Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Best NAS boxes for less than $1,000

Best NAS boxes for less than $1,000

Eight desktop devices that deliver terabytes of shared storage and more

By James E. Gaskin
Buffalo Technology shattered the $1,000 barrier for a terabyte of shared storage back in 2005. With storage prices continuing to drop, that same $1,000 today can buy a 4T or even 5TB network-attached storage (NAS) device with RAID 5 disk redundancy, plus additional features, like backup storage licenses and indexing capabilities.
NASs for the masses
We tested eight units, each suitable for workgroups in large enterprises or as an entry-level server for small businesses. Our test group included Buffalo TeraStation III, Iomega StorCenter, Netgear ReadyNAS, Western Digital ShareSpace, Seagate BlackArmor, LaCie 5big Network 2, Verbatim PowerBay, and the QNAP TS-459 Pro II. We tried to get a unit from Cisco, but its NSS 300 Series Smart Storage units are undergoing a major refresh, and won't be available until 2011.
To continue reading, register here and become an Insider. You'll get free access to premium content from CIO, Computerworld, CSO, InfoWorld, and Network World. See more Insider content or sign in.
Buffalo Technology shattered the $1,000 barrier for a terabyte of shared storage back in 2005. With storage prices continuing to drop, that same $1,000 today can buy a 4T or even 5TB network-attached storage (NAS) device with RAID 5 disk redundancy, plus additional features, like backup storage licenses and indexing capabilities.
NASs for the masses
We tested eight units, each suitable for workgroups in large enterprises or as an entry-level server for small businesses. Our test group included Buffalo TeraStation III, Iomega StorCenter, Netgear ReadyNAS, Western Digital ShareSpace, Seagate BlackArmor, LaCie 5big Network 2, Verbatim PowerBay, and the QNAP TS-459 Pro II. We tried to get a unit from Cisco, but its NSS 300 Series Smart Storage units are undergoing a major refresh, and won't be available until 2011.
All of the units support Windows, Apple, and Linux clients, but most demand a Windows PC to execute the initial setup and configuration software, and all units integrate with Microsoft's Active Directory. Beyond basic storage, Buffalo and Iomega offer workgroup document indexing and searching, for free. QNAP leads the way in running multiple applications, many of which require the included MySQL. Hosting a database and applications on a NAS unit has not been possible before. LaCie is by far the most stylish device and it offers five, 1TB disk trays for 3.6TB of usable space. Seagate was the only device to offer software to support a bare metal restore for Windows clients. Netgear was the only product to offer a five-year warranty. Western Digital delivered the lowest price per terabyte. Verbatim offers the ability to use a second box as a real-time replication server.

Buffalo TeraStation III

The TeraStation III that we tested is a black metal box slightly larger than average for the units tested (but not bigger than most two-slice toasters), featuring two Gigabit Ethernet ports and three USB 2.0 ports. The information display screen, two lines of 16 characters each, rotates between showing the time and date, unit IP address for both Ethernet ports, link speed, and the number of disks active. There was 2.88TB of available space on the system after RAID 5 and included software overhead.
Watch a slideshow of these products | Net results
Initial startup and configuration was straightforward as we followed the Quick Start pamphlet and also the full manual on the included CD. The box, configured as a Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) client, picked up an open IP address immediately. Most companies like to assign a static IP address to their storage units, and that option appears during the initial setup. After a reboot, all the configuration changes were in place and the unit was fully visible on the network.
Besides the device locator and administration software on the CD, Buffalo includes 10 licenses of NovaBackup Business Essentials Backup software. Unlike most backup software included with equivalent devices, NovaBackup works with Microsoft Windows servers, Windows Exchange and MS-SQL databases. Your existing backup software will work with the TeraStation, of course, if you redirect the storage location on the clients to a folder on the NAS.
A single volume named Array1 contained all the storage space in the TeraStation. Two folders, Info and Share, were created by default. Share is open to everyone, while Info is read-only and includes a copy of the manual in both English and Japanese. Access to folders can be set at the folder level, or by restricting individual users or groups. You can set storage quotas on users. RAID levels 0, 1, 5, and 10 are supported.
Creating users is a simple two-step process: name the user and assign a password, then type the password again for verification. No security best practices, such as a minimum password length, are enforced. A text field asks for User ID, which may confuse some, but the system will assign a number between 1,000 to 1,999 in order of user creation. If you want to assign your own numbers, you may do so. Users are automatically included in the default group "hdusers," which is handy, and a step many others forego, requiring an extra step to gain the advantages of grouping users for easier administration.
An unexpected but quite nice feature is TeraSearch, which indexes and searches files stored on the unit. You must enable searching for each folder individually (but sub-folders are included), and update indexes manually or set a time for regular indexing. The software is Web based and you find the application by putting the unit's IP address in the URL along with a port address. Once configured, the indexing software worked quickly and proved quite handy.
Other goodies include a DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) MediaServer, basic print server, BitTorrent server, Time Machine support for Apple client backup, FTP server, and virus scanning. You can encrypt the disk with 128-bit AES encryption, but only when reformatting the drive array.
E-mail notification support is better than average, with room for five addresses, and a check list of events that will trigger e-mails. When the system is shut down properly, an e-mail goes out, a nice touch if you manage remote units.

