Microsoft’s Windows Home Server (WHS) is an interesting product to help families and small businesses store, organize, protect, and access files for up 10 PCs. Among providing network-attached storage (NAS) functionality, it enables quick and easy backups, remote access, media streaming, and more.
However, WHS requires at least $100 for the operating system and a decent PC to install on, or $350+ for a pre-built server. Additionally, the newest version, Windows Home Server 2011, lacks one useful feature (Drive Extender), and now the server only runs on PCs with a 64-bit processor. Plus, Microsoft announced this version will be the end of the Windows Home Server product line.
Here we’ll review three different alternative solutions to Windows Home Server that are not so expensive and performance-hungry. Some may not even cost a dime if you install on an old PC. On the other hand, you’ll likely find them not as well integrated with Windows desktops.
FreeNAS is a possible free alternative if you primarily want just NAS functionality. This gives you a place to centrally store and access your files, instead of using simple shared folders. It also lets you stream media to computers, gaming consoles, and mobile devices via the UPnP, Apple, and Xbox (with plug-in) protocols. Plus, it features a torrent client to manage BitTorrent transfers.
FreeNAS is an open source project released under the BSD License. It can be installed via a LiveCD on a variety of 32-bit and 64-bit PCs and architectures. Pretty much any old PC will work. Just make sure it has a bootable CD-ROM, network adapter, and a drive big enough to store your files. The newer (FreeNAS 8.x) version requires a USB or compact flash drive with at least 1 GB. You might get away with using as little as 192MBs of RAM.
Once you install FreeNAS, you can remove the monitor, keyboard, and mouse. You can change settings via a web browser from a PC on the local network.
Amahi Home Server
Amahi Home Server is a free open source solution, and offers closer functionality to that of WHS. In addition to providing NAS, it offers backup and media streaming features. It has disk pooling, similar to the Drive Extender feature removed in WHS 2011. Amahi also has a few features not found in WHS: a VPN server and calendar, and Outlook synchronization and sharing.
The Amahi Home Server is generally user-friendly for average users, more comparable to WHS than FreeNAS.
The system requirements for running the Amahi server are a bit less extensive compared to WHS. An old PC that you’ve retired in the past few years should work. You need a PC with at least a Pentium 3 (32-bit or 64-bit) processor running at 1GHz or more. The recommended amount of RAM is 512MB or greater, and the minimum disk space needed is 4GB. The PC must have a CD, DVD, or USB Boot drive, with DVD preferred. One network adapter is required to connect the server to the router.
The Amahi server installs on top of Fedora, a Linux distribution. Thus, you must install the Fedora OS first using the Amahi instructions. Once installed, you’ll run the Amahi installer. Lastly, you can disable the DHCP server on the network router because the Amahi server provides one. Then you can access the setup utility and dashboard via a web browser from other computers on the network. You’ll want to set up users and shares, and check out the plug-in apps.
The TonidoPlug costs $99 and is part of a newer type of device category gaining popularity in the past few years: plug computers. These are tiny, low-power, low-cost computers, about the size of a battery charger, usually serving as a home server and NAS device. When plugged in and running, they consume about the same amount of energy a regular desktop PC does in sleep mode. They usually run headless and are accessible via a web-based interface.
Like the Amahi server, the TonidoPlug is pretty user-friendly for average users, also comparable to WHS.
TonidoPlug offers NAS functionality to store and access your files on the local network and Internet via a web browser, network shares, or WebDAV. For access from mobile phones and devices, they offer apps for the most popular platforms. TonidoPlug can stream media to some UPnP/DLNA-compliant devices, such as the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.
TonidoPlug is a modular solution that adds functionality through the use of apps. Some apps are preinstalled, and others can be added to customize your server. The Backup app lets you back up your files and folders, Torrent lets you manage your BitTorrent transfers, and Photos lets you easily share pictures with friends. Workspace is a web-based Personal Information Manager (PIM) that can store your contacts, calendars, tasks, and files, and help in team collaboration. See the App store for even more apps.
The TonidoPlug uses a GHz ARM processor loaded with 512MB of DDR2 memory and a 512MB flash drive. It has a USB 2.0 port to plug in a hard drive, printer, or other USB device. Multiple USB devices can be added by using a USB hub. It also features a Gigabit Ethernet port, for connecting to the local network and Internet.
Typically running Linux, plug computers can be customized and loaded with even more open-source applications. The TonidoPlug apps, for example, run on top of the Ubuntu Jaunty Linux distribution. To conserve resources, it lacks the graphical user interface for the OS. However, you could still install third-party Linux packages with the apt-get commands via SSH.
We discussed three different cost-saving alternatives to using Microsoft’s Windows Home Server (WHS):
- FreeNAS provides basic NAS and media streaming functionality, but is best for more technically inclined individuals.
- Amahi Home Server provides even more functionality than WHS, and is designed more for the average user.
- The TonidoPlug costs about the same as the WHS software, but is a computer itself already preinstalled and ready to go.