Storage continues to be a strong growth area of information technology, and small and midsize businesses continue to be a key area of focus for vendors and solution providers alike.
So this month in our Bake-Off comparative review, we take a new look at four storage solutions that are actively sold to, and deployed in, SMB enterprises—storage that can be versatile and robust enough to meet different business needs while not requiring enterprise levels of budgeting.
Even though all the contenders fit the general category as we intended, they were anything but similar. And while there could be some crossover in the way they are used, each specializes in fulfilling a specific need.
For the purpose of this comparative review, the CRN Test Center set up each device on a subnet in our lab and used the same PC to copy files across the network, to and from the storage unit being tested. We also evaluated each unit based on its ease of setup, configuration and administration, as well as feature set and price.
Netgear ReadyNAS Pro
Network attached storage (NAS) devices started out as a relatively simple way for an enterprise to add additional shared storage space to its network. Over the past few years, though, these appliances have been shrinking in both size and price, allowing the SMB and SOHO markets to take advantage of their features. There are even a few models that target the rising home network and media center users. With the acquisition of Infrant Technologies last year, Netgear also obtained its rather successful ReadyNAS line. The popular ReadyNAS NAV+ was a second-place finisher in our NAS Bake-Off last year.
Aiming to improve, Netgear released the new six-bay, ReadyNAS Pro and the CRN Test Center found it to be a worthy addition to the line. Currently available in three Business Edition configurations—1.5 TB, 3 TB and 6 TB—our evaluation unit was model RNDP6350, which came loaded with three 500-GB hard drives. There is also a Pioneer Edition that is diskless. All the drives are hot-swappable and, with current drive capacities reaching 1.5 GB, the ReadyNAS Pro can now support up to 9 TB total.
Looking like a big brother to the four-bay NAV+ model, the ReadyNAS Pro measures 10 by 6.7 by 11.2 inches and weighs in at 16.5 pounds (without hard drives). Similar to many of today's computer cases, it has a slick, black finish and a mesh grill on the front. Running along the top edge of the front door is an easy-to-read, blue OLED display. A power switch, backup button and USB port round out the front-panel controls. By default, pressing the button will back up the "backup" share on the NAS to an external storage device plugged into the USB port below it. Rear connections include two additional USB ports, as well as two RJ-45 Gigabit Ethernet jacks.
Via the administrator console, the network connections can be configured for teaming and failover, with various bonding options, including load balancing. This allows for the combining of NICs to one IP to pool bandwidth and failover from one to the other if one should stop working.
The ReadyNAS Pro supports RAID 0, 1, 5 and 6 as well as its own X-RAID2 (Expandable) configuration. Built-in streaming services include SqueezeCenter, iTunes, UPnP AV and Home Media, and there is also a print queue service for a USB printer.
During our tests, setting up the device was simple. After connecting to the network and powering it on, we installed the included RAIDar software, whose wizard scanned the network for attached NASes and walked us through the initial, browser-based configuration (we did, however, receive an invalid security certificate warning that had to be cleared before being allowed to continue).
As was the case with previous ReadyNAS units, reviewers found the administrator console intuitive. Shares are easily created or deleted and the same holds true for users and groups, who can also have quotas set against their accounts. Supported protocols are CIFS (SMB), NFS, AFP, FTP, HTTP/S and RSync, and each share can be customized to individually use specific protocols. In addition, shares can be configured on USB storage devices.
Recent firmware upgrades to the ReadyNAS have added iSCSI functionality and integration of the newly launched ReadyNAS Vault (powered by elephantdrive), an enterprise-class, Web-based storage service for online disaster recovery that is also managed via an Internet browser.
To measure speed, two directories with various file types were copied from the testing PC to the device and back again. The first, a 1.2-GB directory, contained 23 files and the second, a 3.2-GB directory, had 41.
Writing to the device, the 1.2-GB folder took 19 seconds and the 3.2-GB folder took 3 minutes, 4 seconds, while reading from it took 27 seconds, and 3 minutes, 10 seconds respectively. Based on Netgear's data, as well as some beta testers across the Web, the unit has been measured to reach more than 100 MBps. We're willing to concede that our local machine was probably a bottleneck in the testing and, depending on the setup, realistic speeds will probably fall somewhere in between.
Loaded with scores of other features, the ReadyNAS Pro is many things rolled into one chassis. It is an extremely powerful, relatively small device that can dynamically grow, along with the company that uses it. With prices ranging from $2,000 to $4,100, it costs more than other, comparable products, but its feature set and solid performance make it worthy of consideration.
D-Link DSN-1100-10 xStack
While a NAS is typically used to access files and, therefore, functions best when used for file serving and sharing, storage area networks (SANs) were developed with disk utilization and performance in mind. Using the SCSI protocol (as opposed to TCP on a NAS), a SAN is better used for databases, clustering and backups. Until recently, SANs traditionally operated over Fibre Channel networks.
