The Battle of the Windows Home Server Systems

Oct 01 2008

Since the first day Microsoft announced Windows Home Server (WHS) was going to be available through OEM Installation Kits, not just strictly by the OEMs, we geeks could not wait to build our own. The hardware requirements were modest enough to where any respectable geek easily could assemble a functional WHS box barely having to buy parts--besides the installation disc, of course. That being said, HP's MediaSmart Server has easily become the most popular selection for even the techiest people who could build their own, but not as attractive or small. To counter those arguments, several chassis manufacturers have also released "Windows Home Server" specific chassis to jump on the smaller form factor WHS-box bandwagon. But which solution is right for you--a frankenstein home built with leftover parts, custom built with WHS-specific parts or HP's pre-built MediaSmart Server? Let's find out!

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Home Brewed Frankenstein

vs

Custom Built WHS

vs

HP MediaSmart Server

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Frankenstein Home Built

 

Before I begin, let me set the playing field nice and even. All systems had their power consumption rated using a Kill-A-Watt device. In regards to performance, the only true consistent among these systems is gigabit network on the motherboards, through my trusty Linksys WRT54g Wireless Router with 10/100 switch and the Tomato firmware. Most often uses besides normal data transfer, was testing high and low bitrate movies streaming and music to my Media Center server approximately 20 feet from the router. Enough of the nitty details, let's get on with it!

First up is the frankenstein home brewed solution. Like many computer techies, I found myself with plenty of leftover computer parts and could not resist building my own to see what this whole WHS-buzz was all about. I had all of the following parts, so besides the installation CD, it was an EXTREMELY low cost solution. Here are the specs I put together:

Component
 Description Cost $
Chassis & PSU:
 Antec P180B & Antec Phantom 500Watt ATX
 $0
Motherboard:
 ASUS A8N-SLI Deluxe (good old Socket 939)
 $0
CPU:
 AMD Athlon 64 X2 3800+  $0
RAM:  3GB (2x1gb, 2x512mb, various speeds)  $0
DVD:
 Pioneer DVD-RW
 $0
Graphics:
 Nvidia 8500GT
 $0
Hard Drives:
 1x80gb, 2x400gb, 2x500gb, 2x750gb, various brands, mostly Seagate
 $0
Software:
 Microsoft Windows Home Server
 $140
   TOTAL COST OF FRANKENSTEIN WHS BOX:
 $140

As you can see from the specs above, I was able to take advantage of the full ATX motherboard's two SATA controller chips and had 7 drives, totalling in almost 3TB of hard drive space! Not too shabby, eh? I could have added even more 250's I had laying around, but at some point, you have to decide what's enough, and with this many drives, I was concerned about reliability. The chassis kept things pretty cool and quiet, but it weighs a TON! All those hard drives really add to it--more than you would think!

 
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 The Antec P180 towers over the others

Now, for the down side--when you build a WHS out of full PC parts, do NOT expect to save much on electricity, which is something you need to seriously consider as you really want the Server to be on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Looking at the specs, it's not surprising that my frankenstein consumes an ungodly amount of power, averaging around 160 Watts!!!

Wattage aside, this Frankenstein easily handled Windows Home Server (as expected). Performance was acceptable, but at times I could feel a lag, not sure if it was due to the older network chip or more likely having so many drives in the system, but sometimes it would take a bit longer to access or open files. 

Custom Built WHS

Next, let's cover the 2nd Windows Home Server box I built. This time, I was a bit wiser regarding WHS as a software solution, and aimed to focus my purchases on a lower-cost, and more attractive solution than the 50 pound behemoth previously covered. As WHS has grown in popularity (and reliability thanks to Power Pack 1), so too has the availability of WHS-targeted components. Obviously, any type of hardware will work as proven with the Frankenstein WHS, but you saw the biggest disadvantages to going that route -- size and power consumption.

With a bit of research I came across some readily available parts which would solve both of those issues and still easily be powerful enough for Windows Home Server. Here's what I ended up with:

Component
Description
Cost $
 Chassis & PSU:  Chenbro ES34069 with 180W PSU built-in  $200
 Motherboard:  Intel DG45FC Mini-ITX  $130
 CPU:  Intel Core2Duo E7200 (2.53ghz)  $120
 RAM:  2GB (2x1GB) DDR2-800  $30
 DVD:  N/A  $0
 Graphics:  On-Board  $0
 Hard Drives:  3x500GB  $180
 Software:  Microsoft Windows Home Server  $140
           TOTAL COST FOR CUSTOM-BUILT WHS BOX:  $800

The advantages of building yourself with the above components, is the ultimate in upgradability. Not necessarily expansion, since the chassis is tiny (versus the P180 frankenstein chassis which is a full atx), but still the ability to at least change motherboards/CPUs/etc as desired. Some points I should mention, since I had to learn the hard way. I went with the Intel board over the Chenbro recommended board for the sheer fact that it would cost the same, but I'd be able to choose a much more powerful CPU. Of course this will end up costing me some power saving points, but I felt it was worth it. Also, keep total power consumption in mind when spec-ing out your systems. I did not, and it turns out that the 180 watt power supply could not power 4 drives with that motherboard and CPU. Also, I could not add a slimline DVD drive to the system given the space requirements of the board, so I had to install with an external drive.

