Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Review: Windows Server Essentials 2012 R2

My Windows Home Server (original) has been running very nicely since it was first installed in 2011. The nightly backup feature has saved my ass countless times, and I've definitely done many a restore from image instances from backup when I would try a new OS (such as Windows 10 Technical Preview) and then backed out from it. It also serves as the central file server for the home, exporting music/video/etc via DLNA to the living room PS3. All in all it's been an incredible value.

Unfortunately, WHS is showing it's age, and has been de-supported. This was running fine for us until very recently, since two of the limitations were no big deal:

  1. No support for larger than 2TB disks (6TB of local storage was plenty, thank you)
  2. No support for UEFI machines (we didn't have any, except for various Windows tablets, which didn't store any data worth backing up)
Then we got a Surface Pro, which is a UEFI machine. The WHS had also started getting a little flakey, and I'd eventually have to replace my desktop and laptop with newer, UEFI machines so I started shopping. 

One obvious upgrade was to go to Windows Home Server 2011, but that's also showing it's age, and lost the drive extender feature of the original WHS. We could go with hardware RAID by as explained on the Windows Home Server review, RAID is a mixed bag, since if the RAID controller fails, you'd have to replace it with an identical piece of hardware or risk losing your data. RAID isn't a great solution for home use.

Windows 8.1 has support for storage spaces, which has many interesting features that in many ways mirror what was in file extender:
  1. Drop any set of storage spaces disks into any Windows 8.1 PC, and you'll be able to crack open and view all the files. This sort of commodity hardware data storage is invaluable.
  2. You can mix and match drive sizes into a storage pool, and then create virtual disks that can be mirrored (RAID 1), striped (RAID 0), or with parity (RAID 5) across the multiple drives. This is very nice, since you can then upgrade storage slowly. You can even designate spare disks and "hot spares", to automate failover. This effectively lets you tell Windows to have different data policies for different type of data, for instance asking for photos to be mirrored while videos are striped.
  3. You can even thin-provision virtual disks, and have Windows warn you when you need to add storage.
The problem with Windows 8.1 is that it doesn't support full bare metal backup and restores. For that feature you need Windows Server Essentials 2012 R2, a full on business server. This is when you realize what a great deal the original Windows Home Server was, since the retail cost of Windows Server Essentials 2012 R2 is more than what I paid for the original Windows Home Server hardware!

No big deal. I worked in the software industry, so I pulled some strings and got a copy at employee pricing. Then I needed hardware to run it. I thought about repurposing the Windows Home Server, but then realized it was a bad idea: I needed to do a server-to-server copy, and the Acer was also headless. While it's possible to do a Server install headless, it's not for the faint of heart.

The cheapest server you can buy is the Lenovo TS140. You can get it for around $225 for an i3 machine, 4GB RAM, and no HDD. However, I found a deal where for well under $300, I got a quad core Xeon configured with ECC RAM. Now that I was expecting to handle tens of terabytes, I figured ECC RAM was worth paying for. The extra CPU is also helpful for running server applications such as Plex, which basically transcode video sources on demand for targeted delivery.

Installing WSE 2012 R2 is straightforward. However, I learned a few things about UEFI machines and WSE 2012 R2 that weren't documented elsewhere that I looked:
  1. OS updates will not work if you have secure boot turned on. Turn off secure boot.
  2. WSE 2012R2 (or any version of Windows) will not allow you to use excess space on the boot drive as part of a storage spaces cluster. So effectively, your 4 drive bay server is now a 3 bay server! This isn't a big deal if you have 4TB disks in the server, since that's plenty of storage, but it does make the server smaller than you expected.
  3. WSE 2012R2 is a business server. So the first thing it does is it sets up a domain. This is no big deal as it's very automated and easy. However when you connect an existing computer to a WSE server, the first thing it does is to register the new machine to the server, with the server providing the domain. This is no big deal with Windows 7: your login prompt changes so you have to hit control-alt-delete to login, but there's no difference otherwise. With Windows 8, if you previously logged in using a Microsoft cloud account, then if you login using domains, you lose all the cloud customizations you used to have! The solution to this is to hack the registry on the Windows 8.1 machine to skip joining the domain. If you were truly running a small business like a dental office, this isn't what you want (you wouldn't want your employees logging on with their cloud accounts), but for a home user who's upgrading from WHS, this is the right thing.
Other than that, everything was fine. I ran a backup and bare metal restore on my Lenovo X201, and things went smoothly. Then I tried it on the Surface Pro. The Surface Pro has 2 SNAFUs. First, bare metal restore doesn't work over WiFi (not surprising). This was easily resolved, since a USB ethernet port was already available for high speed network connectivity. Since you also need to plug in a USB thumb drive for booting, you'll need a USB hub. There are various warnings that you need a powered hub, but my unpowered hub was fine provided I only had the thumb drive and the ethernet port hooked up to it. The final SNAFU was when I tried booting using the thumbdrive and got an error. This one turned out to be secure boot's fault. Turning off secure boot on the Surface Pro got the bare metal restore working with zero hitches.

I transferred all the data over from the old WHS server. It turned out that the old server was CPU constrained. While the old server topped out at around 45MB/s, the new one peaked at 65MB/s. This is pretty sweet. I could also run the Plex Server on it without the CPU even breaking a sweat.

The nasty thing about storage spaces, however, is that it doesn't auto rebalance when you add a new drive. You can force a rebalance, however, by creating a new virtual drive after adding a new drive that makes use of the new drive, and then copying old data to it and then deleting the old virtual drive. This is kinda more futzy than I'd hoped, given that the old WHS kept ticking for years on end without me having to do manual rebalancing and all that, but again, if your old server failed, you could move the drives over to a Windows 8 PC and everything would just work, so this is a feature I'm willing to live with.

All in all, would I recommend this? If you have an old WHS that's been operating and you don't have any UEFI machines, I'd recommend sticking with the old server for as long as you can stand it and don't need to upgrade to any UEFI machines. If you have an existing old-style NAS RAID, I think the Windows solution is superior to any of the freeware servers, especially since ZFS requires gobs of RAM, and the low end servers are cheap, assuming you can snag a copy of Windows Server Essentials 2012 R2 at employee/educational institution pricing. The combination of having a file server, bare metal backup restore, file history, etc, and DLNA server is pretty sweet.

If you ask around, most people (even software engineers who should know better) rely on cloud storage or don't do backups of their data. If you shoot with a modern digital camera (as opposed to a crappy phone camera), videos and photos quickly fill up terabytes of data, making cloud storage prohibitively expensive. Under such circumstances, a home server that backs up all your computer is well worth the cost, and WSE is surprisingly efficient and easy to use. Recommended.
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