Iomega StorCenter

A little smaller than average, the Iomega StorCenter ix4-200d unit with 4TB of storage looks a bit more polished than the Buffalo unit, but is still all black. This unit also has two Gigabit Ethernet ports as well as three USB 2.0 ports, and after disk redundancy and system storage overhead, provides 2.71TB of open space. Printers and external disks can be attached to the USB ports.
The information display, about the size of a domino, is the best in the group. White letters on a blue background show time of day and date, the IP address of the unit, and a bar graph of available storage. Free and used totals are listed in text above the bar graph that shows at a glance how much disk space is used and free. Nice touch.
Following the paper Quick Start Guide was simple, and the installation CD includes both the administration software (Iomega StorCenter) and EMC Retrospect Express backup software (both PC and Mac). Unlimited client backup licenses are included, which is unusual. A pitch for Mozy online backup is enclosed, since EMC owns both Iomega and Mozy. Iomega's QuickProtect file level backup software is also on the CD. Time Machine server for Apple client backup is pre-installed. The contents of the Iomega unit can be replicated to another NAS or USB attached hard drive via one touch (to the USB drive) or rsync.
The default shares on the single large volume are Public and Backup. Private user folders, created with new users, appear in the root of the folder, but only the user in question can see their folder. It may look a little messy with all those private folders to the administrator, but users won't see that. RAID 5 and RAID 10 are supported, as is JBOD (Just a Bunch of Disks) giving maximum storage space but no protection against drive failure.
Security must be enabled before adding users, which makes sense. Creating a user is a two-click process (and typing the name and password), and the second step offers a chance to let other users access the private folders of the new user with an easy radio button interface. Default access is None, but Read and Read/Write security options are available. Speaking of security, Iomega suggests using at least eight characters for user passwords, but no such restrictions are enforced.
Administrators will appreciate Iomega's admin utility with friendly icons and help only a click away. The Dashboard button opens a page showing a pie chart of used and open disk space, and hardware details. Unfortunately, there's room for only a single e-mail address for notifications. Storage quotas are assigned per folder, not username, but restricting a user's private folder gets the job done.
Iomega also supports media services with a screen to manage Torrent downloads and support for photo dumping from cameras (PTP or Picture Transfer Protocol), DLNA AV Media Center, and iTunes streaming (aimed at home users primarily). Video surveillance support includes the ability to connect up to five Axis network security cameras and use the Iomega box to store video without needing a PC in the loop. The box is also VMware certified as a storage unit.
The search function in the Iomega box has a nicer front end than Buffalo's, and works just as quickly and accurately. Users of the search utility see the administration utility interface, stripped down to display only Search, Access Shared Storage (that the user has rights to), and Manage Torrent Downloads. One click, and users can search indexed contents quickly.

