Scott Hanselman

The Case of the Failing Disk Drive or Windows Home Server Saved My Marriage

August 27, 2008 Comment on this post [37] Posted in Home Server | Musings | Tools
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Photo of my Home Server on a shelf in my office I bought an HP MediaSmart Windows Home Server last Christmas, and haven't thought much about it since. It sits on the shelf and is pretty.

Actually, that's not totally true, I did upgrade it to Power Pack 1 recently, but that was a 10 minute thing. For the most part, it's a conversation piece on a shelf in my new(ish) home office.

Now, the story. I sold my wife's laptop to Shawn recently as she wasn't laptop-ing much and wanted the speed of a desktop. I gave her my old Developer Rig with 32-bit Vista SP1 and she's cool with her browsing and her wifely blog and what-not.

A few weeks later she comes to me and we have a conversation that went (something like):

"This computer sucks. It's freaking out and now it says something about being smart. Let me tell you, mister, it's not smart."

What do you mean smart? Oh, wait, do you mean S.M.A.R.T.?

Smart, dumb, whatever, it's not booting. Let's get a Dell! Are my files backed-up?

Photo of the front of my computer case with the Floppy Drive pushed in oddly.Ok, wait a second. I go upstairs and I see this. I'm like, that's weird. The floppy drive is pushed in. That's odd. Whatever. I blow it off.

I go into my stash and pull out a hard drive. It's a 160gig that will replace the 80gig in her machine.

I open it up (it's a tool-less case) and swap out the drive. I can't find my Windows Home Server Restore CD so on my other machine I go to \\server\software\Home PC Restore CD and there's a readme.txt file that says:

"If there is a CD image file (RestoreCD.iso) in this folder, it is outdated.

To create a Home Computer Restore CD, download the ISO image file (RestoreCD.iso) from the Microsoft Web site at"

Cool, looks like the Power Pack 1 needs a new Restore CD. I download it and use the best image burning software out there, ImgBurn and I'm on my way.

I boot off the CD and get a nice Windows-looking interface and a wizard. It finds my Home Server, prompts me for a password and somehow automatically (probably via IP or Mac Address or some magic computer hash?) figures out which computer I'm trying to Restore. It automatically selects WifelyPC out of the list of a half-dozen machines in the house. I hit Finish and it takes like 11 minutes (creepy fast) to restore.

Boom. It's back. Total time elapsed, with drive swap, ISO download and burn was like 35 minutes. If I'd downloaded the ISO back when I got PP1 like I should have, it would have been a 15 minute operation. It was like using Norton Ghost in the old days, except without the DOS driver disk, the network goo, and general hassle. Couldn't have been easier except if there were no buttons to push at all.

Problem solved, and I'm the hero. The next two days involve me fitting this into casual conversation:

"Did I mention I brought your computer back from the abyss? Seriously. It's like Tivo. I just put it back the way it was at 2am on Tues. Isn't that cool? Love me!"

Something like that. I think the Love Me part was implied.

Fast forward to today.

"I'm sick of this freaking computer. It's clanking."

Uh oh. Clanking is rarely good. Actually, never good.

"I want a Dell. Uncle Ronnie got a Dell, where's my Dell?"

I return to my wife's office and see this after opening the side of the case:

Photo of the open side of my Computer Case with the Floppy casing falling on my hard drive

Not clear? Let me add some John Madden commentary:

Photo of the open side of my Computer Case with the Floppy casing falling on my hard drive with arrows and the word SMASH in red.

Picture of the 2 yr oldSame thing as before, except this time my brain is working. It seems that the 2 yr old, pictured here, the face of pure evil, pushed on the front of the floppy drive. (Yes, I have a floppy. No, I don't know why. It's vestigial, OK?)

The floppy drive is set in a larger "shell casing" that should have been screwed and secured into the larger case. Was it? Of course not. I'm a putz.

