With capacities now reaching 1TB or higher, network-attached storage appliances may soon steal thunder in the entry-level file server market from leader Microsoft. With continued development in their operating systems, some of these NAS boxes may become the first wave of user-friendly servers for the entry level.
Based on our latest tests of five 1TB-plus NAS appliances, we think small companies with straightforward storage needs can save money and be well served by such a unit. Larger companies that need to increase their disk storage also can benefit from these systems.
Since our last test in October, storage space has increased, Gigabit Ethernet interfaces have been added (in four out of the five units tested), and USB connections are pretty much standard for the addition of printers and external disk drives. Administration utilities also have improved, making the units easier to install in most cases, and easier to manage after installation (see How we did it).
New Serial Advanced Technology Attachment (SATA) disk drives have stormed this market. Faster than older Integrated Drive Electronics (IDE) drives yet less expensive than SCSI drives, the SATA 7200 RPM drives have 8MB buffers for improved performance. The SATA drive connectors, about the size of a USB port, make it easier to cram four disks inside amazingly small enclosures.
Four of the five units tested include client backup software. All offered private user directories to encourage users to store files on the server rather than personal hard drives. Our biggest complaint was that backing up the NAS units themselves could be better addressed by some vendors.
We tested Buffalo Technology's TeraStation Pro, Infrant Technologies' ReadyNAS NV, Anthology Solutions' Yellow Machine P400T, Sabio Digital's CM-4 and Iomega's 400R. Each used RAID-5 as the default configuration, which reduced the usable disk space for several units to about 700MB (see box below). (We also tested the Maxtor 1TB OneTouch III unit.)
Check for the following:
- Data reliability.
- User security controls.
- Value for your money.
- Backup software for clients.
- Nontechnical management utilities.
- Efficient setup.
We also suggest companies take advantage of RAID-5 fault tolerance, rather than combining the four drives into a single large volume of disk space. While you lose a little disk space to gain fault tolerance, you'll appreciate not losing the entire volume if one of the drives fails. Too many companies buy storage without buying the means to back up their new file space. RAID-5 takes away nearly 30% of your disk space, but losing one drive to a hardware failure won't lose a single byte of data, because of the data redundancy.
The combination of price, user access controls, bold styling, and the bonus of wiring hub and router/firewall for a complete "branch office in a box" overcame the Anthology Yellow Machine's lack of a Gigabit Ethernet port, and we gave it the Clear Choice Award. See comparisons for all five here:
We added each unit to our lab network, installed it according to instructions and partially populated the disks with files. We used two Gigabit switches for the connections, the Netgear FS728TS and the Linksys SR2024.
Clients tested for connectivity included Windows XP Pro (with Service Pack 2), Windows 2000 (Service Pack 4) and Xandros Business Desktop Linux.
Anthology Solutions' Yellow Machine P400T
A member of last year's test, Anthology's Yellow Machine returns with its taxicab yellow box that's slightly bigger than a toaster, but much brighter. The P400T retains its title as a "do-everything NAS," as it forgoes a Gigabit Ethernet port for a WAN port, eight LAN ports, router, firewall and proxy server.
We found multiple improvements in the Yellow Machine in terms of its NAS functions. The setup worked easily. While the quick-start guide warned about changing the setup client to a different IP address, the appliance accepted an IP address from our existing router, and it was easy to find and configure.
It was odd that volume sharing and folder access controls worked through the File Manager screen rather than user controls, but the Yellow Machine could drill down into the file system and control user access to folders within a directory. However, we had to remember to go to the File Manager screen to do this and go to the folder's properties. But the access controls did work properly and blocked Windows and Network File System (NFS) clients to the restricted folders. The P400T also created home directories for each user in the \User folder, and only logged-on users can see their private folders.
The appliance uses EMC's Retrospect Pro backup software, preloaded into the \Software Store folder. The term "store" fits here, because only five client licenses came with the system, with the option to buy more online. Essentially, this gives you the option of using the client operating system backup tools or paying more for the backup software. The Yellow Machine can use the EMC software to back up to another storage location.
We see the appeal of the "complete network hub" for smaller companies. Internet access security can be tightened to automatically block access to adult content, record all e-mails and block access to Web mail sites. Included IPSec VPN software supports client access and Yellow Machine-to-remote links (linking two Yellow Machines together, for example).
Anthology also offers a Pelican hard-shell carrying case for the Yellow Machine, creating a system the size of carry-on luggage that includes a complete branch office network and 2TB of disk space.
Although it isn't a NAS unit, we tried out the Maxtor 1TB OneTouch III unit, which holds up to 1TB (no data redundancy features) in an external case almost small enough to be carried around comfortably. Using USB 1.1, 2.0 and FireWire 400 and 800 ports, this external drive had enough capacity to backup our tested NAS devices. The 600GB unit costs $550, and the 1TB unit costs $900.
