Today, I'll take a look at an appliance designed for the SOHO, or the small branch office. I know, calling a product "IOGEAR USB 2.0 Multi-Function Print & Storage Server" is quite a mouthful. But putting the marketing angle aside, this IOGEAR device allows your USB-based devices to be shared over the network.
How does it work - and does it do its job well?
The IOGEAR USB 2.0 Multi-Function Print & Storage Server let's just call it the "IOGEAR server" from now on sports two standard USB ports and a 10/100 auto-sensing Ethernet port for connecting to a wired network. As its name suggests, you can connect USB 2.0 devices to it, which can then be accessed via the network.
Setting up is as simple as plugging in the provided power adapter, connecting your USB device(s) to the USB port, and then hooking it up via an Ethernet cable to your network. I connected my unit via Ethernet cable to my Linksys wireless router, which allowed me to share my HP LaserJet multifunctional printer (MFP) in my home office with my wife. No more unsightly USB cable dangling around the room!
Using the IOGEAR server
The IOGEAR server is transparent to the attached USB hardware the devices have no idea the IOGEAR server even exists. However, you do need to first install the bundled software driver on all desktops or laptops that require access. Installation is fuss-free, and the driver manifests as an icon that sits unobtrusively in your system tray.
You then have to "connect" to your USB appliances or peripherals via the applet activated by clicking on the icon before you are able to use them. Once connected, my laptop was able to connect to the devices as if they were physically connected to my desktop. Because attached peripherals behave like standard USB devices, only one terminal can use devices that are attached at a time.
It's also possible to do simple file sharing since the IOGEAR server has support for CIFS, the de-facto networking protocol for the Windows operating system. Via the IOGEAR server's built-in Web interface or its applet, you can configure an attached USB flash drive or even USB hard disk drives to be shared as a networked file system.
Having said this, I haven't tested the system under load and am unable to comment on its performance in this aspect.
The downside of the IOGEAR server is clear: beyond its file-sharing mode, only one attached USB device can be used at a time. Offices where heavy printing or scanning is done might well be better off with a dedicated print server or a network based printer.
When someone else is printing, for example, I first have to wait for the first user to finish and manually "disconnect" via their software applet before I'm able to "connect." It would be great if users were automatically queued up in the order of who came first.
The IOGEAR server is not for everyone. For one thing, large offices will see absolutely no need for it. For the SOHO or small branch office, however, this appliance could well shave some dollars off the budget by eliminating the need for a dedicated print server or a network-enabled printer.
To be honest, I was initially quite skeptical of its practicality. At the end of the day, however, I find it very useful for sharing USB printers or devices in a small office and it does away with pulling USB cables all over the room. Its list price of US$169.95 isn't cheap. Still, for the reduced hassle and included three-year warranty, in my opinion, it's well worth the price.
Paul Mah is a writer and blogger who lives in Singapore, where he has worked for a number of years in various capacities within the IT industry. Paul enjoys tinkering with tech gadgets, smartphones, and networking devices.