Priced under $500 and easy to use, the Mirra Personal Server is one of the most valuable new gadgets of the last few years for advisors who want to access files remotely, share files with clients, and back up data, documents, and e-mail. About any advisor is likely to find a use for this little device, and you can probably save hundreds or thousands of dollars in tech expenditures by using it. However, it’s not a perfect solution.

The Mirra Personal Server, from Mirra Inc. in Mountain View, California, is about the size of a cable TV box and holds a hard drive with some really cool software. Plug the box into your hub or router, and the software figures out what kind of hardware and software your system uses to connect to the Internet, enabling a secure tunnel to your computer that lets you or clients access files on your computer remotely. In addition, the software immediately starts backing up your most important files, say, documents and data files, favorites, and your Outlook folder. After that, whenever you save a file, it backs it up to the Mirra hard drive.

To review the Mirra, we enlisted the help of two advisors, one a former programmer and another who relies on an outside consultant for technology help, plus a computer security expert and a consultant to advisors on performance reporting technology. In addition, I tested the Mirra myself for a month along with three programmers at my company.

File sharing is one of the three functions that Mirra offers, and in this task the Mirra does seem to offer great value compared to using a virtual vault offered by many Internet vendors or other systems used by advisors to post portfolio reports and other documents to the Web or share them over their internal network. I set up shared files on my computer in minutes. Mirra’s software makes it very simple to designate which files you want to share. It automatically creates an e-mail to send to the person with whom you want to share a document. The e-mail directs the individual to Mirra’s Web site to view the shared folder and create a password using an e-mail address as a user name.

In doing all of this, Mirra makes simple work of complicated technology, offering significant cost savings and providing a way for advisors to collaborate with clients over the Web. Mirra’s file sharing capabilities work because its hard drive hosts an application that is used to “talk” to Mirra’s corporate Web site.

Link Me Up, Scotty

When you invite a client to view a shared folder, the client goes to a link on the Mirra site. The Mirra Web site creates a secure tunnel to your Mirra device, so your client can view the shared documents and folders. Mirra hosts all of the services that you need to share files over the Internet securely, thus freeing you of the cost and responsibilities associated with creating a technology system in your office to share performance reports, financial plans, and other sensitive documents. While you could do this fairly easily using your own network if your company is using Microsoft Server 2003, file sharing securely using Microsoft Server 2000 or NT Server could cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars, And few advisors are using Server 2003 at this point.

“Advisors who have been e-mailing files to clients or paying third parties to post up performance reports may want to give the Mirra a shot,” says Bill Ramsay, one of our testers. Ramsay, a former programmer who has been in the financial advice business for 20 years and runs an RIA in Raleigh, North Carolina, shared folders with accountants he works with as well as clients. He plans to buy a Mirra.

However, be aware of some issues with using shared folders. The most serious issue, raised by security consultant Greg Thatcher of lokbox.net in San Francisco, is easy for Mirra to fix. When your client or anyone else goes to Mirra’s Web site to access a shared folder, they can try as many passwords as they wish to log in. Their user name, remember, is the e-mail address. Thatcher says a “cracker” program could be used to randomize password attempts and get at a shared folder. My guess is that will be fixed in short order now that Mirra is aware of the issue. A less serious issue is that your clients see Mirra’s Web site and branding when they want to view a shared file.

Once the security issue is addressed by Mirra, the shared folder function will allow advisors to post performance reports or assign clients tasks they must complete in coming months in Word documents. There is one limitation, however. When you share a document and your client views it, he or she cannot alter that document and save it on your system. The document could be saved by the client on his or her hard drive and altered. Mirra spokeswoman Leslie Latham says a new version of the software is expected in September and developers are trying to add a feature in this version to allow two-way sharing. The potential for advisors using this is enormous. You could soon be able to have a folder for a new client with a Word file that contains a financial planning questionnaire, for instance. When the client inserts his answers in the fields of the questionnaire, you could map the data to fields in a separate database and import the data into planning, CRM, or other programs.

