Low-Cost Network Area Storage Devices

Inexpensive NAS devices can provide small enterprises with terabytes of space. Of the four we tested, one impressed us with its complete feature set, speed and expandability.

April 29, 2004

18 Min Read
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We compared these devices on the basis of performance, price, management/configuration, features, warranty and service. Two other NAS devices, from Coastline Micro and Dell, met with testing problems and had to be excluded from our evaluation (see "Testing Problems KO Two Devices," at the end of this story).

When choosing a NAS for your small business or departmental needs, the overriding factor is the trade-off between ease of use and price. NAS devices are designed to make setup and maintenance as simple as possible, but because that simplicity usually benefits an in-house administrator who's on your payroll, you won't want a unit that busts your budget. The next factor is capacity--the amount of data you need to store and keep accessible. The units we tested have a wide range of capacities, from the FIA POPnetserver 1000, which comes in configurations as small as 120 GB, to the Snap Appliance Snap Server 4500, which can handle up to 3 TB using two of Snap's external disk arrays.

When considering capacity, remember to take reliability into account. All the devices tested for this review support RAID functionality, usually at multiple levels. But RAID comes at a price. Just because the raw capacity of a given unit is 1 TB, that doesn't mean the usable space is the same. A RAID 5 configuration (striping and parity), for instance, can use up to 25 percent of the raw capacity for data protection. While a 25 percent data penalty may sound like a huge detriment, the extra data protection is worth the price.

Every unit except the FIA POPnetserver 1000 came preconfigured with RAID 5 functionality. The FIA POPnetserver was configured using RAID 0, simple striping. This is a fast configuration, but not a safe one. To add some reliability, you can configure the POPnetserver 1000 for RAID 1, simple mirroring, but that configuration will eat up half the unit's disk space. Because the POPnetserver holds only two hard disks, a RAID 5 setup, which requires three disks, is not possible.

NAS Device Features

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InoStor's ValuNAS 6000 also has an unusual RAID implementation. InoStor has a patented RAID technology that provides the same level of data protection as conventional RAID 5 systems, without the 25 percent penalty.You also must consider the protocols you'll be using for data access. All the NAS devices we tested provide the common file-system-sharing protocols: NFS (Network File System), CIFS (Common Internet File System, or Windows shares) and Apple access. Other forms of access, such as legacy NetWare shares, FTP access and HTTP access, are more often found on higher-end units, though some of the devices in our review do provide access to these protocols.

We chose the Snap Appliance Snap Server 4500 as our Editor's Choice because of its complete feature set, speed and expandability. The Snap Server was the hands-down winner in most of our tests and supported all the access shares and functions we were looking for. When you factor in best-in-class expansion capabilities, external disk arrays, a good price and a great warranty, you have a winner.The Snap Server 4500 is an excellent product whose great hardware features, easy setup and superb performance made it easy to name it the Editor's Choice winner.

The Snap Server 4500's feature set is impressive. The device's hardware includes a 2.4-GHz Intel Pentium 4 processor with 512 MB of RAM. An external SCSI port allows the addition of either an external tape backup unit or two of Snap Appliances' Snap Disk 10-disk expansions. These expansions bring the unit's maximum capacity up to 3 TB--more than any other device in our review. The base chassis allows two raw capacity configurations: 640 GB or 1 TB. The 4500 uses parallel ATA disks (as do all but the InoStor ValuNAS 6000, which uses serial ATA). Usually, we prefer the serial ATA drives, but given this machine's excellent overall performance, we really can't complain.

Unlike older products from Snap Appliance (formerly an operating division of Quantum), which ran on an operating system the company called SnapOS, the Snap Server 4500 uses a Linux-based operating system, GuardianOS. We saw an improvement in both the functionality and the responsiveness of the Web-based UI, which looked much like SnapOS.

We were also pleased that the Snap Server 4500 comes with Computer Associates' eTrust Antivirus software, as well as an unlimited user license for PowerQuest's DataKeeper software for automatic backup and restore of Windows clients. The Snap Server also will accept backup clients for Legato Software's Networker, Veritas Software Corp.'s Backup Exec and NetBackup, and CA's BrightStor ARCserve and BrightStor Enterprise.Most of the Snap Server's setup functions and network settings are simple, with only a couple of options under each setting in the system window. The real meat-and-potatoes settings are under the storage icon. A RAID wizard shows the available options for the number of disks you have, as well as a small explanation of each setting for novice storage administrators.