Of course I totally blamed the child. He can take it.*

Shoot, so that's two dead hard drives. But! The Home Server had taken it's nightly snapshot, again, after I'd restored it the first time. This included any changes The Wife had made the the machine in the last two days.

In fact, since I've upgraded my original 1TB Home Server with two extra drives, I've got backups going back into July. 

Home Server dialog showing a list of backups for my wife's computer

The backup management is set by default to keep 3 months of monthly backups, 3 weeks of weekly and 3 days of daily. That's pretty good coverage.

If you look at the very first picture, you'll see an external Western Digital MyBook that backs up the Home Server itself. I'm also a Mozy user, but it doesn't support Home Server, so I'm considering using KeepVault's specialized Home Server Product for Cloud Backup.

It's good to have a Backup Strategy. What's yours?

 Network Diagram of the Hanselman Backup Strategy

I'm happy with the Home Server and definitely recommend it.

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* Don't worry, my wife saw right through it and now I'm in trouble for trying to pin this rap on the cherub. Look at that face!

About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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Hosted in an Azure App Service
August 27, 2008 9:13
Test from OpenID
August 27, 2008 13:21
I always thought of a way, those home servers could be usefull. Your backup-strategy is quite impressive! I'm ashamed not doing ANY backup beside some important documents I sync with Live Mesh. Perhaps I should consider a small home server on my own...
August 27, 2008 13:29
"Clever" acronyms like S.M.A.R.T. always annoy the heck out of me. I wish they had a sense of humor and called it <a href=">S.M.R.T.</a> instead.
August 27, 2008 13:53
Good story :) Have you ever looked at CrashPlan for the offsite backup part? If you've got a friend who you can backup to, then it's a one-of cost compared to the recurring bill for Mozy etc., plus if disaster does strike it saves having to download GBs over the wire - just drive round to your friend and pickup the backup disk.
August 27, 2008 14:49
August 27, 2008 16:21
My husband has been BEGGING for a Windows Home Server to replace our dying Windows Server 2003. You've helped his case! :)

Why do you use and keep backup disks?
August 27, 2008 16:24
I was an early adopter on this one. I was a beta tester for WHS and bought it retail many months ago. I tested recovering machines, which worked great. Until, after getting to where I might actually have to depend on WHS and the client restore, it:

* "corrupted" the backup database for my client machines

* stopped being able to run the backup service on the home server

* stopped backing up my client machines

* started showing the Red Home Server Icon of Death in every client machine's taskbar (Network Health Critical!!! Run for your lives!!!)

What makes it even more annoying is that this product is SO CLOSE to hitting the mark. I was patient during the file corruption issue (use google - I mean, LiveSearch(tm) - to find "windows home server file corruption"), which took WAY too freakin' long to fix. But that was easy to ignore since it never affected me. However, this is now the second time that all my client machine's backups have been lost, and in spite of following all the procedures recommended by the mother ship, the only cure has been to blow away all the client backups (or reinstall WHS). Oh, and by the way - it's not ludicrous to measure the time it takes to do this in days.

I don't want to TOTALLY crap on Scott's parade - again, this product is really close, and it worked great for him... this time. But people need to be made aware of some of the realities of WHS and the folks on the WHS team need to resolve this backup database corruption issue NOW. Without that feature working with 100% reliability, what the heck is the point of the product?
August 27, 2008 16:28
eh, wrecking 2 drives totalling ~240GB today is like getting a splinter: annoying as hell, but we adults can handle it with finesse. Good thing hard drives are cheap.
August 27, 2008 16:56
Scott, do you encrypt your backups? I do, just on general principles, but I occasionally wonder what the right key escrow policy is. I swing back and forth between "ask me and maybe I'll tell you" to "put it in the safe deposit box".
August 27, 2008 17:26
Scott... you are the king of backups!

We should all follow your example. Who does? "Meh... don't have time for backups!"

You rock! You rule!

