Snap Server 4500 proves fast, economical

Snap Server 4500 proves fast, economical

File sharing remains one of the key benefits of networking, and a file server may be the single most widely used application on the LAN.

For small workgroups and departments that need a file server, it’s hard to imagine a more usable and economical solution than Snap Appliance’s Snap Server 4500.

Released in the US in mid-May, the Snap Server 4500 can hold as much as 720GB of storage in 1U (1.75 inches) of rack space, a significant upgrade from the company’s somewhat dated Snap Server 4100, which can hold a maximum of 320GB in the same form factor. Given that the IDG Test Centre has a 240GB version of the 4100 as part of its lab infrastructure, I’ve had considerable experience with this platform, which came in handy when I tested the early production 720GB version of the Snap Server 4500.

Don’t forget that this is a workgroup file server. You aren’t going to get true enterprise-class functionality such as multi-terabyte capacity, storage virtualisation, block-mode storage-area networking, or even support for simultaneous file access for hundreds of users or transaction databases. But as primary storage for a few dozen people — or as a secondary application for a larger group who use it for backup or an archive — the Snap Server 4500 is ideal.

A key factor in total cost of ownership is manageability. Snap Servers include an excellent Web-based admin interface that’s as good as any in the business — with the possible exception of Sun Microsystems’ Cobalt RaQ line of general-purpose servers. (Sun discontinued the dedicated Cobalt NASRaQ storage servers, which is a pity.)

Very little training should be necessary for Snap administrators, and the interface’s wizards are adequate for the little day-to-day maintenance that may be required. The Snap system can talk to SNMP-based management consoles such as IBM Tivoli or HP OpenView, or it can send email alerts — a better option for smaller shops.

Similar to its predecessors, the Snap Server 4500 can integrate into a Microsoft Active Directory scheme, thereby enabling control access through Windows; that’s the configuration I used for testing. Shops that don’t use Active Directory can use Snap Server 4500’s Web-based interface for assigning users and permissions. It’s a shame that Snap doesn’t integrate with Novell’s superior eDirectory.

On the performance side, the Snap Server 4500 is equipped with a bigger engine compared with the vastly underpowered Snap Server 4100. The 4500 boasts a 2.4GHz Pentium 4 processor and 512MB of RAM; the 4100 comes equipped with a 233MHz Pentium III and 128MB of RAM. When you add in the dual-Gigabit Ethernet ports, the system is quick and responsive, easily rivaling a Linux or Windows server.

The most impressive improvement, however, is the Snap Server 4500’s reliability. The ability to hot-swap the ATA hard drives in case of failure adds a degree of high availability to the Snap Server 4500 that’s missing in the earlier version.

Although I wasn’t able to test it — I only had a single review system — the server’s Linux-based operating system can automatically sync its file system with other, identical Snap Servers, offering both the ability to load-balance multiple servers for larger groups and to preserve data in case of system failure. Computer Associate’s eTrust InoculateIT virus scanner, also included, runs directly on the file server itself — an outstanding feature.

Snap Server 4500’s compatibility with multiple file systems, including Macintosh, NetWare, Unix, and Windows, is also outstanding. The company’s earlier model had this feature, and its success has born out in practice: the InfoWorld Test Center’s older Snap Server 4100 has proved the easiest way to share files between Mac and Windows workstations.

When you look at all the functionality the Snap Server 4500 has to offer — large hot-swappable disks with RAID Level 5 protection, dual-Gigabit Ethernet ports, easy-to-use Web-base management, integration with Active Directory, anti-virus, server-to-server backup, and broad compatibility — that’s everything one could ask for in a workgroup file server.

The Snap Server 4500 was preconfigured with four 250GB hard drives configured for RAID 5 — that is, data-striped across all drives, with sufficient redundancy to allow for any single drive to fail. This left an approximate usable capacity of 711GB.

The server was connected to an HP Gigabit Ethernet switch, that serves as the lab backbone; also on that network were Windows 2000 and Windows 2003 servers, also on Gigabit Ethernet, plus one Linux workstation and one Mac OS client, both on Fast Ethernet.

The Snap Server was placed under the control of a Windows 2000 Server domain controller’s Active Directory system, and protocols were configured to support all clients on the test LAN. After the initial test period, access was opened up to other Windows and Linux devices.

Shell scripts ensured that the Snap Server experienced continuous transactions, including when a hard disk was failed by removing it during operations, and then replacing it. The server continued operating while the disk was removed and then while the RAID set was rebuilt, without suffering application time-outs.

Later, the system was reconfigured for RAID 0 operation, which increased file space to 948GB, but at the cost of fault-tolerant disk storage.

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