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Review: NetGear Storage Center SC101

Storage Center is a credible addition to any SOHO or home network, with a level of installation and operational simplicity a relative novice or work-weary IT admin will appreciate.

Originally Published on Personal Tech Pipeline

With home networks becoming the norm, and more than one person needs to share resources, community storage is becoming as necessary as a community printer. A shared printer, however, is a relatively easy thing to accept. It's a stand-alone device that's relatively non-intrusive on someone else's computer.

A hard drive, on the other hand, can be about as intrusive as things get. Without some storage gymnastics to re-arrange individual folder sharing policies to keep prying hands and eyes off personal data, your life becomes an open book. NetGear solves that dilemma with its Storage Central SC101.

Basically, the box is a hard drive toaster-like thing –it's empty on delivery and you select what capacity parallel ATA (PATA) disks you want inside. The box holds two drives but it will work with just one (although some of its potential features will be diminished). They can even be different capacity drives.

The difference between using Storage Central and just stuffing the extra disks into your computer is that Storage Central acts as a node on your LAN. The brain behind the box is Zetera's Z-LAN technology, which attaches the drive to your network. Any access to the data on the drive is done through the network, directly to the Storage Central Unit, not through anyone's computer.

Technically, the concept is called storage over IP (SoIP) and it's a variation of the storage area network (SAN) devices used by the IT Big Boys to hang printers, disk drives, tape units and the like on their networks. NetGear, however, using Z-Lan, removes all of the hassle and worry from being attached -- as well as any extra gateways and protocols and everything else that draws sweat from the beaded brows of IT managers.

The most difficult part of installing Storage Central is deciding what capacity drives should populate it. That will depend on what you'll be using it for –to share data, music, video, or any of an endless list of possibilities, with others on your network. Thanks to the influx of serial ATA (SATA) drives, PATA devices are now relatively cheap and plentiful, giving you the opportunity to attach 640GB to your network for around $400, including the bare Storage Central unit. There's no need to stop there, either. You can add more Storage Central boxes, with more hard drives, to manage more data.

Physically installing Storage Central requires sliding your choice of drive(s) into the box (there are no rails or screws needed for that; the interior is separated into two compartments) and attaching the data and power cables, connecting the box itself to your network with the supplied Cat 5 cable, and then plugging it into an AC outlet. The magic begins with the Storage Central Management Utility software.

That's where you setup your Storage Central. It configures the unit for your network, partitions and formats the drive(s), sets up virtual volumes, even provides for mirroring one drive onto the other (or onto a different Storage Central) so you'll have an absolute backup of your shared data. It's all done through an on-screen Q&A session, with simple enough explanations of what things mean, that the process is painless. The single rub to the operation is that the Storage Central Management Utility software must also be installed on all of the computers that will be accessing Storage Central. With the unit itself already configured, the extra software installations take all of two minutes, at most. When you're done, the drive's icon will appear among Windows' list of drives, as if you'd manually attached it.

Naturally, you can drag and drop anything from any of the attached PCs into Storage Central for community use. However, NetGear provides a trial copy of SmartSync Pro backup software. (A live copy will cost you $35, or $30 if you're buying one for each PC. The software has a per workstation, not a per network, license.)

SmartSync Pro addresses your backup requirements as well as giving you the ability to move from one workstation to another without needing to remember to take files with you. For example, my server and primary workstation are in my office. I work downstairs during the day on a WiFi enabled laptop. I configured SmartSync Pro to automatically copy the directory on my portable that contains my files onto Storage Central every few minutes. When I'm back in my office, those files are waiting for me on the attached SC101 drive should I need to review them. I've also setup Storage Central for mirroring, meaning that my work files exist on the WiFi PC, on the visible attached drive in Storage Central, and on the mirror image of that drive it also contains. It's redundancy plus one. There are a variety of backup and restore options available and a more comprehensive list possible if you purchase the package.

So far, the only problem I've had is with the WiFi system. The connection sometimes drops and, when it returns, Windows treats the attached Storage Central like a portable drive or a CD and wants to do something with it. That's more of a minor annoyance than problem, and clicking the Cancel button solves it. Other than that, NetGear's Storage Central has created a credible addition to any home or SOHO network with the installation and operational simplicity even a relative novice will appreciate.

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