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Bill Roth, Ulitzer Editor-at-Large

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Product Review

Product Review: CTERA CloudPlug: Nifty Little Device

A Nifty Appliance in a Small Package

I covered the initial launch of the CloudPlug a few days ago, and the folks at CTERA were kind enough to send me a demo unit. The press release made it sound like a pretty nifty device. But, having written a few press releases in my time, I remained skeptical. After playing with it for 2-3 hours, I can confirm that it is, in fact,  pretty nifty.

The CloudPlug comes in a smallish box. It is smaller than the one a blackberry or iPhone comes in. As is the custom with consumer- focused appliances it also comes with a quick-start guide. This one comes with an accordioned 10-fold quick start as long as my arm. While not as daunting as the wall-sized TiVO quick start guide, it does have 20 steps. In truth, most people will only need the first 8.

In defense of CTERA, configuring any network device is complicated due to the labyrinthine nature of TCP/IP and most file sharing protocols.

Out Of The Box

Out-of-the-box (OOB) experience is important to me. I learned early in my career that you to pay attention to “OOB experience”. One product I worked on at Sun was getting poor customer reviews because they would cut themselves with reaching into the chassis when removing memory or the hard drive. Roth’s Rule #1 of OOB Experience: Do not make your customers bleed. It’s bad for business.

For the record, the CloudPlug did not make me bleed. Even a little.

The first major step in setting up the device is also a reminder of why the CloudPlug is not just an appliance. The first step is to set up an account on the CTERA portal. CTERA’s devices not only do file sharing, but they also manage a subscription-based online backup service. During the 30 day evaluation process, you get 10GB of storage to try out the service.

The next step in the installation process is to actually plug the device in. The power strip I was using was very full, so I could not use the default plug in the back of the unit. However, the CloudPlug well designed so that I could pop off the default power connector. It conveniently comes with an actual power cord, which I used.

Once the device is powered up, it is then necessary to cable the device to your router via an Ethernet cable. I assume this is because if you have a properly secure router, protected with a WEP or WAP key (as you should), it would be nearly impossible to do wirelessly. Also, you would have a lower bandwidth connection, or at least a less stable one, over 802.11a b or g.

Once both lights on the front of the unit turn green, then everything is ready for the storage.

I had a backup hard drive that I received at a former employer, since subsumed into Oracle. The backup drive is a CMS 120GB Automatic Backup System. I plugged in the drive to the USB port at the bottom of the CloudPlug. Five seconds later, the lights on the Ethernet port and the drive began to flash. This is generally a good sign.

So far, so good. However, I had not done anything really challenging yet. All I had done was to plug things in. Now the moment of truth was coming. The next step was to see if the device showed in the My Network Places window as a PnP (“Plug N Play”) device. I have a mixed experience with PnP, so my skepticism was fueled. I was doing my testing on my netbook (See my review here), and I was not sure I had PnP turned on, or if I even had to.

The Configuration

Sure enough, I could not see the device, or anything related to PnP. So I quickly Googled PnP problems so see if this was common. I found a useful article on the Microsoft site, albeit from 2002. It turns out I did have to install the UPnP driver.

(A quick suggestion to the CTERA doc writer: Include a small URL like http://ctera.com/pnp with quick instructions on this. It will save you a lot of hassle and out-of-the-box user problems.)

As soon as I added the PnP driver, I got the little XP bubble telling me it found the device, which was a very nice surprise. I would have expected a reboot or 2. Maybe an 8 year old operating system is not a bad thing.

I double-clicked on the device and I was taken to the login screen, and it made me set up an admin name and password. It then took me through a wizard to do the basics of setup like time zone (Santiago as a default??), network, and a window to let me know it recognized my backup drive. Then I gave it my name and password from their portal. You manage your backed-up info from the CTERA portal.

The wizard then asked some questions about encryption, which will surely confuse any consumer. It then asked me to pick the directories I wanted backed up.

(Note to CTERA graphic designer: The red circle with the line through it made me think that I could not back up my drive at first. You may want to reconsider your icon choice. A grey X perhaps?)

With that it was set up. You are then taken to the CTERA management application, which is a nice AJAX app that worked flawlessly for me under FireFox 3.5.3 on XP.

The management application seems quite complete and intuitive at first glance. I was able to set up a windows file share and an FTP server and use them with ease. There a simple page for setting up user names and passwords. It does not appear possible to be able to take its authentication info from a domain controller, but this is admittedly an enterprise-y feature. I’ll give them extra credit if they put it in the next release.

That said, there are a number of very slick extra-credit features already built-in including: NTP time-sync; basic default backup sets, like photos, videos, etc.; Connection to a SysLog server; and network file synchronization. While these may seem trivial details, remember that I am talking about a file server about the same size as the portable backup drive it was serving.

I have only two criticisms of the device. The first is that it does not have on-board wireless. While I understand why it is not wireless, as mentioned above, the ability to go wireless after setup would be a great feature.

The second criticism I have is that it could be even simpler. The set up asked some technical questions that I could answer, but I have a computer science degree. My advice to CTERA is have expert modes, and put questions on encryption keys, etc., there. The help functionality needs to be more prominent. If this is to be a consumer device, a little question mark in the upper left is not enough.

Summary

In summary, the CTERA CloudPlug is a device that lives up to its marketing. It is an easy way to take a USB or eSATA drive and put it on a network with a minimum of hassle. The device is simple to set up and easy to use, though it could be even simpler. I suspect we will see more improvements in the subsequent releases.

More Stories By Bill Roth

Bill Roth is a Silicon Valley veteran with over 20 years in the industry. He has played numerous product marketing, product management and engineering roles at companies like BEA, Sun, Morgan Stanley, and EBay Enterprise. He was recently named one of the World's 30 Most Influential Cloud Bloggers.