Flexibility, extensibility, and manageability are just three of their strengths

An appliance is a computer that's dedicated to a specific task. Network Attached Storage (NAS) is a good example of an appliance. A company that needs to increase network storage can purchase a NAS appliance that will accomplish certain goals without imposing an excessive administrative burden or incurring downtime to existing servers.

Some appliance vendors—particularly those that offer proprietary OSs—implement an inflexible closed-system approach in their solutions that prevents you from installing third-party utilities such as antivirus software and backup agents. The proprietary approach often also has other shortcomings. For example, integrating such an appliance into an existing environment and management strategy can be difficult if not impossible. However, proponents of proprietary-OS appliances argue that custom OSs provide speed-improvement opportunities and shield the device from potential corruption by third-party software. Although these advantages have merit, the flexibility trade-off demands consideration. Additionally, developing a custom OS is an expensive proposition, the cost of which is inevitably rolled into the appliance's purchase price.

Microsoft has introduced the Windows 2000 Server Appliance Kit (SAK) to its OEM partners so that they can quickly build and tailor appliance solutions—branded as Windows Powered—that leverage Microsoft's investments in scale-out solution management. The SAK provides features and utilities necessary to fill the needs of Windows computing environments. In addition, OEMs can use Microsoft's SAK Add-On Pack to build key manageability tools, including Multiple Device Manager (MDM) and the Role-Based User Interface (RBUI), into their offerings. For another inherent benefit of Windows Powered appliances, see the Web-exclusive sidebar "The Hidden Treasure of Windows Powered Appliances," http://www.winnetmag.com, InstantDoc ID 25650.

I gathered a sampling of SAK-based appliances in the Windows & .NET Magazine Lab—Maxtor's entry-level MaxAttach NAS 4300, Dell's midrange PowerVault 750N, and IBM's TotalStorage NAS Model 326. I also looked at a non-NAS offering: Dell's PowerEdge 1650 Web server. In my testing, I looked at how well each product performs its inherent duties and how easily I could deploy and manage the solution.

MaxAttach NAS 4300
The NAS 4300—considered an entry-level Windows Powered NAS device—is a 1U (1.75") rack-mountable NAS server equipped with an 866MHz Pentium III processor, 384MB of SDRAM, and 640GB of storage distributed across four internal ATA/100 hard disks. An external Adaptec Ultra160 SCSI port permits the connection of an external backup device. You can configure two built-in 10/100 Base-T Ethernet ports for failover and load balancing, and the appliance includes a copper Gigabit Ethernet interface for high throughput. The server's Persistent Storage Manager lets you create point-in-time snapshots of disk data. Documentation is in PDF format. One accompanying CD-ROM contains the MaxNeighborhood setup and discovery software, and a second CD-ROM contains 1Safe NAS Edition for MaxAttach backup software.

After cabling and powering up the NAS 4300, I installed the MaxNeighborhood software on a networked PC. From the software's browser-based configuration interface, which Figure 1 shows, I performed a discovery of the appliance and began the configuration procedures. I followed Maxtor's recommendations and installed the Maxtor Digital Certificate to implement Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) encryption for device administration. The browser-based interface's organizational categories are Welcome, Status, Network, Disks, Users, Shares, Maintenance, and Help. At the click of a button, I could configure settings such as server name and domain membership, NIC settings, file-sharing parameters, and local user and local group management. Although you can perform most operations within the browser window, some selections initiate a Windows 2000 Server Terminal Services session to the NAS 4300. For example, if you select the Disks and Volumes button, the browser opens a Terminal Services session and launches the Microsoft Management Console (MMC) Disk Management snap-in. If you're a knowledgeable Win2K systems administrator and prefer to perform configuration through a Terminal Services session, this feature provides a welcome capability.

