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SciNet BL101 Blazer 100 NAS Solution

David Doering

SciNet BL101 Blazer 100 NAS Solution
synopsis: SciNet's newly introduced hard disk NAS solution, the Blazer 100 series, comes in several sizes--20, 40, 60, or 80GB. While other NAS vendors offer similar capacities with their systems, SciNet's Blazer comes with two unique qualities: it is much less expensive and it is easily upgradable. The Blazer reflects the company's keen appreciation of serving a solid niche market with a low-cost, competitive product, and delivers a great bang for the buck for the Windows NT/2000 Advanced Server user. With its hot-swappable upgrades and unbelievably low price point, SciNet's new offering should be setting every NAS short list ablaze.

price: $1,195 as tested

Note: As EMedia went to press, SciNet was purchased by an unnamed buyer who will continue to sell their product line. Details on the Blazer's availability should soon be available at http://www.scinetcorp.com.

May 2000 | Adding storage to networks remains a daunting task for administrators unfamiliar with Network Attached Storage (NAS). With NAS, life becomes much easier as we eliminate the primary servers from the equation. True plug-and-play storage is here with NAS devices, both for optical and for hard disk services.

A pioneer player in the NAS industry, SciNet has developed a small but devoted following with its CD-ROM tower NAS systems over the last four years. The company's newly introduced hard disk NAS solution, the Blazer 100 series, comes in several sizes--20, 40, 60, or 80GB. While other NAS vendors offer similar capacities with their systems, SciNet's Blazer comes with two unique qualities: it is much less expensive and it is easily upgradable.

meet the blazer

The Blazer is a small PC-sized unit for hard-disk storage. The unit supports 10/ 100BaseT Ethernet using SMB (i.e. Windows) protocols. The unit supports an unlimited number of users, although practical demands would appear to limit it to under 100 mostly due to the time it takes to maintain these 100 users on the box. The Blazer comes with up to four drives, up to two internal and two external for a fully loaded capacity of 80GB. The two external drives are removable (and hot-swappable, for that matter.)

Unfortunately, these drives cannot support a RAID configuration, which would be a nice option for the unit. The drives are, however, standard ATAPI drives and consequently are field-replaceable and upgradable.

blazing ahead

Installing most NAS devices simply requires connecting the device's network card to the network hub, then plugging in the power cable, and turning the device on. And so it is with the Blazer. If your network has a DHCP server (many NT networks do by default), then you are off and running. You can then access the device from any browser for configuration.

Suppose, however, you don't have a DHCP server handy on your network. (You know, the device that tells the network what IP addresses to use.) In that case, there's a curious combination of steps to perform.

Other lower-end systems don't have an LCD display on the front panel, so if you have to manually configure an IP address, you're in for some difficulty. Fortunately, unlike those systems, the Blazer does come with a bright little display. Its text rotates between server name and IP address, so you can quickly read off the basics for the unit.

If you need to change that configuration, though, you run into another step. What the Blazer lacks are the usual up and down arrow keys for selecting and entering configuration information through the little display. Instead--and rather ingeniously--SciNet has gone with a hot-port for a keyboard at the back of the Blazer. So what you do is plug any standard PC keyboard into the back, and then follow a couple of steps to put the Blazer into configuration mode, after which you simply enter the IP address using the keyboard.

In this respect, the Blazer is light years ahead of other boxes, which may recognize a keyboard only after you reboot the system. With the Blazer, you can do it on-the-fly.

Once you have a valid IP address for the device, the unit is addressable from any Java-enabled browser (well, 4.0 or better). You can then set up security using the instructions in the manual.

The installation guide that comes with the Blazer reminds me of the no-frills product lines of the 1980s. There's just enough information to get you going, but not much more. It is all in rather stark black and white (including the cover). There's a real lack of illustrations in it, which sometimes leaves us visual learners wondering if we're at the right screen for a particular task.

