Setting up an old Mac as a network fileserver has been a trivial operation since the release of System 7 many years ago: create a few sharing accounts, set permissions on folders, turn file sharing on, and you’re done.
Many of us have older Macs lying around that can be put into service as a file server with a larger hard drive and the latest Mac OS version the computer can handle. Or, we may already have an old tower or laptop acting as our central storage facility.
But when you’re starting from scratch or trying to plan a mixed Windows/Mac/Linux network, you might be able to avoid the cost and time to set up yet another computer with network-attached storage (NAS), a several-year-old concept that’s finally trickling down to an affordable level.
The concept of NAS is that you’re essentially plugging a hard drive into an Ethernet network: no computer, no monitor, no keyboard. Administration, such as adding users or running other operations, happens either through a special piece of software, or, more commonly, a Web browser pointing at that device (which runs a small Web server, like so many network devices these days).
A network-attached storage device has the benefit of simplicity and cost: you can’t buy a used Mac with the same hard drive storage and Windows/Linux file-serving compatibility as cheaply as the low-end NAS units, and running a headless Mac (with no monitor or keyboard) can be frustrating even with remote control software like Timbuktu or VNC.
Linksys EtherFast Instant GigaDrive — I recently had the opportunity to evaluate the Linksys EtherFast Instant GigaDrive, an 80 GB NAS unit that offers Windows-style SMB file sharing (supported in Mac OS X 10.2 Jaguar or with Thursby’s Dave in Mac OS 9, and under most Linux flavors), FTP upload and download, and Web-based download.
The Instant GigaDrive sports a single 10/100 Mbps Ethernet port, a parallel port for Windows-style print sharing, and two removable drive bays. Although the Instant GigaDrive comes with a single 80 GB drive installed in one bay, you can replace it or add a second drive up to 120 GB.
The Instant GigaDrive offers printer sharing via the Internet Printing Protocol (IPP), which should be compatible with the CUPS printing support built into Jaguar. However, no matter what I tried, I was unable to get a Mac OS X 10.2 system to connect to it. The IPP and CUPS documentation on the Web is scanty, although it’s possible that the open source Gimp-Print drivers would have helped.
The Instant GigaDrive’s biggest downside is price: $500 on the street. But when you break out the different features packed into a single piece of hardware and factor in the ease of setup and administration, you’d be hard pressed to find the same deal without enduring many hours of work and paying as much or more money for initial setup. I looked up a few Linux system resellers, and found a similarly equipped PC with no monitor, an 80 GB hard drive, and Linux preinstalled for just under $500. Likewise, although you can get similar full Windows systems for about $500, you must still attach a monitor or remote control software, protect them (no easy task), and otherwise maintain the overall system.
Internally, the Instant GigaDrive is a model of simplicity, relying at its core on a Linux system that resides on a 16 MB Compact Flash card. If your unit or drives go south, you can remove the card, pop it into a replacement unit, and retain all your custom settings, users, groups, and other parameters.
If you add a second drive, you can set the Instant GigaDrive to dump the entire contents of one drive to the other on a regular basis for a simple backup. Or, if you prefer, you can just use the second drive for even more network storage.
As with all Linksys products, the unit pretends to require a Windows-based PC for configuration by supplying only a special PC program with a single major function: to find the Instant GigaDrive’s default network number and access it even if you’re not on the same "private" network. At the time, I didn’t have a Windows box handy, which meant I had to take a short detour to create a private network range.
Adding a Private Linksys Network Range — Like all Linksys products, the Instant GigaDrive comes preset to an IP address in the 192.168.1.0 network. If your local network uses static IP addresses or you’re using a DHCP server that feeds out private addresses in another range, you can reset the Instant GigaDrive’s address by switching your Mac temporarily to the 192.168.1.0 network, making the change, and switching back to your preferred network range. This procedure works only with a wired connection (not wireless), and may temporarily disrupt your computer’s network connection, so be sure to unmount file servers.
In Mac OS 9 and earlier, bring up the TCP/IP control panel, select Configurations from the File menu, and Duplicate your basic configuration. Select the duplicate and rename it to "Private 192.168.1.0" or something similar. Select Ethernet from the Connect via pop-up menu, then select Manually from the Configure pop-up menu. Enter 192.168.1.99 as the IP address. Set the subnet mask to 255.255.255.0. You can leave the Router address field blank or enter 192.168.1.1. Quit and click Make Changes in the confirmation dialog.
In Mac OS X, open the Network preferences pane in System Preferences. Choose Network Port Configurations from the Show menu. Select Built-in Ethernet and click Duplicate. You can rename that entry "Private 192.168.1.0". Select that entry from the Show menu and click the TCP/IP tab. Choose Manually from the Configure pop-up menu. Enter 192.168.1.99 as the IP address. Set the Subnet Mask to 255.255.255.0. You can leave the Router field blank or enter 192.168.1.1. Click Apply Now.
As I noted before, all Linksys gateways and network products default to a private network address in the 192.168.1.0 range. The Instant GigaDrive’s IP number is 192.168.1.77. Enter that number in a Web browser and you’ll see the Instant GigaDrive’s configuration screen. The default username is "administrator" – all lower-case, not with a capital A as shown in the manual – and there’s no password.
Attaching that Storage — To use the Instant GigaDrive, you set up users and groups, each of which can have an overall storage allocation. I first set up my account "glennf" with a 1 GB limit. I then mounted the drive in Jaguar by entering "smb://192.168.1.77" (see above) in the Connect to Server dialog, selecting my "glennf" volume, and providing my user name and password when prompted. The Instant GigaDrive partition appeared on my Desktop as a volume with a gigabyte available.
Several configuration options let you set automatic diagnostics so the Instant GigaDrive defragments itself or runs a disk check every night. The unit supports S.M.A.R.T. disks, which are hard drives that have built-in self-monitoring hardware and software and that can report problems before they happen. The Instant GigaDrive can even email you with various kinds of reports and warnings.
Although the Instant GigaDrive isn’t for every network, especially those in which the cheap old Mac still suffices, it’s a simple way for someone not trained as a system administrator to run a reliable file server without the overhead of maintaining an entire operating system.
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