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When is a NAS device not really a NAS device? Answer: When it's Seagate's Mirra Sync and Share Personal Server.
On paper it looks a lot like a conventional NAS product, but the Mirra can't be used as stand-alone storage — it's a specialized device that's designed to provide brain-dead simple backup of data stored on individual computers, as well as remote access to and sharing of that data.
Specifications and Installation
Like a typical NAS product, the Mirra is an external storage device that connects to your network via a 100 Mbps Ethernet port. Unlike a typical NAS device the Mirra sports a full complement of I/O ports on the rear — VGA, audio USB, parallel, serial, and TV out. With the exception of the VGA connector (which can be used to view arcane Linux command-line messages), these ports are disabled and have no documented function, but may be used for future expansion.
The Mirra comes in 320 GB or 500 GB versions for $499 and $599, respectively (we looked at the former). Both Mirra models contain only a single hard drive and lack the capability to add internal drives, which precludes expanding the unit's capacity (at least for now) or taking advantage of RAID modes for data redundancy. Although we'd prefer having a way to add storage, the lack of RAID support isn't a big problem considering the Mirra is meant only to back up data from computers.
Getting a NAS device up and running normally consists of using a browser-based administration interface to configure the device, set up user accounts, and create shared folders, but you can't do any of those things with the Mirra. Instead, you configure the Mirra through an client utility that runs either on Windows XP/2000 or Mac OS systems running OS X 10.3.9 or better. (If you try to access the Mirra's IP address from your browser, you'll be promptly greeted with an error message.)
After connecting the Mirra to your network and powering it up, the utility will discover the device and then prompt you to create a name and access password for it, enter a license key, and set up an account at Mirra.com to be used for remote access (more on that later).
Beyond the inability to set up user accounts and folders on the Mirra, you also can't access it through conventional means like drive mapping or through My Network Places. The only way to get data on or off the Mirra is by using the aforementioned software utility.
Backup and Restore
While most NAS devices come with bundled with backup software, they're are often used for other things besides backup, like supplemental storage or as a central repository for data to be accessed by multiple users. In the case of the Mirra, however, data backup isn't just one possible use among many — it's the device's raison d'etre.
When you initially run the Mirra software, it will suggest several important folders to be backed up (for example, your My Documents folder, as well as folders with Outlook/Outlook Express data and Internet Explorer Favorites. You can specify additional folders for backup either within the Mirra software or from anywhere in Windows via a right-click context menu.
When specifying a folder for backup you can't exclude any of the folders within — all subfolders are automatically part of the backup. (Folders that you've tagged for backup with Mirra are flagged with a red icon in the lower left corner so you can easily identify them.)
Upon selecting a folder for backup, the Mirra software will immediately begin copying it up to the device. (open files will also be backed up as long as your system's hard disk is formatted with NTFS.) After an initial backup, the Mirra will continuously monitor the specified folders and back up individual files as they are added or modified on the source system (it will also retain up to eight versions of each file, space permitting). Through the Status tab you can see at a glance which changed files, if any, have yet to be synchronized to the Mirra, but we found most files were synched up within a few minutes. Extremely large files that change often are backed up less frequently in order to avoid bogging down the system or the network.
The Mirra makes backing up individual data folders easy and reliable, but there is something of a catch, and it's that the Mirra is designed only to backup data, not applications or operating system files. So the Mirra won't let you back up your whole hard drive, nor will it back up system, hidden or temporary files, which means it can't help you recover from a complete system crash.
A nice thing about the Mirra software is that has an unlimited license and so it can be installed on every system you have. It's also profile-aware, so multiple people sharing the same system can use the Mirra to back up their own data. The software even seems to work well with Fast User Switching in Windows XP — all profiles using Mirra are monitored and backed up even when not active.
Restoring data from the Mirra also requires the client utility. When you select the appropriate backup from those available on the Mirra (each user can password protect their own backup), you see a hierarchical view of folders and files that can be restored. If there are multiple versions of a file available you can pick the one you want to restore.
Backing up data may be the the Mirra's main function, but that's not it's only talent. In fact, we think the Mirra's biggest strength is its capability to provide remote access to your data. By using your Mirra.com account, you can get access to everything you've backed up on your Mirra device.
Products that offer remote access to data often do so by periodically copying it from your computer up to a centralized server. But when log into Mirra.com you're directly accessing your own Mirra device.
Normally, setting up a device for remote access through the hardware firewall found in virtually every broadband router involves first configuring the firewall to accept incoming traffic on specific IP ports and then direct it to a specific IP address — a process that's often daunting to the non-technical. But much like instant messaging software or remote desktop utilities like GoToMyPC, the Mirra keeps in regular contact with its central server (a broadband Internet connection is required to use remote access) so you can get to it from outside your network without having to make any firewall modifications.
There can be a slight delay after logging in while you wait for your device to be located and accessed (we're talking between 30 and 40 seconds), but we never had a problem reaching our Mirra through the site. Mirra.com site is also SSL-encrypted, so both login credentials and file transfers are secure.
Being able to remotely access files yourself is great, but if you also want to provide others with access to your files the Mirra lets you do that, too. Through the Mirra software you can designate a folder to share and then specify to whom you want to make it available. You can select recipients from a list of all the users and systems on your local network that are running the Mirra software, as well as enter the e-mail address of an outside user. After you share a folder, local recipients will see it published within the Mirra software, while others will receive an e-mail message that includes a link to the shared folder (these users will be prompted to create a Mirra.com account to access the share).
Mirra's sharing feature does have some relatively minor limitations. First, shares automatically are set to last 21 days, a time period that can't be adjusted. (You always have the option to revoke a share at any time.) The Mirra also won't let you share individual files — only folders, so if you want to share a handful of files from different locations you must share the entire folders where they reside, or move them into a new folder and share it.
The Mirra can cost as much as twice what you'd pay for a garden-variety NAS device of the same capacity, but we've never seen a NAS device that made data backup and remote access as simple as the Mirra does. If you need the flexibility of a general-purpose NAS device, then the Mirra isn't for you. But if you're looking for an easy way to backup important data and get to it when you're away from home or office, the Mirra will likely be just what you need.
Seagate Mirra Sync and Share Personal Server
Price: $499 for 320 GB, $599 for 500 GB (MSRP)
Pros: offers web-based remote access to files; no ongoing subscription fee; supports multiple users profiles and systems
Cons: doesn't perform complete system backups; no way to expand storage
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