Fortunately, the Blazer's onscreen administrator tool is straightforward for anyone with even a modicum of network savvy. (The installation guide does help here because it comes with a neat little quick reference guide, saving a few minutes of searching though the menu options.) However, it's a rather curious circumlocution that requires users to go to Add/Remove Drives in order to view the current system configuration. It would be nice to have a screen showing a pie chart (or even a text representation) of the size of each currently installed disk and the amount of space used on that drive.

strictly NT

One of the few drawbacks to the Blazer is its NT-only restriction. Admittedly, there's almost a majority of users out there on strictly NT systems, particularly among networks supporting small to medium businesses. But for Novell NetWare, Apple, and Unix/Linux users, the unit will require some reconfiguring to support SMB services. Most competing NAS products do provide native access for these other operating systems, albeit at a higher price.

Even for Windows NT users, however, the Blazer has a drawback--it doesn't integrate into Domain Services or Active Directory. You must configure all security for the device using a proprietary security schema modeled on NT shares. Fortunately, the schema is granular enough to go down to the directory level. (In the NAS past, the standard was the entire drive!)

Directory-level security at least allows administrators to give each user a specified storage area on the Blazer to which only they had access. (A nice addition to the Blazer would be to allow administrators to limit that space to a specified MB or GB range.)

However, requiring administrators to use a proprietary tool means that they have to monitor two separate security systems. This is an ever-increasing hassle as you incorporate the device into larger and larger networks, and so practically mandates the Blazer's use to small-to-medium-sized businesses with one or two servers only.

upgrading experience

No site expects to find all its storage requirements satisfied by a single device--especially when those requirements grow after initial hardware investments have been made. That's true of the NAS market in general, where upgrading hasn't been a user option before. Now, SciNet comes out with this nice innovation that supports industry-standard drives for upgrades. Here's where the Blazer really shines.

We looked at upgrading our 20GB unit during testing. The process is done with the unit up and running. Given that NAS' "no-downtime" promise is its signature strength, this hot-swappability is an extremely attractive feature for sites fitting the NAS profile. After locating a new 20GB ATAPI drive, we verified that it was in Cable Select mode, as per documentation. We unlocked the drive bay, removed the tray, plugged in the drive to the power and data connectors, then reinserted the tray. Once locked in, the drive powered up. We then ran the Add/Remove Drive function in the Blazer admin utility at our browser.

At that point, we only had to confirm the auto-detected configuration for the new drive, and it was added to the Blazer. That's it. I wish all server upgrades were that easy.

This hot-swappable capability also provides for a nice secure server function as well. Since we can add and remove drives on-the-fly, we can then have designated secure drives for confidential information. These can be added into the network, then removed as required to keep the data secure. It could also serve as a convenient way to back up source code before sending it to the safety deposit box at the bank.

the competition

How does the Blazer stack up against the competition? Many NAS units are significantly more expensive than the Blazer. Procom's NetForce 100, for example, is over $5,000 for 30GB compared with the Blazer's $1,200 base price. Quantum's SnapServer is one NAS product that boasts a lower price, with a 20GB unit for $999. But the SnapServer is not upgradable, as the Blazer is. Having that option may make the Blazer particularly attractive to cost-conscious administrators.

On the other hand, the SnapServer is not as OS-restrictive as the NT-only Blazer, supporting multiple OS clients natively. It also integrates nicely with Novell's increasingly popular NDS security system, eliminating the need to maintain security through separate tools. The SnapServer also has RAID support, which for many users is a nice option.

The SciNet Blazer reflects the company's keen appreciation of serving a solid niche market with a low-cost, competitive product. Despite its lack of RAID control or multiple OS support--as well as its proprietary security tool--it certainly delivers a great bang for the buck for the Windows NT/2000 Advanced Server user. And its easy upgradability makes it a marvelous innovation in the NAS arena, and a must-have for small businesses and workgroups with growing storage demands. At its unbelievably low $1,200 price point, SciNet's new offering should be setting every NAS short list ablaze.


NETWORKOBSERVER columnist David Doering (dave@techvoice.com), an EMedia contributing editor, is also senior analyst with TechVoice Inc., an Orem, Utah-based consultancy.

Comments? Email us at letters@onlineinc.com.


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