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Avantis NCT14FE
Pros A fast and compact way to share CD-ROMs.
Cons Client configuration might cause minor problems with drive mapping when network reconfiguration is undertaken in the future
Verdict If you need to share CD-ROMs then this is a very good system.

The NCT14FE system is a standalone CD-ROM network server for use on TCP/IP or IPX networks. Rather than act as a physical CD jukebox, it stores CD-ROM images on a hard disk unit; in this case using an Ultra-Wide SCSI system. It can store the contents of 14 CD-ROMs in its small desktop case.

The main advantage of using a hard disk is speed, as they’re faster than CD-ROM drives, especially when accessed by multiple users. What the NCT14FE has over traditional CD-ROM jukeboxes is the ability to deliver data from any of the CD-ROMs located on it to more than one user, simultaneously.

CD-ROM jukeboxes only allow access to one CD-ROM at a time and changing CD-ROMs is a slow process. The NCT14FE supports up to 255 concurrent users and separate licence restrictions can be imposed on the CD-ROMs located on it.

The Unit contains a 9GB IBM Ultra-Wide SCSI hard disk and controller electronics, and was complemented in this review by the separate NEXD32X CD-ROM drive for loading of the CD-ROM contents onto hard disk (this can also be done from CD-ROM drive equipped PCs on the network).

Clients connect to the server using supplied client software drivers for Windows 95, NT 4.0, 3.1x and MS-DOS. They have ‘CDserve virtual CD-ROM drives’ available to them mapped to the NCT14FE server.

The A4 spiral-bound documentation is comprehensive, but concise in style making configuration easy. We tried the system on a TCP/IP network. NetWare users can plug the box in and it will be operational, but to use it on a TCP/IP network, an IP address has to be allocated to the server using a serial cable connection.

The documentation walks you through the configuration steps involved and the system was rebooted and ready for action in under 10 minutes. The only problem was the lack of support for the ping utility. This meant that we spent a lot of time checking and rechecking the network connections as we didn’t receive a response from the NCT14FE when we pinged it. This was done to reassure us that this set-up had worked and the network connection was functioning. Avantis say this is being addressed in the next release of the hardware.

Once configured, the system can be moved to its place of operation, but you can put the unit anywhere, because it just needs power and a network connection.

You'll then need to set up the client machines, which takes the form of installing software drivers for the supported operating systems from floppy disks and assigning drive letters. The process isn't complex but certain steps must be completed correctly as detailed in the documentation. We found that following the clear instructions meant everything worked first time.

With drivers installed, drive letters must be reserved for use with the virtual CDserve drives. We chose four but up to 14 CD-ROM volumes is acceptable. As long as there is enough free drive letters on the PC concerned.

Mapped network drives can cause a problem under Windows. By default the CDserve drives are floating drives and are allocated a letter dynamically on boot-up. Therefore, they stand the risk of being overwritten by mapped network drives as mapping of those occur later in the boot process and use specified, static drive letters. To avoid such problems reserved drive letters can be set for each virtual CDserve drive using Device manager under Windows 95, Disk Administrator under NT and by modifying the MSCDEX command in AUTOEXEC.BAT for 3.1x. Full details of the procedures are provided in the documentation. The client set-up might sound convoluted, but it wasn't because we finished it within five minutes per client after reading the documentation beforehand.

You'll need to install the CDserve explorer program on the clients, so that you can select CD-ROM volumes on the NCT14FE and allocate them to virtual drives on the client. Therefore, although a client might only have four virtual CDserve virtual drives, all 14 volumes that might be located on the NCT14FE can be assessed.

An administrator program is also supplied. This adds the capability to manage the NCT14FE remotely. Its main features are to allow the copying of CD-ROMs to, and deletion of CD-ROMs from the NCT14FE. Copying of CD-ROMs to the NCT14FE can be from the local CD-ROM drive or from the Nexus drive. This is a desktop CD-ROM unit that plugs into the SCSI interface on the back of the NCT14FE unit. Other administration features include the setting of a password for administrator access, viewing the total disk space available, viewing the log file, and sharing of the desktop CD-ROM drive.

An interesting utility available to both users and administrators is an installation wizard for CD-ROM applications that access the CD-ROM contents whilst running. So for instance, the installation routine for Microsoft Encarta runs the CD-ROM’s own installation routine. It then sets up the shortcuts under Windows 95 or NT to point to an executable in the CDserve client directory that automatically sets up the correct mapping to the NCT14FE before running the application itself.

The NCT14FE and its clients are easy to install and configure, a task simplified further by the excellent documentation. Speed of operation was impressive, although the ultimate speed will depend upon how heavily-trafficked your network is.

PC Magazine – October 1998