Review: Connex N3100 NAS
Posted Apr 1, 2001

synopsis: The Connex N3100 NAS device ($13,500 as tested) is an excellent platform for upgrading network storage. 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 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 releases.

April 2001|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.

papers, please
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 out.

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 the N3100.

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.

management
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.

backup
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 backup application.

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 (www.connex.com). 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 screen.

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 releases.