MicroSolutions BackPack Wireless Workgroup Server

By Joseph Moran

December 02, 2003

If you don't need cutting edge wireless (read: 802.11g), this unit that combines storage, a wired router and a WLAN access point in a single chassis may be the perfect solution for your small business.

Model: 301100/301105
Price: $699 for 80GB; $799 for 120GB
Pros: Files system supports all major OSes
Cons: 802.11b only

One way to look at the Backpack Wireless Workgroup Server is as a wireless with a hard drive attached. On the other hand, the whole is often more than the sum of its parts.

Offering 802.11b WLAN support and available in 80 GB ($699, model 301100) or 120 GB ($799, model 301105) versions, the Backpack Wireless Workgroup Server from MicroSolutions contains essentially everything you need to set up a small business wireless and wired network.

The Intersil PRISM 2.5-based Backpack is very diminutive in size--it's has roughly the same footprint as a typical broadband router, and isn't all that much taller. Two antennas are built into the sides of the unit, and can be raised like the doors of a Lamborghini to just past 90 degrees until they're perpendicular to unit.

Like most broadband routers, the Backpack has the obligatory four 10/100 LAN ports and a WAN port on rear. Unlike such routers though, the Backpack is not silent, owing to it integrated fan necessary to dissipate the heat of the hard disk. The unit by no means qualifies as very noisy, and certainly emits only a fraction of the sound of a full-blown server. But if you're sitting next to it in a small quiet office, you may need to get used to the constant din of the fan.

The product has a number of features that, while minor, are immensely useful. For example, the AC adapter plugs screws firmly into the rear of the unit rather than simply plugging in. This precludes the possibility of a clumsy individual inadvertently jostling it loose and cutting power to the unit.

Another nice touch--the Backpack emits an audible alarm if it looses connectivity to the Cable Modem or DSL device it's connected to. This only works if the cable is physically disconnected or if the cable/DSL box looses power. It can't discern if you've simply lost Internet connectivity due to a network problem.

The front of the Backpack prominently features a two-line backlit LCD panel with two control buttons which you can use to look up and modify various settings, not unlike an HP LaserJet printer. However, unless aggravation is something you enjoy, it's best to use the front panel only for quick walk-up info and to avoid trying to find and modify settings this way unless absolutely necessary--such as when a computer is not available.

Despite the product's wealth of features, it is relatively easy to set up. Any one breathing can probably have it up and running quickly. The Backpack's Quick Configuration Wizard walks you through basic configuration of the unit, including defining network, disk, user, and share settings. Basic network settings can be also be set or modified via a Windows utility included on the CD.

The manual, on the other hand, could do a better job of explaining some of the features in more detail. In fact, the Backpack's provides only 30-page printed manual, which will leave some neophytes, and even occasionally advanced users wondering how to correctly configure a setting. Fortunately, online help is provided that goes into a bit more detail.

The Backpack mirrors most of the LAN/WAN features found in the best broadband gateways, and adds a few more to boot. For example, the BackPack can act as an organization's DNS server.

Small businesses that have been assigned a range of global IP addresses from their ISP will appreciate the Backpack's one-to-one NAT capability. This feature, which most broadband routers lack, allows each internal private address to be mapped to an individual "real" address. These addresses can be individually logged to keep closer tabs on user traffic.

To enhance employee productivity (ahem), the Backpack offers content controls in the form of URL and keyword filtering. Both successfully blocked access to Web sites with either specific addresses or words within their addresses, but the feature doesn't present an "access denied" or similar customized screen. Rather, the browser simply churns until eventually a "page not found" is shown. I could see this being mistaken for a technical problem when people attempt to access restricted sites, which will make life more difficult for whoever is responsible for support. To its credit, the content filters are not fooled by resolving a site's IP address and then entering it into the browser.

To access the Backpack's storage, you can create user accounts on the unit and then organize those users into groups with specific file access rights. The device can also obtain existing users and groups from a Windows PDC, and it had no difficulty doing so from my Windows 2000 domain controller. I didn't have any difficulty reading or writing files from the unit with a number of Windows machines, or locating it via the NetBIOS browsing in Network Neighborhood.

The Backpack supports every network file system of import, including Microsoft's SMB, Apple, NFS for Unix and Linux, and Netware. Users can also access files via FTP and HTTP. My test unit came with its single 80 GB drive formatted as a single large volume, but you can create multiple volumes if you so choose.

Happily, you can define per-user quotas, to prevent your finite storage from being filled with MP3s or other manner of dreck by space hogs (every company has at least one).

The Backpack also has the ability to perform data replication with another Wireless Workgroup Server (i.e. at a remote location). I couldn't test this feature, but support for incremental replication and data compression should help keep WAN bandwidth usage down (plus it can be scheduled for after hours).

The Backpack maintains detailed logs, and the unit smartly segregates mundane DHCP events into a separate log so their presence won't clutter and obscure entries in the main log. Unfortunately though, the logs can't be saved to a file or sent to a syslog server. Individual log entries and alerts, however, can be e-mailed and you can choose to e-mail alerts only for critical errors or for warning events as well.

The Backpack also supports SNMP for management, and if you have a TCP/IP-based UPS from APC it can shut down the Backpack if power is lost (I was unable to test this feature, however, since my uninterruptible power supply is not made by APC.)

As mentioned earlier, the Backpack can provide users convenient access to files via HTTP. You can provide a modicum of customization by adding small logo file (100 x 100) to the browser welcome page.

Although the wireless capability is an important part of what makes the Backpack a compelling product, from the look of the WLAN configuration page, you might get the impression that it was almost an afterthought. Buried within the LAN configuration page, the configurable WLAN settings provided are rather spartan, consisting only of selection of channel and WEP level. Then again, that's true of many 802.11b products now that the focus is on 802.11g and beyond.

Throughput performance of the Backpack was steady and unremarkable, as is customary for 802.11b products. Throughput levels remained rock solid at a tick over 4 Mbps from 10 feet up to 125 feet. There was no perceptible decline in performance with 128-bit WEP enabled.

Several companies (D-Link, Linksys, and US Robotics, to name a few) offer products that offer some subset of the Wireless Workgroup Server features. Comparatively few, however, (and none that I'm aware of in the small-business space) offer the complete package-- storage, a wired router and a WLAN access point-- in a single chassis.

Of course, almost any integrated device will have limitations relative to separate stand-alone devices. (Case in point: I wish the Backpack supported 802.11g.) And, while you could obtain equivalent or superior capabilities by assembling separate components, it would likely more and almost certainly be more of a hassle to configure and maintain.

In short, if you don't need cutting-edge wireless capabilities and value the simplicity of having a soup-to-nuts small business network in a single box, the Backpack Wireless Workgroup server is worthy of your attention.



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