Jim Starcev of Etelligent Consulting in Overland Park, Kansas, offers a service bureau, downloading and scrubbing portfolio accounting data for advisors daily and allowing clients to see performance reports online. “For an advisor with a handful of clients who want to see their reports online,” he says, “it will work fine.” However, Etelligent’s system for distributing performance reports does not allow clients to see static PDFs. In fact, reports are only generated on demand; a client logs in, queries a Schwab PortfolioCenter database running on Etelligent’s server, and produces a report. In addition, an advisor using Mirra would have to print a client report to a PDF and then place it in the client’s shared folder. There is no way currently to batch print reports in Schwab PortfolioCenter or Advent Axys and have it automatically populate the correct shared client folder on your Mirra.

One good function provided by Mirra is remote access. You can designate which folders you want to be able to access remotely via your device. If you are traveling and leave a document on your computer, you can access it from anywhere. You log into the Mirra Web site and the site contacts your Mirra to let you view a shared file even if your computer is off.

The final function Mirra provides is a backup device. It continuously backs up files you designate on your hard drive. I have it backing up the “My Documents” folder. Mirra “mirrors” whatever is in it. Whenever I save a file in My Documents, Mirra makes a backup version. Actually, it saves the last eight versions of the files it mirrors. For advisors, backing up files is a hassle. Small firms especially have a problem with getting this done because they have limited or no tech staff. The Mirra provides a great solution because it works automatically. The Mirra saves a copy of every file you’ve designated every time you save it on your hard drive. You can even use one Mirra to mirror files on multiple computers.

But is that good enough for a registered investment advisor? RIAs must save offsite copies of their files so that they can be up and running in case of a catastrophe. The good news is that Mirra is likely to resolve that problem, too. A new version of its software that will allow two Mirras to talk to each other over the Internet is due this fall. The Mirra in your office will be able to copy everything to a second Mirra in your home. That would seem to offer the prospect of meeting Securities & Exchange Commission requirements that you archive all e-mails covered by the books and records rules. When you figure on the Mirra device lasting three or four years before becoming obsolete, the savings on the Mirra–even if you must buy two of them–are likely to be substantial when compared to paying the price of using an Internet-based backup system or your own tape drive, which requires you to take a tape off site every day.

Mirror Versus Backup

There is one issue you should be aware of in connection with the Mirra’s backup function. (Before I tell you about it, I want to point out that my company produces an e-mail archive system for advisors.) “The Mirra is not a backup system; it is a mirroring system,” says Thatcher, a computer security consultant to small- and medium-sized businesses. Thatcher says the distinction between mirroring and backing up is important. He says the Mirra is great at protecting a hard disk failure. However, it is possible that an RIA might inadvertently delete a folder that holds all of the e-mail for one particular client. The Mirra would still contain a mirror of seven previously saved versions of your Outlook folder that contain the deleted e-mails. But if you did not realize that you deleted the client’s folder for a week or two–after opening and closing Outlook more than eight times–the last mirror of your Outlook folder containing the e-mail you inadvertently deleted from your computer would be gone. Also keep in mind that throughout the day the Mirra does not take a backup of an Outlook folder unless you shut down Outlook.

For small advisory firms, this may be a risk they are willing to bear. After all, you are unlikely to delete a mail folder and even less likely to not realize it right away. Still, the issue must be considered, because as Thatcher puts it, “No one deletes files or folders on purpose and that’s what backups are for–accidents.” Thatcher says he would not recommend the Mirra as a firm’s sole backup device, and he recommends using media such as a tape that you will not overwrite or rarely do so.

A way you can make the Mirra work without worrying about accidentally deleting e-mails is to archive your Outlook folder (detailed instructions about how to do this is at www.investmentadvisor.com). Even if its backup capability is not perfectly foolproof, adding the Mirra as insurance on top of another backup system justifies going to any Best Buy and plunking down $479 for it, plus you’ll get remote access and shared folder capabilities.

Editor-at-Large Andrew Gluck, a veteran personal finance reporter, is president of Advisor Products Inc. (www.advisorproducts.com), which creates client newsletters and Web sites for advisors. Advisor Products may compete or do business with companies mentioned in this column. He can be reached at agluck@advisorproducts.com.