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Remember back a few years when most of us had hard disks we thought we could never fill? Well, that was then. Today, the ubiquity of devices such as MP3 players and digital cameras (still and video), combined with the ever increasing size of applications and their bloated data files means that there's a good chance that you'll find yourself in desperate need of a bigger hard disk sooner or later.
Boosting your storage capacity isn't always straightforward, though, especially if you want to share that storage on a home network. For example, directly connecting internal or external hard drives to a PC makes software firewall configuration a hassle. Conversely, while many networked attached storage (NAS) devices are now available for home networks, most are expensive and often difficult, if not impossible, to expand.
Netgear thinks it has found a solution in the form of its $129 SC101 Storage Central, a compact brick into which you can insert economical internal Enhanced IDE drives and expand the storage capacity of a PC, back up systems or a home network, or use as a centralized repository for shared data like music, photos, movies and so on.
The diminutive SC101 chassis measures 6.75 x 4.25 x 5.66 and is a model of clean and efficient design. The rear of the unit sports an RJ-45 port (alas, not Gigabit but 100Mbps Ethernet). A locking front panel (with power, HDD and network LEDs) pops off — it opens with a coin or flathead screwdriver, not a key — to reveal a pair of snug drive cavities, each with its own 40-pin ribbon data cable and 4-prong power connector. According to Netgear, the SC101 is compatible with most standard late-model internal IDE hard drives regardless of capacity or manufacturer, though they must be parallel ATA (with at least an ATA-100 interface) rather than the newer Serial ATA (SATA) variety.
Unlike adding drives to a typical desktop PC, the SC101 doesn't present you with the hassles of a cramped case, with sharp-edged drive cages and cables that don't quite reach. You don't even need screws to mount the drives into the SC101. You simply slide them in and attach the parallel and power cables. You can start out with one drive and add a second later, though you must power the unit down before doing so.
The weight of the internal drives keep the SC101 firmly planted on any flat surface, and while operational the device is virtually silent, except for the faint whirring of the drive(s) within. The SC101 has no fan, and dissipates heat via large heat sinks that are built flush into the top and underside of the device.
When you power up the SC101, it looks for a DHCP server — a prerequisite for using the SC101, as assigning it a static IP is not an option. (The device actually seeks out a separate IP address for each of its installed drives.) The device, which is based on Zetera's MicroSAN technology, is configured and managed differently than a typical home networking or networked storage devices. For example, you can try entering an SC101 IP address into a browser, but you won't get any response because you interact with the device entirely through the included Storage Central Manager utility, which runs on Windows 2003, Windows XP SP2 or Windows 2000 SP4 only. (The SCM is also used upgrade the SC101's firmware.)
After the SCM detects the presence of an SC101 on the network, a wizard takes you through the steps necessary to set up a disk volume. Aside from specifying the drive's size, you also have the option to designate whether you want it mirrored for redundancy (an option when you have two physical disks installed and available only when you first create a drive) and/or shared with other systems on the network.
Rather than relying on conventional network drive mapping to make drives available, the SCM installs a virtual SCSI adapter, which allows a Windows system to display any SC101 "volume" as if it were local. The SC101 uses a proprietary file system to format disks, so any disk used with the device won't be directly readable in a PC. In fact, an SC101 drive doesn't contain any actual partitions, only raw blocks of data that the SCM maps to the PC via an IP address.
Security and Performance
To protect your data, the SC101 provides three tiers of security. The SCM client serves as a rudimentary first layer of protection because without the client there is no way to access to the SC101. Unless a volume is denoted as shared (either at the time of creation or later on) it will be accessible only on the system that was used to create it. For further security you can choose to password-protect a partition at any time. (If you're going to connect the SC101 to a wireless network, password-protecting any shared partition and using wireless encryption on your WLAN is advisable since the SCM software is freely available from Netgear's Web site.)
While the SC101's security features offer sufficient barriers against unauthorized outside access, it presents a limitation when it comes to internal security, as it doesn't (at least for the moment) provide any user-based access control. The sharing feature and password protection serve only to prevent a given volume from being visible and set up on a PC via the SCM. Once the volume is "attached" to a particular system, there's no way to control access to it on that system. In other words, if one user of a sets up a SC101 volume all the system's user profiles will have unfettered access to it.
Of course, no network storage device will ever give you the performance of a hard drive connected directly to a PC, and between the bottleneck imposed by Fast Ethernet and software overhead, the SC101 is no exception. According to Netgear, those planning to use the SC101 primarily for high-quality video streaming should use the highest-performance drives possible (those with 7200 RPM rotations and a buffer size of 8MB or larger). I didn't have any problems streaming audio and moderate-resolution video using a 7200 RPM/2MB hard disk, though you might expect performance to suffer somewhat when several systems attempt to access the same SC101 drive simultaneously.
For all its ease of setup, daily life with the SC101 was not without its hiccups. Most were merely irksome, though a couple involved more serious issues. For example, the SC101 seemed to have trouble with the transfer of large files or folders. During many such transfers, although the copy dialog's animation would continue, a look at the system's inactive disk and network activity lights would indicate that the transfer had failed. A few large transfers even caused the PC to freeze up or spawn a dreaded BSOD (Blue Screen of Death).
I encountered this phenomenon several times while copying a 6.2 GB folder of Audible.com Audiobooks (in which the sizes of many individual file reached 100 MB or more), and several other large folders. The SC101 was able to better digest the data when transferred in smaller chunks.
There are also limitations to what you can do to a drive once it's created, and certain aspects of the SCM could be a bit more user-friendly. Although you can rename a volume and add capacity to it at any time, you currently can't reduce the size of a volume, un-mirror it or remove password protection once you've enabled it (though you can change a password). If the system to which a non-shared drive is attached becomes "unavailable" (either through physical loss or a system crash) the SCM is rendered useless, so you'll need a command-line utility to reclaim the drive and its contents.
From a cost perspective, the SC101 compares favorably with most types of network storage. Given that you can purchase a 250GB hard disk online for around $100, you could easily outfit an SC101 with a half-terabyte of storage (or 250GB mirrored) for less than $350. If you're so inclined, you can use larger drives or have even multiple SC101 units on your network.
All in all, there's much to like about the Netgear Storage Central SC101. It's relatively low price and ease of setup make it worth a look if you want to add storage to a home network, though the volume-management limitations and large-transfer difficulties might make it worthwhile to wait a while until some of the kinks are worked out of the software.
Price: $129 (ESP)
Pros: inexpensive uses easily installable IDE hard drives supports disk mirroring
Cons: problems during some large file transfers lacks user-based access control administration flexibility can be limited
Joe Moran is a regular contributor to PracticallyNetworked.com.