The rest of the menu lets you look at individual devices such as disks and locally attached tape drives. You can set up shares and quotas, manage RAID sets and volumes, and play with directory structures. The software also allows you to set up snapshots, which allow for quick point-in-time restores. There's a security tab to manage security for shares, users and groups, plus you can set up NIS security for Unix systems and attach the Snap Server 4500 to an Active Directory tree. Use the maintenance menu to set up and configure eTrust Antivirus, update the OS, reboot the server and perform other maintenance functions.

We found daily management of the Snap Server 4500 as easy as it could be without having someone else do it for us. Adding users and groups is simple, and shares management is fairly painless. You can also perform these functions within an Active Directory tree.

The Snap Server's performance beat every other product in this review, showing clear and consistent performance across all of our tests. Performance under CIFS was particularly good, but NFS performance held its own, too. (See "How We Tested Low-Cost NAS".)

This NAS device has a three-year, limited ship-in/carry-in warranty. Extended warranty and onsite service are available for an additional charge. Configured for our review with 1 TB of storage and 512 MB of RAM, the Snap Server 4500 has a price of $5,795, which calculates to $5.80 per gigabyte.Snap Server 4500. Snap Appliance, (888) 343-SNAP, (408) 879-8700. www.snapappliance.com

As always, you get what you pay for. The 1u DataNAS LE has a great price per gigabyte--just $3.34, the lowest in the lot--but failed to wow us with its performance. For customers who need lots of space but don't have much to spend and don't need a barn burner, this box is a good fit.

The DataNAS LE's hardware gets the job done. This NAS is powered by one 1.3-GHz Pentium III processor and 256 MB of RAM, which can be expanded to 512 MB. Its two gigabit copper Ethernet ports can be configured for load balancing and failover. The hard disks are standard parallel IDE drives, and the case is a slim 1u.

Compared with most NAS devices, which are really just PCs with specialized software, the DataNAS LE has an unusual configuration. There are no keyboard or video ports, but instead there is some interesting-looking custom hardware at the core, with a nonstandard form-factor motherboard. It's not a problem, merely a surprise. Furthermore, Excel Meridian installs a slimline laptop CD burner or a DVD burner right into the front of the machine for backups and data transfers. This is an innovative feature that we find particularly friendly for small businesses.

Initial setup was a positive experience. The front panel guided us through setting an IP address and a gateway, and we were off to the races. The Web-based GUI is crisp and responsive. Setting up shares for CIFS, NFS, NetWare or AppleTalk was fairly straightforward, as was user setup. The DataNAS LE's internal help included an item-by-item description of each function and its use for all of the menus.

The DataNAS runs under Linux and a different NAS software than Excel Meridian's higher-end products, but there's no disadvantage here. We also appreciated the inclusion of a full FTP server and Trend Micro Anti-Virus, which can scan on the fly, do scheduled scans and automatic updates of virus signatures--all welcome features. An optional IDE tape drive is also available. The DataNAS LE includes sync software, which lets you automatically synchronize files from client machines or other DataNAS devices.With such a strong feature set, it's unfortunate that this device's performance was underwhelming. The DataNAS LE couldn't outperform the InoStor ValuNAS 6000, even with almost twice the available bandwidth. CIFS testing was squarely in the back of the pack, and overall, this unit surpassed only the single-port FIA PopNetServer 1000, though it did do well on the NFS and NWC Custom tests.

The DataNAS LE comes with a one-year ship-in/ carry-in warranty. Warranty upgrades are available, as well as next-business-day on-site service for an additional fee. At a price of $3,340 (configured as tested), the disappointing performance won't necessarily be a barrier if you aren't concerned about the test results.

DataNAS LE. Excel Meridian Data, (800) 995-1014, (972) 980-7098. www.excelmeridiandata.comThe FIA POPnetserver 1000 is at the bottom of First Intelligent Array's POPnetserver NAS line in every way. This unit's size, form factor, speed and capacity all point to its small-business target market. It's the tiniest unit we received, both in size and capacity. It was the only non-rackmount unit, and it's so small that we'd put it in the "breadbox" category--it measures just 6.75 inches high, 7.5 inches wide and 10.5 inches deep.

The POPnetserver's hardware isn't anything to brag about, but at its price point, that doesn't matter much. It runs on a single 1.7-GHz Intel Celeron processor, with 256 MB of memory (compared with 512 MB for the other units tested) and only one 100-Mb Ethernet port. The unit can be fitted with an optional internal tape drive with a cartridge capacity of 66 MB compressed. The POPnetserver comes in three capacities: 120 GB, 240 GB and 360 GB. We tested a 240-GB model that employs two 120-GB IDE hard disks.

