Server
Backups – Small Business Server
Backups – Recommendations

We’ve talked extensively about different ways to back up individual computers, but even the smallest businesses (and many homes) are likely to have multiple computers that should be backed up. Let’s talk about a little-known way to accomplish that.

Microsoft released an interesting operating system under the name Windows Home Server late in 2007. Here are the notes I wrote about its first appearance on the market. It got off to a rocky start when a rare but embarrassing bug emerged that was not fixed for several months. Now it’s had a couple of major tuneups from Microsoft, the manufacturers are on the second generation of machines with better specs and new features, and there is a rich world of add-ons.

The Windows Home Server operating system is a heavily customized, cut down version of Windows Server 2003. Most people will never have any reason to know that because typically it is running in a small box sold by a major manufacturer (probably HP), with attractive, easy-to-use controls that take over completely from the regular server desktop. It is very, very stable software.

The hype for Windows Home Server focuses on its ability to do cool things with photos, music, and videos. Those are great things. Some people will explore those features and the server will completely take over handling all the media in the house and everyone will be happy and clap their hands in glee. That’s not what makes me bring it up here.

You see, despite the poor choice of name, Windows Home Server is one of the most effective ways to back up desktop computers in a small business.

hpwhs2 Let’s use an HP Windows Home Server device as our example. It’s a small box about ten inches tall, attached to the network and talking to each computer through a very unobtrusive bit of software. It doesn’t have a keyboard, mouse, or monitor – everything is done from one of the other computers to set it up and monitor it.

With a minimum of fuss, every computer is backed up in its entirety, every night.

WHS does a backup of an image of each computer’s hard drives. By default, it retains daily backups for three days; weekly backups for three weeks; and monthly backups for three months.

If a hard drive on a workstation fails, it is just remarkable how quickly the server can put that computer back in operation.

  • Put in a replacement hard drive.
  • Boot from a CD supplied with the server. (It can be downloaded if the original can’t be found.)
  • The boot CD locates the server on the network, identifies which computer has failed, and restores it to exactly the way it was when the backup was done the night before. It takes 10-20 minutes.

Really, it’s that simple. If there are glitches – a network driver is missing, say – the server leads you through an elegant process to help you get it onto a USB stick and get things moving.

Each Windows Home Server can back up as many as ten computers. Microsoft did some of its best technical magic on the backup system to use the least possible space on the server hard drives and to make the backups quick (although they’re done in the middle of the night, so speed isn’t really an issue). Basically, the server software never copies a duplicate file. The first computer is backed up in its entirety; the server then detects common files on each subsequent computer (Windows files, program files, even data files) and adds an entry to the index without copying the files a second time. If you add up the used space on the hard drives of all the computers backed up on a Windows Home Server, you might find that the actual backup files take only 20% or 25% of that space on the server hard drives.

Small business consultants are increasingly aware of the role that Windows Home Server can play in an office, even if there is a server being backed up separately. Susan Bradley, one of the most knowledgeable SBS consultants, pointed this out recently:

Small businesses:

Each desktop is unique. The user’s icons are just so. Move a user’s icon and they about kill you for moving their icons. Each user may have unique programs that only they are licensed for. A small business normally purchases a new computer one or two at a time. So when something happens to that desktop it may take 2 to 3 hours to rebuild that image and get the desktop back to the way the person wants it so that they are the most efficient. Rebuilding a machine is a non trivial issue, license keys have to be found, it may take hours to get everything back the way it was.

Big businesses:

Each desktop is a standard build. Desktops are locked down, wallpapers are standardized. If you need to repair a computer, an image is pushed down. I’ve even seen a large firm push down new images to their workers once a quarter. To rebuild a system is trivial and is done in a normal course of operations.

Notice the difference?

The HP EX487 MediaSmart Home Server costs about seven hundred dollars. For many small businesses that’s a reasonable price to pay for a reliable nightly backup of all the onsite computers. The server can do many other things – it’s particularly well suited for holding files in readily accessible shared folders – but I’ve set it up in offices where I’ve never mentioned any of them.

Think of it as a backup device. It’s a very good backup device. The rest is a bonus.

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