Review: 3 NAS devices offer big-time storage for small networks

If your storage needs are heading into terabyte territory, you may want to check out these network-attached storage units.

We are collecting and keeping more information today than ever before. Whether it's video, pictures, music, or just plain old gobs of e-mail and text messages, all that information has to be stored and backed up.

Even in a down economy, the obvious temptation is to rush out, grab a handful of hard drives (no matter what the sizes) and hook one up to each of your computers -- especially since storage is now really cheap. If you look around for a deal on a hard disk you can sometimes find an external 1TB unit for only a little over $100. But while that may sound like a plan, if you take that approach you're effectively fragmenting your life. (As the owner of 11 computers, I can pretty much vouch for that being the case.)

The better idea, assuming you are networked, is to take a tip from enterprise-level IT and latch on to some network-attached storage (NAS). In fact, a number of NAS units suitable for households and small businesses have recently hit the market. These devices don't have the capabilities or the features of the enterprise-level NAS units, but they offer higher performance and a lot more storage than your typical external USB backup drive at reasonable prices.

An NAS storage device typically holds more than one drive; some come already equipped with hard drives, while others are simply empty boxes waiting for you to choose the drives that go inside. The number of drives can vary -- some units max out at two drives while some stretch to five.

RAIDing your drives

These multiple-drive devices store your data in different ways, depending on the RAID technology schemes they use.

The two-drive units typically support only RAID 0, which "stripes" the data across both drives and utilizes about 93% of the space available, and RAID 1, which mirrors the contents of one drive onto the other so you can quickly recover from a crash and thus uses about 47% of the drives' capacity.

NAS boxes that can handle three or more drives can typically step up to RAID 5. As with RAID 0, RAID 5 offers striping, which improved capacity and performance, but it also reserves some disk space for parity bits. If one drive fails, you can recover all of your data from the remaining information from the surviving disks plus the data supplied by those parity bits. In other words, with RAID 5 you get the best of both worlds -- you get the chance to restore your data as in a RAID 1 setup and the increased space of a RAID 0 setup.

NAS units tend to have other technologies in common. Most feature Gigabit Ethernet, making a 1Gbit/sec. transfer speed available. And most come with their own backup applications.

While I'd encourage you to try the software that comes with a NAS unit, you're not married to any proprietary or pre-supplied backup software. You can choose among anything that's available that recognizes network drives and find something you like from that superset rather than settle for what you're handed.

For this roundup, I looked at three recent NAS units: Promise Technology's SmartStor NS2300N, Iomega's StorCenter ix2 and MicroNet Technology's MaxNAS. Somewhere among these three could be the NAS unit you've been desperately seeking -- even if you haven't realized it yet.

How we tested

All of the PCs and the NAS devices used in these tests were connected via a hardwired Ethernet network using a Linksys EG800W switch. I decided against a Wi-Fi connection because, in the past, I've suffered through a number of anomalies only to find out at the end that it was the wireless connection at the bottom of them all. While Wi-Fi is more than suitable for typical file storage needs, it's difficult to recommend Wi-Fi for multiple streaming events, especially in the already crowded 2.5-GHz band.

To test performance, I timed how long it took to copy a 934MB file from the PC to each NAS unit and to copy the file back to the PC. Then I repeated the procedure while streaming a video from the NAS box to a different PC.

Since each of these NAS units also had media and/or iTunes "server" capabilities, I streamed multiple songs or videos from the devices to several PCs on the network. At one point, I had four different videos streaming off a unit into four different PCs. In no case was there any evidence of lagging or hiccupping or anything else that might be impeding the media experience.

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