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 The Chenbro in the middle--pretty close to the HP

That being said, I was still able to build it up and performance was IMPRESSIVE! Investing in the extra speed was easily noticeable, as accessing the system remotely was very fast. Network speeds were peppy as well, but an unfair comparison to the Frankenstein since it only had 3 drives. Still, I was quite pleased with the system. It was very quiet, and very fast, and I liked having all my ports available to me (especially monitor). With regard to power consumptionit was quite a drop from the previous system -- which one would expect given the use of smaller components and less hard drives -- averaging around 90-100 watts!

So in the end, this Custom built WHS box answered my previous dilemma. Being able to build a super speedy WHS box that would destroy most OEM solutions technically and still be close aesthetically to pass the WAF (wife acceptance factor). I'm sure if I had used the recommended board, I would have been able to achieve 4 simultaneous drives, but the wattage savings of the board versus the added watts of the 4th hard drive would most likely have been a wash. That being said, $800 is a lot of money, and it's easy to second guess yourself when OEM solutions such as the HP MediaSmart Server exist for a lot less and do the leg work for you. We geeks like to tinker, but there's something to be said about a ready-to-go solution at a fair price.

 

HP MediaSmart Server

Last, but certainly not least, is the offering from HP with their MediaSmart Server. I would be lying if I did not admit to coveting this gorgeous piece of hardware since I first saw it in person months ago. HP has really opened some doors with it, making both uber geeks and soccer moms alike love having one in their homes. The small form factor tied with the design elements are a strong departure from what most people envision when they hear the word "server." One of the most entertaining ad campaigns I can recall in recent history was at CES, between Microsoft and HP, with the "Mommy Why is there a Server in the House?" story book which was distributed there and continues to be popular. It's popular because it's true -- the HP MediaSmart Server looks more like a fancy appliance than it does a PC Server.

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 HP MediaSmart Server EX475 Retail Box  Contents: Manual, Setup Guide, Recovery CDs, Power Cord, Ethernet Cable, CinemaNow $20 coupon and Warranty Card

HP is really Microsoft's flagship Windows Home Server solution from OEMs, and they do a lot of unique customizations in both the hardware and software which are impossible to replicate with your own hardware. Since specs are specs, lets compare how the HP stands up to what we are able to build ourselves: 

Component
Description
Cost $
 Chassis & PSU:  Custom Built MSRP$640
 Motherboard:  Custom Built  --
 CPU:  AMD Sempron 3400+  --
 RAM:  512MB DDR2 shared (479.45MB usable) replaced by 1x 2GB DDR2 (1.97GB usable)  $60
 DVD:  N/A --
 Graphics:  N/A  --
 Hard Drives:  2x500GB Seagate Barracuda 7200.10's  --
 Software:  Microsoft Windows Home Server  --
           TOTAL FOR HP EX475 with RAM UPGRADE:  $700

As you can see, fairly modest specs that are much closer to my frankenstein specs than the custom WHS I built. Out of the box the MediaSmart only came with 512MB of system memory, some of which is shared with the integrated graphics. While that is fine for your average users (I used it for weeks to compare), any extreme user will appreciate the benefits of a memory upgrade. I used MyHomeServer.com's Tutorialon upgrading RAM to see how difficult it would be -- took me about 15 minutes from shut down to power up! Going from 512MB of shared memory, to 2GB made everything peppier, from file transfers to even just loading the WHS management console itself. If you're going to buy one, this is a must!

*UPDATE: THIS just in from the WeGotServed guys...HP will NOW allow for upgrading of RAM to NOT VOID THE WARRANTY!! I cannot speak enough how happy this makes me, especially from such a large company as HP. They have listened to the consumer, and doing what is best for THEM! Kudos to them!

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 Easy to remove drive Caddies  In the dark...pretty lights. Blue is good.

Another fantastic thing about what HP has done here: sure the parts are proprietary, but that was done strictly for size and form, not to make your life difficult. HP understood the market, and they made it relatively painless to get at the heart of the system. Combine that with a growing enthusiasm from consumers and geeks alike, and you end up with readily available tutorials all over the Internet with instructions for things as simple as tweaking your software, to upgrading your RAM & even your CPU!! There is something to be said when a product comes out that is widely admired and accepted by the tech community, in the end you, the consumer, are the beneficiary.