August 27, 2008 17:28
My backup plan ... isn't really that much of a plan, really. For the most part, all the stuff I have in my own personal folders gets backed up from the install drive to a large 'backup' drive. Every now and then I take what's in there and burn it off onto DVD's ... the uber important documents I mirror on my work computer.

I'd love to get something more reliable going ... maybe this is it. But man -- I just never have time to get out there and learn some of this stuff (bad hands).
August 27, 2008 17:38
Awesome! That reminds me of when as a 2 yr old, I shoved a crochet hook into my Dad's 5.25" floppy on his Challenger 2P.

He's in there trying to figure out why the drive's clicking like crazy...and then..."what the hell, is that a Giant Metal Hook?"

Don't be too hard on him, maybe he's an aspiring computer engineer. :)

August 27, 2008 18:32
I've been lucky - my 3 1/2-year-old uses our computers all the time and hasn't shown any inclination to do anything out of the ordinary. In fact, he's very proficient at using the computers, better than many adults in fact. He likes to watch train videos on YouTube and he can use the mouse, scroll up and down, adjust the volume, etc. If only he could spell then he'd be totally self-sufficient :-)
But I also have a 10-month old who will be walking soon, and I probably don't want to tempt fate twice so I better reconsider my backup plan. Which isn't one, really.
August 27, 2008 18:32
Thanks to you, I may be using KeepVault as well. I have a few concerns (my ripped HDDVDs and system backups and VMs that are well over 5GB), but I hope that it can be a good solution. I have yet to find a cloud backup solution for my WHS that I think is a good and affordable one. I do love my WHS box tho (and all 11 HDDs in it). ;)
August 27, 2008 18:40
How do you set up the external drive on the WHS to back up every 3 minutes? Can you do a quick description or step-by-step?

The first article you wrote on the WHS is pretty much what convinced me to get one. Thanks.
August 27, 2008 18:55
If your son were a bit younger, you could have entitled this "BabySmash: Real Life"
August 27, 2008 19:34
Big LOL at the John Madden color blogging. I have things semi-backed up with redundancy & manual USB, but the plan is to get a NAS at home and back up to that. I just figure a NAS is easier than maintaining a server. ...and I'm less tempted to geek out on it and set up webservers or whatever.
August 27, 2008 19:41
Not... "Love me!" but rather... "Hail to the king, Baby!" -- since you're so ~ Bruce Campbell.
August 27, 2008 21:00
I would suggest that you give JungleDisk for WHS a look. (Disclaimer: I'm not affiliated with them in any way -- just a customer).

My backup strategy is as follows. 5 client machines backup to a 2 TB WHS. Powershell scripts backup client machine's user folders to WHS shared folders twice a week. JungleDisk for WHS uploads the shared folders to Amazon S3 after encrypting them. This gives me "ghost" recovery from the WHS in the best case scenario and at most, a three day old data restore from S3 in the worst case.

For those not familiar with WHS and the online storage plugins for of the limitations is that they only backup the shared folders of your WHS, not the backups. That means if you want to get your files backed up into the cloud, you have to keep two copies of the data on WHS -- the backups that WHS makes of your client machines, and the data that you must somehow synchronize between your client machine and the WHS shared folders. For this, I use Powershell and Robocopy in mirror mode but you could use your favorite file synchronization software instead.

I gave KeepVault a look and my advice to you would be to give it careful consideration...Their plan is for unlimited storage space for a fixed cost? That doesn't make sense as a business strategy and most services that offer "unlimited" whatever actually have some infuriating limit or restriction that you find out about later once you've already made some significant investment in the service.

JungleDisk just works as a proxy between you and Amazon. I pay about $20 / month to Amazon to store 90 GB on S3.

