Storage in a Snap

FRAMINGHAM (04/18/2000) - Even the most diligent of us run out of storage for our precious files, and sooner or later we have to add new storage servers or upgrade our existing servers with larger hard disks. Enter network-attached storage (NAS) devices: Low-end, self-contained appliances that don't need keyboards, monitors or much else besides an Ethernet connection and AC power jacks to deliver gigabytes of disk space to your workgroup or remote office.

Besides being a replacement for a standard PC-based Windows NT or NetWare server, NAS devices are also great for small businesses or remote offices where support staff is thin to nonexistent. They are also great if you need to place a server in a public area and want the added security of not having a keyboard and monitor to tempt prying eyes and fingers. And some offer easy methods of adding extra storage when the original drives inevitably fill up with files.

We tested seven devices: Linksys Group Inc.'s Instant GigaDrive, Quantum Corp.'s Snap Server, Hewlett-Packard Co.'s SureStore, Intel Corp.'s InBusiness Storage Station, Maxtor's MaxAttach, JES Hardware Solutions' Net Raptor and Network Storage Solutions' (NSS) NAS Engine 1U.

With the NAS device market so active, we weren't able to test additional products because they weren't ready for our deadlines, and two of the above vendors announced upgrades during our tests. Intel announced a 13G-byte server, using embedded NT technology, and JES was in the process of upgrading its firmware, promising significant performance improvements.

Quantum's Snap Server snapped up our Blue Ribbon Award for the best combination of features, ease of use and simple configuration. However, depending on your needs, the other products are worth a look.

If you're starting a network from scratch, Linksys' Instant GigaDrive is attractive, given its humble $649 price tag and its included printer port. The Intel and Maxtor units are also good for small workgroups. If you're looking for redundant operations, HP's SureStore unit shines. Finally, NSS' NAS Engine 1U gets the nod if you're concerned about performance and rack-mountability.

The devices come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from Instant GigaDrive, which is about the size of a large dictionary, to NAS Engine 1U. NAS Engine 1U was the oddest shaped thing we've tested lately. It was about 2 inches high, 19 inches wide (for rack-mounting) and 2 feet long. It reminded us of a large pizza box. NAS Engine 1U was the only box we tested that had attachments for a PC keyboard and screen.

Price and value

The seven servers we tested ranged in price from Linksys' Instant GigaDrive at $649 to HP's SureStore at $6,600. The disk drives varied in size from 20G bytes (Instant GigaDrive) to 75G bytes (Maxtor's MaxAttach). Each vendor also sells other setups than what we tested. The best value (determined by dividing the price by the number of gigabytes of available disk storage) is Intel's InBusiness Storage Station. At $22 per gigabyte, it is about twice what you would pay for the average high-performance stand-alone hard disk drive at most computer stores. The worst value was NSS' NAS Engine 1U, at more than 10 times the per-gigabyte price of the Intel box.

But a real comparison of the value of NAS servers should include two additional factors.

First is the amount of time you need to install a raw hard disk inside an existing PC server. The NAS devices took minutes to set up, compared with the average of at least an hour to take apart a standard PC and install a new disk drive. The second factor is the extra components that come included with several of the units, such as RAID drives, extra power supplies and other gear normally found only on high-end servers. Because of those factors, the extra per-gigabyte price tag of these NAS devices is well worth it.

Configuration and setup

The basic strategy with each server is similar: Plug it in to the network and power supply, start it up, set up the IP address, and then add users and groups. Depending on the complexity of your network and the diversity of your clients, you'll either have a little or a lot of work to do in terms of integration. All these devices perform well if you are creating a virgin network with no users and no existing NT domains. Each device can be used as a primary domain controller and a Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) server to dole out IP addresses. All the devices were all easier to set up than a standard NT file server. That's the good news.

The bad news is that sometimes not having a keyboard or a monitor was a drawback in navigating the administration screens for more complex setups. All the devices (except NSS' NAS Engine 1U, which has keyboard and monitor attachments) use a combination of Windows software and a Web browser for configuration chores. Once you set up initial device parameters such as the IP address and server name, you no longer need to run the Windows software and can make do exclusively with the Web interface. However, you'll want a relatively fast 200-MHz or better Pentium to run the Web software; otherwise you'll be waiting as the various Java programs slowly load.

Overall features

All the devices can fit with 10M-bps or 100M-bps Ethernet networks, and they all automatically sensed the appropriate speed without user intervention. Most of the devices came with the default setting to look for a DHCP server and automatically set their IP addresses accordingly, which made it easy to set them up on existing networks. The notable exceptions were Linksys' Instant GigaDrive, NSS' NAS Engine 1U and JES' Net Raptor, which required manual IP address configuration before they could function on our test network.

Instant GigaDrive is the only unit with a parallel printer port on back. This is handy for smaller workgroups that want shared files and the ability to share a printer without a separate print server box. HP's SureStore was the only unit with removable hard disk drives, using a rather elegant and simple design that doesn't require any tools. You can remove a drive in a few seconds with nothing more than some elbow grease; you can also hot swap drives. Up to six drive bays were included on the unit we tested.

NAS Engine 1U, SureStore and Net Raptor have external SCSI connectors for connecting tape drives (and disk drives in the case of NAS Engine 1U) to the unit. SureStore also comes with a second power supply to add to the redundancy of the unit. SureStore and NAS Engine 1U come with serial console connectors for hooking up terminals to operate them, if you desire. We didn't test these connections because the Web interface handled all our configuration needs.

