One thing a network will always be short of is storage. As clients' hard disks grow, so do the volumes of data they want to store locally and share on a central server. Yet, for a small or medium-sized business, adding hard disks to a server to keep users happy is a tiresome and often time-consuming business. You need to take the server down -- which in itself is problematic in today's always-on environment -- and probably dismantle bits of the server's internals to find room for the mechanism, along with re-routing cables. It may entail installing new I/O cards and loading new drivers too -- adding time and complexity, not to mention potential instabilities. The bottom line is that it can be very costly.
One alternative is to buy another PC-based server. This also gets expensive, not least because it will take time to set up and manage and, because of its complexity, will be less reliable than a dedicated file server. Effectively such a server bought purely for file sharing is wasting its potential. What's more, it has been estimated (by research company Gartner) that lost productivity from server downtime ranges from $200-$2,000 per hour for small businesses, and can be even higher for Web-based businesses.
Far easier, then, to buy a network attached storage (NAS) appliance that simply plugs into the network and, after a little setting up, can simply be left alone. In fact, this ease of use combined with the plummeting cost of storage means that NAS has grown to become a very popular hardware category.
NAS boxes are designed for file sharing rather than running applications, although they make useful backup devices too, since users can copy the contents of their hard disks whenever it suits them. This is likely to be important where the business or branch has no network manager to enforce backup policies.
So the ideal NAS appliance will allow the administrator to manage disk space and set up private areas for users, serve a range of clients, and can be simply plugged into the network and start work with minimal configuration. All three products tested here can do that but some, as we shall see, offer considerably more. With that in mind we asked three NAS vendors -- Evesham Technology, Linksys and SnapAppliance -- to supply a solution they believed was suited to a small or medium-sized business, with a maximum price of around £1,000. We also asked Iomega to participate, but unfortunately, the company was unable to get a product to us in time.
Adding storage is easy to do, and all three of these products can handle the requirements of a home office, or small to medium-sized business. They are all easy to fit and work pretty much straight out of the box. Interestingly though, there's a fair difference between them in terms of functionality and price.
The Snap Server 1100 is a good-looking device that offers just what it promises -- extra storage, with the additional benefit of portability. It's a professional-looking product, from user interface to box to documentation. However, in spite of its portability, the Snap Server 1100 falls down when it comes to price. Although the version we looked at contained 120GB, the 80GB version still costs £449, while the 80GB Linksys EFG80 costs only £416 and has the capacity to either add another mechanism or upgrade existing drives. So for a simple file storage device, the Linksys product takes top honours for flexibility.
However, compared to Evesham's NAS-2108R, the feature sets of the other two products start to look threadbare. This NAS box can do pretty much everything you want from a network gateway at a price below £1,000 -- you don't even need to buy a switch or hub. However, you'd also have to budget for the time it will take to fine-tune the configuration to suit your network's circumstances which, in some cases, may not be trivial. And the usual caveats regarding all-in-one devices apply here -- should you need to upgrade one component, you end up throwing everything away.
In summary, for portable NAS, the Snap Server 1100 is the product to go for. For a do-it-all approach, the Evesham NAS-2108R boasts a superb feature set and is hard to beat. But for essential NAS functionality the Linksys EFG80 GigaDrive delivers the goods at an attractive price, and so wins our Editors' Choice.