NAS appliances: Not just raw storage anymore

New generation of NAS boxes offers text-searching, print servers, cloud backup, antivirus, disk-failure protection and more

When we did a roundup of Network Attached Storage devices seven years ago, the products boasted an amazing (for the time) 1TB of disk space. This time around, we're testing six units that sport 8TB or larger storage capacities. While the disk space has exploded, the investment remains modest, sometimes at a lower actual dollar figure than the first batch back in 2005.

When we did a roundup of network-attached sstorage devices seven years ago, the products boasted an amazing (for the time) 1TB of disk space. This time around, we're testing six units that sport 8TB or larger storage capacities. While the disk space has exploded, the investment remains modest, sometimes at a lower actual dollar figure than the first batch back in 2005.

The products in this review include the Buffalo TeraStation TS5400D, Iomega StorCenter px4-300d, LaCie 5big Office+, Seagate BlackArmor NAS 440, Netgear ReadyNAS Pro 4 and the QNAP TS-569 Pro. All include at least 8TB of raw disk storage.

IN PICTURES: Best NAS appliances for small business

These appliances share many features, such as being relatively small, running quieter than a desktop PC, and offering fairly simple installation and configuration, as befits devices sold to small businesses as well as enterprise workgroups.

All run some version of Linux, except for the LaCie, which now uses Microsoft's Storage Server Essentials operating system. All have greatly improved the ability to backup their contents across the LAN or across the Web, using one or both of their dual Gigabit Ethernet LAN ports and USB connections.

All act as a Time Machine server for OS X device backup. All provide enough user and disk management to be the only shared storage in a small company, or a reliable department storage addition in a large company. If that large company wants to make the units an iSCSI target, every unit supports that option.

Best NAS boxes for less than $100

In addition, each appliance includes a print server that will support any USB-connected older printer. All units tested run either RAID 5 or RAID 6 to keep your data safe in case one of the drives fails, but all support other RAID options or allow you to configure your appliance as one giant pool of disk space.

But all have different strengths that make them suitable for different situations.

 Although all units integrate with Active Directory, the LaCie may be more attractive to some Windows shops because of its Storage Server Essentials OS.

 Iomega and Buffalo offer full-text indexing and searching of stored files.

 Seagate, maker of the internal drives in many units, leverages its drive production to deliver the most storage per dollar.

 Several models front-end popular cloud storage services such as Amazon S3, and in Netgear's case, acts as the on-premise gateway to Egnyte's file server in the cloud.

 QNAP includes enough extra application support to be a complete file server for a small company.

Here are the individual reviews:

QNAP TS-569 Pro

QNAP sent its five-disk unit, holding 3TB disks, which provided 8.5TB of usable disk space after RAID 6 (keeps data safe even with two failed disks) and operating system overhead. The QNAP product line provides desktop NAS systems with two-, four-, five- or eight-drive bays, and all usually ship diskless, so end users or resellers can pick the best disk capacity for the job at hand.

The black front gives way to a gray body that looks to be the same material used in high-end kitchen appliances. On the front are the disk drive carriers, each with an LED, the power switch and LED, a two-line 16-character display that turns off quickly, and a USB port with a "Copy" button. Plug in a USB storage device, hit the button, and the USB contents will be automatically copied to a predefined location inside the QNAP storage.

On the back are the two Gigabit Ethernet ports, along with four USB 2.0 ports, two USB 3.0 ports and two eSATA ports. Unusual is the single HDMI port, which supports some of the media applications available to the QNAP. The huge but quiet fan adjusts speed as necessary.

Setup is straightforward, with a couple of nice surprises. The UI includes big rounded icons, like apps, that make it look friendly. After booting, it grabs an IP address from any DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol) server, and launches a nice entry screen when clicked in Explorer.

Our unit came with disks pre-installed, but when installing your own, you can configure the storage space as a single disk volume, a JBOD (Just a Bunch Of Disks) linear disk volume, or RAID 0, 1, 5, 6, or 10. The five 3TB disks in our unit were configured as RAID 6. You can engage an encrypted file system if wanted.

A wizard offers a way to create multiple users at once, if they all need the same prefix. Define the prefix, the initial password, whether each user should get a private folder, then hit enter. Users will have to set a new password when they log in. You can also load users and groups via TXT, CSV or a BIN file from another QNAP NAS.

Extras include the ability to back up NAS data offsite to Amazon S3, ElephantDrive, or Symform. Applications abound, far beyond the normal media and iTunes servers on other appliances, and the fairly common surveillance system support. LDAP and MySQL server software is included, as is antivirus. Clicking the QPKG Center icon leads to dozens of available apps, including Asterisk, Joomla, Mono, Python, Tomcat, vtiger CRM, WordPress and Xeams mail server.

No other NAS tested works so much like a generic Linux server as QNAP.

Netgear ReadyNAS Pro 4

The smallest unit, smaller than many two-slice toasters, Netgear's ReadyNAS Pro 4 is all black with a two-line display that disappears quickly. ReadyNAS delivers 5.4TB (after RAID 5 overhead), and one USB port on the front of the box, plus two USB ports and two Gigabit Ethernet ports on the back.

Netgear's RAIDar utility finds new NAS boxes on the network, and gets installation started through a user interface that is clean, but a bit old-fashioned. As with all units in the test, a new admin password is required. Unlike other units, the ReadyNAS Pro 4 provides a password recovery question and answer that it will email to a predefined address. Also unlike the other units, it includes a DHCP server that will dole out IP addresses to other devices.