MaxAttach NAS 4300
Contact: Maxtor * 408-894-5000 or 800-262-9867
Web: http://www.maxtor.com
Price: $5500 as tested
Decision Summary
Pros: High capacity and good performance at an attractive price
Cons: Lacks redundancy and manageability features

PowerVault 750N
The PowerVault 750N—considered a midrange Windows Powered NAS device—is a step up in capacity and services from the NAS 4300. The 5U (8.75") rack-mountable chassis is configured with dual 1.133GHz processors, 1GB of PC-133 SDRAM, and 190GB of storage distributed across eight 10,000rpm Ultra160 SCSI disks. Hot-swappable components include the eight Ultra3 U160 SCSI hard disks mounted in the front of the chassis, three redundant power supplies, and four cooling fans. In essence, the system is a robust file server. Standard server features such as seven PCI slots, integrated SCSI, 3.5" disk drive, CD-ROM drive, NIC, and I/O ports are included. Keyboard, video, and mouse ports are included, but the server is designed for headless operation, so those ports are intended predominately for troubleshooting.

The integrated RAID controller—a Dell PowerEdge RAID Controller (PERC) 3/Di—supports Ultra3 SCSI devices and handles RAID levels 0, 1, 5, and 10. A PERC 3/DC was also installed in the evaluation unit for storage capacity expansion to as much as 8.6TB. The PERC 3/DC is an optional dual-channel, Ultra3 Low Voltage Differential (LVD) SCSI, PCI RAID controller that supports as many as 32 physical disks per logical drive. You can configure those disks as RAID 0, 1, 5, 10, or 50 (aka 5+0). Chassis intrusion detection and a chassis lock and key help keep the NAS system secure, even in remote locations. For lights-out remote installations, you can equip the system with Dell's remote-management PCI device, the Dell OpenManage Remote Assistant Card (DRAC). The DRAC lets you troubleshoot and maintain the remote server over a modem or LAN.

You have a wide selection of options for initially configuring the PowerVault 750N. If you don't mind using DHCP-assigned IP addresses for your NAS server, you can simply plug in the device and use a browser to attach to the PowerVault 750's leased address and enter the appropriate information. You can also use the Dell Kick-Start program to graphically step through device configuration. You can do so locally with a keyboard, mouse, and monitor attached to the back of the appliance or remotely with an IP network connection or disk. You could effectively use the two remote options for rolling out multiple appliances. I tested the local Kick-Start configuration and the browser-based NAS Manager configuration. In both cases, armed with all the necessary network configuration information, I finished in 2 to 3 minutes.

After I completed the initial setup, I opened a browser session and entered the PowerVault 750N's IP address in the address field to connect to the NAS Manager. The browser-based interface that opened looked remarkably similar to that of the NAS 4300. Tools for building the Web-based UI must be included in the Microsoft SAK because the similarities are too many to be coincidental. You might consider this similarity to be an advantage: You're less likely to become locked in to one supplier than with proprietary-OS NAS devices. You can use your Windows Powered NAS server administration knowledge across the spectrum of OEMs that provide such solutions.

The PowerVault 750N offers some features—including more robust RAID options, OS reinstallation from the CD-ROM, and redundancy for core components—that aren't available in less expensive devices (e.g., the NAS 4300). Although the initial capacity is less than that of the NAS 4300, the PowerVault 750N supports external enclosures that let you scale up to a maximum storage capacity of 8.3TB.

The PowerVault 750N doesn't include the SAK Add-On Pack features such as MDM and RBUI. However, Dell plans to make updates available to current users as they're released.

PowerVault 750N
Contact: Dell * 512-338-4400 or 800-999-3355
Web: http://www.dell.com
Price: $12,403 as tested
Decision Summary
Pros: Good mix of capacity, expandability, availability features, and price
Cons: Dell should integrate the optional high-speed NICs

TotalStorage NAS Model 326
The TotalStorage NAS Model 326—considered a high-end Windows Powered NAS device—is equipped with redundant storage and server components that deliver high availability and reliability. This relatively large appliance comes in a full-sized rack, although the rack isn't completely filled with hardware. Mounted at the top of the rack are two IBM 5187 NAS Model 6RZ engines, each of which contains dual 1.133GHz processors, 1GB of SDRAM, dual hot-swappable power supplies, a hot-swappable 18.2GB disk drive, a 3.5" disk drive, a CD-ROM drive, a single-port Fibre Channel adapter, and an integrated 10/100 Ethernet NIC. Two eight-port 1Gbps IBM 3534 Fibre Channel hubs are mounted in the rear of the rack. The hubs are precabled to an IBM 5191 RAID Storage Controller so that the unit is ready for use upon arrival. The 3534 hubs are equipped with a serial port and Ethernet port for configuration and management. The Storage Controller and a 5192 TotalStorage NAS 300 Storage Unit are mounted in the bottom of the rack. The Storage Controller features dual redundant controllers, redundant power and cooling, and battery backup for the RAID cache and supports as many as 10 internal disks configured as RAID 0, 1, 3, 5, or 10. The Storage Unit is an expansion enclosure with modular redundant disks, power supplies, Environmental Services Monitors (ESMs), and fans. The TotalStorage NAS Model 326 can scale this redundant configuration to a maximum of 6.6TB with the addition of another Storage Controller and Storage Unit.