NAS Engine 1U is the only device that can be operated with the usual PC keyboard and monitor, which attach via a special connector supplied with the unit. However, we found the Web interface screens were more intuitive than using the keyboard and monitor. Once we had set up the IP address, the monitor and keyboard were superfluous.

Users and groups

Each of the servers has varying degrees of integration into existing network directories and users. However, none were completely effortless. If you plan on distributing these across your enterprise, it will take some work to set up the appropriate access controls and ensure that intended groups of users have the appropriate access for particular shared folders.

Quantum's Snap Server and HP's SureStore can import existing users from NT domains, but the users don't show up on the administration screens -- you have to look for them elsewhere. For example, on the Snap Server screen the users are located in Security > Network Shares > Access, not the most obvious place.

Neither unit supported our Windows 2000 Active Directory setup, but both worked fine with standard NT domain controllers. On NSS' NAS Engine 1U, we could set up a private directory, but had problems gaining access under shared-level security. On the version we tested, user-level security was disabled. NSS says it hopes to support this feature in a future release of the firmware.

We also liked the way Snap Server warned us when we purposely set up an improper network share,a private subdirectory of a public folder. You are mostly on your own with the other devices in setting up shared folders, and none of the other boxes were as sophisticated as Snap Server at issuing warnings.

Intel's InBusiness Storage Station and Maxtor's MaxAttach authenticated users from our Win 2000 directory, even though we didn't see anything that indicated this ability. At first we thought it was a bug, but as our tests proceeded we decided it is a feature that makes it easier to integrate into existing networks. Linksys' Instant GigaDrive didn't recognize anyone outside of the user list maintained on the box itself, although it has the ability to support guest users' access to a public-shared drive. However, we liked that Instant GigaDrive could track disk quotas on a per-user basis. This is something that has been missing from NT since its inception, but is finally available in Win 2000.

JES' Net Raptor had the most trouble integrating into our existing NT domains.

If you don't have the correct access rights, you can still view the directory shares in Windows Explorer, but not the files. That is a potential support problem, not to mention a security issue for some corporations. You'll also have to explicitly add the computer name of the device to your domain in NT's Server Manager. The other devices did a better job of integrating into an existing network.

Client support

Snap Server, Net Raptor, Instant GigaDrive and NAS Engine 1U will let you browse and view the contents of your shared files via a Web browser. This makes it easy for people in your organization to share files. If that idea scares you, each of those servers lets you turn off the Web browser function.

Snap Server has the best multiclient support, including the ability to share files among NetWare, Macintosh and Network File System (NFS) users. Instant GigaDrive also supports sharing files with Macintosh users. Macintosh users have no extra steps, they just pick the server from the chooser as they would any other Appleshare server. This also means Windows users can collaborate and share files with their colleagues running Microsoft Office on a Mac by saving their files to the NAS device. That's a nice feature found on NT servers.

Net Raptor supports NetWare and FTP clients, and a future release will support NFS. NAS Engine 1U supports NFS with its current release. Intel's InBusiness Storage Station and Maxtor's MaxAttach stick with Microsoft Networking clients only.

Documentation, reports and alerts

We put more emphasis on the layout of the Web administration screens than the printed documentation, given that mostly entry-level network administrators would be using these products. The printed manuals from HP, Quantum and Intel were superior to the rest in terms of clarity and utility.

All of the boxes (except Quantum's Snap Server and NSS' NAS Engine 1U) can be set up to send e-mail alerts and log files on either a regular basis or when there are problems. JES' Net Raptor, Intel's InBusiness Storage Station and Maxtor's MaxAttach, can set the complexity of these alerts, such as sending just warnings, errors or everything. The NAS Engine 1U server has particularly obtuse settings to determine what gets reported to the log. All log files can be viewed with a Web browser as part of the administrative interface, once you know where to find them.

RAID, mirroring and backup features

HP's SureStore is the most capable unit with RAID features. The unit supports RAID 5 disk arrays, meaning one disk can fail and the unit will still operate and serve up your files. This feature, coupled with its redundant power supply, makes SureStore the most reliable of the bunch. NSS' NAS Engine 1U has an optional RAID controller box at an additional price, along with a redundant Ethernet connection. However, it isn't hot-swappable and must be reconfigured if the primary Ethernet port fails.

InBusiness Storage Station, MaxAttach and Snap Server could also mirror their disk drive or drives. While you halve your overall storage, you increase the potential reliability of the unit by having a second copy in case anything gets damaged. Setting this up is very easy, but you have to decide this before you put the device into production because any drive reconfiguration will result in data loss. Linksys says it is adding this feature in the next release of Instant GigaDrive.

NAS Engine 1U, InBusiness Storage Station and SureStore also came with backup capabilities. The SureStore unit we tested came with an optional Digital Audio Tape drive. However, its backup utility was difficult to use, and we had trouble getting some simple file restores to work properly. Intel includes a copy of Centered Systems' Second Copy 2000 software in its package, which works from a PC workstation to make copies of the files on the server. Unless you have a large hard disk on your PC or few files on your Intel server, this approach won't be very effective.

NAS Engine 1U supports tape backups, but we did not have a tape drive available for tests. Its backup software runs from the Web management interface and is somewhat clunky, compared to those versions available from numerous Windows backup software vendors.

Strom was the founding editor-in-chief of Network Computing magazine and has written numerous articles and product reviews. He can be reached at david@strom.com.

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