I get a fair amount of email from small business owners looking to expand their storage options. Most of the messages have a common theme: The business has fewer than 12 users and no IT support except for external consultants, and the owner is looking for plug-and-play solutions that he or she can set up and make available to users without having to train them. And, of course, they want these solutions to be as inexpensive as possible.

More and more commonly, these readers are looking simply to add storage to their networks. Their problem is that they don't run any sort of local file server. They use their ISP for email services and simply store their normal business documents (spreadsheets, Microsoft Word documents, invoices) on the local computer of the user who creates the document. They also use file sharing to make various directories on these computers available to all the users on the network. The readers have reached their limits of usability with this storage technique and are asking me for a quick-to-implement, reliable solution that they can spend little money on.

In a burst of karmic intervention, in the same timeframe I was receiving these email messages from readers, a vendor sent me a product that directly addresses this very problem--the Maxtor Shared Storage Drive--which, according to the product information on the Maxtor Web site, "lets users easily centralize, organize, and share family photos, music, and data on a home or small office network." (For more information about the product, go to the Maxtor Web site.)

Using the drive couldn't have been much simpler: I took it out of its packaging, plugged it into power and the network hub (10/100 Ethernet), then loaded the Quick Start software from a Windows client. The software configures the drive for use and creates user accounts for the drive. You manage the drive via a Web-browser interface, and you can assign different levels of access to any drive user. No real technical skills are required to get this device up and running; anyone with a basic familiarity with Windows will be comfortable doing so.

The Shared Storage Drive is available in 200GB and 300GB capacities. I did a quick Web search and found prices for the product starting under $300, making it a very inexpensive way to add NAS storage to a network. Interestingly, the device supports more than just storage devices, thanks to a pair of USB 2.0 ports. Although you can use the ports to attach additional drives--allowing a user to add significant storage capacity, albeit all on a single 100Mbps network connection--the device is also designed to support USB-attached printers. This let you add shared printers to the network without attaching them directly to a user's computer or buying more expensive printers that support direct network connections.

The only downside I found--and it's a minor one--is that the Shared Storage Drive recognizes additional drives on the USB link only if they're FAT32 formatted. This constraint imposes a 4GB limit on file sizes (especially relevant for users who edit and store video). However, moving 4GB files over a 100Mbps link is a time-consuming process, so users affected by this limitation might be far and few between.

But for users looking for a quick and easy way to add NAS to their networks, the Maxtor Shared Storage Drive solution is one worth considering, and at a price point that's easily palatable to most small businesses.