Like the other NAS appliances, the TotalStorage NAS Model 326 supports a variety of tools for configuration and ongoing systems administration. Your choice of configuration method will depend on your familiarity with the Win2K Server OS and whether you'll use DHCP to obtain an initial IP address. For initial configuration, IBM recommends that you connect a keyboard, mouse, and monitor to the system. Headless options include connecting to the appliance through a browser, a Terminal Services session, or a local instance of the Java-based IBM Advanced Appliance Configuration Utility (IAACU) console. I tested the IAACU and the recommended local console methods. You can use either method to attach to the Microsoft Windows 2000 for Network Attached Storage Web-based GUI, which is the familiar environment that the other two NAS products use. Alternatively, if you know your way around Win2K Server, you can use the local console or Terminal Services to configure the system with native OS tools.

To manage the TotalStorage NAS Model 326's storage subsystem, you use the IBM FastT Storage Manager 7.0 Client, which Figure 2 shows. Storage Manager 7.0 supports two management methods: direct and host-agent. Direct management uses the storage controller's Ethernet connection so that a Win2K computer can use a LAN to remotely manage the subsystem in the event of a communication problem between the host agent and storage subsystem. Host-agent management simply means that you perform management and configuration tasks directly from one of the engines as opposed to a networked computer configured with the Storage Manager 7.0 client software. Host-agent management is IBM's default management method, so I used that method to create a RAID 10 array, using the Storage Unit's disks.

To ensure redundancy and availability for the appliance, I needed to configure clustering on the engines. I followed the steps in the PDF-format User's Reference to implement the clustered configuration. I spent about 90 minutes performing the required actions, including configuration of the clustered file share for Common Internet File System (CIFS) and NFS access. I could configure Novell NetWare and Apple Computer's AppleTalk shares on each node individually but not through clustering services (a documented limitation). If a node using either of those protocols fails, the shares are unavailable until the node returns to service.

The browser-based interface has the same appearance as the other two NAS appliances' interfaces, but some of the default functionality differs. Not all protocols are enabled by default, as they are on the Dell and Maxtor systems. To enable AppleTalk and NFS sharing, I used the IBM NAS Admin snap-in through a Terminal Services session to the TotalStorage NAS Model 326. This customized snap-in gives the appliance a centralized portal approach to management utilities. Overall, the TotalStorage NAS Model 326 is a well-built, comprehensive solution for providing highly available storage.

TotalStorage NAS Model 326
Contact: IBM * 800-426-2255
Web: http://www.ibm.com
Price: $112,000 as tested
Decision Summary
Pros: Fibre Channel storage back end assures high availability and strong performance
Cons: Price places the product out of reach of all but the most storage-critical environments

NAS File Sharing
In addition to a cost of ownership that's less than that of direct-attached storage, a compelling benefit of NAS is cross-platform file sharing out of the box. I connected a Macintosh and Linux system to the network and had each of them using file shares—through AppleTalk and NFS, respectively—on the NAS 4300 and PowerVault 750N within 5 minutes. Each of the aforementioned NAS products supports the following protocols: AppleTalk, CIFS, FTP, HTTP, NetWare, and NFS. These protocols are enabled by default on the Dell and Maxtor devices, although you control a given protocol's access to a share at the share level. To avoid unnecessary system overhead, IBM chose not to enable all of the protocols by default. The inherent security value of Windows Powered NAS solutions is that the device can join a domain and immediately integrate with the Windows domain security you already have in place. You simply assign user and group permissions to shares on the NAS appliance just as you would on a Win2K or Windows NT file server.

