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 Mirra Personal Server
by Robert Sanborn 

Over a year ago, I saw a personal file server that I thought would become a standard for a small office environment to automatically backup and keep track of your data but at the time, it was a long way from becoming a reality. This past January when at the CES in Las Vegas, I spent some time looking for such devices because I felt that they had a real need in the small business and home office environment and came across one that I was quite impressed with. In fact, as I talked to the company, what popped up in my mind was a particular small business application that it seemed like it was especially written for. With that, I decided to get my hands on one and see if it really was what the sales pitch was all about. 

The Mirra Personal Server, www.mirra.com, in brief is supposed to automatically and continuously back up the files and folders you designate freeing you from the problem of ever having to worry about backing them up again. It will also dynamically synchronize those same files with other computers on your network and make them available on the web to people you designate. And from what I found, does it and does it very well. 

The packaging and distribution of the server is well thought out. Inside the box, you will find it well packed, and with everything you need including the getting started guide, a short instruction manual, the CD, and late breaking release notes that you should pay attention to. You start by plugging the server unit into a power cable and connecting the Ethernet cable to your network router or hub. Obviously to make sure the web side of it works, you should be connected to a broadband router for high speed internet connections. You turn on the box and let it sit there for a couple of minutes while it starts up. This is completely unlike other servers where you do not go to the server via a computer or directly via an IP address to set it up. It is all done through the CD software that you install on your primary workstation.  

Getting back to the server, it looks like a mini version of a mid tower computer and in fact, if you look closely at the back, it has what looks like connection plugs for everything from a printer to USB to monitor and speakers. What is odd is that you don’t ever use any of those connections. My suspicion is that they bought a third party mainboard for the server. When plugging it in, you should always plug it into an Uninterruptible Power Supply or UPS. This way, you can be sure it stays running even if you lose power.

 Most small offices have a few computers connected to a network and usually designate one of those computers as the server. Not really a good idea for most businesses because if something goes wrong with your computer/server, you effectively kill the entire network. The problem is that most small businesses don’t have the means to dedicate a machine for such work and it just isn’t practical to spend the resources for a stand alone server if you only have two or three computers in the office. So with Mirra, you simply install the software on the computer that has your most important data files. If you have several computers on the network with important data files to backup, you will install it on them as well though the instruction guide is a little fuzzy on how that process should work. 

Starting with the main computer, you install the CD and the auto start takes off and it installs very quickly and cleanly. With something as important as this Mirra backing up your data files, by all means register the product because if they do come out with some patches or updates, you want them installed.  

The nice thing about the software installation is that you don’t need to concern yourself at all about how the Mirra is configured to your system. The software will find it and set it up for you and all you really need to do is to give it a name. The software does require that Microsoft’s .Net framework be installed and this is now the second application that I have run into that requires it. It goes through the usual install items of letting you decide the software’s location, enter the license key, and you are ready to go. You can easily accept all of the defaults, restart the computer and launch the software. Because we were using a standard Linksys router firewall, we had no problems at all with communicating with the Mirra but if your computer cannot connect to the Mirra, it more than likely is the firewall software either on your computer or with the hardware firewall you are using as there are ports you need to be concerned with so you can talk to the Mirra. As they have tested a number of different firewall packages, they have configuration information on their web site. Again what is important here is that the Mirra server is one that you access through the software on your own computer. You don’t go looking around Network Places to find it because you will never see it there, and so you don’t have direct access to the files. This is great for ensuring that your backup files are not tampered with. 

Before getting started with the backup process, you should stop and think about what you have on your computer and where it is. Much of today’s software is pretty well behaved in that it will often store documents in the “My Documents” folder on the computer. Unfortunately, some of them don’t. Take Quicken or Quickbooks for example. You need to know where they are storing your business files and sometimes it will be in a folder in the C drive, sometimes in their own folder. You need to be sure otherwise; you data files don’t get backed up. The same is true for lots of other applications like Appraisal software, customized databases, ACT databases and files, and the list can go on. So, do some homework, find where the files are stored as you may find you need to start up all of these programs and see where they are located. You may need to make a list. 

When you set up the access, Mirra allows you to also put in a password to keep other users on your local network from accessing your backed up folders. On most local networks, that won’t be a problem. Next you will need to set up your Mirra online account as well and you enter your email account for this. The online account allows you to share folders with others that are not connected to the network and this is a very useful feature of the Mirra system. You can allow people not connected to your network to have access to some of the folders on your computer and for added security, use a 128bit encryption scheme for the communications between the internet and your Mirra server. What next pops up can be confusing but is useful to do. It recommends you start your backup list with some of the key Microsoft Windows folders like “My Documents” and more important, your email folders for either Outlook or Outlook Express. As I said, a bit confusing but where it is worth it is that these folders are often stashed in places you just can’t find on your own so I am relieved that Mirra gives you the option of selecting these first. 

