“I know the fans are noisy, and we’ve told them to change them,” were the words of Iomega’s product manager just before this rack-mountable NAS unit arrived at our door. And he’s right – think of a 747 at take-off, multiply it up a few times, and you’re about there. Despite the racket, however, we persevered with a review. The NAS P850M is a 2U headless server with eight hot-pluggable 180GB 7,200rpm ATA disks in the front panel, three network adaptors (including a Gigabit Ethernet port with TOE capability) in the back and a pair of power supplies for redundancy. It has a pair of P4 processors running at 2.4GHz, a couple of gigabytes of RAM, and four hot-swap noisemaking fans. The good old days
The P850M, like all NAS units, takes fileserving back to the good old days. Those were the days when a server did just fileserving, and did it fast, instead of trying to be a mail server, DNS, DHCP, mainframe interface and all those other things that detract from its performance serving files. In this case the P850M is a Windows 2000 Advanced Server-based unit, with the ability to serve not just Windows clients but also NetWare, Unix (NFS) and Macintoshes – and to treat shared folders as Web or FTP servers. It can either exist as a stand-alone unit or connect to an existing Active Directory or NetWare bindery. Management of the unit is done through a secure Web interface. When you first turn it on you run a “Discovery” application that detects the unit on the network via its MAC address. It allows you to set the address to something your Web browser can comprehend (or alternatively switch on DHCP and let it auto-set the IP details). After this initial setup, though, it’s all Web-based. The config screens allow you to create users, define shared folders, set access permissions and all the stuff you’d usually expect from any file sharing setup. You can also manage the low-level disk arrangements – how they’re configured within RAID partitions and such like. In fact, this function is handled not by a custom interface but via a Terminal Services plug-in to the Web interface (so what you’re actually seeing is Windows Disk Manager in a plug-in to the Web browser). Setting up shares, and defining the access rights for them, is handled by the Web-based control panel itself. Although it’s a little bit alien for those who are used to the Windows native permissions screens, you soon get the hang of it. It’s based on the Windows access control scheme anyway, so the familiar concepts are there, it’s just the actual look and feel that’s different. Pulling the plug
The control panel includes status monitoring and log file browsing – both Windows’ standard logs and the Iomega-specific ones. If the power supply to one of the PSUs fails (or, like us, you yank the cable out to see what happens) an alert is flagged on the admin screen. If you’ve set the email configuration parameters, it’ll email you a warning as well (incidentally, you can choose to be mailed only in an emergency or for less pressing problems too). Similarly if a disk fails, the admin screens will tell you so. Because of all the redundancy options built into the unit, items can generally be swapped on the fly with no interruption to service. Further redundancy is available by configuring a pair of units in failover mode. Incidentally, this doesn’t use Windows’ own clustering in order to keep Microsoft licensing costs down. In addition to this failover capability, the system has several built-in backup mechanisms including the ability to take “snapshots” of the current disk state and hive them off, or do a disk-to-disk backup for ease of recovery. It’s worth noting that the backup capability includes a pile of recovery tools too. The P850M is an interesting and usable NAS device and it’s not monstrously expensive. At £12,500 it’s a couple of thousand more expensive than buying your own machine and configuring it (we did a quick check on Dell’s Web site and a PowerEdge 4600 in a similar configuration came in around £10,400). For that, you do get the hassle and extra cost of Windows 2000 client licensing taken off your hands (the Iomega box doesn’t need client access licences) and the Web-based administration screen is, in places at least, an improvement on the way Windows works.

OUR VERDICT

This type of device shouldn’t be way more expensive than building your own server, but a small price premium is acceptable. It should be easy to manage, quick to get up and running, integrate well with the corporate directory service, and have simple backup/restore operations. If units have Gigabit Ethernet, check for TOE support as it aids performance at high speeds.