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Build Your Own Windows Home Server System, Part 3

By Joseph Moran

In parts one and two of this series, we explored how to set up Window Home Server on a spare PC and how perform basic configuration tasks like setting up user accounts, shared folders, and adding storage. In this third and final installment, we’ll look at how to set up WHS’s remote access feature so you can access files stored on your home server and have desktop control of certain Windows PCs from any Internet-connected system.

Before we proceed, a caveat--it’s worth noting that the Terms of Service for some ISPs don't permit customers to run their own servers behind their Internet connections. Some even go so far as to actively prevent it by blocking the necessary TCP/IP ports. Therefore, you may want to check your ISP’s rules before proceeding with WHS remote access setup.  

Enabling Remote Access

Remote access is turned off by default, so to activate it, go into the WHS Console, click Settings, Remote Access, then click the Turn On button under Web Site Connectivity. WHS will automatically begin testing your broadband router's configuration to make sure it allows remote access, and if your router supports UPnP, WHS will report the router status as configured within a minute or so.

If router configuration fails (status will continue to show “not configured”), click the Details button to see what the problems are. The Router Configuration button will launch your router's browser-based administration console so you can make any manual adjustments; you may need to verify that UPnP is actually turned on in the router, for example. If your router doesn’t support UPnP (or it just isn’t working properly) you'll need to create three necessary port forwarding rules yourself--  TCP ports 80, 443, and 4125 should be forwarded to the WHS system's IP address. (Check the router docs or online help for details on how to configure this for your particular device). After you've made your router modifications, click the Refresh button to have WHS rerun the test.

Once your router's successfully configured, you can proceed to choose the domain name you’ll use to access your WHS. Click the Setup button under Domain Name and proceed through the wizard; after you log in with your Windows Live ID and accept the license agreement, type in a domain name and click Confirm to make sure it's available for use. When you're finished with the wizard, Domain Name status should be "working" and you'll see the custom URL for your domain, which will be https://yourdomainname.homeserver.com.

Now you need to enable remote access for specific users via User Accounts. Select the account you want, click Properties, and check Enable remote access for this user. You may be prompted to change the user’s password, because any account you set up for remote access must use a strong password regardless of the general WHS password setting. (WHS defines a strong password as one with at least seven characters and three of the following four items--lower case, upper case, numbers, and symbols.) Finally, use the drop-down list to choose whether the user will have access to shared folders, home computers, or both.

Going Remote

Now you can access your WHS Web site by pointing a browser to your custom URL. You don't actually need to type in the https:// (the prefix for an encrypted connection), because the browser will automatically switch to a secure link when necessary, like when you log into the server or are transferring data. You’ll notice that the default WHS home page is pretty superfluous, consisting of little more than a stock art photo and a Log On button. From the remote access settings in the WHS console, you can change the WHS Web Site Home Page setting to Windows Home Server Remote Access so your URL will take you directly to the login page instead.

After you log into your WHS Web site, click the Shared Folders tab to access the folders available to that account, or click the Computers tab to access to the WHS console or the computers that are available for remote control. You'll only see the Computers tab when you access the WHS using Internet Explorer--the feature doesn’t work with other browsers like Firefox. (It requires Microsoft's Terminal Services ActiveX client, which you’ll be prompted to install the first time you access the Computers tab on a given PC.) 

Not every computer listed will be available for remote access, because WHS uses the Remote Desktop feature which is built into some-- but not all-- versions of Windows. Remote Desktop doesn’t come with XP Home or Vista Home Basic/Premium, for example, but it does come with Vista Business and Ultimate systems, as well as with XP Professional and Media Center Edition.

When you select a system to connect to you’ll be prompted to choose connection options, like the speed of your link, size of the window, and whether you want printing, file transfer, and system sounds to be enabled.  If you can access a remote system but can’t log into it, make sure the Remote Desktop is correctly configured on it— by default only Administrator accounts can connect (we’re talking about accounts on the PC here, not WHS ones), and you can’t connect with any account that lacks a password. For details on how to configure a Windows PC for Remote Desktop, see this article.

Add-Ins and Power Packs

Once you’ve got your server permanently up and running, you may want to check out the various “Add-ins” that can bring new features and configuration options to WHS. You can learn more about add-ins here; as third-party products, some must be purchased at extra cost, but many are community-developed and available for free.

Last but not least, if your Windows Home Server isn’t configured for automatic updates, keep an eye out for periodic “Power Packs” from Microsoft (they seem to come out roughly every six months or so). These Power Packs are analogous to operating system Service Packs; they fix bugs and yield added or improved features. As a matter of fact, just as we were finishing this article Microsoft released WHS Power Pack 2. It adds a new Windows Media Center connector which allows files stored on the WHS to be accessible through the Media Center UI. (It also modifies the remote access setup process a bit, so if you activate remote access post- PP2 update, the steps will differ slightly from those described above.)

Joseph Moran is a regular contributor to PracticallyNetworked.
For more help, check out the PracticallyNetworked Forums.

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