Simple Storage for Small Business

Cisco's NSS 324 is a versatile, high-performance solution to the problem of desktop storage.

Storage is an issue for organizations of any size, but small businesses are often caught between a rock and hard place when faced with the problem of where to put their data. Frequently, they lack the budgets required for traditional server-attached storage, to say nothing of the storage networks that are commonplace in enterprise IT. But all that may be history; Cisco's NSS 300 Series devices present an attractive alternative to the larger-ticket solutions that have been the norm for multiterabyte data storage.

The NSS 300 devices are designed by Cisco for environments of up to 100 users, behave as network-attached storage for Linux, Mac OS X or Windows clients, and offer a number of applications such as backup, file, media and Web services; they can also act as an iSCSI target in clustered and virtualized environments. Data on an NSS 300 Series device can be automatically encrypted on disk by default, and all NSS 300 models feature energy-saving options that include scheduled power-on and power-off, and drive spin-down during periods of inactivity.

The dual Ethernet interfaces on the NSS 300 Series enclosures can be configured for failover, or ganged together for extra bandwidth. The four USB ports on the rear (plus one in front) offer plenty of ways to connect a UPS for power backup, or an external storage device for single-touch copy to or from the enclosure. Two eSATA ports on the rear provide further options for connecting external storage.

A number of built-in applications extend the usefulness of the NSS 300 Series devices, such as a built-in RADIUS server for user authentication, and a syslog server that can be used to collect log data from any networked device that supports the de facto standard. The Web server includes the WordPress publishing platform as an integrated feature, and the Twonky and iTunes media servers are part of the basic software package.

The NSS 300 Series offers two-bay, four-bay and six-bay models, which are sold as empty enclosures or fully populated with hot-swap 1TB or 2TB drives; possible JBOD (Just a Bunch of Disks) configurations range from 2TB to 12TB. Depending on the number of drives installed, customers have a choice of RAID options as well, with RAID levels 0, 1, 5, and 6 in the four-bay and six-bay models.

Empty enclosures start at $913 for the two-bay NSS 322, with the four-bay NSS 324 listed at $1,365, and the NSS 326 with six drive bays at $1,825. With 2TB drives in each bay, the NSS 322 is priced at $1,822, the NSS 324 at $3,740, and a fully loaded NSS 326 is $5,625, or $316.67 per terabyte.

I spent a little over a week with an NSS 324 in a RAID 5 configuration and found it very easy to set up and use. Although some very basic features can be configured via the front panel, most of the options are accessed through the Web-based management server. It's quiet enough that I found myself looking at the enclosure's LEDs from time to time, just to make sure it was working.

The only snag I found during my evaluation concerned the implementation of Apple's Time Machine, which backs up Mac OS X systems. Although the NSS 300 series is intended for a networked environment, all Time Machine clients on these devices use the same network share and user ID when backing up. I don't mind putting all my Time Machine clients on the same share, but requiring them to share a user ID flies in the face of best security practices. Although access to Time Machine backups is in the ordinary course of events limited to the backed-up client, one user with a spare Mac and administrative rights to a machine that sends Time Machine backups to an NSS 300 series can open up the backups of every client by performing a bare-metal restore.

The NSS 300 Series of storage devices are well-designed and with the exception of its flawed interpretation of Apple's Time Machine service, offer a well-implemented set of applications that complement the hardware functions. It provides sophisticated RAID support in the four-bay and six-bay models that can survive the loss of one or two drives, and numerous ways to connect other storage devices to it for backup or file transfer.