Buffalo Technology TeraStation Pro
Last year, Buffalo Technology broke a price barrier by offering 1TB of data storage for less than $1,000. This year's desktop unit, the TeraStation Pro, improves on the original's looks, ease of use and capacity. Four models offer storage of 600MB, 1TB, 1.6TB (which we tested) and 2TB (announced after our test period).
The case, now black rather than silver, is taller that the previous version but still shorter than a shoebox. Access to the four drives no longer requires a screwdriver, just a key to open the front of the case. It is quieter than most PCs, and the case includes a useful LCD panel, unique to the units we tested.
During our installation, the LCD panel showed the unit's IP address, easing an annoyance experienced with the other units. The TeraStation Pro took an open IP address from our DHCP server. For the first time in our experience, the NAS installation utility let us change the unit's IP address yet keep the connection between the PC running the utility and the NAS unit. Usually we need to reconfigure our client to a new network address to relocate the NAS unit.
After the installation, the LCD panel rotates through displays of time/date, network link speed (Gigabit Ethernet with Jumbo Frames supported), number of drives active and drive configuration (RAID-5 by default). Users and groups were easy to create, and the unit easily integrated into our Microsoft Active Directory installation.
Unfortunately, creating a user account didn't create a home directory for that user. Disk access restrictions for users and groups applied only to shared volumes, not folders within a volume. These two shortcomings make it harder for us to recommend the TeraStation Pro as a replacement for a more expensive file server.
The Buffalo-branded HDBackup software for Windows clients is preinstalled on the main disk volume. Backups can be scheduled as often as once per day (you choose the time) and can be compressed automatically to save disk space. Linux clients can be networked via Windows networking but are on their own for backup software.
Backing up the TeraStation Pro was more flexible. Two USB 2.0 ports let us attach external hard drives for backups or extra storage space. Like the original TeraStation, this gave us multiple ways to back up data to another TeraStation on the network, including encrypted file transfers with compressed storage.
If Buffalo adds a few touches, such as home directories for users and user access-control restrictions, the already good value of the TeraStation Pro will be even better.
Infrant Technologies ReadyNAS NV
In our last test, Infrant sent an excellent unit inside an unimpressive case. The new ReadyNAS NV comes in a sparkling silver case with mirrored front panels, USB 2.0 ports front and back, and a large, quiet fan. Small as a toaster, this is a NAS unit you want to put in your window.
ReadyNAS NV comes in four versions: no disks (add your own), 1TB, 1.6TB and 2TB. Infrant also sells its original ReadyNAS 600 (tweaked for use with a Home Media Center) and the ReadyNAS 1000, a 1U rack-mountable version.
The front silver grill opens to let you hot-swap drives and replace disks without powering down the unit. Disks can be arranged as one giant pool, mirrored drive pairs or RAID-5 fault-tolerant mode.
To install, we had to chase down the default IP address, manually set it for the network and add details, including a workgroup name. Adding user accounts was straightforward. Although we could set a disk quota per user, we couldn't restrict user access to files except by directory. However, all users could see their own private directories available when they logged on to the ReadyNAS AV. This home directory concept aims to make the users feel that the server - or at least a part of it - belongs to them.
The ReadyNAS AV supports the complete range of modern clients, including Linux, Macintosh, Unix and Windows. The international embedded Linux operating system supports 21 languages.
When we plugged an external USB drive into the port on the front of the unit and touched the backup key beside the port, the \Backup directory folder automatically copied itself to the attached drive. We also could configure the system to back up just a user's home directories or a mix of folders. The three USB 2.0 ports (two on the back of the unit) let us attach one or two printers. Another predefined directory is the \Media folder. Subfolders inside this include space for music, pictures and videos. The appliance also supports Universal Plug and Play for Audio and Video.
The admin page Status>Health display won the prize for most informative at a glance. With green, yellow and red lights and clear icons, even the least technical person in a company can immediately tell how each disk, the fan and unit temperature are doing.
The ReadyNAS NV offered the most complete remote-backup destination options. We could send any disk directory or user home directory to a remote Windows share directory (or other NAS), to an NFS server (Unix) or a Rsync server (Linux). These backup choices were the best of the units tested. For client backup, Infrant relies on Windows Backup or other operating system-provided utilities.
In our last test, we looked at Iomega's StorCenter Pro NAS 200d system, but this time Iomega sent its 400r 1U NAS unit. This black unit with four silver-faced hot-swappable drives can be the start of a growing company's storage strategy, and the first rack-mounted appliance it owns. The company will need a rack to keep the appliance quiet, because it struggles with airflow through a small fan.
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