NAS shoot-out: 5 storage servers battle for business

Five- and six-bay NAS cabinets from Iomega, Netgear, QNAP, Synology, and Thecus compete on speed, ease, and business features

The entry-level NAS market is red hot. With prices dipping below $2,000 for a versatile storage server packing 10TB of disk, there's no wonder this market segment is witnessing extremely fast growth. Unfortunately for the business customer, it's also experiencing a lot of confusion.

The reasons for both the success and the confusion are easy to see. There are at least three different user bases for these products and a seemingly endless number of use cases. A larger business might use a low-cost NAS box to offload stagnant, rarely used data from more expensive, high-performance storage. Or it might place one alongside a virtual server farm to store virtual machine images or ship one to a satellite office to serve as low-cost file storage.

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For a small to medium-size business, one of these NAS boxes would serve the needs for daily file storage, with the bonus that nontechnical staff could set it up and start using it without professional IT help. Finally, the home market is starting to feel the need for network storage, not only for backing up multiple PCs and laptops, but also for hosting music, photos, and video, and making that media accessible even from outside the home.

With so many use cases and potential buyers, the vendors too often try to be everything to everyone. The result is a class of products that suffers from an identity crisis -- so-called business storage solutions that are overloaded with consumer features and missing the ease and simplicity that business users require.

Which of the entry-level NAS vendors gets it right for business customers? To find out, I reviewed five- and six-bay NAS cabinets from Iomega, Netgear, QNAP, Synology, and Thecus. Filled with 10TB or 12TB of raw storage, my test systems ranged in price from $1,699 to $3,799. Despite that gap, they all had a great deal in common, from core storage services to performance. However, I found the richest sets of business features -- straightforward setup, easy remote access, plentiful backup options -- at the higher end of the scale.

NAS shoot-out: Common ground On the surface, most of the NAS boxes in the sub-$5,000 class are very similar in terms of basic functionality and use. You will find a mix of consumer and professional capabilities, and depending your business needs, you may use just a few of these features or many of them. In the five NAS boxes I tested, I found common features as well as similar performance. Yes, some boxes proved slightly faster than others, but in general, performance was close enough that most end-users would not notice the differences.

Administration of the NAS will be done primarily with your Web browser. Although the vendors often provide applications that will help you with the basic setup of the box, after this is done, you spend most of your time using the Web-based GUI. Each vendor has its own spin on the look and feel for a Web admin GUI, so it could take you some time to find out where everything is.

Setup is typically straightforward. The hardest decision you will need to make is how you want to configure the hard drives. However, you can always let the NAS box default to what the manufacturer thinks is best. If you are someone who has more technical knowledge, you might want to dig into RAID 6 or RAID 10. If you don't know what RAID means, don't worry -- it's not necessary for a basic configuration. The whole premise behind having multiple hard drives is to protect your data against drive failures, and the manufacturers take advantage of this in their default configurations.

If you're shopping for a NAS, you probably have multiple computers that will need to access and share files. In general, it is nice to have a single point of storage to make backup and data management easier. No matter what type of computers you have (Windows, Mac, or Linux), you will be able to share files stored on the NAS. In most cases, you'll use CIFS/SMB protocols, which is the default that Windows needs -- Macs and Linux PCs also talk the language. However, you are not limited to just the CIFS/SMB protocol. You can also use AFP (Apple Filing Protocol), which is native to the Mac, and NFS (Network File System), which is native to Linux.

Connecting the NAS boxes to your network should be done via a wired Ethernet cable, and each NAS in this roundup should get two Gigabit Ethernet connections. Strictly speaking, you need only one of these links, but by using both, you gain much greater flexibility. You should use them in a fail-over configuration, which means that if one of your Ethernet cables loses signal, the other will take over. You should also "bond" the two connections together to increase throughput or to balance the network load.

NAS shoot-out: Backups and cloud storage Most important when storing all your data on one big box is to make sure it is backed up regularly. If you're using a NAS device to store your data, you must consider backup. You may think that if you back up your PC or Mac to the NAS, you're covered because the NAS has redundant hard drives. This logic goes only so far. If someone steals the NAS box or it is lost in a fire or flood, then all of your data is gone forever. Anyone who owns a NAS needs to consider the value of their data and how they back it up.

The simplest backup option is to plug a USB drive into the NAS to copy the folders and files that are the most critical to your business. All of the NAS boxes I reviewed include USB ports, and most have eSATA ports. Some even have handy buttons on the front for automating these backups. However, if you need to back up multiple terabytes of data, plugging in an external USB is hardly the best option.

Not long ago, you would look to a software solution to perform regular backups of your data to a tape drive. Tape is still a valid solution, and vendors such as Netgear make it clear that they have partnerships with many of these software makers (Symantec, Acronis, and StorageCraft to name a few).

Today, disk-to-disk backup is the clear solution in this market segment. Basically, this requires you to deploy two NAS boxes and have them sync to each other. In the individual reviews, I went into more depth on some of the more elegant replication solutions by Iomega and Netgear. Replication in QNAP is not quite on par with Iomega and Netgear, but it's a cut above Synology and Thecus. For these devices, replication is done using rsync.