Launching the program gives you a very clean looking interface and starts with a status tab that shows you current conditions of the server and connections. The Backup & Restore tab gives you the option of adding more folders to be backed up but I discovered that it is much easier to just browse the computer and right click on a folder and add it to the backup. A quibble here would be it would be nice to be able to select a number of folders at the same time and add them to the backup list but you can’t. I would also like to be able to just add single files as well. This is where knowing where your important data files are located is important. You don’t want to tell it to backup the entire “Windows” folder as if your system crashes, you will need to rebuild it anyways from the original install CD. Mirra is not intended to act as a total system backup and restore for your computer. If you have other computers attached and running the Mirra software, they will also show up on your backup and restore screen but you have to install the software first over there. That was one problem I got to when setting things up. To share files with another computer on the network, you need to first install the Mirra software there. Otherwise, the Mirra won’t know about the other computer and it will not have access to the Mirra server. 

And this brings us to another really good feature I like about the Mirra. The File Sharing. In the application at the office where I installed the Mirra, one of the problems we always had was making sure files were synchronized between two of the computers. We used file sharing programs, the Briefcase, and others and always ended up missing something. Mirra gives us a way of sharing files that will always be synchronized and we won’t have to worry at all. In the file sharing tab on the Mirra system on the main computer, we simply pick each folder and tell it what computers we want it to have access. Again the same complaint arises in that you have to do it one folder at a time. It sure would be handy to be able to select a number of folders and share them all at one time. So what you do is a cumbersome process but you designate each folder to share, and then on the other computer, you can then designate each folder to synchronize. You have to be careful when doing this to make sure that you tell it to give permission to the other computer to share the folder and then you need to make sure synchronizing is set. In one instance, we accidentally picked the wrong computer when setting up permission to share with but on the 2nd machine, when we tried to synchronize it, it would look like it accepts the command but doesn’t synchronize the folder. No error message to tell us that we don’t have permission for that particular folder. We needed to make a phone call to Mirra to figure that one out but once I figured it out, I reset the permission for that folder on the main computer and it connected just fine. 

What this synchronizing does for us is that when he takes his Laptop on the road, all the files we designated for synchronization are there for him to use. He can even make changes to the files, add files to the folders, and delete them. When he returns and connects back to the network, the Mirra software then compares those files on the main computer and resynchronizes everything even to the point of adding the new files to the folder on the main computer and deleting the ones he deleted on the notebook. It works great! We never have to worry about doing this manually again. One note of caution here is that if the folders are very large and you make a lot of changes, those changes might take a bit of time to get synchronized across.  

The final piece of this really neat Mirra system is the web access to your files. As part of setting the share permission on the folders, you can also designate an email address for those folders. As before, you must do it one folder at a time and here would be a good place to tell you that next time, if you plan on using a Mirra, then put all of your shared folders if you can into a single one and then just share that one as you have to do each at a time. It also sends out an email to the recipient telling them how they can have access to that folder which still, just resides on their computer and not on the Mirra web site. Key point for those of you concerned with security and safety of your files. A tip here; if you are going to give permission to a folder to people on your network as well as someone remotely, then do the local network permissions and sharing first.  

I get the feeling that they are trying a bit too much to be elegant when setting up the web interface. As a remote user, I got an email telling me that there is a shared folder available on the Mirra system that was setup by a co-worker. Click the link and you are taken to the Mirra web site where you log in or if you are new to this process, simply sign up with your email address, which they already have, create a user name and password and you are set to go. 

Once logged in, you go to your private Mirra folder that shows you all the connections you have available to you. More than likely, you will just see the one so you click on it and are taken to a view of each of the files and folders available to you. If you click on an image, you get a larger version and then an option to go to the next one or download it. A quick click will allow you to download it to your computer. If you prefer, you can also upload files to the folder. There is a limitation here in that you can only upload three files at a time but as soon as those are uploaded, you can select three more. A way around it would be to compress the files into a zip file and upload that but I would prefer to select all files I need to upload and let it take care of it. The interface here is fairly clean but I think it could be simpler.  

This system is really set up for sharing photos and images but for business users, it seems to me to be just what we have needed for a long time. Having it set up, I am really impressed with how easily it works. On our test in a real business application, I was able to setup the main computer and ensure that his data files, documents, and important things like email is backed up on the Mirra and now he doesn’t need to worry at all about how it works. He has a permanent backup that he doesn’t have to setup, make sure it works, and wonder where the files are. Another neat feature is that each folder that is backed up has a tiny little Mirra icon attached to it to let you know that folder is covered. Once set up, the synchronization with his notebook which is usually on the network also worked very smoothly. All the files appear in both places and what is even better, he can make changes in either location and the system will synchronize automatically when connected to the network in the office. Our problems of wondering what file has what version are completely gone.

So far in my testing, I have had to make three calls to their technical support and they have been very responsive and quick to answer my questions. One of the calls related to the fact that permissions seemed to get lost on some of the folders and they couldn’t explain that but we reset them and all seems to be working so far. 

Long term testing will tell us how bullet proof this Mirra Personal Server is but from what I have seen in our testing, it is great. No program snags, the files are there and secure, and we can access them when we need to even via the web. If you work like this office does, then the Mirra is a great choice and at a great price as well. Available at CompUSA, Best Buy, or on www.mirra.com , the 160 Gig version is $399 and other capacities are available. 

Robert Sanborn

Robert Sanborn is a technology analyst for PC Lifeline. You can reach him through the net at robert@pcll.com

 

 

Last Update:06/26/2007

 

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