The first time I saw an announcement for the CTERA CloudPlug, I was puzzled. “Cloud-Attached Storage” is a catchy phrase, but what did it mean? Could I just plug the device into a wall socket, connect it to my computer, and send my data into the cloud?
So naturally when CTERA’s PR agency offered me a chance to examine the CloudPlug, and interview a representative of the company, I said yes.
The demo package included the device itself (which looks like nothing so much as the voltage converter on a router, only sleeker), an Ethernet cable, a power cord, and an adorably tiny USB stick loaded with manuals and product info, that the cover letter said I could use as the storage device for testing purposes. Oh, and a FedEx return label to ship it back to them, which I’ll be doing in the next day or so. (FTC, are you listening?)
The documentation was extensive (the PDF manual is 200 pages long) but not always helpful, in part because the previous reviewer had forgotten to restore the device to factory settings, so when I followed the directions I didn’t find quite what I was expecting to. I also experienced a little confusion because the Windows Explorer interface for the CloudPlug doesn’t operate the same way as my other NAS drives do.
I don’t think that would be a problem for someone who hadn’t used NAS drives before, though, and the CloudPlug is a device for people who already have a network, but haven’t yet ventured into the realm of networked storage. I will say that despite the apparent simplicity of the device, you really do need to read the manual—once they update it for consistency. (Despite what some parts of the current documentation say, the CloudPlug does work with Macs.)
Physically connecting the CloudPlug is easy. Stick it into an electrical outlet and then connect the Ethernet cable to your router. Disconnect your hard drive (USB or eSATA) from your computer or hub and hook it up to the CloudPlug. Your computer should take it from there. My laptop, which runs XP Pro, recognized the presence of a new Universal Plug and Play device immediately and proceeded to go through the Windows new hardware installation routine. Thereafter “CTERA CloudPlug” showed up in “My Network Places” with the same kind of icon as my router and my network printer…though it might take a while to appear.
The reviewer’s guide for the CloudPlug is very clear that this device is only one link in the chain between your computer and the cloud. You have to have a modem and a router already. Before you can have Network Attached Storage, there has to be a network to attach it to. Oh, and you have to have some storage. (No one in real life would want to convert a 2 GB memory stick into a NAS drive—or if you would, please leave a comment and let me know why!)
One thing I do not suffer from, however, is a shortage of hard drives. The one I chose to convert into a NAS drive to share among my different machines was Qualora, the Buffalo Quattro, since it has the most storage space and the fancy RAID array.
The next trick was to get to the CloudPlug web interface. As I said, I ran into a few delays there because the device hadn’t been reset, but once I sorted that out I was able to ensure that the CloudPlug used the same network as the rest of the machines and create a couple of network shares for test purposes. Then I went over to the CTERA Portal and set up a trial account for their online backup service.
And that was as far as I’d gotten before my interview with Rani Osnat, VP of Marketing for CTERA, on December 16th. Since I was still suffering from pretty severe laryngitis at the time, it was a rather challenging undertaking.
CTERA and the CloudPlug: the 30,000-foot View
The first thing I asked Rani was where the name “CTERA” came from. I’d already had to ask Raegan, the PR representative, how to pronounce it (see-TAIR-a). I can’t help it; I do consulting work for a naming company, and I’m always interested in where names come from. In this case, C is for “cloud” and “tera” is meant to be “terra” as in “earth,” not “tera” as in “terabyte”. Which makes sense, but they should probably have a footnote about it on their website somewhere.
Rani then led me through a presentation explaining, among other things, the convergence of higher broadband speeds, cloud storage speeds, and embedded NAS that make Cloud Attached Storage feasible. The founders of CTERA have a background in network security from their previous venture, SofaWare.
It always makes me laugh, though, the way the online backup companies diss hard drives as a backup medium. The slide Rani showed actually says “External HDD: Unreliable, Manual.” Let’s be very clear here, boys and girls. When you back your data up “in the cloud”, it’s being stored on hard drives. They’re hard drives in mirrored RAID arrays in secure data centers (we hope), but they’re still hard drives. And while all hard drives do eventually fail, the failure rate of the hard drives in data centers is actually much higher than that of XHDs in offices, unless you knock the thing on the floor.
Besides, almost all XHDs now come bundled with some kind of backup software, and almost all backup software now has scheduling built in, so it’s a stretch to assume everyone who buys an XHD is backing up by manually dragging and dropping files. More and more backup software includes versioning, too.
The real down side to using an external hard drive for your backup is that it’s almost certainly right there in your office with your computer, so it’s just as vulnerable to theft or natural disaster as the drive you’re backing up.
