Linkysys NSLU2 Review

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I got an el cheapo Linksys Linksys: NSLU2 – Network Storage Link for USB 2.0 Disk Drives which is about the size of a small camera. Plus, got a USB 2.0 enclosure for cheap from Newegg called a “Quick-Serv Penr35u2”:http://www.newegg.com/app/viewProductDesc.asp?description=17-145-843&depa=0. It cames in a box labeled Backup Q. Here is what I found.
The net is the hardware works, but who wrote this software. Yuck! Here is the ratings of it by category (a new thing for me) where I would rate C as being the average computer savvy pro can do it, A as the computer-is-just-a-tool person can do it and F you have to know the history of computing and how engineers think at Microsoft to do it.
h4. Hardware Installation: C-
This is a blended score. The NSLU2 quick install isn’t bad, but the USB enclosure is miserable because you have to understand jumpers. OTOH, if you are doing this, you presumable know about master and slave, but it doesn’t tell what to set.
* Getting a separate USB 2.0 enclosure is way cheaper than a put together hard drive. They charge quite a premium for snapping two parts together.
* When you install a hard drive into the Backup Q, don’t set the hard drive for channel select (that is the cable sets things up automatically). You have to set the hard drive DIP switches for master only. There isn’t any documentation on this nor a web site you can find. So if you order an exclosure, set to cable select and if doesn’t work, set for single drive only.
h4. Software Installation: D
The quick install is actually is actually pretty good to setup the basic network, but it doesn’t help you at all with the end user problem of finding the drive. So the software initial install is an B+. I’ve never seen a Linksys product that didn’t require you to deeply understand TCP. However, once setup quits, it is an F because you really have to get Windows networking to use it.
* There is a CD you put into a PC and there must be some sort of low level search since you don’t need the name of the drive, the install utility finds the thing on the network and then you can say what TCP/IP address. This is pretty cool because that way you don’t have this chicken and egg problem of where is the drive so you find the web server that controls it.
* If there is an unformatted hard drive, the setup utility automatically formats it, so that is wonderful. The bad thing is that when the setup utility quits, you just a blank screen and there aren’t instructions on how to access the drive over the network. The strangeness is that it appears as a file server, so you need to go to network neighborhood and look for a strange unintuitive network name and see the hard drive. I don’t know why they didn’t just do a map drive from the setup utility. On Windows XP, this is about 10 clicks, to get to Network Neighborhood, then to Entire Network, the Microsoft Windows Network, then to WORKGROUP and then you see some strangely named thing like Lkg0830485, then you have to know the username is _admin_ and the password is _admin_. That isn’t documented as far as I know.
* There is an install utility, but it is only for USB Flash drives and is completely useless for hard drives, it installs a desktop icon with no user interface except Map Drive and Remove Drive.
* There is a web interface of course where you can change all of this and it is documented. That gives it kind of a D because there are some obvious default settings. Such as a sensible Netbios name for the server. The manual calls the web interface the advanced user interface, but if you want any type of security, you are forced to use it. And, you need this for a sensible device name as well.
h4. Performance: A-
There are some import-ant factoids about the device performance-wise. The short of it is that it takes about 50 minutes to copy 2GBs, so it certainly isn’t working at network speeds. This is over a dedicated 802.11g 54Mbps running to the device. It is running at a peak of about 30% of overall throughput which is essentially saturation of the wireles link. It has incredible performance with big files and just terrible (0.17% utilization) with tiny files. Interesting to see this difference. Must be the translation by Samba (this is really a Linux box running Samba) that is the issue.
h4. Convenience: B+
Day to day, this is super convenient and it is much quieter and less hassle than using a Windows PC to do the same thing. You don’t have to boot the thing up or worry about service packs. It won’t crash.
Main problem is that it spins the hard drive 24 hours per day. If it had a power down mode in the USB enclosure, it would be a slam dunk A+. As it is, I still can’t leave it on all the time, it hums too much.
It does a couple of minutes to boot, so it is not instant on. I’m actually kind of amazed by that, but I’m presuming that is because Linux has to load underneath.
h4. Price: A+
Heck, this thing is just $80 for the NSLU2 plus $30 for each enclosure. You can put 400GB of storage on your network. How cool is that. The main thing is that while it is a great value, it is a pain to setup right.
h4. Stability/Bugs: F
Some early reports on the web say it is very unstable and won’t work. Makes sense given how cheap it is. We’ll see.
The thing has an annoying time stamp bug that means it loses lots of time each day, so the creation dates are messed up. This requires that you reload the firmware. You have to navigate through a very deep Linksys site and then discover this is one of those sites that doesn’t put downloads in the support section. You have to go to the product page and look for firmware on the main page. (What does that tell you about how often firmware updates are needed). The current version as of today is V2.3R25, so I had to upload the firmware.
One bad thing is that since this is not true Windows underneath, there are going to incompatibilities. So when I copy the network install of Windows XP, the NSLU2 refuses because the path name is too deep. A strange error that no human will understand. On the other hand, most uses probably won’t feature paths with more that 256 characters in it. An old LAN Manager limitations as I recall. The NSLU2 then crashed and won’t accept network accesses. Oh well. Now that this has happened, it seems to have wedged the hard disk, so if you turn off the NSLU2, it doesn’t think there are any hard disks attached even though the light is on. Sigh.
I tried the restart it, but this didn’t work, so back to holding the setup for 10 seconds to completely reset the device. Looks like the hard disk just got so thrashed it isn’t recognized by the system. I had to put the USB Hard Drive into a Windows machine and unformat it so that you can reformat it with the NSLU2. Sorry to say you have to be a real hacker to know this. It is amazing that just transferring files could cause such a hard crash. Oh well at least it was cheap. Also it turns out that to reset the device is quite tricky. You have to push the reset at the back for 10 seconds, then you go to the web server in the device and select in the administration options, revert to old firmware. Wow, that is too bad. A hard reset should just get back you to steady state and not require a PC around somewhere.
The firmware upgrade also fails going from 3.2R24 to 3.2R25 and then seems to wedge the hard disk again, so beware.
h3. Overall: C
I haven’t used it but for 10 minutes, but it one thing to think about.
h3. Strange incantations to remember
Like any hardware device, it has super strange quirks and little things to know. Here’s a list:
* Press the on button for 2 seconds and this resets the IP address to 192.168.1.77 so you can find it again.
* Press the on button for 10 seconds and resets the password to _admin_.
* You can put a USB Flash drive in, but only into USB connector 2 (why do folks do strange things like this). Hard drives can go in either.

One Reply to “Linkysys NSLU2 Review”

  1. I had similarish issues with my NSLU2… Then I did some homework. It appears that Samba has issues with some networks, and MS Windows.
    I was using a cheap 10Mbit hub. But I had an alternate computer wirelessly accessing the network. The other computer could write to the NSLU2, but the my good machine just hung whenever I tried to copy files to it.
    My solution was to buy a cheap DLINK 10/100 Switch. Not only did that stop the errors, but it drastically improved my network performance.

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