Industrial-Strength Remote Access Hardware

Remote network access has become a necessary component of most corporate networks. As the number of traveling salespeople and telecommuters continues to grow, so do the requirements for remote access systems. Choosing software is easy: A Windows NT Server with Remote Access Service (RAS) can support up to 256 simultaneous users and provides a stable, secure environment for dial-in clients. Choosing hardware is not so simple. Most devices that provide access to multiple modems are available only in four-, eight-, or maybe 16-port versions, and you can quickly outgrow them.

Enter ECCI's QuadRANT remote access system. It includes several options that can take you from a four-port ISA modem adapter to rack-mounted modem pools that will reach and exceed NT's limit of 256. Expandable is an understatement.

Have Some Port
ECCI's entry-level remote access product is the QuadRANT.ecm, a four-port plug-and-play ISA card (at least, as close as NT can get to plug-and-play through proprietary software) with four 28.8Kbits per second (Kbps) data/fax modems. Just install the board (make sure you have a full-length slot available!), and turn on the system. After you log in, you install the software, and the ECCI setup program will search for and allocate an available interrupt and I/O address.

A great feature of the QuadRANT.ecm is its expandability. You can use it as a control board for external modem cabinets to control up to 64 additional modems connected by the COMM bus (a simple 9-pin serial connection). ECCI has two cabinets available, one that holds from four to 24 modems and another that holds four to 64 modems. ECCI's configuration software makes setting up additional modems simple. After using the COMM bus to connect your QuadRANT.ecm and the external cabinet, start the QuadRANT Port Manager. Choose Full Configuration from the Configuration menu, and your new COM ports will be ready to go.

At the high end of ECCI's spectrum is the QuadRANT COMRAK cabinet. The COMRAK is a rack-mountable cabinet that can hold any combination of up to 64 modems or high-speed serial ports. Nearly everything in this cabinet is hot-swappable, including any of the three cooling fans, the three redundant power supplies, and the QuadRANT modems. That's industrial strength.

From Server to Module
You can choose between two methods to connect the COMRAK cabinet to your server: with a differential SCSI controller or a QuadRANT.ecm board as a controller. The COMRAK cabinet is rack-mountable, and because it will probably not be within just a couple of feet of your server, the easiest method is with a differential SCSI controller. This configuration will give you the best performance. We used an NCR-825 PCI card to connect to the ECCI. (Differential SCSI provides a separate ground line for each data line, and high-impedance termination. Because this reduces line noise, you can use much longer cables for connecting peripherals; the tradeoff is that you cannot use this bus for connecting standard SCSI devices.) You can then chain several COMRAK cabinets on the SCSI bus to reach NT Server's RAS limit of 256. The other method, with a QuadRANT.ecm board as a controller, uses the COMM bus to connect the COMRAK. This method requires the additional purchase of the QuadRANT.ecm board, and you cannot add more modems because of the QuadRANT.ecm's limit of 64 additional modems.

When you use SCSI to connect a COMRAK, the interface between the communications devices (either modems or serial ports) is a Control Module (CM). The two types of CMs are the Single Channel Control Module (SCCM) and the Dual Channel Control Module (DCCM). The SCCM can control up to 64 lines. In contrast, with additional external cabinets connected using the COMM bus, the DCCM can control up to 256 lines. The CM provides its own processor so you can offload most of the connection processing from your server. The DCCM we got with the test system had an 80386SX processor.

At the heart of the QuadRANT system are Protocol Line Modules (PLMs). The types of PLMs are the Asynchronous Stackable Quad-Processor adapter (ASQ-P), the Asynchronous Quad adapter (ASQ), and the Modem Asynchronous Networking adapter (MODAN). These modules comprise the system's communications ports.

The ASQ-P adapter provides four high-speed serial ports that can operate at speeds ranging from 50bps to 150Kbps. The ASQ-P sports an AMD29000 RISC processor and can control from four to 24 serial ports. On the ASQ-P adapter are four RJ-45 connectors that use RJ-45 to DB-25 cables to connect to standard serial devices. These adapters are ideal if you have a ready supply of external modems. The ASQ-P adapter is hot-pluggable. If you need to repair or replace one, it doesn't affect the entire COMRAK cabinet. To swap out an adapter, you simply remove the ASQ-P from the cabinet. RAS will show a hardware failure for the four COM ports belonging to that adapter. When you install the new adapter, the ECCI software will reconfigure the ports, and RAS will show the ports as ready to roll.