Rsync allows you to synchronize your files automatically to another box. Instead of copying all of the data each time, rsync copies over only the changes or differences, minimizing both bandwidth requirements and copy time. Rsync is a perfectly good way to back up the NAS, but it is harder to set up than the replication solutions from the likes of Iomega and Netgear. These make NAS backups a snap even for nontechnical users. In Netgear's case, it also provides the ability to manage several NAS boxes from one Web-based interface to do file replication across multiple sites (albeit at additional cost).

Then there's "cloud backup" -- using backup software that copies the data on the NAS to a cloud storage service. Typically, these services charge a monthly fee that depends on the amount of data you need to store on their servers. Procedures are in place to ensure the privacy of your data via encryption and security policies. Iomega and Netgear use their own cloud storage solutions, but other NAS manufacturers such as QNAP offer backup to third parties such as Amazon S3 and ElephantDrive.

NAS shoot-out: Advanced features iSCSI (Internet Small Computer System Interface) is a feature that many small businesses should keep in mind. Even if you might not use it today, it offers flexibility you might very well appreciate in the future. In a nutshell, iSCSI gives the illusion to a server that it has locally attached storage when that storage is in fact running off the NAS. It is a perfect way to consolidate your data in one location while also giving your Web server or database server the "local" storage it requires.

A feature that is useful in Windows shops is Active Directory integration. By tying into Microsoft's directory service, you can enforce file-level security on your NAS. With this integration, you can easily set up security to certain areas and directories based on the groups that an employee may belong to. All of the NAS boxes in this review can work with Active Directory.

UPS (uninterruptible power supply) monitoring is not something you typically find in smaller businesses, but I would recommend using it. Most newer UPSes have USB interfaces that allow you to connect them directly to the NAS hardware. Not only would you want your NAS on this battery backup (this is a must), but the UPS will also help the NAS to gracefully turn itself off if a power outage lasts too long.

Apart from cloud, virtualization is the buzzword you'll hear most frequently bantered about in this segment. While many large companies might use these NAS boxes to store virtual server images, few small companies are managing virtual server farms at this point. Nevertheless, every NAS box in this roundup is certified for use with VMware.

NAS shoot-out: Everything else but the kitchen sinkAll of the NAS boxes in this roundup have the flexibility to do more than merely store your data. These features are too numerous to review in detail, but they include such things as the ability to collect images from IP video surveillance cameras, mobile apps that allow you to access your data from iPhones, iPads, and Android devices, and multimedia servers that provide access to photos, music, and video.

In addition to the built-in features, you can generally install software packages that extend the functionality. Typical add-on modules include BitTorrent downloaders, email servers, and content management and blog publishing applications.

While it is nice that the vendors have added flexibility to their products, I think a NAS box needs to master data storage and protection instead of being a jack-of-all-trades. It seems odd to include multimedia functionality as a native feature in a NAS that promises to be a business solution. It would seem to make more sense to offer an iTunes or UPnP server as an add-on. When evaluating the feature sets, I ignored add-on modules and consumer-oriented features and focused exclusively on features for business (including cloud services). 

NAS shoot-out: How I tested As I evaluated the five NAS products in this roundup, I did my best to focus on the needs of a small to medium-sized business. This meant running benchmarks with the CIFS/SMB and AFP protocols, since these are the most commonly used protocols in businesses of these sizes.

To test performance, I used the Intel NAS Performance Toolkit, which is the most commonly used tool for benchmarking NAS appliances. I also used Xbench, the popular Mac benchmarking tool, to look at AFP performance. My focus was on read and write throughput of these different NAS boxes. I did my testing with the manufacturer's default RAID setup, as well as RAID 10 to see how performance was impacted by different RAID levels.

Ideally, you would use the same hard drives in each of the systems under test, but since many of these NAS boxes come from the manufacturer with hard drives already installed, I let each vendor decide which drives to install. As you will see from the individual reviews, the manufacturers all installed the same or very similar hard drives. The parity shows in the test results as well. 

The two charts below show typical results from my Intel NAS Performance Toolkit (CIFS/SMB) and Xbench (AFP) benchmark tests. Overall, Thecus turned in the best performance in the CIFS/SMB tests, followed closely by QNAP and Synology. QNAP led in the AFP tests, followed by Synology and Netgear. 

In addition to the performance benchmarks, I tested the NAS hardware in a variety of usage scenarios to verify basic functionality -- including advanced functions that a more technical business might draw on. I did not benchmark in these areas, but I did work each box pretty hard to make sure they all did what they were supposed to do. Testing was in the following five areas:

As would be expected, none of the hardware in this price range gave me any surprises in these areas. 

NAS shoot-out: And the winner is...In conclusion, this NAS market segment offers many choices, but overall the hardware is so similar that the real differences come down to the software.

For business customers, Netgear and possibly Iomega are two solid choices. Both have long-term warranties and more seasoned service and support options -- advantages that are reflected in their higher price tags. Overall, these two manufacturers have the most business-focused features in their products. Netgear has the clear edge in ease of setup and ease of administration.

All of the other products in this NAS shoot-out are just as interesting. Synology and QNAP are terrific boxes -- and my personal favorites in this group. QNAP -- the overall winner -- strikes the best balance between power and ease. Thecus is the least expensive and one of the fastest in the test, at least for Windows users. It offers a great deal of bang for the buck, but also complexity. A less technical business would be better off with another solution.

This article, "NAS shoot-out: 5 storage servers battle for business," originally appeared at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in storage at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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