We've spent the past few weeks playing with a preview build of Microsoft's Windows Home Server. The idea is to give anyone with a home network a robust but easy-to-use means to back up, organize, and access their data, especially media files. What we've seen so far looks like a hit. We imagine early adopters will be all over Home Server when it's released this Fall. As for mainstream consumers, Microsoft's biggest challenge might be convincing people not to fear the "S" word.
The server itself (which you'll need to purchase from HP, Gateway, and others if you want the software, since it won't be sold separately) doesn't need a monitor, a mouse, or a keyboard. Instead, you simply plug it into your network and install the Home Server Console software on a PC on the same network. From the Console software, you can manage the access settings for all of your various PCs and users.
Data protection is a key feature of Windows Home Server. You can automatically back up each client PC on your network daily, or however often you'd like. Home Server is smart enough to only back up files that have changed from day-to-day, saving you storage space. You can also set it to perform redundant backups if your server has multiple hard drives. That way if one server hard drive fails, you won't lose your most important data.
On the User Accounts page, you can set permissions for various users (up to 10, and one guest). Among other settings, you can determine who has access to the shared folders on your network, and what they can and can't do with the files you have stored there.
Home Server's shared folders work like any other folder on your PC, only you can access them from anywhere, including over the Web. That gives you full read-and-write capability to your entire media library from any PC connected to the Internet. The concept might not be that different from an FTP server, but it's much more user-friendly.
One of the highlights of Home Server is the simplicity with which it lets you expand your server's storage space. You can always add an internal drive or two, but it also recognizes external USB or FireWire drives on the fly.
Setting up your server for remote access is simple, and a recent update the Home Server preview code added this configuration screen. Here, you can set up the Web address you'll use to get to your server, and free up ports on your home network to allow outside access.
Once you establish remote access, you can use a Web browser to get to the Home Server Console, move files to and from shared folders, and even use Windows Remote Desktop features on the XP Pro or Vista Ultimate PCs on your network.