But I digress.
The CloudPlug is aimed at the “prosumer” market, and those seem to be the people who are buying it. These are the traditionally underserved small and home businesses for whom consumer products don’t quite cut it, but who don’t have nearly the infrastructure—never mind the budget—to support enterprise hardware and software. It is, in fact, a perfect device for someone like me, running a home business, sharing a network with someone else. There are normally four computers and two NAS drives on our network here, in addition to the network printer. (For an office with more than 20 users, the C200 is a better device.)
It’s also aimed at the ISP market, as something the likes of Comcast could re-sell to their customers, with a white-label version of CTERA’s storage portal service.
I asked about the people who have already purchased some kind of NAS device, and want to be able to back it up online? After all, people who are geeky enough to make good use of the CloudPlug (which is definitely not a device for my mom) might already own a network drive. Or two, in my case. Rani said to watch this space.
So How Does It Work, Already?
The CloudPlug is designed to sync the computers onto the drive it’s connected to, then back the contents of that drive up to the CTERA’s online backup service. The sync feature is pretty basic, even in the advanced version. But once you’ve configured the drive for Windows sharing, you can use any backup software you want to copy data onto the drive that’s hooked up to the CloudPlug.
Of course, part of the point of the CloudPlug, and one of its advantages over traditional online backup, is that you don’t have to install any software on your computer. Any file copying from your working drive takes place over the local network, at fairly high speeds. (Very high speeds if you have a gigabit network, but I don’t.) The actual uploading of files from the backup drive to the cloud doesn’t slow down your machine. You don’t even have to have it turned on. And if you need to back up several machines, you don’t have to install software multiple times—and pay for multiple licenses.
Absolutely brilliant, in theory. Slightly rockier in practice. Easy Sync chooses entire drive partitions to synchronize. I was not that surprised when it ran into errors trying to synchronize my C drive. I was rather puzzled when all it could copy of my D drive, which contains only data, was the file structure. On the other hand, it did a spiffing job of copying data over from my Buffalo MiniStation.
I imagine that if I’d settled in for a session with tech support, we could have worked our way through that problem, but I was already way overdue with this post as it was. (It’s possible that part of the problem is the fact that there’s a password on my laptop.)
I really like the idea of the CloudPlug. I think it may need a little fine-tuning in the usability department. For one thing, if you look at the web interface, the tools are in the wrong order relative to what you need to do to get the CloudPlug set up.
I’d be the first to agree that “backup” is high in importance, but before you can back up with the CloudPlug, you have to run the setup wizard, then share folders, then synchronize. (The setup wizard should take care of the network connection.) Then you can create some backup jobs.
Compared to the rest of it, the backup and restore process are quite simple and straightforward, and fairly speedy. (Though I’m not sure my files actually did get restored, since I’d ticked the box that said to append something to the file name, and never saw any files with names like that.) And I’m not sure why the restore process needs to analyze files outside the folder that the backups came from, either.
I’m not sure the CloudPlug is 100% ready for Prime Time yet, but it’s a very intriguing device with a lot of potential. It looks like it should be easier to use than it is. Admittedly, it performs a pretty complex array of tasks, but configuration was certainly not simpler than, say, my network printer, my Maxtor Shared Storage II, or my Buffalo LinkStation Mini. The main difference is that there’s no software to install. That difference might be worth it to you, and it might not. There aren’t many solutions for backing network drives up online right now, and some of the ones that exist contain slightly bizarre restrictions based on file type.
If you’re doing it just to create a NAS drive for local use, it probably isn’t worth it, since you’d be adding the $199 ($299 when their special introductory period ends) for the CloudPlug to the cost of a comparable drive, which means a USB RAID drive like my Quattro (about $400 for the 2 TB model). The 2 TB LinkStation Quad, the networked equivalent of the Quattro, costs about the same as the Quattro. Yes, you can connect the CloudPlug to an ordinary, inexpensive USB drive. But that wouldn’t be a drive comparable to the NAS drives on the market today, all of which offer some level of RAID protection against drive failure, in addition to the kind of storage capacity you want when using a single drive to back up multiple computers.
Part of the CloudPlug’s cost is the first year’s 10 GB online backup subscription, and it’s really only the “cloud” part of the CloudPlug that makes it stand out. As I said before, backup is the function that works best, with sync still seeming a bit rough around the edges. Automatically uploading backups at times when no one is actually using the Internet, in a way that doesn’t tie up any system resources, seems like technology worth investing in.
But I might wait for the second generation.