Exclusive First Take: SheevaPlug computer makes unique NAS solution

A hands-on experience of Marvell's ultracompact SheevaPlug computer in a NAS server application.

The SheevaPlug next to a pocket-size USB external hard drive. Dong Ngo/CNET

I blogged about Marvell's SheevaPlug computer awhile ago, and Monday I got to do some exclusive hands-on testing with the first prototype of the machine.

This is a very simple and ultracompact computer that has 1.2GHz CPU, 512MB of flash memory storage, and 512MB DRAM under the hood. The only peripheral connections it supports are a USB 2.0 port and a Gigabit Ethernet port. The prototype comes with a 8GB ScanDisk thumb drive as its external storage, which makes it a very unique network-attached storage (NAS) solution.

The biggest difference with the SheevaPlug NAS is the fact that once plugged in, the storage is immediately available via both the Internet and the local network.

For the Internet, the server can be accessed at MyHipserv.com, a Web site powered by Axentra's HipservPlug technology. Axentra is one of a few adopters of Marvell's SheevaPlug computers.

I tried the Web site with the prototype and it worked well, despite the fact that everything was still in beta. Once logged in, the site presented three big buttons: Albums, Media Library, and Preferences. The Preferences button allows for changing the account information and adding or removing users, as well as other networking functions. The other two options are for accessing the data stored on the external storage device.

I could view photos as albums and play video and music directly from the Web with a convenient media player interface. The Web site also allows for adding files to the server as well as downloading files off of it. While you can only download a single file at a time, you can upload multiple files with its drag-and-drop function. Overall, this is one of the most convenient ways to access a NAS via the Internet that I've seen.

For local networking, you can also access the SheevaPlug the way you access it via the Internet by typing its IP address into a browser. However, you should probably use Windows Explorer and map a network drive to one of its share folders.

I mapped a drive to test the throughput speed and the tiny server registered about 30MBps for reading--a very impressive score. This is sustained actual data rates with all software- and hardware-overhead already taken into account. To put this in perspective, most direct-attached USB 2.0 external hard drives we've tested are even slightly slower than this.

The SheevaPlug's write speed, however, was much slower at only 6.5MBps. this is the first time I've seen a difference this large in read and write tests of a NAS server.

Nonetheless, this combination of Internet and local network instant access, together with its tiny form factor, makes the SheevaPlug a great cloud NAS solution that you can either use at the office and at home, or bring with you on the go.

Apart from the gap in read and write speeds, the prototype also has a few other limitations including sluggish interface, the lack of a hard-drive formatting tool, and no printer support. According to Marvell, the final version of the product will likely have improved performance and more features, including, of course, the ability to work with any USB external hard drives other than the included thumb drive.

The company also said that the final SheevaPlug NAS will be offered and marketed as OEM products from multiple vendors and under different names. Other than Axentra, the early list of these vendors also includes Cloud Engines, Ctera, and Eyecon Technologies. Each of these vendors will tailor the SheevaPlug computer into different NAS solutions and services.

The complete and final SheevaPlug-based NAS solution will be available in a few months with the estimated price of around $100. So be on the lookout for these tiny computers.

About the author

CNET editor Dong Ngo has been involved with technology since 2000, starting with testing gadgets and writing code for CNET Labs' benchmarks. He now manages CNET San Francisco Labs, reviews networking and storage products, and also writes about other topics from online security to new gadgets and how technology impacts the life of people around the world.

 

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