This backup strategy of using WHS as a buffer for uploading backup data into the cloud has been working quite well for me. It works much better than having JungleDisk on the client machines themselves, as my WHS is on 24/7 and runs interference for the latency issues involved with uploading large amounts of data over a DSL pipe. For instance, my notebook only has to be connected to my home network long enough to make a copy of my files over to the WHS and then WHS can work on uploading those files to the cloud over the next couple of hours.
August 27, 2008 21:34
Shigeru - There's a new backup to external feature in WHS. I don't know where you got the 3 minutes number. Install PP1 and check it out.

Ross - I don't encrypt my backups. However, I don't have anything THAT personal there. For personal stuff, I use TrueCrypt drives, then back those up.

LukeB - Shoot, that IS a good title.

ScW - "Gimme some sugar, baby!"

TLR - I'll check out JungleDisk, thanks for the writeup!
August 28, 2008 1:19
The only things that are very important for me are my projects. I preferred to use the internet and Windows Live Skydrive for the projects. I also have another PC for my old files like music and more. And I think the internet is the best place for storing your files; of course if you don't have files more that 5GB.
August 28, 2008 1:29
I, too, have had similar experiences with the HP MediaSmart EX470, which I also purchased at the end of last year. My wife has had two laptop failures (which doesn't include my son's rearrangements and removal of keys on the keyboard) that were completely taken care of within a VERY SHORT amount of time - read less than two hours including hardware replacement. It definitely saved the day. She even blogged about my supreme ability. She didn't even know the backups were occurring automatically every night when the first failure occurred.

I admit, I have tweaked the HP server a bit by reaplacing the CPU with the max speed (AMD Athlon 64 LE-1640 Orleans 2.6GHz) and 2GB of RAM. I also have 4 x 1TB drives in the slots to provide our music library, picture library, and home video library storage. Finally, I put WSS 3.0 on the server, which my wife uses EXTENSIBLY to make sure I don't schedule work items in conflict with home events. It's great to be at work in Outlook or on my laptop while travelling and be able to see my personal Exhange-based calendar side by side or overlayed with the official family calendar. BTW, this has also saved my marriage a couple of times. :)
August 28, 2008 4:30
Scott, don't discount the notion of not needing a floppy drive any longer. In general, you probably don't. But the one time you have an issue (such as random reboots or something strange when running Virtual PC or VMWorkstaiton or some other anomally) you'll find that most BIOS upgrades require a bootable floppy or bootable USB drive.

I built my system from scratch about 9 months ago and purchased a Intel Core2Duo. I wanted to upgrade to a Quad Core recently which required a BIOS upgrade according to the manufactures website. Since I never purchased a floppy drive, I spent about 2-3 hours trying to get the stupid USB drive to boot. I basically got stuck at the IDE checking... I eventually just spent $9 on a floppy drive and put it in. I then had to hunt around for old 3.5" HD diskettes. Then go a find a bootable floppy image... and finally copy the BIOS update to the floppoy (hoping that I had enough space left!)

I still spent another 1-2 hours getting everything together but it worked fine once I did.

I'm surprised that manufactures still expect users to go thru this extrememe. My opinion: 1) They should provide a bootable floppy or USB drive with the motherboard; or 2) Provide a Windows-based program that can update the BIOS from Windows. I know I've seen these in the past.

So, in short -- screw that puppy in, you'll be glad you did!

August 28, 2008 6:39
Scott, I use the Amazon web service that is accessed via the Jungle Disk plug-in for homeserver. Could not be easier. Plus you can install a seperate desktop client for jungle disk on one of your other machines and you can upload/download or just navigate out using explorer and the jungle disk client presents your uploaded files like a mapped drive.
August 28, 2008 13:43
I loves me some Windows Home Server. It just rocks my socks. I have similar stories of wife-saving thanks to WHS. Sure, it creaks a little (it's v1.1, come on!) but on the whole I love it.

