Not many people have heard of Infrant (in the UK at least); it is a small company based in California specialising in network-attached storage (NAS) systems.

However that's going to change as it has just been acquired by Netgear and will be looking after all of Netgear's storage products. Infrant has always had fantastic products, it just lacked the marketing and distribution to get the products out into the global market. Netgear will give it that ability, and Infrant's slightly-advanced and feature-rice products will be a major lead against the SMB (small to medium business), NAS competition such as Buffalo.

The ReadyNAS NV+ is a box measuring 5 1/4 x 7 3/4 x 8 3/4 inches (13.5 x 19.5 x 22.5 cm). It holds 4 SATA (serial ATA) disks mounted in little caddies, which are hot swappable in case of failure (or adding new drives). The NV+ is very similar to the NV except for an LCD panel at the base of the unit which shows what's going on.

There are 3 USB 2.0 ports, 1 Gigabit Ethernet port and a power socket, an on/off button and a back-up button. There's also a system reset button (which requires a paper clip to be poked in) if the system really dies horribly.

Though compact, the NV+ is extremely fully featured, supporting a range of file sharing protocols and streaming protocols for music and video. It's designed to work with Windows and will easily fit into an active directory domain, even automatically importing the users and creating home directories for them.

The NV+ comes with back-up software from EMC (Retrospect, with 5 client licenses for Windows and Macs). The system can have multiple back-up schedules programmed into it that can back-up volumes locally, via the USB port or remotely to another system. The back-up button on the front can also be programmed to trigger one of the schedules.

The Ethernet connection supports anything up to gigabit Ethernet; it also supports jumbo frames (if the LAN infrastructure is compatable) which allows for faster throughput when serving files.

A major advantage of the ReadyNAS compared to other systems is that a hub can be connected to a USB 2.0 port and then devices connected to the hub, so the three on-board ports can be expanded to meet future requirements. This means, for example, it can easily handle seven USB-attached printers in a departmental workgroup.

The hot-swappable disks can be used as extra storage or back-up devices; they'll show up as USB_HDD_1 (where 1 is the number of attached disk). Several disk formats are supported: FAT32; NTFS (read-only); Ext2; and Ext3.

A nice feature is being able to plug a USB Flash (or other) storage device into a USB port and the data will automatically be sucked off and stored on the media volume.

Attached disks or Flash can be formatted using FAT32 or Ext3 and the name can be changed - so the next time it's attached it will show up as that instead of the USB_HDD_1 system default. If you add a 500GB disk, it can be named BIG_DISK and next time it's plugged in, that's what it will show as.

If a printer is plugged in and the system is part of a Windows domain or workgroup then it will be shared using standard Windows printer sharing and just appear on your network.

Various UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supplies) are also supported through a USB port. If the power fails, the NAS will shutdown gracefully and no data is lost. This can also speed disk access as the NAS will cache file writes to memory rather than writing direct to disk. It will know if the power is going to fail, so the cache integrity can be maintained.

The system can maintain several volumes (which maybe be logical partitions on a drive), which are then divided into shares.

Shares are by default shared using Windows File Sharing (or as it's properly known as CIFS or Common Internet File System - which is the standardised version of Microsoft's sharing system); it's also possible to use NFS (Network File System v2 or v3) and AFP (Apple file protocol v3.1) for direct Mac support. FTP, http/https and rsync also also supported on a per share basis.

The ReadyNAS NV+ allows files to be streamed directly so a PC is not required for things like the SlimDevices Squeezebox or other media devices. The system is configured and told where to look for the content (i.e. which volume) and then it will serve it up to your network.

Streaming protocols supported are SlimServer, iTunes Streaming Server, UPnP AV, and Home Media Streaming Server.

The NV+ also supports discovery services (UPnP and Bonjour) which allows clients to automatically find the NAS and find out what capabilities it has.

Infrant utilises a dedicated embedded network processor that has four SATA controllers on-chip too as well as a PCI bus etc. The system runs embedded Linux (a version of Debian) which is known as RAIDiator - though an operating system it's also like firmware that drives everything at a low level. It can be downloaded from Infrant's site (though it's specific to Infrant's chips and won't run on anything else).

Currently everything is set-up through a web front-end (called Frontview) though an ssh remote login system is promised in the future.

Infrant also supplies a piece of software known as RAIDar which runs on Windows and Macs. It will look for Infrant NASes on the network and can be used to monitor them (it will show their status etc).

An Infrant system can be set to use standard RAID 0 (mirroring), 1 (striping) and 5 (parity), also X-RAID, Infrant's variation on RAID-5. It allows drives to be added or even swapped for different capacity drives and it will optimise the RAID charactistics for the number and capacity of the drives in use (RAID-5 dictates drives of the same capacity and at least three of them).

With X-RAID it's possible to start with two or three, say 250GB drives; add a fourth and it will just be joined into the system. When more capacity is required just swap each drive with a higher capacity one (one by one and let each sync). That way the system can grow with use.

A traditional RAID-5 system would require copying all the data off the NAS, then replacing all the drives and restoring the data.

The system is completely set-up through Frontview, the web interface. Out the box it will try and use DHCP to get an IP address, though it can be set statically and then even used as a DHCP server for other devices.

Assuming a unit is purchased already populated with disks, it shouldn't take more than 20 minutes to have the system up and running, joined to a Windows domains and even streaming MP3s.

A very nice feature is adding the system to a Windows domain, it just works and imports all the users and even creates a "private" share for them i.e. \\NAS\steve (in my case).

The set-up for testing mounted the NV+ both from a Windows XP client utilising CIFS, a Linux and Mac system using NFS. Performance wasn't as good as a local (fast SCSI) disk, but the difference wasn't noticable for most applications.

To be honest there are very few shortcomings (remembering the NV+ is designed to be used in a home or office environment). There are a few quirks, but Infrant is very responsive to bug reports and releases timely updates to the software.

Niggles are: -

- Private shares are only available via CIFS or AFP (good for Windows and Mac users, not for Linux users).
- It's not possible (yet) to ssh into the system and remotely administer the unit. It's only configurable via a web browser.
- The system will only cope with 2TB volumes, which means a small amount of disk space is unavailable using 750GB disks. If larger disks become available, the extra space wont be usable. Again, Infrant has promised to "fix" this in a later release of the software.

Apart from those niggles, the system works pretty flawlessly.

OUR VERDICT

For an office, home/office or even home environment buy one now. They just work and integrate into almost any kind of network. Since all data is RAIDed, if a disk fails the system keeps working and the disk can just be replaced, and all data will then be resilient again.