If you need additional serial ports but don't want the expense of every adapter having its own processor, you can get the ASQ adapter. It is a daughter card that connects to the ASQ-P and uses the ASQ-P's processor and memory. Each ASQ adapter has four RJ-45 ports, and you can chain five daughter cards to an ASQ-P, for a total of 24 serial ports. The disadvantage to chaining the adapters is that if you need to hot-swap, you cannot remove just the inoperable card; you must take the whole batch. If you attach five daughter cards to a processor card, you must remove all 24 ports while you replace the malfunctioning card.

If you don't already have all your modems, you can consider the MODAN. It also provides four ports on the adapter, but it includes four integrated modems. MODAN cards are available with either 14.4Kbps or 28.8Kbps modems. Each MODAN adapter also has an AMD29000 RISC processor on board. Each modem has an RJ-11 connector, a set of indicator lights, and an individual reset switch. And, like the ASQ adapters, the MODAN adapters are hot-pluggable. If a card fails while a user is connected, you just install a new card, and the software will do everything but reconnect the user.

A final available component that I did not get for review is the Coax Interface Line Module. It lets you use coaxial cable to extend the external COMM bus up to 1000 meters. If you need cabinets in several locations but want just one server, you can buy a DCCM control module and use coax to chain additional cabinets.

Installation and Setup
Setting up the ECCI was easy once we knew the proper procedure. The one hurdle in the installation process comes up if you don't already have RAS installed when you set up the ECCI. When we installed the ECCI software, it asked whether we wanted to add the ECCI modem response strings to the modem.inf file. Without these strings, Windows NT will not recognize the modems. We responded with a yes, and finished the installation process. When we then installed RAS, it installed a fresh copy of the modem.inf file, overwriting the strings we had just added. When RAS tried to detect a modem, it could not recognize one.

TABLE 1: QuadRANT Modem Port Pricing
SCSI-Based # of Ports Subsystem Cost Cost Per Port
8 $ 6,692 $837
12 $ 9,072 $756
16 $11,452 $716
20 $13,832 $692
32 $22,092 $690
64 $41,132 $643
ECM-Based # of Ports Subsystem Cost Cost Per Port
8 $ 5,805 $726
12 $ 8,185 $682
16 $10,565 $660
20 $12,945 $647
32 $21,385 $668
64 $40,425 $632

Unfortunately, RAS will not install until a COM port has been configured with a modem. So, in a vicious circle, RAS will not install until it can detect a modem; it cannot detect a modem until the modem.inf file is changed, and you can't change the modem.inf file until RAS is installed; otherwise, RAS will overwrite the file.

We were finally able to install RAS by manually telling Setup that the modem was a generic Hayes-compatible modem. Then we changed the modem.inf file and changed the configured port to the proper modem type.

You will have this problem any time you attempt to set up RAS for the first time using an unsupported modem. Perhaps future versions of Windows NT will let you set up RAS without having to specifically configure a modem.

One nice feature of the ECCI system is that, whether you have four ports or 256, each is set up as an individual COM port. This way, any software that can communicate with COM ports can talk to any port on your ECCI system. And if you use port sharing software, such as SpartaCom's Asynchronous Port Sharing package, you can make every port available across the network for dial-out.

Price Is No Object
You pay a price for the comfort and convenience of having 64 modems tucked into a tiny box, with hot-swappable fans, power supplies, and modems. The cost of our test system, with the COMRAK cabinet, a SCSI control module, eight asynchronous ports (one ASQ-P and one ASQ), 40 14.4Kbps modems, and 16 28.8Kbps modems, comes to just more than $28,000. ECCI has prices for various configurations, with both SCSI- and ECM-based prices, as you can see in table 1. These prices are for 28.8Kbps modems, the most popular configuration. Such prices aren't for everyone, but if you need a highly reliable, expandable, easy-to-set-up remote access system, consider the ECCI QuadRANT system.

ECCI QuadRANT Remote Access System
System Requirements: Any system capable of running Windows NT Server, Differential SCSI card (if connecting by SCSI)
ECCI * 619-674-6740
Prices: QuadRANT.ecm: $2700; QuadRANT COMRAK (as configured): $28,140