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Product Review: Dane-Elec my-Ditto NAS

This article was first published as, strangely enough,  Product Review: Dane-Elec myDitto NAS on Blogcritics…

There’s a lot of noise these days around “cloud computing.” It seems like every company even vaguely related to computers has a cloud–something so, how about having your own personal cloud? Dane-Elec’s my-Ditto is a Network–Attached Storage product, a NAS, which provide a personalized version of what marketeers call Cloud Storage. my-Ditto is a small but hefty tower that plugs into your local area network (LAN), either 10/100BASE-T or Gigabit Ethernet, and provides local and remote digital files storage and retrieval, along with music, video and other services. Unlike public Cloud Storage services, you have complete control of your files.

Dane-Elec’s my-Ditto NAS

Dane-Elec’s my-Ditto NAS for home & SOHO

The case, a small white tower, would visually fit nicely in most home or SOHO setups, and the plethora of blue LEDs doesn’t detract from the aesthetic. The appliance includes an optional stand, external in–line power supply, ethernet cable, rubber self–adhesive feet, a printed Quick User Guide and, two USB hardware “Keys.” More on the Keys in a bit…

After hooking it up, which was simplicity itself, I powered up the unit. It boots up, performs it’s self-test and initialization, and is ready to go in about two minutes. Like most NAS products these days, my-Ditto is really a tiny server, running the free and open source Linux operating system. It’s been purpose–built to store files and stream digital content.

my-Ditto employs what we geeks call “two factor authentication,” a more secure approach than only a password. Dane-Elec’s two factor method incorporates both a password and a personalized, authenticated USB Key. The Keys are really flash drives, with special encrypted access software preinstalled. Once you un–mount and remove your Key from most any computer, there is nothing left on that machine that can compromise your security. On your home machine, you can install the included my-Ditto software, so the Keys are not needed for day–to–day functions.

By the way, both Keys included with my-Ditto, Master and Standard, are pre–authenticated. That is, they already “know” all about the my-Ditto they’re destined to work with. The Master Key is needed for system updates and is used to modify settings, including changing passwords, renaming or deleting users from the system in case you loose a Key, along with enabling more esoteric functions and making configuration changes.

After the initial setup, I plugged the Master Key into my USB hub, which mounted as “USB DISK.” On the Key, there are Windows, Linux and Mac OS versions of the my-Ditto application. I checked the Win version with a virtualized Windows 7 Professional SP1 install on my Mac and, as the experience is almost identical, continued testing using the Mac version…Upon launching the Mac application, I received a notice that an update was available, which I downloaded. Once the download completed, the application informed me that it had to upgrade itself and to leave my-Ditto powered up. After a couple of minutes, it was back on–line, at which point I re–ran the my-Ditto application. The app informed me it also needed updating and, I let it take care of that automatically as well and, after all that housekeeping, it was ready for use.

Pre–installed software on the Master Key

Pre–installed software on the Master Key

A small scale NAS is a convenient and versatile computer hardware resource. Hanging off the wired LAN most everyone has, NASs can store, share and protect all of your files. In addition to the yeoman storage and retrieval duties one would expect, many NASs act as media servers and my-Ditto is no exception. The my-Ditto application has a basic music player built right. Your music and movies can also be streamed locally or remotely, and my-Ditto acts as a server for USB–attached printers. It runs an iTunes music server so, if you’re on your LAN, your music shows up right in iTunes. my-Ditto is also a UPnP (Universal Plug and Play) MediaServer, which means it can stream audio and video content to UPnP clients, including hardware like Roku as well as many software packages such as Windows Media Player and the popular MediaMonkey and foobar2000 players for Windows, and VLC on Mac OS. As a BitTorrent server, it can provide 10 torrents simultaneously. To complete its rather complete list of services, my-Ditto acts as a proxy server and provides basic backup services.

Many folks would buy a my-Ditto to supply capacious storage for all their files. my-Ditto supports two RAID levels, 0 or 1, plus SPAN and JBOD modes. This SPAN/JBOD business brings up a bone I must pick. In the my-Ditto application that is your gateway into the product, Dane-Elec labels their JBOD mode “Separate Disks” and their SPAN mode “JBOD.” This bass ackwards labeling is just plain wrong and, more importantly, quite confusing. For more info on RAID, see Disk RAIDers below…

With the drives delivered as RAID 0, there was 1.7 TB (Terabytes or 1700 Gigabytes) of usable space. I’d rather have “only” 1 TB of usable space and reasonable protection against the inevitable disk failure so, I switched from RAID 0 to RAID 1 or mirrored mode. I tried it several times and the switchover took 40 to 60 minutes.