Netgear ReadyNAS

Smaller than the average box in this group, the Netgear ReadyNAS has an information screen that shows two lines of 16 characters reporting the IP address and the free disk space on the unit. There are two Gigabit Ethernet ports and three USB 2.0 ports for external disks and/or printers. It's the only box with a handle so if you need a couple of terabytes to carry around, this will do the trick. And we say "a couple" because the unit included four 500GB disks for 2TB of maximum storage, yielding 1.3TB after the bytes used for disk redundancy and system files are subtracted. 10GB is reserved for snapshots. Most other units include 4TB, but the Netgear price for 4TB breaks our $1,000 ceiling.
Netgear includes an excellent Installation Guide pamphlet that should help the most hesitant administrator through setup and configuration. When started, the unit grabbed an IP address from the DHCP server, then suggested we reserve that address on the router/DHCP server. It would be more helpful if they offered the static IP screen at that point and included instructions for choosing and setting a static address. Network Time Protocol servers offered by default are from Netgear, not an NTP pool like on most other units.
Setup forced us, as the administrator, to set a new password. Unlike the other boxes, this one offered a password hint and a space for an e-mail address to send that hint to in case you forget. There is room for three e-mail addresses to receive alert notifications.
By default, the box set up a "netgear" workgroup for simple Windows file sharing. We prefer to use the Microsoft default of "workgroup" but it was an easy change. Shared folders Backup and Media are created by default. The Media folder could be a busy one, since Netgear markets this family of storage products to home and home office users. Support for ReadyDLNA, iTunes, and SqueezeCenter for SqueezeBox devices is included.
No client backup software is included, but the NAS unit functions quite well as the destination for your existing client backup software. Backups of the NAS unit contents are done via snapshots to transfer to other locations, using rsync and secure rsync.
Although there is no Public or Document folder for everyone to share created by default, adding one is a matter of a few clicks. Each user automatically gets his own private folder when assigned a password, and you can add recycle bins in the home folders for each user. You can import users as a group with the properly formatted file. Each user and group can have a storage quote attached.
Beyond the excellent Installation Guide, the administrative screens and processes look fairly austere and aren't as intuitive as the first two units. Once configured, few changes are necessary on storage units like this, so this would be an issue that arises rarely.
RAID levels 0, 1, and 5 are supported. This box also supports VMware storage connections. Unlike other units, the Netgear ReadyNAS comes with a five-year warranty.

Western Digital ShareSpace

The Western Digital ShareSpace wins the low price award for offering 2.68TB of usable space (after disk redundancy and system overhead on the 4TB maximum size) for hundreds less than the other units. The dark silver box looks like a home theater component, and includes media streaming support. It does cut a few corners by using a single Ethernet port and foregoing an information display, but bargain hunters will love this box.
The Quick Installation Guide does a good job, although it hasn't been updated to included Windows 7. One Gigabit Ethernet port joins three USB 2.0 ports; two are on the back and one on the front. When a USB hard drive is attached to the front USB port, a push of the file transfer button just above the USB connection copies data from the external drive to the NAS system. Western Digital sells a large number of USB external hard disks, so give them credit for making it easy to upgrade to a disk-redundant shared storage system from a USB disk.
All important features remain even with the low price. Configured with RAID 5 by default, the box also supports levels 0 (striped) and 1 (mirrored drives). Microsoft Active Directory support is included, as is a built-in FTP server.
Default folders on the DataVolume are Configuration, Download and Public. Creating users is a snap for those new to administration, since Western Digital includes a Basic and Advanced Mode for administration, and the icons for both are non-threatening. Users get their own private folder by default, and the security controls for managing user access are as complete as any of the other boxes. The user folders are again placed in the root of the volume, but only users authorized to see a folder can see it in the directory listing. An attached USB hard drive can be managed as a volume just like an internal volume.
Not quite bare-bones, the Western Digital ShareSpace gives quite a bit of storage for the buck. It may be priced for home users, but it does all the important things any small business or department needs.

