With iPods and hard-disk video players appearing in homes, ordinary consumers want cheap reliable storage they can share - in short, the consumer SAN. The good news is we can all use more convenient storage in business as well.
Last year, Netgear launched a promising product - an enclosure that took two IDE drives - but we eventually found the SC101 not reliable enough for business.
This year, D-Link's DNS-323 storage enclosure may look similar but it is quite different.
The physical side
The DNS-323 is a two-bay enclosure, the size and shape of a toaster. It takes SATA drives, which slide in and meet connectors, without any tools, or cables to plug in. It connects to any available Ethernet port, using Gigabit Ethernet.
The box has a very quiet fan, so there should be no worries with over-heating. With two drives plugged in, it is unobtrusive. Four LEDs show power, network and activity on the two disks. The front panel slides up easily and comes off, giving access to the drive bays - into which we popped two 250 Gbyte Seagate drives.
The CD includes a small program, the Easy Search Utility, which finds the device, displays its status and opens a web page to configure it. The box itself runs Linux (D-Link included a copy of the GPL) and we attached it to a Windows XP machine. It can also be used with Max and Linux systems.
The first stage prompts with four options: a big linear disk (JBOD - just a bunch of disks), two separate disks, or RAID (mirrored or striped). We chose mirrored RAID, and then faced a choice between formatting - EXT2 for performance or EXT3 for stability. After selecting the size of the RAID drive, the rest of the two disks is then a JBOD drive.
Next, the DNS box formats the drives, and restarts with the admin pages proper. The next step is a utility, which prompts to add a password, and offers changes to the IP address and network name, then restarts again. The drives attach easily through the Search Utility, and show up as network drives.
That's really all there is to it. There's an "advanced" tab on the web management pages, which allows groups, users and passwords to be set up (set them up in that order, as you can't go back to edit a user's group membership). This provides a reasonable level of security, for the kind of files that one might store on a portable device.
The product includes a full version of Memeo backup (not a 30-day trial). It gives an easy interface to select files, and pick a destination to back them up to. During the selection process, it scans the size of the files to be backed up, to make sure there is sufficient room.
Memeo doesn't allow much flexibility, but can't be faulted on ease of use. A good feature for a home user, though a business user needing an audit trail might use (and might already have) different back-up software.
One of the benefits of SATA drives is hot pluggability. We gave this a quick check, by ejecting one of the drives (there's a lever at the back) while the box was running. The mirrored drive remained available, while the JBOD drive disappeared.
The JBOD drive re-appeared if the box was powered down, the drive replaced, and the box re-started. Obviously, hot-plugging is what this device is attended for (if you are running something so mission-critical it can't be powered down to change a disk, then run it on something else). This amounted to a check that the mirroring kept our data safe when one drive "failed".
The drives read and wrote at speeds similar to a local hard drive. We were unable to get anything up to Gigabit speeds, owing to limits on the rest of our network. Other testers have found that when the rest of the network is up to scratch, the device will happily write and read data faster than 100 Mbit/s.
As well as all this, there's a USB port for sharing a printer, and built in servers for iTunes, media files, FTP and the like. With a printer plugged into the USB port, it was easy to browse for it and add it to our system. The other servers also did what they were supposed to do.
Attaching a USB printer was painless - the box identified a Dell colour printer and put its name in its status page immediately, and our Windows PC then found it right away. The USB port only supports printers, which is a missed opportunity - it would have been useful to be able to plug USB storage here occasionally.
The management screen allows several other features, including email alerts when the box is full, or at other points, such as when the temperature is high (the status screen tells you the temperature - normally about the same as my own healthy 98C )
With SATA for reliability, standard SMB file protocols, cooling and sensible management software, this wipes out any unhappy memories of the Netgear SC101. With support for Mac and Linux, it could find its way into a lot of small office networks. It does its job very happily.
Really critical back-ups should probably be somewhere else, if only because this is a small portable - and very desirable - box, and someone might decide to walk off with it.
We can see lots of places that might buy one of these, to boost reliability by keeping a local back-up, or set up shared storage easily. The box is easy to set-up and maintain, and does a useful job at a good price. Check out more of our top reviews