Hands on with the Snap Server 1000

Thanks to the Mac OS's built-in support for file sharing, small offices that use Macs can run indefinitely without the need for a dedicated file server -- provided that their file sharing needs are fairly modest. After all, file sharing impacts the performance of individual computers and scatters files between different hard drives. Eventually, it can be difficult (if not downright impossible) to find what you're looking for if you have to search a half a dozen or more different hard disk drives for an errant file.

As file sharing becomes more and more of a headache, it might be worth considering the addition of a file server to your small office or workgroup network. A file server is a dedicated system that provides a central repository for shared files and applications. Once the rarified domain of IT managers working in large corporate environments, file servers cost thousands of dollars to set up, requiring dedicated hardware and software. They often come encumbered with unnecessarily features that many businesses will never use.

Basic file servers are now the domain of common folk like you and me, thanks in part to a new breed of network attached storage (or NAS) devices. Snap Appliances, a wholly owned subsidiary of hard drive maker Quantum Computer Corp., produces such devices, which it calls Snap Servers. These boxes consist of little more than a hard drive, a network interface and some solid-state hardware that runs a dedicated, streamlined operating system. Snap Servers hook up directly to the network in just a few minutes and function straight out of the box, providing anywhere from dozens or hundreds of gigabytes of file service to local networks at a fraction of the cost of traditional file servers.

Snap Server 1000

Recently I took a look at Snap Appliances' 40GB Snap Server 1000. It's a compact box that weighs about three and a half pounds and measures about the size of an external CD-RW drive -- five inches wide, nine inches deep and about three and a half inches high. Clad in black, the unit sports a spartan square design with an oblong cylindrical embellishment -- a configuration that would be equally at home on the corner of a desk or sitting on a rack-mounted tray in a wiring closet. The front of the Snap Server 1000 sports four LEDs: two green lights displaying system access and link status, and two orange LEDs showing network access and disk access. The backplane consists of a 10/100baseT Ethernet jack, an on/off button and a small pinhole for hardware resetting.

A Snap to set up

Snap Appliances says that it takes about five minutes to get a Snap Server hooked up to your network. My experience was more around three minutes, and half of that was just waiting for the box to initialize the first time. Take the server out of its packing carton, plug in a power adapter, jack the box into an open port on the hub and turn it on. Within about two minutes, the server is visible on the AppleShare network through the Chooser. It's literally plug-and-play -- at least if you don't mind a network server with multiprotocol support and absolutely no security.

Configuring the server with user and group information, security restrictions and other customizations takes a bit longer. Snap includes a Mac-native software application called SnapIP, but it does nothing more than enable you to assign the box a TCP/IP address so you can configure it further using a Web browser. Snap includes more extensive configuration tools, if you have a Windows-based computer from which to run them.

Snap Administration Window

Being able to configure the box from a Web browser on your Mac isn't bad, but it's not a complete solution either. Operating system upgrades for the Snap Server, for example, can presently be done only through the Windows-native application. It may not be often that Snap makes a major upgrade to the OS, but the last time it did, it added significant new features -- and unless you had access to a Windows PC, your only alternative was to send in the box to Snap Appliances for service -- not exactly a convenient solution for a company depending on access to the Snap Server's contents.

The Snap Server's list of supported network transport schemes and file protocols is quite long -- the box supports TCP/IP, IPX, NetBEUI, and AppleTalk, Microsoft Networking, Novell NetWare, UNIX (NFS), AFP, HTTP 1.0, and FTP. It also supports Microsoft NT domain controllers and Novell Netware bindery service.

Unless your network systems automatically assign IP addresses to new network devices through DHCP, you'll need to be careful when you're assigning the box a TCP/IP address, subnet mask and other critical IP information -- otherwise you can end up locking yourself out of access, requiring you to reset the box and start over again.

Once set up with IP info, however, the server's administrator can assign user and group information, name the server and its available volume, set disk quotas, enable or disable different network protocols. Snap Appliances also includes PowerQuest DataKeeper Snap Edition, a software backup application designed to enable Windows-equipped PCs to automatically back up files to the Snap Server. Alas, a Mac client is not included. The Snap Server will work with Mac backup applications that support mounted desktop volumes, such as Dantz's Retrospect Express Backup for Macintosh, for example, but that will incur an additional expense on your part.

Snappy performance

While I didn't perform any comprehensive benchmarks, I can comfortably say that the Snap Server 1000 provided distinctly better performance than a Power Mac G3 or Power Mac G4 set up with file sharing turned on. The unit also includes a 10/100baseT Ethernet interface, so if you're working on a fast Ethernet connection, you'll get some benefit.

Working with a small workgroup -- in my case, five Macs of various vintage hammering the unit with 40 or 50MB file upload and download requests simultaneously -- I saw adequate performance, although the server would occasionally bog down as it paused to respond to one request or another.

The server was rock-solid reliable, too. I'm subject to frequent power outages in my area, and the server isn't on a UPS. Regardless, it came back up every time with nary a complaint -- often times faster than other network devices, like my cable modem and printer.

There's one other issue worth considering, and that's Mac OS X. The version of the Snap Server's operating system that I tested in the Snap Server 1000 only works with Mac OS up to version 9.x. Snap Appliances is currently putting a new version of Snap OS through its paces that supports Mac OS X, however. There's no firm release date set yet, but a technical spokesperson for Snap reiterated his company's commitment to supporting Mac OS X and assured me it will happen.

In addition to its other virtues, the Snap Server is extremely quiet. If you don't have a wiring closet or other area that you can stick the server on, you can just keep it out on a desk someplace. And outside of some occasional access noise and the sound of a cooling fan automatically turning on and off, the box is quite quiet.

If your needs are more complex than what a simple 40GB NAS system can handle, Snap also has other solutions available -- everything from the dual-drive 2000 model up to the ES12, a full-blown rack-mounted RAID level 0,1, or 5-capable system with support for up to 900GB of storage capacity, redundant hot-swappable power supplies and fans -- the whole nine yards.

Well, snap my britches!

Support for the Snap Server was quick and competent. I messed up my initial configuration for the Snap Server, so I called the company's toll-free support line. I was on the phone for only a couple of minutes before I got a hold of a knowledgeable and polite technician who quickly walked me through what I needed to do to reset the box and start over again -- he gave me the info I needed to avoid making the same mistake again, too. The company also has an online knowledge base accessible via its Web site, and provides localized tech support in Britain, Germany, France and Singapore.

The 40GB Snap Server 1000 retails for about US$799 -- that's considerably more than what a 40GB hard drive might cost on its own. Consider, however, that AppleShare IP costs $999, and a base-model Power Mac G4 will set you back another $1,699 -- total, that's approaching three and a half times what a 40GB Snap Server costs. Admittedly, AppleShare IP provides more robust functionality, but for many, many users, the Snap Server's multiprotocol file sharing and basic Web support will be more than enough, provided the box's current lack of support for Mac OS X does not create a problem.

Given the comparison between what a full-blown file server costs and the low price of a Snap Server 1000, the Snap Server 1000 is a great value. It could be even better if Snap Appliances can provide feature-parity for Mac users with the Snap Server's included software, and gets the new version of Snap OS working with Mac OS X soon. If you have a small office or workgroup that could benefit from network attached storage, the Snap Server offers a convenient, easy to manage solution.

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