A few weeks ago we bought an interesting piece of gear to play with at HCA Central. It is an Acer Aspire Easy-Store H340 that runs Windows Home Server.
We bought it from NewEgg but Amazon has it also.
The Amazon page has a really complete review worth reading.
Once important feature of the H340 is that it has no provision for a keyboard, mouse or display. All interaction takes place on other computers over a local network. On each computer on your network you install “Connector” software that lets Windows Home Server backup that machine and for that machine to also open a “console” application that lets you configure and maintain the H340.
If you are not familiar with Windows Home Server (WHS) perhaps you should be. It does a very nice job of backing up computers in a typical small network. It also makes it very simple to share files between computers in a more organized manner. And it does all sorts of other things that I’m not going to talk about here but may interest you – sharing recorded TV and music files are just two.
Anyway we wanted to see if it was possible to get HCA running on the “black cube” – what I’ll call our Acrer H340.
I want to pause and say two things. First, HCA doesn’t run as a service. This has been much discussed over the years, about how a user has to be “logged in” to have HCA working. I’m not going to get into the pros and cons of having a HCA service nor am I going to reveal any possible development plans for the future. What I want to do here is to see, given that HCA isn’t a service, can it still work on WHS?
Second, in this discussion and in our test installation we don’t care much about login security. Again, there are pros and cons of having login security on a home network. For this discussion we are not going to worry much about security.
Given those to premises of this discussion, let’s start.
We installed the Black Cube and configured it according to the instructions. It is very simple to setup. Connect it to the network, plug it in, install the “connector” software on one machine and then follow what the software tells you to do - which really is all about letting WHS update itself. There just isn’t much more than that.
Since later in this installation we are going to want to use the HCA Web Server and because the way our DSL modem/router works when we set up port redirection, we decided to give the Black Cube a static IP address. Once nice feature of the H340 is that it already provides an easy method for that.
With that completed we restarted the Cube and continued installing the connector software on the other machines on the network. Everything worked fine. That night all the computers on the network were backed up so we know that WHS is working on our network.
The next task was to get a number of serial ports installed as some of the automation interfaces we use for this test needed serial ports. The Black Cube has USB ports but no traditional 9 pin serial ports. We have had good luck over the years working with the ATEN GUC232A that makes a serial port out of a USB port.
Also on the IOGEAR site is the device driver for it:
One thing we worried about was that it didn’t explicitly say that the driver was supported on Windows Server 2003 – what WHS is based on. But we downloaded it anyway.
We next used the Windows “Remote Desktop Connection” software to get access to the Black Cube.
Remote Desktop Connection is simple to use and the program for it is pre-installed on most Windows installations. When we performed the initial configuration of WHS we gave the server a name and a password. Those are the same name and password used by the remote desktop connection.
Once we had made the connection you can see that WHS is really not very happy with you trying to work directly with the machine so it puts up a message that warns you to be careful. We are going to be doing lots of things that WHS doesn’t want you to do. The bottom line is that we don’t want to do anything to mess up WHS. In the book “Windows Home Server for Dummies” by Woody Leonhard, he says that you should not:
- Change files in Windows Explorer. We will only be adding some folders and files not changing any existing stuff.
- Set file or folder access permissions. We don’t do this!
- Do anything with the Disk Manger. We don’t!
- Create new shared folders or modify existing ones. We will not!
- Change user, user groups, add or delete users. We will not do this either! All the work we do is in the Administrator account.
So aside from creating some new folders on the C drive for the HCA installation we will be kind to WHS.
On one of our networked machines we saved the downloaded IOGEAR driver into one of the WHS shared folders so we could get to it when we are working with a Remote Connection.
While connected to the Black Cube with a remote desktop connection, we plugged in one of the USB to Serial widgets. Windows gave us the “New hardware” dialog and we directed it to the folder containing the driver. The driver installer dutifully reported something about how the driver isn’t certified for the operating system but we continued anyway. Turns out that regardless of these messages, the driver works fine. We used the control panel system applet, opened the device manager and saw that a virtual serial port was created for each of the USB to serial widgets we plugged in. The Black Cube has 3 USB ports.
