At the end of 2005, we reviewed Netgear's Storage Central, and gave it a thumbs up, as a simple storage box for SOHO and small business users.

Half a year on, our opinion has changed. With more experience on the product, we now feel this effort to produce a SAN at a consumer-grade pricing is a failure. Not so much because of the specific problems we have had, but for the inadequacy of the software in preventing and dealing with these problems.

At the time we wrote the first review, we saw several issues raised in an active support forum at Netgear. Those issues included concerns about overheating, which seemed overstated to us at the time.

Problems
Last year we used the SC101 Manager Utility to set up two drives, Wooty and Pooty. Pooty was a mirrored drive, intended to be reliable. We added space to these drives using the Utility.

We noticed that performance was slow on two of our machines, which we put down to the wireless link. After a few months, we noticed that drives would sometimes detach from these machines, and could be re-attached if the software was re-installed. The manager software slowed right down, so that sometimes the act of attaching a drive could take an hour or more.

Then things got still worse. Drives would be visible on one machine, invisible on another, and partially visible (some folders but not others) on a third machine. On one machine, drives would show in My Computer, but not in the Manager utility. One drive was visible in the Manager utility, but not attached. Despite this, the only option the software offered was to Detach it.

Something was seriously wrong.

We attempted to resolve the issue through NetGear support (having discovered that the support forums had been "such a success" that Netgear had closed them, redirecting traffic to its support service). Emails to support didn't get a quick response, but playing the "journalist" card got us a phone call from Netgear.

Don't do what the software says
This was a revelation. The first thing we were told was that our mirror was broken. We'd added capacity to the drive after the mirror was set up, and that - apparently - breaks the mirror. Incredibly, we did this with the Manager software provided, which allows and encourages this, and makes no mention of the problem.

Secondly, we were told that we had "spanned" too often. The manager makes it easy to add capacity to a drive once it is set up, and just shows a bigger drive, but this is actually a second partition, spanned to the first one. One of our drives had three partitions. "I've never seen that many partitions!" said the shocked-sounding support worker.

More partitions is a problem, apparently, because it overloads the network with too much traffic. Again, some warning from the Manager software would be useful.

The third surprise was the advice to get it working. "Turn off your personal firewall," we were told. We weren't keen on this - and had already set up ZoneAlarm to allow the SC101's Zetera software to pass. Apparently the firewall must be set to open UDP 20001. Some personal firewalls - such as the free version of ZoneAlarm, don't allow this level of granularity.

Finally, the fourth surprise was the way we found all this out - the route to fixing it. "Open a command prompt," said the support worker, "Go to the SC101 Manager Utility directory, and run the UT command."

Go to the command prompt!It turns out that to fix anything on the box, needs a command line utility called UT, that is not mentioned in the Help files, not documented and, in my view, disqualifies this as a consumer or small business product. Other Netgear users were surprised about this, as can be seen from the forum entries still in Google's cache.

UT is a basic program: it just lists the SAN partitions, gets information about partitions, and removes them and uploads firmware. You have to use it, because - as we found - when things get out of kilter, the Manager utility can't remove or handle partitions, because it can't even see them properly.

Fixing our problems involved consolidating all our files into one new drive and deleting all the old ones. They had to be deleted using the UT command. We promised not to span our drives any more.

Mirrors aren't reliable
Even this did not sort everything out. Our first new mirrored drive broke unexpectedly within a few days. As we were by now expecting, the Manager software gave no indication that it was broken; We used the ut getpart command to send information about the partitions to Netgear, who told us it was broken and should be deleted.

This was a shock. Mirroring is supposed to make drives reliable, so they can recover from this. The only option we were given was to delete the whole thing. In the process we lost a lot of ripped CDs but luckily no business-critical data.

DHCP issues
We came up with one other issue in dealing with the drives. When it is unplugged and replugged (the only way to reboot it), it can get a different IP address from the DHCP server in our router. This isn't insurmountable, but it can give the PCs a harder time finding the drives again. If your router allows permanently assigned IPs, use it to fix the drives to one address.

As we write this, we have one partition that is mirrored - or at least we hope it is - and visible to all machines. The machine is working smoothly at present, but on our past experience, we wouldn't rule out future problems.

OUR VERDICT

If you buy this, prepare for teething troubles, expect to use the command prompt utility, and don't trust the management software. The software provided is not of high enough quality for the small-business / consumer product this is intended as.