PowerEdge 1650
NAS appliances aren't the only devices that leverage the benefits of the Windows Powered platform. The PowerEdge 1650, built on Dell's 1U (1.75") PowerEdge 1650 server hardware platform, provides an Internet or intranet Web-hosting environment. Because the product is a Windows Powered appliance, you enjoy the same rapid deployment, administration, and systems administration benefits that you'll find on the NAS appliances in this review. In addition to Microsoft's Windows Powered OS and Dell's Management offerings, the PowerEdge 1650 comes preloaded with software—Microsoft FrontPage Server Extensions 2002, Microsoft Data Engine (MSDE), and ActiveState's ActivePerl—that you'll find useful in your Web environment.

The PowerEdge 1650 Web Server's 1U (1.75") chassis is jam-packed with an impressive amount of firepower, including dual 1.26GHz Pentium III processors, 1GB of SDRAM, two integrated copper Gigabit Ethernet interfaces, and dual redundant power supplies. Keyboard, video, mouse, and serial ports are available at the rear of the chassis, and secondary keyboard and video ports are in the front for quick access. Three hot-swappable 18GB Ultra160 SCSI disks, connected to an optional PERC 3/Di, are accessible from the front of the chassis.

As with the PowerVault 750N, a wide selection of configuration options are available, including browser-based, local console, and Dell Kick-Start options. I followed the Deployment Guide's instructions for conducting a local custom deployment of the Web server. The Web Assistant prompted me to specify the Web content's location, configure MSDE settings, and enable services as necessary. The Web Assistant then prompted me to configure management settings for Dell OpenManage and MDM. Finally, I provided network-configuration details and confirmed the deployment settings, then rebooted the system.

You'll also use the Web Assistant for everyday Web server administration. From the Web Assistant interface, which Figure 3 shows, you can perform Web and systems administration tasks quickly and easily. From the Sites tab, I was able to set up a Web site and an FTP site within seconds. Then, from the Web Server tab, I spent a couple of minutes configuring Web and FTP permissions and settings for sites contained on the server.

I used the Web Assistant on the Web server to check out the functionality of the MDM feature. During deployment, I had designated that the Web server would act as an MDM controller, which means that it can discover and manage other MDM-enabled systems. Certificates permit access by only an authorized MDM controller. I could use MDM to manage multiple PowerEdge 1650 Web servers from one interface.

If you decide that your Web server might benefit from a clean start, you can use the included bootable media to redeploy the entire system. To test the redeployment process on the PowerEdge 1650, I booted from the two Reinstallation/Resource CD-ROMs. The simple procedure prompted me to confirm the complete reinstallation, then prompted me about halfway through the process to insert the second CD-ROM. About 30 minutes later, the server rebooted and went through the final Win2K Server setup steps before performing a final reboot to factory default conditions.

Consistency and Flexibility
The available solutions vary in price and features but share the base Windows Powered functionality, look, and feel. The PowerEdge 1650 is an easy-to-deploy solution for Internet and intranet Web hosting. This solution provides manageability and reasonable availability in a tight package that you can use in ISP and application service provider (ASP) environments. Look for future versions of Dell Web Server appliances to offer NAS integration for scalable Web-host storage. Among the NAS solutions I reviewed, capacity, availability, and OEM-added value will determine whether a particular solution is best for you. The NAS 4300 boasts the best price-per-byte ratio, but it lacks important features, such as hot-swappable hard disks, reinstallation capabilities, and module redundancy. The PowerVault 750N provides a good mix of expandability, redundancy, availability, and manageability at a nice price. The TotalStorage NAS Model 326 is the ultimate in high-availability NAS, but the high price you'll pay for its built-in redundancy might be difficult to justify. Windows Powered appliances are enjoying a rapid acceptance into the market and will continue to do so because of their flexibility, extensibility, and manageability.

PowerEdge 1650
Contact: Dell * 512-338-4400 or 800-999-3355
Web: http://www.dell.com
Price: $4137 as tested
Decision Summary
Pros: Easy setup and manageability permit quick deployment with minimal headaches
Cons: Integration with NAS not available in current version