Review: Can a NAS box run your entire SMB?

best nas boxes small business 1

It's a good thing storage keeps getting less expensive because we keep needing more of it. And if you're looking for a desktop network-attached storage (NAS) device, the current crop of appliances should make you happy. Every box we tested worked well, provided boatloads of storage and many cost less today per terabyte than they did just a few years ago.

One trend in NAS appliances is to push the boundary and try to become application servers, not just storage devices. Four of these seven units come with enough software, mostly free open source applications, to run a complete small business and provide Web hosting besides. Software options include multiple versions of popular programs like CRMs, Web servers, content management systems for those Web services, and even full accounting and HR packages. Two of them include Asterisk, so your storage box can also host VoIP server software.

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The seven products in this review are from QNAP, Thecus, ZyXEL, ioSafe, Buffalo, Netgear and D-Link.

The affordability of surprisingly large drives (2TB drives cost less than 80GB drives did not that long ago) means you can plop dozens of terabytes of storage on the corner of your desk and never notice, or hear it. All the units fit into basic office décor, and none make enough noise to be heard over the fan in your desktop PC and some laptops. All will provide big storage while sporting relatively small price tags.

And the feature list keeps growing. If you're getting into server virtualization, most of these drives can become iSCSI targets and provide shared storage to multiple virtual machines. All will do a great job backing up clients, Macintosh systems as well, and most will happily shuffle the files off to another NAS box in another location for backup and disaster recovery, or be your front end for cloud storage.

Your first, or next, desktop NAS data storage appliance should be one of these boxes profiled here. Many of these vendors have been making storage for decades, plenty long enough for hardware and software to be wrung free of bugs. Others may be new to the NAS market, but have years of network device history behind them.

Here are the individual reviews (watch a slideshow of all the products):

QNAP TurboNAS TVS-471

About the size of a small four-slice toaster, the QNAP TurboNAS TVS-471 is one in a big family of NAS appliances from small (single drive) on up to 24-bay rack systems for data centers. If you need one or more disks in a box, QNAP has plenty of choices.

Our four-drive system included 4TB drives for a RAID 5 capacity of 10.89TB (RAID 0, 1, and 6 are supported, as is JBOD). By default, DataVol1 offered half that capacity. There are four 1GB Ethernet ports, five USB ports (three 3.0 and two 2.0), and even a full-sized HDMI port.

Setup used more cloud than usual, including a QR code on the box so you can initiate the setup via smartphone. We didn't, but the QR code opened up the same myQNAPcloud.com site to get rolling as our client PC. We changed the DHCP address to a static IP address, updated the firmware (the QNAP did it all itself), and started with the setup screens.

User setup offers more controls than NAS boxes in the past, as well as integration into a Microsoft Active Directory or Open LDAP structure. You can setup multiple users at a time, a handy touch, and they can all have their own home directory.

Once configured, it was clear the TurboNAS TVS-471 can do far more than just store files. There seem to be more than 100 applications of various kinds, a trend for desktop NAS boxes the last few years. But we've never seen full accounting programs, databases, HR, ERP, and even a Fleet Management app. The web server included 28 different content management programs from Drupal to Joomla to WordPress and many more. Perl, Ruby on Rails, and Python are included in the 16 development tools. The HDMI port comes in handy for some of the 25 entertainment apps, or perhaps the two surveillance programs. And backup from the TurboNAS to Amazon S3 and many other cloud backends are included. Customers getting into virtualization? QNAP supports all the major hypervisors as iSCSI storage. You can even backup LUN block storage devices to this little box.

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Seems a shame to call this multi-talented box "merely" a NAS. Web server to dedicated CRM server to Macintosh Time Machine backup system that replicates to other disks for disaster recovery? Needs a bigger name. Add in the remote Web file access and file sync tools, along with more monitoring screens than an early Windows server, and you have a complete business in a small black and gray box.

Thecus N5810 PRO

This is another box that can power a complete office with tons of capacity (five disk slots) and more available applications free for downloading than any system we've ever seen. The heavy metal box, the dashboard-type finished black plastic on the front, the disk trays out in the open (but locked), all add up to "serious server," and more than just extra network storage.

No "friendly" management icons here – this box is for business, not home users. How business ready? The only NAS appliance we've ever seen with a mini-UPS that loads right into the case. Hard to believe a reseller would install a NAS without a UPS plug available, but just in case….

Five 1GB Ethernet ports, although one also has a WAN label, since the Thecus N5810 PRO supports Virtual Private Networks as both client and server. Five USB ports, with four on the back (two each USB 2.0 and USB 3.0) and another USB 3.0 on the front. There's also an HDMI port (to support the multitude of media servers). Some other boxes have HDMI ports, but no other one in this batch includes a line out for speakers. If you want a media server with giant storage space, this fits the bill.

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Only three of the five disk slots were filled in our test unit, but they were filled with 4TB disks (3,726GB usable space each). Configuring them as RAID 5 (usually done with four disks, but three works), we finished with a usable capacity of 7.4TB. Performance was plenty fast with no hiccups or strain evident on the box powered by an Intel Celeron Quad Core processor and 4GB DDR3 RAM.

ISCSI thin provisioning support is included, along with everything necessary to be a storage destination for the three most popular hypervisors: VMware, Citrix, and Microsoft Hyper-V. Cloud backup? Check, to Amazon S3, ElephantDrive, and Dropbox. If you're going virtual, you're probably using Active Directory, so you'll appreciate the AD and LDAP authentication support. And the snapshot backup support will likely come in handy.

But if you want a general application server that's not from Microsoft, Thecus offers server and application options. When you click the link to download available applications from the Thecus website, you'll find pages and pages and pages of apps of all types. Multiple Web servers, media servers (remember that speaker line out and HDMI port), CRM, accounting, content management, mail servers, photo servers, and the list keeps going. Businesses today can find every application type in a good Open Source library, and the Thecus N5801 PRO probably has the app you want ready to download and run.