Setting up the POPnetserver 1000 was easy, and it required just a single illustrated installation sheet. FIA provides a CD with its POPassist and POPsearch utilities, which let you find the POPnetserver and set its IP address if you don't want to use DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol). Then you can manage the unit from any Web-based platform.The management interface isn't the best--but it isn't the worst either. Everything is based on a collapsible menu on the left-hand side. From there, all of the POPnetserver's management functions are available. The only help functions are a "hints" pane that gives some basic information on the management function you clicked on. It's easy to set up a share on the POPnetserver, and you can set up names and security models in either Windows or Unix style. Though the interface is a bit lacking, the POPnetserver's manageability is fine. The unit provides standard UPS management, snapshot functionality and SNMP access.

The POPnetserver's performance reflects its humble Ethernet port and lack of multidrive RAID. However, considering its price and intended function, these numbers are unusual or problematic. With only a 100-Mbps port, the device cannot do much better. If your business has a 10/100 network, the level of NFS and CIFS performance this machine attained is fine. Just note the limitation.

The FIA POPnetserver 1000 comes with a three-year limited ship-in/carry-in warranty. At $3.75 per gigabyte, and just $899, configured as tested, the POPnetserver 1000 is a good value for small businesses that need minimal storage capacity.

FIA POPnetserver 1000. First Intelligent Array, (888) 353-0337, (949) 940-6565. www.fiainc.net

For a unit with "value" implied in its name, the InoStor ValuNAS 6000 is surprisingly expensive, with its $5,995 price and $8.33 cost per gigabyte. Still, this 2u unit has some beefy hardware and interesting RAID technology that InoStor Corp. is looking to patent. Of the devices we tested, only this one has an internal SLR (scalable linear recording) or SDLT (super digital linear tape) tape drive--a convenient option for shops that use tape backup.

The ValuNAS 6000 is powered by standard Intel x86 hardware with a Pentium 4 and 512 MB of RAM, running on a Tyan mainboard. The RAID controller is a 3Ware Escalade. Available Ethernet ports include a 100-Mb port and a gigabit copper Ethernet port.Rather than run with a standard RAID configuration, the ValuNAS 6000 implements its own patented RAIDn technology as a loadable module in the Linux kernel. This setup has a couple of key benefits over implementations such as RAID 5 and RAID 1--most notably, the ability to vary your RAID level and gain extra space over standard RAID systems. The RAIDn algorithms can withstand multiple drive failures without excessive lost disk space in the operation. With two drives, RAIDn can provide the same functionality as RAID 1. Compared with a 10-drive RAID 5+1 array, RAIDn offers 30 percent more capacity and allows the same three-drive failure redundancy, which represents significant capacity and cost savings. (See www.inostor.com/products/products_RAIDn_index.htm for white papers and full technical details of RAIDn.)

Unfortunately, whiz-bang technology comes at the expense of simplicity. Our initial setup was marred when we tried to use the frustrating front-panel LCD and button interface to set IP addresses. The directional buttons, for example, are clearly labeled, but if you push the wrong one, you end up in text fields where you can't do anything but try to navigate back out. We have never seen such a poorly designed LCD control. The good new is, you can hook a keyboard and monitor to the ValuNAS 6000 and configure your Ethernet interfaces from there.

The Web interface for InoStor's iceNAS software was clunky and unpolished, though compared with the front-panel LCD, it was a dream. The best we can say is that the interface is functional, and most tasks such as adding users, shares and playing with the base storage subsystems are easy to execute. You also can connect with an Active Directory server.

The ValuNAS 6000's Ethernet configuration has a lot to do with its performance figures. Our testing used both ports, and in comparison with the all-Gigabit Ethernet Snap Server 4500, the ValuNAS 6000 doesn't look good, until you consider that one of its two ports is only 100 Mb. The ValuNAS did well in the CIFS read and write tests. The NFS read and write tests were much worse, but on the NWC NFS Custom Test, it came in second. Overall, the performance of this unit is good for the low-end NAS category.

The ValuNAS 6000 comes with a three-year limited warranty, including tech support and advance shipping replacement. Warranty upgrades to 24/7/365 support are available. InoStor is a wholly owned subsidiary of the venerable tape company Tandberg Data. InoStor was created by the March 2002 merger of some of Tandberg's operations with Land-5, an early NAS competitor.ValuNAS 6000. InoStor Corp., (800) 826-3237, (858) 726-0277. www.inostor.com

STEVEN J. SCHUCHART JR. covers storage and servers for NETWORK COMPUTING. He previously worked as a network architect for a general retail firm, a PC and electronics technician, a computer retail store manager and a freelance disc jockey. Write to him at [email protected].

When it comes to network-attached storage, size doesn't matter--business size, that is. With NAS units selling for as little as $899, almost any company can afford one. And you'll get your money's worth, with a product that offers just the right capacity for your enterprise.

