SolutionBase: Easily add more storage to a SOHO network with the XIMETA NetDisk

Adding more storage to your network doesn't have cause you headaches or cramp your budget. Here's how to quickly add storage using XIMETA's NetDisk.

Are you thinking of adding more storage space to your SOHO network? If so, chances are that you've considered the most obvious choice of adding a hard disk to the computer that acts as the file server. However, that's usually a time-consuming operation that could very well lead to server downtime. With that in mind, you may have considered adding a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device to your network. However, you may not have been able to find a NAS device that's within the same price range as a standard hard disk or one that doesn't offer more complex features than you need on your SOHO network.

Fortunately, in 2003 a company by the name of XIMETA was formed to offer a good solution for those looking for an affordable and simple way to add more storage space to a SOHO network. By combining the best features of an external local hard disk with those of NAS technology, XIMETA developed a technology they call Network Direct Attached Storage, or NDAS for short. The company describes it as "a disk storage technology which allows direct connection to your network without a server, IP address, or a protocol." Here's how XIMETA's NetDisk can help meet storage needs, along with how to set up the device in Windows XP and add it to your network.

How'd they do it?

To achieve this feat, XIMETA used a patented chip and software technology to design what is essentially an external USB hard disk that can also be connected directly to a network via an Ethernet connection. Their NetDisk product appears and functions like a local hard disk even when it's connected to the network via Ethernet. In fact it appears in My Computer!

And, in keeping with the SOHO target, the NetDisk is very affordable. The base model offers an 80-GB hard disk and carries an average street price of about $140. In addition, 120-GB, 160-GB, and 250-GB models are available with average street prices of $190, $240, and $390, respectively. The NetDisk supports Windows 98 SE/ME/2000/XP, as well as Mac OS X and Linux Red Hat 8.0 and 9.0.

An overview

Before we discuss using the NetDisk, let's take a brief look at the technology behind this unique device and discuss a few shortcomings. It's important that you keep in mind that the NetDisk is specifically designed for a SOHO network consisting of between two and 20 computers, and so working with these shortcomings should be a feasible task.

As I mentioned, the NetDisk doesn't work as a server, doesn't need an IP address, nor does it use network protocol to communicate over the network. Instead, the NetDisk works by using a special chip, housed in the case, that along with proprietary software that emulates a SCSI connection over Ethernet.

While this indeed gives the device some unique properties, such as allowing the NetDisk to appear as a local drive on each computer, it also brings with it some shortcomings that might seem out of place for a network-oriented device.

To begin with, before any computer on the network can access the NetDisk, you must install the appropriate operating system-specific driver and the NetDisk software on each system. Then you must configure the software in order for the system to be able to access the drive. Of course, this means a physical visit to every computer on the network. A pain, but feasible in a two-to-20 -computer network.

The second shortcoming, which has to do with write access to the disk, only comes up in a network that has multiple operating systems. If the computers on the network are running a combination of Windows 98SE/ME and Windows 2000/XP, all computers can simultaneously read data on the NetDisk, but only one computer at a time can write data to the NetDisk. Write access is passed from one computer to the next as needed.

However, if all the computers on the network are running Windows 2000 and Windows XP, the write-access restriction is nonexistent. The NetDisk driver for the Windows 2000 and XP operating systems will allow all computers to simultaneously read data from and write data to the NetDisk.

The third shortcoming is essentially an administration issue: There is no way to password protect or otherwise prevent users from accessing the NetDisk Administrator Tool. While there really isn't much trouble that a user could cause, it would be nice to be able to lock down the NetDisk Administrator Tool in order to enforce the read-only policy. (As I'll explain later, you can configure a user to have read-only access to the NetDisk; however, with the right information in hand a user can easily add write access to his or her configuration.)

Inspecting the NetDisk

When I first opened the box and saw the NetDisk, as shown in Figure A, its aluminum enclosure and size immediately reminded of my first modem, a Hayes Smartmodem 300 bps unit that I bought back in 1985. The trip down memory lane aside, the NetDisk's sturdy case measures 8.3-inches long, 4.7-inches wide, and 1.4-inches high. The device weighs in at three pounds and can sit horizontally or vertically. Two LEDs on the top provide power-connection and hard-drive-activity indicators.

Figure A

The NetDisk's sleek-looking aluminum case is designed to sit horizontally as well as vertically.

On the back of the device, as shown in Figure B, you'll find the On/Off switch, the USB 2.0 port, the external power-supply connector, and the 100-Mbps Ethernet port. While it is difficult to distinguish, the Ethernet port is flanked by two LEDs that indicate a LAN connection and LAN activity.

Figure B

The back of the unit reveals both Ethernet and USB ports, indicating the versatility of the NetDisk.

Looking at the back of the case, you might expect to see a fan or some type of ventilation port. However, the NetDisk doesn't have a fan and solely relies on the aluminum casing to dissipate heat from the hard disk. This seems to work fine, as the case does indeed get warm after the unit has been running for a while. In addition, the lack of a fan makes the NetDisk a very quiet device.

The NetDisk package includes an Ethernet cable, a USB cable, a power adapter and power cord, a quick install guide, and the software installation CD. The full manual is included on the CD in PDF format.