A welcome ability of my-Ditto is its treatment of available storage space. It automatically creates “Public” space, divided up in the three familiar music, pictures and videos folders. Access to Public space is a read/write free for all, for collaboration and general file swappage. For each user, it also provides password–protected private space, so each sentient has their own stash. Lastly, it creates shared space for each individual user. In this personalized public area, users can set a folder to Read–Only or Read/Write.

The my-Ditto application mentioned earlier proves local and remote access to your NAS and, if you’re the administrator, you can get under the hood to change settings, set up new user accounts, et cetera. When you’re away from home or the office, the application gains access to your my-Ditto, with end–to–end encryption for peace of mind even in a crowded coffee shop. It also knows how to poke through common firewall and NAT blockages that you may encounter. The security feature employs 128 bit encryption using the AES standard, plenty strong enough for all but the most scary sensitive data and too difficult to break into without very hefty computing resources.

Speaking of being out on the road, a very nice feature of my-Ditto is the free mobile app for iOS, Android and Windows Mobile that you can download. I tested the iOS version. It let me search and access files on my iPod touch, reading documents and playing movies and music. If your mobile device can read or write it, my-Ditto can probably deliver it to you anywhere you have a connection.

my-Ditto’s mobile file browser

my-Ditto’s mobile file browser

Browsing music files via the iOS app

Browsing music files via the iOS app

In operation, the my-Ditto is unobtrusive but not silent. The fan, though audible, is quiet and the Hitachi drives in my test critter grunted noticeably during disk accesses. Commodity drives can be used with my-Ditto so, in the future, you could swap your existing mechanisms for a matched set of larger versions. A list of compatible hard drives is maintained on the my-ditto.com web site.

I’ve talked a bit about the application. You can use it to activate and deactivate a Key and/or mobile device, change a user’s name and password, as well as change the name of the server’s network group should you already have one called, gasp, WORKGROUP. Be advised that changing setting in the Admin control panel forces a restart, which will take a minute to complete.

Changing some settings forces a restart

Changing some settings forces a restart

Rather than launching the application every time I wanted to access the storage feature of my-Ditto, I wanted to see if I could find a way to treat it as a plain ol’ network storage volume. After a quick bit of research and experimentation, I wrote a very simple AppleScript app that I added to my Login Items et, voilà! Both the Public and a personal partition auto–mounted on startup.

Finder–level access via Windows’ SMB protocol

Finder–level access via Windows’ SMB protocol

So, how did I like my my-Ditto experience? In a word, good! Yes, I had some minor issues that tech support has yet to work out. For me, the desktop app’s music player didn’t handle music file types that the mobile iOS version dealt with correctly, refusing to list uncompressed AIFF, WAV and ALAC file types in iTunes. Also, its volume control didn’t function at all.

I’d like to see the product ship already configured as RAID 1, making my-Ditto worry–free right out of the box. Since the old saw, “It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when,” is true about disk drive failures, then you really need at least RAID 1 to protect your files. I’d also like to see the mobile app get more music player muscle, with category (album/artist/genre), shuffle and other autoplay modes we’ve all come to expect. The Search function lets you find the files you need but, you can’t access them from the search results listing. A Help page for the mobile app would be nice as well. Speaking of which, the included and electronic documentation is very weak and often vague and confusing, not good for such a feature–packed product. Lastly, the backup service, while welcome, is so bare bones and control–free that I can’t recommend using it. Once Dane-Elec provides some user control, it will become icing on the my-Ditto cake.

my-Ditto exists in the crowded NAS product space, where more familiar brands like Seagate, Netgear, Iomega and Buffalo already play. For more money, you get more features, like on–disk encryption, WiFi connectivity and FTP services but, frankly, most folks don’t need those additional bells and whistles in a NAS for your house. I checked Froogle and, at $200 to $375 retail depending on capacity, the cost is significantly less than many other offerings and the feature set is great. Dane-Elec’s my-Ditto is a stylish, affordable and solid foundation for your domestic storage and streaming needs.

 

Sidebar: Disk RAIDers

RAID or Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks, is a method for increasing performance and/or decreasing the likelihood of data loss. RAID 0 is designed to increase the performance over a single disk by using two or more drives in parallel. RAID 1 uses “mirroring,” writing the same data to both disks simultaneously so, if one fails, the other is still accessible. RAID 0 has no redundancy so, a failure of either disk means all of the data — on both disks — is destroyed. RAID 1 protects your data as long as only one disk fails which, to me, is better than no insurance at all.

SPAN mode, ah, spans or concatenates the two drives, logically stitching the two disks together so they appear as one big volume. JBOD, or Just a Bunch Of Disks, is a mode where they mount as two distinct disks. The disks are completely independent, hence the name. Again, both both SPAN and JBOD modes offer no protection whatsoever if either disk fails so, caveat emptor.

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3 Responses to “Product Review: Dane-Elec my-Ditto NAS”

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