Seagate BlackArmor

With a name like BlackArmor, one expects a no-nonsense device, and the Seagate box certainly delivers. The black metal case, slightly larger than average, has an overhang on the front that reminds us of the lip of a helmet. Yet to cover all bases, this box also includes a media server and iTunes support.
Two Gigabit Ethernet ports are balanced by four USB 2.0 plugs, one on the front and three on the back. Seagate includes 10 licenses of their BlackArmor Backup software for Windows clients, as well as SafetyDrill+ software to support Bare Metal Restore for Windows clients, the only unit to offer such a feature. Time Machine support wasn't included on the unit we tested, but a firmware upgrade will add that feature, along with VMware certification.
While only two lines with 16 characters each, the information display screen offers nine headings to drill down using the up and down buttons beside the display. Typical information such as data and time, IP address and device name are expected, but many system details such as temperature and fan status are also included.
RAID levels supported run the gamut from 0, 1, 5 and 10, as well as JBOD. After data redundancy and storage overhead, 2.7TB of the 4TB maximum storage was available. There's a recycle bin for each shared folder, but recovering files is done through the administration utility. A basic print server is included.
The administration utility is complete and business-like. Menu items are listed across the top, with submenu options stacked on the left side. Clicking the Help button opens a new browser window with the entire manual available, but the displayed page is context sensitive to the utility screen contents.
There are five spaces for e-mail notifications, which is nice. Like the Buffalo TeraStation, the Seagate system sent a notice when shut down. There are no options for when or why to send other e-mail notifications, however. Prepare to be surprised.
When creating users, the Seagate unit gives an option of whether to create a private user share. If the answer is yes, a drop-down list shows which volumes are available to host that share, a nice touch. The default volume is named DataVolume. There's an option to encrypt user shares. Quotas are set by user on each volume, allowing you to restrict a user's storage capacity on one volume but not another.
One interesting feature is a hosted wiki on the unit. Enabling DokuWiki gives users a chance to create documentation or store public information in an easy format for everyone to see and edit.

LaCie 5big

LaCie has been a major player in the Apple storage market for years, and its box shows a design aesthetic far more Apple than Microsoft. The largest unit in the tested group, the LaCie is a dark silver color with a golf-ball sized blue light recessed into the box. The Quick Install Guide names the designer (Neil Poulton) just under the name of the unit, meaning design is far more important than for any of the other units. The fact this looks like modern art rather than disk storage testifies to their success.
The disk trays, five in all, each hold a 1TB disk drive. Five disks and five drives mean the usable space is 3.6TB (out of 5TB), a big bump over the other units with only four disks. With larger disks, the unit can hold 7.5TB or 10TB, and it supports RAID levels 0, 5, 5+ and 6 (two drives can die and the data remains safe). Just like with Apple, the manual and included software comes on a DVD, not a CD.
Two Gigabit Ethernet ports are on the back, as are two USB 2.0 ports. Unlike the previous models discussed, two eSATA ports are also on the back, allowing you to plug high-performance SATA drives directly to the box for better throughput than the USB ports. Unfortunately, the eSATA performance is your best bet for backing up the unit contents, since there's no NAS-to-NAS option.
Genie Backup Manager Pro 8 (for Windows clients) and Intego Backup Manager Pro 8 (for Macs) are included, but only three licenses each. As we expected, Time Machine is provided for Apple clients as well.
The two default shared folders are Public and Share, but only Public is open to everyone. Users must be allowed access to Share.
Creating users is straightforward, and each field pops up helpful information as you mouse over it. Private folders are not created with the users. Quotas are set by shared folder, not user name. When you create a folder for a user, you must then go to the Shares screen to allow that user access to that folder. There is no way to import a list of users at once, but LaCie does integrate into Microsoft's Active Directory, like every other box in this test.
Apple fans will love the LaCie box. Those watching their pennies will love the added extra storage for the same cost as many of the competitors. The Western Digital unit may be the least expensive per usable terabyte based on retail price ($231), but the LaCie is darn close at $236 per usable TB.

Verbatim PowerBay

If you think of Verbatim only for the 3.5 inch floppies stuck in drawers here and there, you're just as behind the times as we were. The company still makes plenty of blank media, of course, from floppy to Blu-ray disks, but it also makes a wide range of USB and FireWire desktop drives, and the PowerBay NAS Array in size ranging from 2TB to 8TB. The Verbatim 4TB unit we tested delivered 2.95TB.
A black metal box about average size in the group, the Verbatim unit has two Gigabit Ethernet ports (one for the network, and one for clustering with another PowerBay unit for real-time data replication). Two USB 2.0 ports are available for external drives or printers. There's also an eSATA connector for adding more storage capacity or backup.
Such a rarity: a real paper manual. The electronic version is on the enclosed CD, as is Acronis Backup software, with five licenses.
Some installation details can be accomplished through the MagicalFinder utility that locates the drive on the network (especially useful with new installations that rely on a DHCP server to provide the box address). You can set the IP address, change the default name (PowerBay) and set the workgroup. It also shows the IP address of the PC running the utility, which is a nice touch.
Oddly, the system doesn't demand an administrator password, which is somewhat lax even in the world of NAS system security. When we did change the password from the default, the only enforcement of good password rules was the need for between five to 20 characters.
Creating users is as simple as supplying the name, password, and group (or don't put the user in a group). Once created, however, the user will have a real shock: they can't access any shared storage on the box.
For some bizarre reason, the default volume, Volume_1, doesn't allow access by users until they are specifically configured with access rights. This is the only unit that makes such a mess of default disk access. Once you fix this poor configuration choice by Verbatim, all is well.
One button on the front of the unit downloads data on any USB hard drive attached to the front USB port. USB ports and the eSATA port can be used to backup the box's data to an external hard disk. But Verbatim does a good thing, and uses the second Gigabit Ethernet port to connect to a second PowerBay to act as a real time replication server for your data. If you prefer your backups be further away, rsync is provided.
E-mail alerts can be sent to four addresses, which is nice. Even better is the checkboxes offered to define what merits an alert. Administrator password change? Check. Get hotter than 145 degrees F? Check. Those and five more events can be easily configured.
It's a shame Verbatim made the default volume out of reach when setting up the system right out of the box. Outside of that big error, everything else works great.

