Launched in September, Netgear's Storage Central, is intended as an easy-maintenance SAN box for small businesses and home users.
By selling a box without any drives, Netgear offers a very flexible system that can have 300 Gbyte of online storage for about £150. With 500Gbyte drives currently costing £200, a terabyte would set you back £450 in total. The box supports mirrored and shared drives, and comes with PC software to attach, adjust and manage the drives on the box.
The basic box costs about £57+VAT (from, for example, eBuyer), and looks like a diminutive (4.25 inches high) toaster, with room inside for two IDE drives.
The beauty is in the ability expand and change. I bought two 150 Gbyte drives for about £50 each, and had 300 Gbyte of online storage
The box looks nice - which for a technical user could be a good or bad point. It's clearly designed to look OK and run quietly so it can sit in public view in offices without a wiring closet.
It has three LEDs - for disk, power and network, and two connections, for an Ethernet cable and power. There is no fan - the box uses passive cooling through a ridged metal heatsink on the top - and there is no power switch.
The install is - given the intended customer - blindingly easy. The end hatch opens easily with a coin, the drives slide snugly into the slots provided, and it's straightforward to plug the power and data connectors.
Then with power and Ethernet connected, the device gets IP addresses for the two disks from the networks DHCP server (in my case a Netgear RangeMax WPN824). In about five minutes, the box was on, with network and power lights steady.
In the process, the software in the box, from Zetera, formats the drives to Zetera's own SFSZ format. This is obvious enough, but means if you put a drive that has data already into the machine, the data will be lost.
The software installed easily on the PC - at present there is no Linux or Mac version. Once installed, it downloaded a firmware upgrade. Netgear has made a few upgrades since launching the product, mostly apparently in the category of performance improvement rather than fixing major bugs. It is clearly worth keeping the device tuned to look for firmware upgrades, as future upgrades are intended to fix specific issues (more later).
A sensible Wizard guided me through the process of setting up new drives within the space on the two disks, and allowed me to fulfill a small dream. At last, like a real systems administrator, I have shared drives with stupid names (Wooty and Pooty). I intend to add Lord of the Rings characters in the remaining space.
Wooty is a 50 Gbyte drive shared with other PCs on the network, and Pooty is a mirrored drive, also shared, and intended for reliable backups.
To attach the drives to other PCs on the network, the same software must be installed on each one. It was also necessary to add the drives to the trusted zone on my PCs firewalls, and configure the firewall to give the manager software access to the Internet for upgrades.
When creating drives, the software advises against setting up any shared drives without passwords, and warns on the basic limitations (a drive can't be mirrored after it is set up.
The package also includes a trial version of Smart Sync - software which keeps important files constantly backed up on a SAN drive. After 30 days, it costs $30 to continue using this, or else one has to check the Internet for other options.
Setting up regular back ups was convenient and simple, and full backups of the c: drive using the inbuilt Windows back-up tool went well.
The device mostly works over a wireless LAN for file access, but I found that in my particular set-up large back-ups over wireless regularly failed. Other users report success in this matter, so it may well be my combination of hardware and software that caused the problem: a 6Gbyte backup from an IBM T22 Thinkpad, using Windows 2000's Backup tool would fail after several hours, even when 30Mbit/s or more of wireless data-rate was available.
Saving and reading normally-sized files from SAN drives happens at perfectly satisfactory speeds, but larger files will obviously move slowly, and the performance of mirrored drives is markedly worse than non-mirrored drives.
File transfers within the box were surprisingly slow. Copying 20 Gbyte from Wooty to Pooty took around 200 minutes, for instance.
Some users online have worried that without a fan, and in a sealed enclosure designed to look good, the disks may run hot. There are customers out there who have drilled holes in the box to get more airflow.
I did not notice any performance issue, and the heat seemed within tolerance to me. There are suggestions that Netgear is going to give the disks the ability spin down when not in use, giving the device time to cool down in the gaps in normal use.
Another drawback suggested by the paranoid could arise from the device's proprietary file system. If a disk fails, the data on it might be inaccessible to forensic data recovery tools. If the drive is mirrored, this would be highly unlikely to ever be a problem.
Easy to set-up and upgrade, this is a good cheap option for backup in a small office.