This complete, we then closed down the Remote Desktop Connection.
Now we get into an interesting area that may be – and is to use – a bit confusing. Remote Desktop Connection starts a new “session” on the target computer which isn’t what we want to do. We want HCA to be running on WHS after the machine starts. We don’t want to have to remotely connect and start HCA. Nor do we want to remotely connect and get a new session – one that doesn’t have HCA running. So Remote Desktop Connection isn’t going to work.
What we want is for the Administrator account to get logged in when the computer starts, start HCA, and for us to be able to interact with it. And we can do that.
Since WHS is just another Windows Operating System it can auto logon when the machine starts. We followed these instructions:
We set things up to auto logon the Administrator account. Yes, security people are now becoming very unhappy but we did say we would ignore security.
But how to get remotely connect to that Administrator session? That is where UltraVNC comes in.
Ultra VNC is designed for exactly this, to connect to a session running on another computer. You install the server software on the target computer and the viewer software the other computer you will work from. Download and install of the viewer software went easily. Installing the server wasn’t so simple.
Since the Black Cube has no monitor or keyboard, at this point the only way we had to get to the Black Cube was using a Remote Desktop Connection the same way we got the device driver installed for the USB to serial widget. Luckily we did some research on VNC before we tried to do the install over a Remote Desktop Connection since it has some complexities:
I wish I could say at this point that it all went easily but it didn’t. But after a bit of
work with RegEdit we did get it to work. I wish I could give you the exact steps we followed but, as you can see from the above link, it takes a bit of messing about.
However, once installed UltraVNC works great. The Black Cube boots, it does the auto logon of the administrator account, and starts the VNC service. On another machine we can easily start the VNC viewer and connect to the Black Cube. All great stuff.
VNC does require a password when connecting between the viewer and the server. So there is a bit of security whether we wanted it or not.
At this point we can work with the Black Cube and WHS as if it was just another Windows computer. We copied the HCA install executable and our automation design to one of the Black Cube shared folders. Next we connected to the Black Cube with VNC and ran the HCA executable. HCA installs just like normal. Then we copied all the HCA files for our automation solution from the shared folder to the HCA area of “My Documents”. We started HCA, connected all the automation hardware, and we were ready to go. It all was functional.
The last piece was to make sure that HCA started when the Administrator account logged in. That required, like always, adding HCA to the Windows Startup group and setting HCA to auto load our design file.
And that is really completes it. The Black Cube boots, WHS starts, the Administrator account is logged in, and HCA starts.
A few things we discovered. While the Black Cube doesn’t have a display attached the Windows “Display Properties” can still be set. Up to 2048 by 1536! We selected 1280 by 960 so it would work with the Viewer computer. The VNC viewer has a toolbar that can be turned off so when the VNC window is on the screen, other than the display updating a bit slower than usual, you can easily work with HCA to turn devices on, off, suspend, resume, or whatever. For any real work on the design we would want to do that on another machine then move the design file to the Black Cube when it’s ready for “production work”.
The last piece was to configure HCA to start the HCA Web Server and listen on a port we selected. We didn’t use the 9955 port that HCA defaults to - we picked a different one. We also gave our design a Remote Access Password (Home – Properties and choose the Security tab). Then came configuring our DSL modem to pass that port though – not an easy job and we still have headaches from banging our collectives heads against the wall making it work, but that had nothing to HCA or WHS, blame the DSL modem/router.
We also took some time to install a printer driver on the Black Cube – why not share a printer over the home network? – and also added the Davis Weather Station WeatherLink software for periodic posting of weather data to Weather Underground. All this worked fine.
Was this just an idle experiment in subverting WHS? Not really. HCA runs fine on WHS and WHS stlil does all it is supposed to do. We just took care not to interfere with all the things it needs and wants.
While it would be nice if HCA have a server component and have that install using the “normal” WHS process for Add-Ins (a method for adding services). But that is for the future. For now, we added a great tool to our network – just the backup features alone was worth the $380 – that runs HCA 24/7.