NAS devices are easy to install and manage, and provide massive amounts of storage. The units we tested, from Snap Appliance, Excel Meridian Data, FIA (First Intelligent Array) and InoStor, hold anywhere from 120 GB to 3 TB of data and provide RAID functionality. Devices built for small businesses may not support Gigabit Ethernet or integrate into a directory structure, such as ADS or eDirectory, but those features probably are overkill for a smaller network.

Snap Appliance's Snap Server 4500, our Editor's Choice, performed admirably and impressed us with its expansion capability, ease of installation and great warranty.We tested network-attached storage devices with Iometer 2003.5 10, SourceForge's tool for measuring and characterizing I/O subsystems. Our Green Bay, Wis., Real-World Labs test bed included 10 2.4-GHz Pentium 4 client machines, as well as an Extreme Networks Summit7i switch and a Cisco Catalyst 6500 with a copper Gigabit Ethernet card. Five machines were hooked to our north subnet and five to our south subnet. The NAS devices were attached to the north subnet with eth0 and to the south subnet with eth1, if the machine had two ports. An eleventh PC, hooked to the north subnet, served as a console for Iometer.

Our Iometer tests gauged CIFS (Common Internet File System) performance and NFS (Network File System) performance.

On the CIFS side, we performed the following tests: 64-Kbps linear read test; 64-Kbps linear write test; 1-MB linear read test; 1-MB linear write test; 2-MB linear read test; 2-MB linear write test; CIFS IOps and NWC CIFS Generalized Custom Test.

For all linear read and write tests, we set the read/write distribution to 100 percent read for the read tests and 100 percent write for the write tests. Random/sequential distribution was set at 100 percent sequential. Our CIFS IOps test had a 512-byte transfer request size, and was also set to 100 percent read and 100 percent sequential.

The NWC CIFS Generalized Custom Test had transfer request sizes of 512 bytes with 33 percent access distribution, 2 KB with 34 percent access distribution and 64 Kbps with 33 percent access distribution. On the 512-byte segment, the percent read/write distribution was set at 100 percent read and the percent random/sequential distribution at 100 percent sequential. The 2-KB segment had a 67 percent read and 33 percent write distribution and the percent random/sequential was set at 100 percent random. On the 64-Kbps segment, we set the percent read/write distribution to 100 percent read and the percent random/sequential distribution to 100 percent read.On the NFS side, we performed these tests: 64-Kbps linear read test; 64-Kbps linear write test; 1-MB linear read test; 1-MB linear write test; 2-MB linear read test; 2-MB linear write test; NFS IOps and NWC NFS Generalized Custom Test. We performed the NFS linear read and write tests with the same parameters as those of the comparable CIFS tests (100 percent read or 100 percent write, and 100 percent sequential). However, on the NFS IOPS test, we used an 8-KB transfer request size, rather than the 512-byte size we used for the CIFS test.

Furthermore, our NWC NFS Generalized Custom Test featured transfer request sizes of 8 KB with 33 percent access distribution, 8 KB with 34 percent access distribution and 64 KB with 33 percent access distribution. On the first 8-KB segment, we set the percent read/write distribution to 100 percent read and the percent random/ sequential distribution to 100 percent sequential. On the second 8-KB segment, we set the percent read/write distribution to 67 percent read/33 percent write, and the percent random/sequential to 100 percent random. On the 64-KB segment, the percent read/write distribution was 100 percent read and the percent random/sequential distribution was 100 percent read.

Sometimes, our tests don't mix with the operating systems presented. In this review, two vendors, Coastline Micro and Dell, sent us NAS devices that ran the new Windows for Storage 2003. When we ran our testing tool, SourceForge's open-source Iometer, both devices returned CIFS and NFS results that were far worse than expected. In addition, Iometer occasionally became unstable while testing these two boxes.

With Dell's hardware configuration, for instance, there was no reason the test results should be so poor or Iometer so flaky. We conducted some basic tests in which we ran file copying and FTP to Windows for Storage 2003 servers, which produced results more like we anticipated. We contacted Dell, which, in turn, contacted Microsoft. Iometer creates a single file to test against, and that file can be as big as the remaining space on the target hard disk. We suspect a file-locking issue specific to Iometer and Windows for Storage 2003. Dell and Microsoft are still investigating.

We're certain the problems we experienced are solely with Iometer, and we don't expect Dell, Coastline Micro or any other vendor using Windows for Storage 2003 to experience problems. This is simply one of those test-tool compatibility issues that plagues every test shop from time to time. To be fair, we pulled Dell and Coastline Micro from the review. When we have a reliable method of testing them, we plan on revisiting both products, but we have no specific time frame at this time.


Low-Cost NAS Devices

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