NAS Devices From WD, Buffalo, and Iomega

With burgeoning data requirements in even the smallest of businesses, simplifying access to it becomes a major headache. Obviously, dumping data on a PC's internal hard drive and forming a cluster of shared folders sprawled all over the network isn't a viable option anymore, if the shared data has to be accessed frequently. The complexity increases with the advent of devices like laptops, smartphones and PDAs, hooking up to the LAN and trying to access data conveniently through a central location.

A NAS (network attached storage) box saves the day, in such instances. Not only are these devices small, but they are equipped with hard drives which can store up to 4TB of data, and connect through an ethernet cable into a network port or router. You can also plug in a USB device to NAS device and make it accessible over the network. By having a NAS installed in your office, you will weed out the complexity involved in quick, smooth exchange of data between multiple computers. These devices are ideal for small offices with 10 to 15 PCs for a compact, centralized storage accessible from anywhere, including over the Internet.

Three's Company

Of the lot we had for review in our labs, the Western Digital ShareSpace is clearly the most good-looking. It's a silver-gray cube with curved edges - marginally better than the dull, black boxes which comprise the Buffalo LinkStation Quad LS-Q4.OTL/R5 and Iomega StorCenter ix2. But looks aren't the only deciding factors in this comparison.

All of these NAS devices have similar installation procedures: You power them up, connect them to an ethernet port on the network, and plonk in the software installation disc to get things going. NAS devices that are easy to set up are rare, and WD has taken note of this fact by attempting to simplify the ShareSpace's setup procedure and overall ease of use. In terms of detecting and configuring the NAS device, WD provided the simplest procedure with an intuitive user interface. After a couple of initial steps, WD's Discovery Tool transfers control to the web interface. The Buffalo LinkStation's installation procedure was just a shade below the ShareSpace's quick setup experience, but we thought its web interface was at par, if not better than WD's, and it came with an exhaustive 85-page user manual. Iomega's StorCenter ix2 came in last with respect to setup and configuration of the NAS device, as it stubbornly wouldn't detect the unit over the network, even though it was pinging. But despite the minor hiccup, the StorCenter's installation and configuration went ahead rather smoothly and without further incidents. In terms of size, the StorCenter ix2 has the distinction of being the smallest NAS device in the comparison, roughly resembling a brick.

Feature Packed

All the NAS boxes are compatible with PCs as well as Macs. As far as the WD ShareSpace is concerned, the device can be populated with up to four hard drives, but our review unit came with two 1TB WD Caviar Green drives with an 8MB buffer and 7200rpm spin speed. RAID support's included with three modes, 0, 1 and JBOD (functional only when all the drive bays have drives in them). Similarly, the Buffalo LinkStation Quad comes with four RAID modes: 0, 1, 5, 10. And with 4TB of hard drive space, we don't think storage will be an issue on the LinkStation Quad. Like WD ShareSpace, the LinkStation can accommodate up to four drives; and it came with four 1TB Samsung hard drives. These drives have a 32MB buffer with respect to ShareSpace's 8MB buffer size. Iomega comes with two 500GB drives in mirrored (RAID 1) mode for data redundancy. Apart from USB ports, all devices support the SATA 3Gb/s interface and Gigabit Ethernet for faster data transfer within the drives and over the network, and Iomega alone supports Bluetooth connectivity - a unique feature. But you need to buy the dongle separately for it.

To safeguard data, all NAS boxes come equipped with a backup software. The ShareSpace goes one step further by having a one-touch backup button on its front, and three USB ports (the other two have two USB ports, each). Its front USB has push-transfer function to transfer the contents of a connected USB device on to the NAS device at the push of a button. Apart from Iomega, the ShareSpace and LinkStation provides remote Web access to files, so you can access it from anywhere. They also have a built-in FTP server, iTunes support, and with Buffalo, you get a unique URL which is much easier to remember and find: www.buffalonas.com/your_BuffaloNAS_name. The LinkStation also comes with a built-in BitTorrent client for downloading files over the P2P network. You can configure the download options from the devices' Web interface.

In terms of usability and configuration options, the amount of control each of these NAS devices provide over user account management and group assignment is noteworthy. System administrators can assign quotas -- how many gigabytes each specific user can download -- as well as delegate folder access privileges. Group permissions can be assigned, thus providing a simpler way to manage a bunch of accounts. And these features are available in all the three devices we compared.

Unfortunately, none of the three NAS boxes support hot-swapability of drives, which is the ability to remove or add in extra drives without having to power off the NAS device -- a handy feature. While opening the case, you'll find distinct differences with the WD ShareSpace and Buffalo LinkStation - one is secured by thumbscrews that are permanently attached to the device, while the other is held captive magnetically on the front and snaps-off effortlessly. Both reveal a four-drive bay that is very user friendly, especially the one in the LinkStation. The WD's screw-less racking system uses plastic strips with six secure points that fit into the hard drive's screw holes, making it easy to install hard drives without using any tools.Unfortunately, its drive locking mechanism isn't the best compared to the racking system found on the LinkStation, and the brackets seem too tight for comfort and need a powerful push or tug every time you need to insert or remove the drives. Both have their advantages, but we prefer the Buffalo over the WD in this regard. The Iomega StorCenter isn't very user-friendly when it comes to giving users access to the drives within. Although, at the time of writing this review, word has come in that Iomega has updated its StorCenter ix2 NAS device, and included peer-to-peer file transfer and Web access - features which our review model misses out on.

Performance

We tested the NAS devices over the network in two RAID modes: 0 and 1. RAID 0 or striped mode is ideal for maximum storage and network throughput, whereas RAID 1 is a more conservative approach towards maintaining data integrity and safeguarding data from unexpected loss. Obviously, the RAID modes (along with the network connection) decide the overall performance of the NAS box. We did a mix of real-world tests, which involved moving a folder directory of 2.37GB and a 600MB ISO file to and from the NAS device. Along with it we also ran Intel's NAS Performance Toolkit (Find it at www.intel.com/software/NASPT/), a comprehensive and rigorous set of tests involving data backup and restore utilities, office productivity applications, content creation, and generating network traffic of close to 30GB. And before we dive into statistical analysis, what we inferred from our tests was that there's not much difference in transfer speed between the various RAID modes, when it comes to moving data to and from the NAS boxes.

The WD ShareSpace pipped the others in our NASPT tests, achieving network throughput of 20.8MB/s, in the office productivity tests, and 20.1MB/s transfer rate during file copies from the device. However, the Buffalo LinkStation proved its mettle in real-world file transfers, posting network throughput of up to 23.7MB/s during files copied to and from the unit. Despite the frugal sprinkling of features and expandability options, we expected the Iomega StorCenter to match up to the WD and Buffalo in terms of performance. But it couldn't, with performance figures just a shade below its competitors - good, but there's still a lot of scope for improvement.

Conclusion

As stated earlier, we think NAS devices are ideally equipped for data sharing and accessibility needs of a small office. In this regard, WD and Buffalo are both very good; except price, there's very little to choose between them in terms of performance and features. However, the Iomega StorCenter (priced at Rs. 25,640 [US$515]) is hindered by poor performance, has the most cost-per-GB, and misses out on ease of expandability, and other features. And despite close competition between the WD ShareSpace 2TB, priced at Rs. 33,000, and Buffalo LinkStation Quad, we think the Buffalo makes good sense for a feature-rich NAS device with a humongous amount of storage (4TB) available at the right price of Rs. 45,000.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

  
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