I use JungleDisk for WHS, but on the whole it's a bit 'meh'. Still in beta, pretty poor WHS UI, yada yada. I'm looking at Keepvault now - Jungledisk (ie. Amazon S3) ends up costing me as much per year anyway.
August 28, 2008 17:28

There is no direct message on you twitter. I read on you twitter page that you were asking about Crashplan experiences. I have Crashplan and it is very good. I used to have all the computers in the house backup each other and to the Crashplan Online vault. Sugarsync is another good solution. I stopped using Crashplan for now. Having a WHS server, really makes Crashplan redundant. On the WHS I use the JungleDisk add-in for Amazon S3 server backup. Used to have Mozy, but moved to Crashplan.

The Good thing about Crashplan , it is local and very fast. It saved my skin many times. I used to backup my WHS shared folder using Crashpan for beta testing the server, in case of failure. Sometimes I set the client back to my PC's, but I uninstall after a few days. That's why I have a server.

One idea I had was to use Crashplan client on the server and backup the shared folder around all the computers around the house, a cluster of PC's for backups. I don't think that is possible if you have two drives on your WHS. I am going to play with this setup, I will let you know.


Hector E. Velez
August 30, 2008 9:05 used Comic Sans font on your diagram!!!
September 01, 2008 11:13
wow, man your home network is impresive, what should we call you? God of Backups or Backup God? :)
September 01, 2008 20:29
Off subject, but check this tower out:
September 04, 2008 1:45
yeaahh man... back 'dat drive up! @_@
September 04, 2008 20:37
SpinRite has saved quite a few failing drives I've encountered, so you might sometimes want to give it a try... Might be worth the money if you have a few old drives lying around :)
September 05, 2008 7:23
Your restore sounded easy...but just in case you find a tough case (as I had with my new XPS1330) you'll notice a very interesting folder in ALL the backup volumes for each of your PCs. It's called "Windows Home Server Drivers for Restore" and it contains drivers you can throw onto a flash drive and bring it over to the crashed PC that is unable to connect to your WHS server. I know I made you look ;-)

My story is even more painful than that but I did need to know about this precious folder and figured I'd share.

Full painful story:
which now redirects interestingly enough to:

September 09, 2008 12:16
Good post. What is the tool you used to draw the diagram ( It looks superb!
September 09, 2008 12:24
That's just drawn with
September 10, 2008 3:39
This is what happens when you build computers with floppy drives. Bad things!
September 14, 2008 21:15
Windows Home Server is cool, but I wouldn't deploy it without PP1, which fixes the data integrity problem, or on one of those headless HP boxes. There are times when you need to see it as it boots and rebuilding one is much simpler if you can put a keyboard, mouse, and monitor on them. Fortunately, such boxes are cheap.

WHS also has no inbuilt server backup facility. This was going to be part of PP1 but it got pulled.
September 17, 2008 2:01
For the "other 90%" who don't have a backup plan and just want something incredibly simple (and who doesn't care about having cloned disk images)
I highly recommend just getting a copy of "Second Copy" software ( I've tried out a lot of different backup apps, and this one worked well for me. Incredibly simple to use once you get it set up. Mine is setup like this, and I definitely recommend something similar:

# Hourly Profile - Copies new/modified files from Laptop --> FireWire/USB --> External OR Network Drive
# Daily Profile - Copes new/modified files from Laptop ---> FTP --> Offsite server (web server OR online backup service that offers FTP access)

So basically it is mirroring my chosen folders ("My Documents", "Desktop", Bookmarks, etc) to an external drive in my office each hour, and to an offsite host each night. Because it only copies files that are brand new or modified, it's usually incredibly small and quick procedure. Each time that the synchronizations happen, files that are on the backup drive but NOT on my laptop (AKA I have deleted them) get moved to a special "deleted" archive.

If you want it even simpler, just have your files synchronized to an external USB drive at the end of the day. It won't help if your house burns down, but it'll save your butt when your harddrive crashes (which happens ALL THE TIME. DON'T THINK IT WON'T HAPPEN TO YOU!)

BTW, I have no connection to the creators of "second copy" software. Just a user.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in any way.