The world is awash with entry-level network-attached storage (NAS) devices, some of which on a bad day can look rather like a cheap PC gone wrong. But is the new fashion of shoehorning the low-cost box-of-drives concept into a rack-mounted server not taking things too far? Are there any compromises users need to know about?
Buffalo Technology’s latest NAS embraces the idea head on, slotting four 7,200RPM SATA hard drives into a 2U server that’ll screw nicely into a rack cabinet for a professional storage look. Into the back can plug a Gigabit Ethernet connection, with a single PSU for power. Capacities range through 1TB (250GB per drive), 2TB (500GB per drive) and 4TB (1TB per drive), though the lower capacities could look like a false economy when the day arrives to upgrade.
Daft and obvious point number one – this model is for small businesses with 19 inch racks to put it in. If you don’t have such a thing, then you can get the same features by buying the TeraStation Pro II in its PC server form . If you don’t have a rack but suspect you should invest in such a thing, the official arguments in favour have to do with the efficient use of space, cooling, and security. The unofficial argument is that it makes the IT admin look as if he or she knows what they’re doing, but we digress.
The TeraStation’s drives are accessible by unclipping the front panel (it locks), with each drive accessible in seconds by sliding it out from its dedicated chassis housing. The power and data cables need manual removal from the rear of each drive so there is no slot-in interface as would be found on more expensive models. That’s an economy, but a more than bearable one. The cooling required on PC-based NAS models can make them noisy – this one is barely hums.
The system boots up in a matter of minutes, offering status on a number of variables such as link speed, RAID status (0,1, 5 and 10 supported), and assigned IP address, which can be customised through the comprehensive web management utility. Talking of which, this has come on a way since its earliest incarnations, and is now a highly usable way of keeping an eye on the unit from day to day. It offers a comprehensive set of disk, backup and management options, and is extremely easy to use – including managing several TeraStations at once, as is likely to be the case.
It’s probably possible to set up the unit as desired, creating a web of scheduled backup jobs between different units and then get on with other tasks. The system allows for an admin to be emailed with reports a hard drive status report (including disk failure), system alerts, fan failure, UPS error, and report on the backups completed.
What else does the TeraStation do? It integrates with Active Directory, supports Windows server 2003’s DFS, has two extra USB ports for adding storage, a built-in FTP server, and comes with Buffalo’s favourite backup utility, Memeo (which you can take but might leave - the license only covers a single client anyway). Thankfully there are no silly gimmicks such as print server support. Any self-respecting network will have other hardware to do that job. This is a storage and backup device.
The first thing to say about the TeraStation Pro is that it’s pretty much plug in and go and to hell with redundancy on components such as PSUs and Ethernet ports. If either of these elements of the server should need replacement, an engineer would probably need to visit the prize the box open. Ninety-nine percent of the time that won’t be an issue for the small business, but if resilience is important then that will mean paying a lot more for that last one percent of comfort. It does support a UPS, however.
Loading the client drive mapping utility (required to access the TeraStation), it took a call to Buffalo to work out what the mysterious ‘file security tool’ was for. It turns out to be necessary for Vista users using earlier TeraStation models.
Security, otherwise, is a matter of the user policies pulled from Active Directory with file security provided as part of the Memeo backup software in the form of password protection and encryption. Security is one area to watch with any SAN, however.
This system offers a huge amount of storage for the money – up to 4TB per system at today’s capacities – and enough data and hardware redundancy to suit most users. We’d choose it every time over the more general-purpose PC-based SAN systems on offer. Performance is OK through the single Gigabit Ethernet port, and disk I/O was satisfactory. But fussing about details isn’t what the sub-£1,000 SAN is about. It’s about reforming storage, putting it into a grown-up rack and developing a rational policy towards backup, archiving and availability.
Go beyond the usual obsession with storage and think what a SAN basic would would be like to set up, manage and use every day. It's one place to put everything but it's also one place for problems to occur.