The hard disk in the NetDisk is preformatted with NTFS, making it ideal for use with Windows 2000 and Windows XP, but requiring a reformat for use with other operating systems. The particular unit that I tested for this article came with an 80-GB, 7200-rpm Maxtor 6Y160L0 hard drive.

Connecting the NetDisk

Connecting the NetDisk to your network is a pretty straightforward operation. To begin, you connect the unit to your switch or hub using the supplied Ethernet cable. Then, connect the external power supply to the unit and plug it into the power outlet. Finally, you slide the On/Off switch to the On position. Once you do so, you'll see the lights on the unit flash and hear the hard disk ramp up to speed, which seems to occur in a matter of seconds.

Installing the drivers

As I mentioned, before any computer on the network can access the NetDisk, you must install the appropriate operating system-specific driver on each system. Although the driver version numbers might change between the time that I'm writing this and the time that you're reading this, I'll use the current version numbers to illustrate the driver installation strategy. Keep in mind that you can download the most current drivers from the Download Center on the XIMETA Web site.

If all the computers on the network are running Windows 2000 or Windows XP, you'll install version 3.07 of the NetDisk driver on each system. If the computers on the network are running multiple operating system versions, you'll install version 2.4 of the NetDisk driver on the Windows 2000 and Windows XP systems, and version 1.01 on the Windows 98 SE and Windows ME systems.

I installed the NetDisk driver in Windows 98 SE, Windows 2000, and Windows XP and found that regardless of which driver version you install, the procedure is a very straightforward wizard-driven operation that ends with a system restart.

Adding the NetDisk

As soon as the system restarts, you'll see the Add New NetDisk window on your screen, as shown in Figure C, which prompts you to begin the software configuration procedure that will allow the system to access the drive. XIMETA calls this procedure registering the NetDisk and it basically consists of obtaining the NetDisk ID and the Write Key numbers that are found on the bottom of the device's case and entering them in the software.

Figure C

The Add New NetDisk screen outlines the registering procedure.

The NetDisk ID is a number that specifically identifies a particular unit. The ID number is necessary because you can actually have multiple NetDisks on your network and the software uses the ID to specifically recognize each one. (I'll discuss using multiple NetDisks in a moment.) The Write Key is used to specify whether the software will allow the computer to have write access to the disk. For example, if you only want the user of the computer on which you're registering the NetDisk to have read-only capability, simply don't enter the Write Key.

Once you have the numbers, click the NetDisk Administrator Tool icon located on the system tray and select the New NetDisk command. When you do, you'll see the Register A NetDisk dialog box, as shown in Figure D. As you can see, in addition to the NetDisk ID and Write Key numbers, you can also assign a unique name to the device that will then be used to identify the disk in My Computer.

Figure D

When you enter the NetDisk ID and Write Key numbers, you can also assign a unique name to the device.

As soon as you click OK, you'll see a NetDisk Administrator confirmation dialog box like the one shown in Figure E. If you didn't enter a Write Key in the Register A NetDisk dialog box, the NetDisk Administrator confirmation dialog box will indicate that the NetDisk is registered as read-only.

Figure E

Once you register the NetDisk, you'll see a confirmation dialog box.

When you click OK, you may see the Found New Hardware Wizard. If you do, simply follow the onscreen instructions. During this time, you may also see a warning indicating that the NetDisk has not passed the Windows Logo testing procedure. If so, simply click Yes or Continue Anyway to complete the installation procedure.

Once the procedure is complete, you'll find your NetDisk in My Computer, automatically assigned to a local drive letter.

The NetDisk Administration Tool

The NetDisk Administrator Tool, which you access via the icon located on the system tray, as shown in Figure F, allows you to perform a few standard as well a device-specific functions. For example, you can switch access rights to read-only, rename the disk, check the disk's properties, or disable the disk.

Figure F

You'll use the NetDisk Administrator Tool to perform most configuration operations with the NetDisk.

Advanced features

If you have more than one NetDisk and are running either Windows 2000 or Windows XP, you can take advantage of some of the software's more advanced features—Aggregation and Mirroring. I was unable to test these advanced features, which are available via the NetDisk Aggregation & Mirroring utility shown in Figure G, because I had access to only one of the devices. However, I will describe them briefly.

Figure G

The NetDisk Aggregation & Mirroring utility provides access to some of the device's more advanced features.

As it's name implies, the Aggregation feature allows you to make two NetDisk drives appear as a single larger drive. The Mirroring feature allows you to configure a real-time backup procedure that instantly mirrors the contents of a Primary NetDisk to a Secondary NetDisk, whenever changes or edits are made to the data on the Primary NetDisk.

End sum

Overall, I found the NetDisk to be a solid device that performs as specified. Even with it's list of shortcomings, I would consider it to be a very good alternative to some of the other means of adding storage space to a SOHO network. And when it comes to cost, the NetDisk is definitely a very affordable product for a small business.

By Greg Shultz

Greg Shultz is a freelance Technical Writer. Previously, he has worked as Documentation Specialist in the software industry, a Technical Support Specialist in educational industry, and a Technical Journalist in the computer publishing industry.