Qnap’s standalone TS-401 tower system is marketed as a network-attached server (NAS) for the small business that has decided to take IT more seriously. Why invest in a basic NAS product when for not much more money you can have the benefit of grown-up storage with proper resilience?

It could be described as the big brother to the Qnap TS-101 Techworld reviewed some weeks back if it weren’t for the fact that this is really a different class of product altogether.

Where the TS-401 scores highly is where all NAS products score highly – they beat using a conventional Windows PC server for network backup (and this one uses embedded Linux).

To that end, you get a lot built in from the start such as a high level of redundancy, a critical feature if even small amounts of downtime could turn out to be important or expensive. That means a dual-Gigabit backplane for load balancing or failover, and dual power supplies for increased redundancy in a relatively unreliable component.

The box also comes with 2 x USB 2.0 ports for adding a backup CD burner, UPS or network printer, and – a clever feature at this end of the market - integrated online Trend Micro anti-virus software (which requires a registration code). This is a good place for such a function as it stops everyday types of malware form spreading around using the NAS as a distribution hub.

The storage - physically comprising is four 3.5 inch hot-swappable SATA drives – can be configured in RAID 0,1 or 5, or JBOD, with up to 2 terabytes supported. Backup can be set up as full scheduled or incremental, while PCs can be configured with the NetBak replicator to perform automated client backups as often as required.

The review unit came setup for RAID 5, which appeared not to be working correctly. It turned out that one of the disks was non-functioning, causing the machine to beep loudly and indicate the drive error on its front-panel display. The admin console clearly showed that it was drive 2 that was at fault, and that RAID 5 was operating in a degraded state.

Disconcertingly, the unit would eventually hang, and become inaccessible. Even the front panel display and reset buttons wouldn’t always work. In a real-world situation, the solution for this would be to sling in a new drive, so we didn’t count this sensitivity against the TS-401.

The unit can be configured and managed using a web utility from any PC, anywhere. If physical access is possible, there is also a front panel status LED display that shows a number of parameters (IP address, system fan speed, CPU temperature) and allows the unit to be powered down or rebooted. Disk problems, such as were experienced during the review, are also displayed here if the email alerts have somehow not been picked up.

One criticism was that the web-based logs could be hard to interpret. One of the disks had failed, but after rebooting the system all appeared to be well apart from the message “in degraded mode”. In fact, disk 2 was faulty, hampering the RAID 5 configuration. No information was given on what to do about this, or how to double-check that the drive really was faulty. Time could be wasted here.

Looking at the features and price of this unit, we’d still give it an outstanding recommendation. It has an excellent level of resilience, and offers a remarkably powerful storage system which doesn’t cost the earth.

A few minor qualms:-

- It doesn’t sit in a rack, so if that’s in any way important (unlikely for a small business) then look elsewhere.

- It’s a standalone tower unit so make sure that it is sited somewhere where cooling is not going to be an issue on a hot day in summer. Ditto, the issue of dirt and dust.

- You might, or might not, like the backup software supplied. We’d rate it as adequate.

- Who will manage the machine if something does go wrong? If it’s in-house then make sure they know how to set up and interpret the alerts. We’ like to see clearer logging and reporting so that when something goes wrong this can be quickly understood by someone who is not necessarily a storage whiz.

- Don’t assume that the anti-virus is protection against all malware. It is an extra layer or protection but there should still be proper software security at gateway and client level too.

- More complicated features need more management. This can be done remotely, but this needs to be worked out in advance. This is where most of a NAS unit’s real cost can be hidden.

OUR VERDICT

Network-attached storage usually comes at a price, and it is not wise to over-economise where such devices are concerned. Get the most redundancy you can afford and then worry about performance and cooling.