If resellers are looking for a server to handle just about every job a server ever had to deal with, while keeping their inventory low, the Thecus N5801 PRO should be first on their list. Company IT groups looking for some departmental storage will be satisfied. High capacity, high performance, and high flexibility are three good traits in a server.

ZyXEL NAS540

ZyXEL, long a player in network equipment for service providers, businesses, and home, has started a new line of Network Attached Storage appliances. Aimed currently at smaller businesses, the five models support from one drive to four, and focus on personal cloud storage (like the NAS540) or as a Media Server.

Toaster sized, the NAS540 has a plastic shell that supports disk installation without tools and keeps the cost down. Well, you will need a screwdriver to install your choice of 3.5 or 2.5 inch hard drives. All drive capacities are supported, up to the most recent 6TB drives for a grand total of 24TB (without RAID disk redundancy).

Either by being new or by aiming at smaller businesses and home users, the ZyXEL NAS540 includes painless installation and a friendly administration interface. A more traditional but still clean interface hides beneath the "easy" mode. Since the friendly interface doesn't offer many controls, most of the work is done in the traditional look and feel.

Focusing on cost-effective storage and the cloud tools, ZyXEL offers none of the range of business applications included with several of the other products. That said, you can use the NAS540 as a media storage and streaming device and print server. The front USB 3.0 port can support external storage device, or be used to copy files to and from the NAS540 quickly and easily. The SD card port on the unit allows the same quick transfer option. If your still or video camera or audio recording device uses SD cards (most do today), then this quick transfer option may be a big bonus.

Macintosh systems are supported, including with a Time Machine backup server. Default shared folders are admin, music, photo, and video (another clue about the target audience). ITunes, a Web server, WordPress, and a Dropbox sync utility are included. Smartphone access through the cloud using the ZyXEL app make it easy to share files or create a giant security hole depending on your point of view. The most polished app seems to be the Gallery utility for photo display.

The myZyXELcloud remote access and management capabilities make it safe to put this in a customer site without any network computing expertise. While the admin utility is straightforward, small business users may appreciate some help. While it only has 1GB of RAM and a FreeScale Dual Core 1.2 GHz processor, there are few apps to support and the dual 1Gigabit Ethernet ports provide good bandwidth.

ZyXEL has a good reputation in network products so expect to see their new NAS line grow. The NAS540 may lag behind the fancy app features curve, but it offers good storage value in an easy to administer package.

ioSafe 214

The heaviest NAS appliance we have ever seen, the ioSafe 2014 could be used as a boat anchor. And since it's waterproof, your files might actually be safe. Add in the fireproofing, and you have a box for the paranoid boss or customer who doesn't trust the cloud so needs the safest shared storage possible. While we didn't drown or set the ioSafe 214 on fire, the multiple protective internal layers give us confidence the data inside would still be safe no matter what we did to it.

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As big as this was, it only held two drives, but the big brother ioSafe 1515+ holds 5 disks. Probably need a wheelbarrow to move that box around. But RAID 1 with mirrored 6TB disks provides some serious storage. Our test unit had dual 1TB drives. There are few connectors – a single 1GB Ethernet port, two USB 3.0 ports in the back and one USB 2.0 port in the front for copying to and from an external drive. This paucity of ports probably has more to do with structural integrity for the box than anything else.

The hardware comes from ioSafe, but the operating system comes from Synology. That makes for some slight confusion early on, but we got used to it quickly. Admin screens are friendly and icon-heavy without being cutesy.

Like many other NAS appliances now, the ioSafe 214 includes multiple applications that turn a shared storage box into a dedicated application server without paying Microsoft software and client licenses. For the ioSafe 214, the packages include Web servers (Tomcat), content management systems (Drupal, Joomla, WordPress), mail servers, media servers, Python, Ruby, OpenERP, OrangeHRM, vtigerCRM, SugarCRM and various media servers. Oh, yes, iTunes and BitTorrent for music, antivirus, and even the Asterisk Internet Phone system software.

Want to block IP addresses with too many failed login attempts? Done. Wireless network support? Just add a USB wireless adapter, and the OS supports wireless.

Net results

COMPANY PRODUCT PRICE PROS CONS
QNAP TurboNAS TVS-471 $1,100 (diskless) TONS OF APPS, CAN RUN AN ENTIRE OFFICE MOST EXPENSIVE IN OUR TEST
Thecus N5810 PR $699.99 (diskless) TONS OF APPS, MORE LIKE AN SMB SERVER THAN A STORAGE DEVICE NOT THE EASIEST TO SET UP
ZyXEL NAS540 $312.99 (diskless) EASY INSTALL, GOOD PRICE/PERFORMANCE NO ADVANCED BUSINESS APPS
ioSafe 214 NAS Retail: 599.99 (diskless) RUGGEDIZED, LOTS OF APPLICATIONS HEAVY, FEWER PORTS AND CONNECTORS THAN OTHER PRODUCTS
Buffalo Technologies TS3400D Retail: 4TB $599.99, 12TB $1,000.99 EASY TO SET UP, GOOD PRICE/PERFORMANCE, SOLID NO BELLS AND WHISTLES, NOT MANY BUSINESS APPS
Netgear ReadyNAS 316 Retail: $849.99 (diskless) TONS OF STORGE, LOTS OF APPS INTERFACE MIGHT BE A BIT DATED
D-Link ShareCenter +4 Cloud Network Storage Enclosure (DNS-340L) Retail: $299.99 (diskless) SMALL, STYLISH, EASY TO SET UP NOT A TON OF APPS
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