A Look at Popular NAS Units

Network Attached Storage (NAS) has been on my mind quite a bit in the last year.  With the birth of my son last May, my wife and I are going crazy with our digital camera, and what used to be a nice and spacious hard drive is no longer adequate.  What's worse, we've found that video is a much better way to capture all the little things we want to remember, which probably increases our storage needs by a factor of 100! 

On the business side, we're encountering the same thing.  As our company grows, the 200GB network share we all use for shared storage has become both too small, and dangerously difficult to back up.  As we expand our website with more and more multimedia content, the need for "scratch space" has grown  exponentially.

Both at home and at the office, we need more space, and we need a good level of protection from data loss.   A NAS is a natural choice.

However, both of these things are simply convenient motivators for the real reason I'm looking deeply into NAS — the point is that if I need one in my personal and business life, then our customers do too.  Some items, like speakers or monitor, are fairly cut and dry when it comes to selection.  With Network Attached Storage, I see a huge variation in the products out there.  Reliability, speed,  usability, features — there is a large set of differences from product to product, and that is an excellent opportunity for Puget Systems.  We can do what we do best:  look at all the options, pick the top contenders, order them in and test them ourselves, and then pick the best ones to recommend to our customers.  It is the same philosophy we apply to the rest of our product line — use our experience and connections to pick the best, and cut through the hype of the industry to help people see what products truly are great.

What inspired me to write this is that I have come across a product I consider to be truly great.  My search for NAS units started with online searches — looking for the most popular units with the best online reviews.  I settled on and ordered in an Intel SS4000 and a Buffalo Terrastation Pro II to look at in more detail.  I was disappointed to learn that with Buffalo, I was required to buy the hard drives from them.  I didn't like that idea — I wanted to be able to offer any configuration possible to our customers, and I didn't want to be locked into a separate, unknown RMA process for the hard drives, when our Seagate hard drives are already known to be very reliable, and with an excellent RMA process.  Unfortunately, the Buffalo unit came out ahead of Intel in pretty much every way.  The Intel unit was significantly slower, had much less features, and had a slower, more clunky web interface.  I was torn — I really wanted the Intel to win, but Buffalo came out on top in terms of raw performance.

I took it to the next level with each — I talked to Buffalo about my concerns, and told them about what an easy choice it would be if I could just buy their units without hard drives.   Unfortunately, they wouldn't budge, not even when I was talking to their business development representative.

With Intel, I had a very different result.  I got in touch with the channel manger for that product, and laid out my concerns about the performance lag I was seeing.  The answer was exactly what I was hoping for:  "We actually have a new unit launching, called the SS4200-E, and it is 5 times faster.  I'll send you an evaluation unit."   Awesome.

I was excited to see the unit, and it arrived a few weeks ago.  When I first turned it on, I was happy to see it was the quietest of all the NAS units I've tested (still not silent, but not bad at all).  I immediately ran my set of file transfer benchmarks.  When I see claims of "5 times faster" I'm skeptical.   It rarely happens.  In this case, it is true that "5 times faster" is a bit of a stretch, but not by much!  Check out the benchmarks:

What you see is that the new Intel SS4200-E is indeed 5 times faster!  However, only in certain situations.  What you're seeing is a dramatic increase in raw CPU power on the unit.  That makes file writes faster, and makes the overhead much less of an issue with small file writes.  This power totally tips the scales of performance.

The improvements continue with the user interface.  It is much faster, and is loaded with features.  Hook it up to a UPS unit (via USB), and it enables write-caching for even greater performance.  Cut power on the UPS, and it will gracefully shut down the NAS.  It has file indexing, Windows media services, easy-to-mange folder quotas and limits, a workstation backup-client, integrated FTP server, and email alerts (if a disk fails, for example).  Plug in a digital camera to USB port, and it copies the pictures into your photos folder automatically.  Plug in a USB thumb drive, USB hard drive, or E-SATA hard drive, and it puts it up on a network share automatically.  I'm very happy with the ease of use, and the thought that went into making this a product that "just works."

I'm very happy to say that this is exactly what I wanted:  the quality, relationship, and warranty of Intel, with the speed and features that are needed for it to be a competitive product.  This is the best of both worlds.  I've already bought one for my home and one for our office.