I have been looking at a number of different low-cost file servers for workgroups and small businesses. Unfortunately, none of them really measure up to the task, either in terms of reliability, ease of use, or simplicity of operations. The products include the Ximeta NetDisk Office, Linksys NSLU2, and the Iogear Boss. Each has some great ideas, but none are well thought out to make a complete product.
The Iogear unit is a complete file-server-in-a-box. It comes with its own firewall/router/four port hub and hard drive. (Two models are available, one with 120 GB for $400 and one with 200 GB for $500.) The trouble is reliability. In torture tests at a local non-profit office, users got read/write errors when they were saving documents on the unit. That is not good news. The overall fit and finish of the product was somewhat cheap, and the way the hard drive is mounted inside the unit isn't well designed. All in all, I didn't have a lot of confidence, especially after my first unit arrived with a broken cable. The firewall features are somewhat basic and I would hesitate using this as my only protection from the big bad Internet at large, but still I give them points for including something here. What I did like was that setup for sharing files took very little time and effort, once the included hard drive was formatted. (Why not pre-format the drive? That's what I mean about fit and finish.) The unit shares files for both Macs and Windows.
Ximeta's NetDisk Office has both the server and an 8-port Ethernet switch in one package for $300, but can't be used as a firewall/router. My first unit arrived with a bad power supply. Once that was fixed, the unit seemed solid. The biggest difference between the Boss and the NetDisk was the latter requires special software to set it up as a server, available for Linux, Windows and Mac OS X. The 120 GB drive comes pre-formatted with NTFS, which means that Windows before 2000 and Mac and Linux will need to reformat the drive with FAT32. Unlike the Boss which uses standard network file shares, the NetDisk software must be loaded on each client on the network before they can share files on the unit. The vendor claims this is a feature, rather than an obstacle. I disagree and think anytime you introduce something new into a network, especially a small workgroup that isn't likely to have much in the way of end-user support, you are asking for trouble.
The third unit that I tried is from Linksys, and it is the oddest of the trio. It doesn't come with its own storage unit, but has two USB v2 ports that you can connect anything from a USB memory stick to an external hard drive (Linksys has a special promotion going with Maxtor right now for their excellent hard drives) depending on your storage needs. Think of it as an Ethernet to USB converter. While this has some appeal in terms of flexibility, it adds an extra configuration step to the process. And for less than $100 (plus the cost of the storage), this could be the least expensive of the three options. Linksys also makes its own network-attached storage unit, the EFG250, but I haven't had a chance to examine that unit yet.
None of these three compare with what I consider the product champion of small business servers, the EmergeCore IT-in-a-Box unit. But the EmergeCore product is more than $1000, so the price point makes it out of reach of the smaller shops. Of course, for this amount of dough you also get an email server and a complete Web platform, not just for sharing files. EmergeCore just started shipping a new version that has removable and redundant disk drives, which makes it more appealing from a security and reliability perspective. (www.emergecore.com)
One option that I didn't explore here was just buying an inexpensive PC and setting it up as a server. After all, for a few hundred dollars more than these products you can get an entire computer these days. That may be the best option, but then you have to resist the temptation to just use the PC as another workstation.
This is an area that is ripe for further innovation, and for better quality and reliability. I don't want an el cheapo file server that is going to conk out on my users. I want something that will work easily into their existing network, and allow me to set up quick and simple back up routines so their files are protected and I actually have a chance at sleeping soundly knowing that I recommended the right system. But maybe that isn't possible at the sub-$500 level right now.
Entire contents copyright 2004 by David Strom, Inc.
David Strom, firstname.lastname@example.org, +1 (516) 562-7151
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