New NAS in my future

May 21, 2007 at 9:58 pm Leave a comment

I’ve been looking at various NAS solutions for a long time.  Several years ago, I needed something cheap that I could get ahold of quickly.  The solution that fit then was ReByte.  It is a specialized distribution of Linux that you could only get by purchasing a kit from the makers.  The “kit” included a Compact Flash card with the OS on it, and an IDE flash reader.  You installed this in an old PC to the first IDE channel, then attach up to three hard drives.  Depending on your configuration, you would either end up with a mirror or RAID 5 array.  After it was installed, you managed the shares, users, etc. via a simple but nice web interface. They stopped updating their product a year ago or so and went out of business.  The good: Cheap and fairly reliable.  The bad: Software raid (so recovery is touch and go), SLOW.  And now, unsupported.

I’ve tried finding other ways to replace this NAS, but so far haven’t quite found a suitable replacement in the low cost NAS arena. 

Contender #1
FreeNAS: Very nice in that it’s all web driven. Yes, all of it. Even the drive configuration. It has a LOAD of features.  Unfortunately, in my testing at least, it was extremely unstable.  It seemed to regularly lock up on me while performing copies.  I just can’t trust my data to this yet.  Note that I have tried using this twice, months apart, and ran into problems both times. It has AFP support and several other very nice additions. One major issue (for me) was that it did not have any support for user permissions. The guys making this need to stop working on adding so many additional features and just get the stability where it needs to be.  It’s really too bad, as I was partial to this solution.  Of course, that probably has something to do with the fact that some code I’ve written is part of Monowall, the firewall which FreeNAS is largely based on.

Contender #2
NASLite 2: Another very nice (mostly) web driven NAS. I actually bought a copy of this and it worked quite well. It was very stable, but did not support user permissions. After trying to go without this feature for about a week, I decided to drop back to ReByte. I just couldn’t risk anyone on the network getting a worm or virus and have my important data overwritten. Call me paranoid.
 
Contender #3
My Book World Edition II: An off the shelf 1TB NAS made by Western Digital. When Costco had these marked down to $344 dollars last week, I thought I had found my NAS solution and scooped one up. It seemed to have all the features I really needed. It is very slow (probably on the order of my ReByte), doesn’t support AFP (it uses SMB), but it does support user permissions. Using the nice web interface, I configured it for “Secure” mode (which is really RAID 1, giving my 500 GB of mirrored storage). While waiting the 5-6 HOURS this takes, I decided to read up a bit on this unit. I was completely caught off-guard by the amount of venom and hatred on the net for this unit. It seems that these units fail with great regularity. Some have even blogged about them and have had their unit fail. They returned it, got another, then it failed too. Some have had drives fail on them after very little use. Some have found the units to simply not power up (after leaving them over night powered on). After reading through literally page after page (after page!) of complaints about this unit, I decided that I did not trust it for my data. Back to CostCo it went. (You have got to love their return policy.)

Contender #4
Yellow Machine: A really interesting looking product. This unit accepts up to 4 drives in RAID 5 mode. Not only is it a NAS, but it is also a router, and an Ethernet switch! To top it all off, you can pick these boxes up for next to nothing. One seller on eBay has a buy it now price of $399, including 4 250 GB drives. Considering that 250 GB drives are going for about $70 each, that means the Yellow Machine itself is just over $100. I’m not sure if it offers user security. In fact, I don’t know a whole lot about it, except that it is based on Linux and has a pretty puny processor. The down side of this unit? First, the company that made it is now out of business, so you can forget any product updates coming out to fix any lingering issues. Second, there have been some reports on the yellow machine forums indicating that these units aren’t the most reliable things under the sun. These two things together… Well, I’ll just mark this one off my list.

Contender #5
ReadyNAS NV+: A real business-class NAS. This thing has the whole laundry list of features. It supports SMB, AFP, NFS, FTP, and HTTP. It has hardware RAID, up to RAID 5. They also have a feature they call X-RAID, which is their intelligent RAID system. Essentially, you can buy a unit with no drives and put one drive it in. It will give you the full capacity of that drive for storage. Add a second drive? It automatically makes that a mirror, giving you full redundancy. Add a third or fourth drive? It switches to another RAID mode (RAID 3, I remember reading somewhere). In this mode, you have the full capacity of all but one of your drives. That drive holds the parity information, so you could lose a single drive and lose no data at all. Pop in a new drive WHILE it is RUNNING and it will rebuild the array. Oh, and it is pretty fast too. According to a tech review site that I saw, it can actually perform above 100 MB speed. (Not a lot above that speed, but you do get some use out of that Gigabit NIC it includes.) About the only downside I’ve found with this unit is… Well, I’m sure you know. Cost. This bad boy costs a bit over $600 without drives. Possible good news here, though: Netgear just bought the company that makes these units. That may mean that we are in for a price cut. On the other hand, we may not see cuts for a while, since Netgear will have to retool things, get their own contractors to build it, etc. Another bit of bad info here: Netgear’s page about these units doesn’t mention a diskless model (as of this writing). As recently as yesterday, a diskless unit was mentioned on Netgear’s site, but that page is gone. This may mean that Netgear won’t sell diskless units, which would be a major bummer.

Contender #6
Drobo: I know what you are thinking. What the heck is a Drobo? As recently as a few hours ago, I would have asked the very same question. It is a USB attached (not Network attached!) storage device. Why include it here? Because it offers redundancy in an unusual way, and due to the number of routers (AirPort Extreme and lots of others) that now support sharing USB drives across a network. The Drobo doesn’t support RAID in the traditional sense. According to their site, their method was “developed specifically to perform data management and configuration tasks automatically so that you don’t have to”. The drives don’t have to be the same capacity, which is a nice plus. The theory is you can start with two drives and it will do its best to give you as much redundancy as it can. Later, add another drive or two, and it will expand to give you as much storage space as it can, while providing redundancy. For example, a tool on their website let’s you calculate how much usable space you’d have with various sizes of hard drive. I dropped in a 160 GB drive, a 200 GB drive, and a 250 GB drive. Their site says that I would end up with 333.3 GB of space available for data. Dropping a 500 GB drive in increases the capacity to 565 GB. The really nice thing about this approach is that you can probably use whatever hard drives you have laying around (as long as they are of a half decent size) and end up with some level of redundancy. Later, buy whatever drive is on special at CompUSA in a given week, and drop it in. You won’t likely end up with the full size of the new drive as extra capacity, but your overall capacity will increase. Now, I really only mentioned this one because it is a very interesting concept. I did not seriously consider this product, but it might fit the bill for some of you out there. The Drobo isn’t available until June 5th, 2007, and goes for $499. If this product proves itself to be reliable and fast, it may be worth it. Since it isn’t actually available yet, I don’t think there are any performance numbers out on review sites yet. With that said, I still signed up to be a drobo community member for a chance to win one.

Out of all these options, I’m leaning toward Contender #5, the ReadyNAS NV+. As I said, I’ve not found a suitable replacement in the “low cost” arena. ReadyNAS isn’t cheap, but it fits my requirements, has some decent performance, and I think I’d feel safe with my important files stored only on it.

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Entry filed under: Networking.

Nice to meet you, Ruby ReadyNAS NV+

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