Connex N3100 NAS
The burgeoning field of enterprise-class NAS devices welcomes
the new Connex N3100-a worthy upgrade to the earlier N3000-with
double the capacity of its predecessor and with faster drives
to boot. Now equipped with 36GB 10,000RPM drives, the N3100
supports up to 216GB of RAID 5 storage.
The 3100 includes almost all of our usually recommended elements
in its construction: a lockable front door to prevent inadvertent
access to the drives; a distinct interior fan module with quick-detach
screws for removal and replace- ment; and the full complement
of control electronics (on-board PC, RAM, PCI slots) contained
in one module. All of these elements are housed in a stylish,
non-linen-colored cabinet, with a neat blue facia and base.
Connex' modular approach is well suited to the 100% up-time
crowd, for when swapping out a component and getting the unit
back online is of utmost importance. For departments looking
to take a less-expensive route, however, the all-modular approach
limits on-site replacement of a bad PCI card, RAM, or motherboard
should only that component need replacing.
In the 3100, dual, redundant power supplies are hot-swappable
via access from the back of the unit. Drives themselves are
hot-pluggable (but not hot-swappable.) In our small evaluation
unit, the third 36GB drive was a hot-spare. Empty slots contain
space-holders that pop out when you are ready to add capacity.
The unit natively supports RAID 5, so data is well protected
here. The optional internal tape backup unit can also extend
data security further. The multiline front-mounted LCD screen
provides an easy-to-use menu for checking configuration and
status. Thanks to the screen's multiple lines, messages aren't
limited to a few cryptic words as they are on other systems
with one-line-only displays. The unit also comes as a standard
rackmount with drives mounted vertically rather than horizontally,
which gives ISP/ASP users a good NAS option.
Client support has two flavors: Windows (CIFS) and Unix (NFS),
leaving Mac users out of the loop for now. Windows clients do
need to have the Netbui protocol loaded if they are to administer
the unit-a fact we found out when we couldn't see the N3100
from our Windows 98 workstation because we had TCP/IP loaded,
but not Netbui.
Connex bucks the trend towards an all-online documentation
approach; the N3100 ships with a full manual and a quick-start
guide. Of course, online README files supplement these, as do
the online help screens. But I welcome finding a real set of
docs that lets me work with a system in the server room without
having to run to a client workstation to try to figure something
The manual is profusely illustrated and extends some 180 pages-ample
for this NAS device. Screen shots are contemporary with the
current release of the management software and LCD screen displays.
(This is not a given with manuals today.) Every common (and
uncommon) task is covered with step-by-step procedures, so even
part-time administrators should have no problem working with
If there's a drawback to the manual, it is in its limited troubleshooting
information. The manual does not include a complete list of
error messages, and the various ones that are discussed do not
include details. Most simply say, "Contact your service
rep." This might actually be a requirement, but as a reasonably
competent administrator, I would like at least to know what
provoked the error condition. (Like, did someone here do something
wrong? Or is this just a worn component?)
The documentation also failed to mention the proper configuration
for upgrading the OS. You need to be logged into Windows as
an ADMIN-equivalent user (or as ADMIN) or the software won't
give you access to the appropriate directories. We had to contact
Connex tech support to overcome this problem.
I really enjoy the browser-based utilities that are commonplace
these days for administering systems like the N3100. Many administrators
don't remember all the hurdles that proprietary interfaces caused,
but these universal utilities really simplify matters. Rather
than having to install a tool, (with all the problems that that
might cause with your version of OS or other hardware), the
N3100 only needs you to point your Netscape or IE 4.0 or higher
browser at the system's IP address. The system then asks you
to log in as ADMIN and away you go.
The additional advantage of this tool is that you can access
it from anywhere. As long as you can access the unit's IP address,
you can log in and administer the system. The Connex tool is
clean, straightforward, and simple to use; if only all tools
were this easy.
One drawback to the current tool, however, is that it uses
a proprietary security schema. You can import user and group
information from Microsoft Domain Services or from a UNIX environment
to speed up the configuration of Shares on the N3100. You then
grant No-Access, Read-Only, Read-Write, or Full-Control rights
to directories to these groups and users. However, these rights
remain in the Connex box, which means you have to maintain a
security schema for this box that's separate from the one you
maintain for your network. While perfectly adequate for a small
or medium-sized department, this approach quickly becomes a
management headache. I hope that the next version of the Connex
management tool includes full support for Domain Services and
Novell's NDS. Without that, the N3100 has limited appeal for
the large enterprise.
Our test unit did not include one of the optional Sony AIT-2
tape backup drives, so we weren't able to test backup speeds
or recovery. However, the Sony SDX-500C drives have a spec of
6MB/sec sustained transfer speed (which translates into a 12MB-15MB/sec
speed if you include some compression.) AIT-2 tape comes in
25, 36, and 50GB capacities-which means our test unit with 65GB
of available space would use about 1.25 tapes. These would take
about two hours to fully back up our N3100.
The current admin utility supports only full-volume backups.
If you want to do file-level, incremental, or differential backups,
you'll need to use a third-party backup application which is
NDMP 2.0-compliant. (Connex announced this support in SyncSort's
Backup Express.) The admin tool also only supports a full restore
as well-so again, if you want a file-level restoration, you'll
need this third-party tool. We think that this limitation is
awkward-reducing the as-shipped backup capabilities of the N3100
to mostly CYA disaster recoveries. If you use the N3100 in a
production environment, we think you'll need a more capable
The unit also supports various externally connecting backup
systems, such as a DLT 4000, 7000, or an Exabyte 8900, via the
SCSI-2 port at the rear of the box. The system does an auto-detect
for attached devices, so it will appear in the backup menu (listed
as EXTERNAL.) So if you already have an existing backup unit,
you won't necessarily need to use it in this way.
upgrades are us
I found a newer version of the N3100's operating system on
the Connex Web site. I then tried the upgrade feature described
in the manual. Unlike other such upgrade operations for competing
NAS boxes, this procedure was a welcome change. I downloaded
the file to the unit's ADMIN/ UPDATE subdirectory and then rebooted.
The N3100 knows to look for possible updates in the subdirectory
as it reboots. So when it found my downloaded update there,
it automatically loaded and upgraded itself. The system then
reappeared with the new version, 1.8.2, now showing on the LCD
The greatest fear in upgrading a BIOS or an OS is the potential
for a catastrophic failure of the upgrade. If the upgrade doesn't
"take," you are left with no way to get back to the
previous working state. Often only returning the unit to the
factory can restore the system back. In a cool move on Connex'
part, it avoids this by keeping a backup copy of the previous
OS on the spare drive. Should the upgrade fail, you can then
follow the procedures to make the spare drive the boot drive,
and voilà, you are back to work. This should make living with
the N3100 easy for many administrators.
a base hit for the enterprise
We tested the N3100 using a single workstation over 10BaseT
to gain a baseline for performance. The unit consistently handled
about 900KB in writing and 2MB in read speeds. We believe these
numbers reflect the capabilities of the network rather than
the N3100 itself. The unit should easily handle significantly
more demand over 100BaseT from multiple clients.
Connex recently went through a major change in its sales organization.
Despite this, by the time you read this review, Connex may already
have delivered a systems upgrade for the N3100. I sincerely
look forward to a version with Domain Services or NDS support
to make security management easier.
As it stands, the N3100 is an excellent platform for upgrading
network storage. Connex has carefully reviewed the demands of
network users as well as administrators and incorporated these
demands into the system. While the current unit has its limitations,
it is a great foundation to build upon and should tower in future