Many of us, including myself, have learned a lesson of how costly it can be to have a broken computer hard drive without an updated backup, not to mention the hassle we have to go through during the process of recovering lost files and rebuilding a new computer. Over time I have looked into different backup solutions -- online backup services and offline backup tools such as Windows SyncToy, a free download. However, none of them seemed to fit my (and perhaps your) somewhat conflicting criteria: easy to use and reach, inexpensive, automagic, ... I finally found one, I think, which is Windows Home Server (WHS) from Microsoft. You may have heard about it, but let me share some of my hands-on experience with you.

First, WHS automatically backs up your computers (XP and Vista O/S only), one or more if they are networked, home or at work. With the backup, you can either retrieve individual files or restore a complete running PC (without use of original software CD/DVD). (It took about 2 hours and 20 minutes to restore a 100 GB hard drive with about 90 GB used space. Very smooth process.) This is very much like you have bought premium insurance for your computers, and the benefits are real and instant.

Second, WHS allows you to share files and printers with your family (or coworkers). More importantly, it provides remote access which allows you to get files via the Internet securely. This is made possible by the WHS setup during which you will be given a personal domain name that looks like, https://xxxxxx.homeserver.com. If you are an Xbox owner, you can view/play pictures and vidoes (in wmv format) from the Xbox console. If you use iTune, you can store your music libraries and playlists on the server and play back on a PC or notebook connected to the server.

You can find a long list of WHS features from the Microsoft site and the Internet. Be aware that a WHS Power Pack is coming out soon, which will add some desirable features such as backing up your WHS to an external hard drive.

Instead of buying the WHS software and installing it on a PC (monitor not needed), which I planned to do initially, I chose to buy a pre-configured HP EX470 SmartMedia Server with 500 GB.  (HP EX475 comes with 1 TB.) What I like about the HP WHS server is that it comes with support for up to 4 internal hard drives, plus 4 USB ports (1 in front and 3 in back) and 1 serial ATA port (external connector to SATA hard drive). Because I have a lot of pictures, videos and VPCs, I quickly used up almost 500 GB space. So I bought a 500 GB Seagate SATA hard drive and snapped into one of the 3 spare drive bays. WHS quickly added the extra space to the hard drive pool, and made it available.

The WHS setup and configuration is rather straightforward. Basically, you install the WHS software on each computer that you want to back up. You then create users for each computer. WHS user accounts are different from existing user accounts on your computers or the network, but you can use same names if you like. When same user names with different passwords are used, WHS will warn you that different passwords are used, which you can safely ignore.

If you are an advanced user, you can use Desktop Remote Connection to logon to the WHS. Please note that this is not a recommended practice. You can use administrator as user name (in place of owner) and the password you set for WHS console. I used this function to install and set up a shared printer, and copy files to the share folders directly from an external hard drive connected to the front USB port, rather than using the shared folder which uses the network connection.

Give it a try and find out if it works for you.