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 Installation & Setup
 HP's Control Panel Add-in

The chassis design is fantastic, albeit attractive to fingerprints given its' shiny surface. The blue lights are OK, but if you do not like them you can turn them off in HP's WHS Control Panel. I personally set mine to fairly dim, as they can get pretty bright if you want them to (Note: They do get bright if there is an issue with your WHS, so if you really dislike the lights, you may want to place the box out of site). The front drive caddies are covered by an attractive door, and the caddies themselves are easy to use with a snap-in mechanism. On the rear are 3 USB ports, 1 eSATA port and of course, the power button and network connection. All-in-all, HP claims the MediaSmart Server can support up to 9TB of hard drives (internal+external)!!

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Photo Webshare Settings Settings for Itunes Streaming

From a power consumption perspective, I was very curious to see what the HP would come in at, given its custom design and implementation. I was not disappointed. In addition to being extremely quiet, the MediaSmart Server only consumed on average around 65 watts of power!! Between this server and HP's MediaSmart Extender consuming only 8 watts max, it is clear that HP is taking power consumption seriously, which good for both your wallet and the environment.

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Real-time Temperatures and Stats
McAfee Total Protection

So, we have covered the amazing hardware itself (which I'm sure is everyone's #1 reason for wanting this), but HP did not settle there. In addition to the chassis, HP has designed their very own Windows Home Server add-in which is basically like a central portal for you. From this single portal screen, you are shown the available updates from HP, Remote Access settings, photo webshare settings, server settings for iTunes and the aforementioned LED Brightness control. All this is prefaced by the installation process which HP has made painless. Configuration still took me around 30 minutes to go through everything, but each step was easy to follow with explanation of what does what. These are details which I would normally overlook for a techy product, but when you consider how many people that purchase this have never had a Server, a lot of them are learning from the ground up. These tutorials not only educate how to use the features but also how to get the most out of it as well.

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Add-Ins provided by HP McAfee Total Protection

In addition to the portal & installation, HP also tosses in PV Connect, which helps in streaming to various DLNA devices, and McAfee Antivirus. In previous WHS builds I found that Clam Anti-virus (free) was useful, but McAfee has also made a WHS add-in to make management a snap. For those anti-McAfee users, you will be happy to hear that Avast also now has a WHS-supported version for sale. Both these add-ins were great, but the big winner from HP is the iTunes Server option, which allow you to stream iTunes protected songs throughout your network, something Windows Media Center users know the importance of. And of course, there's also the amazing community add-ins available for WHS at a number of websites.

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HP's Custom WHS Webpage
Server file access remotely

Conclusion

If you are still with us, then the conclusion is fairly obvious. For the lowest power consuming device with the easiest setup, and it includes a manufacturer's warranty, the HP MediaSmart Server runs away with it! That's not to say that building it yourself is not worthwhile, but I have to say I was impressed with the build quality and attention to detail HP took with their Server. With all the benefits that come in the EX475, why even spend the effort/dollars on trying to create a clone solution? Sure you might get a bit more horsepower, but after the RAM upgrade to the HP unit, the speed difference is negligible. Remember, since Media Center users will most likely still be connecting your Extenders through your Media Center (or similar HTPC), it will be that system used for any sort of decoding needed to play files. 

The Frankenstein build was the most enjoyable though, and definitely carries with it the highest bragging rights. I had contemplated adding an IDE controller card to get even more drives in there, but the combination of the high power consumption plus really not needing that much more storage made me go a different route. If you have some pieces laying around and still aren't sure if Windows Home Server is for you, I would highly suggest building one up and using Microsoft's 30-day trial of WHS to play around with it.

As far as performance goes, it's interesting to note that all three performed comparably. Other than the initial Remote Desktop benefits, actual accessibility speeds and experience was pretty even. Given the minimum specs needed for WHS, this was not that surprising, but still is interesting to see in person. 

Hindsight being what it is, the Chenbro solution is just too expensive. Sure I could have made some price cuts here and there, but when you consider the chassis and cost of WHS software already gets you close to $350, it makes more sense to invest in something as well built as the HP, not only because of its quality, but I'm of the mentality, that when a company makes a niche product like that, and they do it RIGHT, we need to support it as much as possible. And of course, it helps that it saves you money too!

HP offers two flavors of their MediaSmart--the EX475 (which I covered here) and the EX470. Both are identical hardware specs, except the EX475 comes with 2x500GB hard drives to take advantage of the file duplication in Windows Home Server. If you want to add terabyte drives, you can save some money by getting the EX470 (retails for around $100 less) and add larger hard drives yourself.

Thanks to HP for providing the MediaSmart Server for review and for a product that delivers. Feel free to comment in our forums.

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