QNAP TS-459 Pro II

This average-sized box has a black front with a gray metal body. Design goals were functional, not fancy, with the four drives right in the front, with an information display of two lines of 16 characters offering the IP address. When the top control button beside the display is held down for 2 seconds, the Main Menu appears, allowing quite a bit of configuration functions without touching a computer or administrative utility. We tested with four 700GB drives, which delivered 2.06TB of available storage.
Two Gigabit Ethernet ports on the back are balanced by four USB 2.0 ports and two eSATA ports. A fifth USB 2.0 port on the front is just below a "Copy" button to trigger data imports and exports. Printers or external disks can be connected to the USB ports, while the eSATA plugs only support storage devices. RAID levels 1, 5 and 6 are supported.
The Quick Installation Guide is a folded piece of poster-sized paper with English and 17 other languages. Initial setup is straightforward, but the administrative utility is surprisingly attractive in a fun icon way, with easy navigation. This may be the best looking admin utility of the bunch. One oddity is to make the default workgroup name NAS rather than workgroup. Users can be added in bunches, Active Directory is supported, and disk quotas are set by user.
NetBak Replicator software is included for clients, along with 10 licenses. Data on the QNAP device can be replicated via rsync or up to Amazon S3 storage services, the behind-the-scenes storage destination of many backup providers. Time Machine can be enabled for Apple clients.
There is space for only two e-mail addresses for alert notifications, but you can configure SMS texting alerts as well. Between two e-mail and two text notifications, alerts should be noticed.
At first, user password security seems no better than the rest of the boxes, with a new user's password suggested to be at least six characters, but not enforced. Digging deeper, however, brought us to a screen where password rigor for users can be upped considerably. You can force users to use three types of characters in a password (choosing from lower or upper case letters, numbers, and symbols), stop them from repeating characters more than three times in a row, and block them from making their password the same as their username, or their username typed backwards.
QNAP features the stoutest user security of the group, and easily enforced across the board from one configuration checkbox. In addition to the password rules, ranges of IP addresses can be blocked, or set so only clients within that range can connect to the unit.
Blurring the lines between a NAS unit acting as a file server, and a full application server, QNAP adds in the Apache Web server, MySQL server, Surveillance Station, iTunes server, and download station. Plug-ins for the Web server can be downloaded from QPKG, provided by QNAP. Two dozen plug-ins are available, ranging from SqueezeBox Server to the WordPress blogging platform to the vtiger CRM to the Joombla content management system and more.
These options would overwhelm the typical NAS buyer, but QNAP works almost exclusively through resellers who configure systems for their customers before delivery. Whether running a dozen applications on a NAS box is a good idea or not, having the option to add one or two centralized programs without a Windows server, such as the Asterisk Internet phone system software or the XDove e-mail servers, on an inexpensive server platform could be quite handy. Linux servers run these applications all over the world, so running them on the embedded Linux operating system hosted by QNAP trods well-worn ground.

How we did it

Each unit was installed according to the included quick start guides. Units were added to an existing local area network with PCs running Windows XP, Windows 7, and Apple OS X 10.5.8.
After initial configuration, users were added, following the standard security rules recommended by each NAS vendor. Units were tested by multiple PCs and multiple user names.

No comments: