A little disappointed by Windows Home Server

I love like my Windows Home Server. It has a ton of wonderful features, gives me a chance to be a sysadmin and most importantly, it makes backup so easy, even my mom can do it. In case you are reading this, Mom, this is just an expression :-) But as Joel Spolsky puts it “Let’s stop asking people if they’re doing backups, and start asking if they’re doing restores.” And this, unfortunately, is an area where my home server has fallen short lately. On two separate occasions, where I needed to restore data from the server, it has failed me.

The first one was a couple of weeks ago when I got a new, larger hard drive for my laptop. Since I keep a complete backup of my hard drive on the server, I figured I would just switch out the disks, boot from the PC restore disk that came with Windows Home Server and let the software do its magic. Alas, this is not how it went. First, I couldn’t get the software to create two partitions on the disk. It always created one spanning the entire disk. So I ended up using Acronis Disk Director to partition the disk first and then have the restore software use those partitions. This seemed to work at first, and after less than an hour all my data had been copied from the server to the new hard drive. Unfortunately, the laptop could not boot from the new disk. I don’t know whether Windows Home Server did not set up the Master Boot Record properly or what ever. What ever it was, even the Windows 7 startup repair couldn’t fix it, so I was back to square one. Eventually, I just hooked up the old disk using an IDE-to-USB-adapter to the laptop and used Acronis True Image to clone the old disk onto the new one. Took three times as long, but worked liked a charm. Strike one for Windows Home Server.

The second incident was yesterday. The anti virus on my father’s PC was running amok: all of a sudden it started seeing viruses in pretty much every executable on the computer. (Update: apparently this was a false positive on Windows 7 64 bit systems) Eventually, it had moved a whole bunch of critical operating system files, several applications and ironically several of its own files into quarantine. The latter was extremely unfortunate, because I couldn’t even stop the madness, as the anti virus management program had been quarantined as well and thus could not be started. My only option seemed to be to restart the computer and restore the partition with the operating system and applications either from one of the system restore points that Windows creates automatically or from the previous days’ backup on the server. However, after rebooting, system restore failed, because it appears the system restore folder had been corrupted by the anti virus’ quarantining spree as well. And again Windows startup repair was unable to fix the issue and a chkdsk run didn’t find any problems either. Even booting Windows into safe mode failed with an ugly blue screen after it had already loaded a bunch of drivers. The start-up log turned out to be empty as well so I couldn’t even identify the file that was causing the issue. This would have been a classic “Windows Home Server to the rescue” scenario, but again, it failed me. This time, after booting from the PC restore disk, it didn’t have a driver for the network adapter and thus could not find the server on the network. Even though I had copied the drivers from the server (using a second computer on the network) onto a flash drive, it didn’t see them. Strike two for Windows Home Server.

Anyway, I ended up renaming one of the drivers that I saw Windows load while trying to boot into safe mode (classpnp.sys in my case). This way, startup repair saw that something was wrong with the operating system and replaced this file and as it appears all other missing files as well, so the PC could finally boot again. I still had to backup the anti virus’ quarantine folder, re-install it and then have it restore the non-operating system files, but after about four hours the computer was up and running again. What a fun Saturday evening!

So what’s the lesson here? First, I should have listened to Joel Spolsky when I first read his post last year and actually make sure restore was working instead of just trusting Windows Home Server. Second, in spite of all the computer restore options provided by Windows 7, it’s still a big hassle to fix a PC that refuses to boot. And finally, Acronis’ tools such as Disk Director and True Image rock! They have saved my life (or at least my data) on several occasions and I am glad I have them. I’m so grateful, I might even upgrade the latest version, just because.

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