Review: Cisco Makes Smart Storage for Dummies


In early June, Cisco Systems hit a sweet spot with NSS 300 Series Smart Storage, its latest line of network-attached storage arrays that more appropriately might been called “storage for dummies.”

Each and every step of the setup -- from installation of the drives to deciding how to back them up -- is documented and performed by a multi-part wizard that even lists the tools and parts needed and illustrates what to do with photos of each task. Setup is absolutely idiot-proof, and that’s saying a lot about a box that not only serves files to Linux, Mac and Windows clients, but also does performs FTP, HTTP, NFS, iTunes, Twonky media, Wordpress and MySQL services by simply checking a box.

The CRN Test Center received the high-end six-drive Smart Storage model for testing. It’s also available with four or two drive bays, and all are hot-swappable. Initial setup is performed through a Windows app, and required about 15 minutes including drive initialization. After that, all monitoring and maintenance is done through a browser. There’s even a browser-based drag-and-drop client as well as the ability to download files directly to the SAN. This eliminates the middle step of moving downloaded files from a client machine to a shared server folder.

The ingenious device -- about the size of a four-slice toaster -- is actually a Atom-based dual-core PC running Linux 2.6, with VGA and USB peripheral ports for those inclined toward the command line (the box itself contains no GUI). Testers were content to use the two-line status LCD, which indicates when the system is booting, displays networking and other vital data, can reboot, power down, and even change the password.

During setup, testers accepted most of the default settings, configuring all six drives as a RAID-5 array. They then executed some timed file transfers and measured average transfer rate of 269 Mbs from a Windows client to the SAN, and 366 Mbs from one SAN folder to another. Drives also can be configured as a single disk, RAID 0, 1 or 6, 5+hot spare, or as a JBOD (just a bunch of disks). Internal drives require EXT3 or EXT 4; external drives (via its 2 eSATA ports) can also use NTFS of FAT32 formats.

Next: NSS 300 Series Smart Storage CapabilitiesThe ingenious device -- about the size of a four-slice toaster -- is actually an Atom-based dual-core PC running Linux 2.6, with VGA and USB peripheral ports for those inclined toward the command line (the box itself contains no GUI). Testers were content to use the two-line status LCD, which indicates when the system is booting, displays networking and other vital data, can reboot, power down, and even change the password.

During setup, testers accepted most of the default settings, configuring all six drives as a RAID-5 array. They then executed some timed file transfers and measured average transfer rate of 269 Mbs from a Windows client to the SAN, and 366 Mbs from one SAN folder to another. Drives also can be configured as a single disk, RAID 0, 1 or 6, 5+hot spare, or as a JBOD (just a bunch of disks). Internal drives require EXT3 or EXT 4. External drives (via its 2 eSATA ports) can also use NTFS of FAT32 formats.

Other protocols that can run in the box include CIFS/SMB, AFP, iSCSI, Telnet, SSH, SNMP, SMTP and DHCP. Dual Gigabit Ethernet ports can be configured for extra bandwidth (port trunking), failover redundancy (802.3ad) or LAN bridging. Also supported are uPnP and Bonjour discovery.

Among the smartest capabilities of Smart Storage are its backup methods. Administrators can mix and match from Apple Time Machine, block-level remote replication, Rsync and redundancy with external storage devices. AFP must be running to use Time Machine, and is otherwise not needed for Mac OS X clients. Also interesting is the so-called USB One Touch, a built-in backup routine that works with a front-mounted USB port (one of five on the unit). Pressing a dedicated button either copies the contents of a specified SAN folder to the inserted USB stick, copies what’s on the stick to a SAN folder, or synchronizes between the two. Pretty nifty for daily off-site storage of, say, the day’s financial transactions.

Cisco has delivered something quite special with NSS 300 Series Smart Storage, and the CRN Test Center wholeheartedly recommends the line for resellers in need of a multi-purpose server for today’s do-it-yourself client.

List pricing starts $913 for the two-bay model (unpopulated). The tested unit lists for $4,873 with six 1TB drives. NSS 300 Series began shipping on June 9.