There are two volumes by default -- backup and media -- leaving the network admin free to create the typical "public" shared volume with a name that might better fit the company, such as AcctVol or the like. A USB attached drive can be shared just like the internal disk space. Users and groups can be imported in a CSV list, and given storage quotas, like on the other systems.

For backups, Netgear offers its own hosted cloud backup as an option. Snapshot backups can be scheduled easily. Also included is a 90-day trial of Acronis Backup for end users.

Netgear has partnered with "file server in the cloud" vendor Egnyte to act as the on-premise part of Egnyte's cloud offering through the ReadyNAS add-ons feature. Other add-ons include surveillance support, NAS replication, Linux root access, and various media support tools for music and photos. There is even a community of developers offering scores of new apps and utilities.

LaCie 5big Office+

LaCie's 5big Office+ has one iridescent blue golf ball-size combination light and on-off switch in a solid gray cube-like appliance that looks more like art than storage. On the back are two Gigabit Ethernet ports, three USB ports, one eSATA port, and access to the five included 2TB drives offering a total of 7.4 TB of space after RAID 5 and OS overhead.

The only NAS tested powered by Microsoft's Windows Storage Server 2008 R2 Essentials, the LaCie 5big Office+ will be right at home in the hands of a Microsoft-certified tech. Setup requires IE for the browser, and follows the typical Microsoft OS path. Each client needs .NET Framework 4.0 or later, but all can be installed from the LaCie box. Each user gets Windows Storage Server Launchpad and Dashboard software, whether they want them or not. The admin interface is pure Microsoft with a few LaCie logos.

LaCie offers Wuala online storage to back up local NAS data. Of course, the Storage Server software offers Microsoft shops a variety of connection and backup options not open to other NAS products in this roundup.

Users will see this NAS as less invisible than the others, because of the Microsoft client software. Also, the default public storage volume is called Documents, which may cause some confusion with personal storage areas.

While all NAS units tested here integrate with Active Directory Services, LaCie has partnered with Microsoft in a big way. While a Microsoft expert will be right at home, a small business or enterprise department installing a NAS on its own may find installing and configuring this NAS a bit more involved than some of the others. But since Microsoft is so prevalent, outside support and device management may be easier to find for the LaCie than any other of the NAS desktop devices.

If there was a style award, this box would win. And the price per terabyte of raw storage is second best to Seagate, which has a bit of home field advantage since it makes so many of the hard disks used.

Iomega StorCenter px4-300d

Storage experts from back in the days of the Bernoulli Box, Iomega has been making desktop NAS appliances for years. This model has an updated look, now clad in dark gray with black accents and a perforated front cover with a large display. Four lines of display stay on all the time and provide raw storage (5.4TB after RAID 5 and OS overhead), open storage, time and date, and the IP address for connected networks. Two Gigabit Ethernet ports and two USB ports are on the back.

An updated user interface matches the updated housing, with an icon-laden menu down the left side and larger, friendlier icons than in previous versions for all the admin utilities. Five public shares are created by default, including Documents (rather than Public or Share), Backups, Movies, Music and Pictures. A context-sensitive help system, which is not really needed, is available on almost every admin screen.

The appliance can be put on the network for everyone to access with no security whatsoever, which might work in some small departments. Users are created one-by-one, and a scenic photo will greet them when they log in to the appliance with their browser.

Not only does Iomega offer a "My Personal Cloud" for access to the appliance over the Internet, but it also uses various cloud services for backup. Configuration tools for connecting to Amazon S3, Atmos Backup (from EMC, the owner of Iomega), Avamar, and Mozy accounts are an icon-click away. ISCSI support is included, as well as tools for VMware, Citrix and Windows servers to connect to the Iomega StorCenter.

Similar to the Buffalo TeraStation, the Iomega includes a full-text search function. The interface is a bit nicer, and documents can be clicked and downloaded to your personal computer, but the displayed results aren't as complete. Both systems offer document management tools, just with slightly different search results presentation.

Easy, wizard-driven installation and management make the Iomega a good choice for small businesses, since any competent computer user can manage the system. Let's just hope they don't enable the optional, but curious, feature of linking users' Facebook accounts to their storage space on the Iomega.

Buffalo TeraStation TS5400D

The box that started the "terabytes for the workgroup" trend, Buffalo's TeraStation TX5400D still offers excellent price per terabyte, clear administration, and the text-search feature the company introduced to this segment. Solid black, with horizontal lines for a little decoration on the front, the TS5400D offers 5.4TB of open space after RAID 5 and OS overhead, two Gigabit Ethernet ports, two USB 3.0 and two USB 2.0 ports. Interestingly, the unit can boot from the USB ports.

NAS Navigator 2 software for Windows computers helps find and manage the appliance, and locates a new box on the network for configuration or administration. An aptly named Easy Admin page, with seven big buttons leading to the TeraStation's function, can be traded for the Advanced Settings administration screen with eight admin functions down the left-side menu.

Users can be configured individually or uploaded in a CSV file. By default, new users are placed in the "hdusers" group, which can simplify access controls by limiting rights to the entire group at once. While other units have storage quotas for users, the TeraStation is the only one with a configuration threshold point to warn users when space is getting scarce.

Extra utilities for speed, TurboPC and TurboCopy, use RAM as cache to speed file copying. Ten licenses of NovaBackup software for client systems are included, as is Amazon S3 support, and, oddly, BitTorrent support is still included. A Trend Micro antivirus trial ships with the appliance.

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