The just-released D-Link DSN-1100-10 xStack is a SAN array storage device that uses iSCSI, a protocol that enables SCSI commands to be transmitted over IP networks. With bays for up to five 3.5-inch SATA drives, the DSN-1100's current capacity tops out at 5 TB to 7.5 TB (when using 1-TB and 1.5-TB drives respectively). As with similar devices, it is expected to be able to handle larger drives with no problem as they become available.
Comparable in size and looks to the ReadyNAS Pro, D-Link's matte-black DSN-1100 measures 10.7 by 6.6 by 10.2 inches and weighs 8.8 pounds before adding hard drives. A lockable smoky gray door houses the five hot-swappable drive bays stacked vertically. To the right of each drive are two LEDs, one indicating power to the drive and the other an activity/fault display. Reviewers were able to confirm the functionality of these lights, as one of the drives we installed actually had an issue that triggered a red LED.
Three additional LEDs line the bottom of the front panel to display power status, device readiness and the condition of an on-board battery, which can back up to 1 GB of cached memory for up to 72 hours.
With four Gigabit Ethernet ports, the device is capable of speeds up to 425 MBps when the ports are aggregated as a group. An RJ-45 management port is also located in the rear. The unit can be configured for RAID levels 0, 1, 1+0 and 5.
Setting up the DSN-1100 (and any other iSCSI device) involves a little more than a TCP- based NAS. To connect to an iSCSI device or "target," you must use an iSCSI initiator. Most servers have initiator software installed and Microsoft has included it in Windows Vista as well. Since we were using a Windows XP system, reviewers had to download the software from Microsoft's Web site.
After assigning the target's NIC(s) with IP addresses, the iSCSI initiator software is launched via the Control Panel. This requires the user to enter the IP address or DSN name of the storage device as the Target Portal. You must then connect to the Target and bind the volume. At this point, Windows responds as if a new hard drive has just been added. Via the Storage Manager, the new volume must then be initialized, partitioned and formatted. The process is actually much less involved than the description makes it seem, and anyone with Windows administration skills should be able to configure everything in about 10 minutes or so.
Configuration of the unit is relatively simple. When the IP address is entered into a Web browser, a Java-based application is loaded. After logging in for the first time, a startup wizard launches and takes the user step-by-step through the setup. Administration is just as easy, with a graphical interface allowing visual status as well as changes to the physical storage information and configuration; standard system administration functions, such as user accounts and access rights; and network settings.
As would be expected of a device designed for data movement, the DSN-1100 came in on top for three out of the four speed tests, although by not as much of a margin as we would have predicted. Writing the 1.2-GB folder to the SAN took a scant 14 seconds, but the 3.2-GB folder took 5 minutes, 3 seconds. Read times were 26 seconds, and 1 minute, 28 seconds, respectively.
The DSN-1100 is a powerful storage option for small businesses that have disk-intensive applications. It has the performance and functionality of an enterprise-level system, in a small desktop form factor. With a suggested retail price of $1,799.99, not including drives, it is also higher-priced than other storage options. But taking into consideration that it offers the functionality and performance of more expensive SANs, without the added cost of additional host adapters and infrastructure, it's a viable option for those who need it.
Sans Digital MobileNAS MN4L+ Another desktop NAS, the Sans Digital MobileNAS MN4L+, is a snazzy-looking tower that houses four hot-swappable SATA drives. Available in black and silver, the 9-pound (without drives) 7 by 8.5 by 7-inch chassis forgoes a front panel door in favor of individually locking hard-drive trays. Since the key is merely the equivalent of a straightened paper clip (which also works), the locks aren't meant to be so much of a security feature as protection against accidental removal.
With a single Gigabit Ethernet port in the back, the MN4L+ supports RAID 0, 1, 1+0, 5 and 6. Rear expansion ports for additional external hard drives include one eSATA, two USB 2.0 and one FireWire 400. As with similar devices, the MN4L+ can be configured to take scheduled snapshot backups and do realtime NAS-to-NAS folder replication. In addition, it includes an iSCSI initiator and target support.
Setup and configuration were relatively easy; after connecting the unit to power and the network, the included NAS-Finder program was launched. NAS-Finder is a menu-driven, DOS-based application that allows the user to configure the NAS with an IP address. After the IP address is assigned, the device can be managed remotely via a Web browser.
The GUI-based administration console is intuitive and allows the user to view and change the settings of the device. Easy to navigate, it consists of a frame running down the left side of the screen with approximately six category headings. Within each category are specific functions ranging from server configuration and network settings, to storage and user management and monitoring functions.
In our speed tests, the MN4L+ was a little slow with the smaller folder, but managed to hold its own with the larger one. Writing the 1.2-GB set of files took 36 seconds to the device and 32 seconds from it, while the 3.2-GB set of files took 3 minutes, 54 seconds to write and 3 minutes, 13 seconds to read.
Compared with other available storage devices, the Sans Digital storage device is not as feature-rich. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, however. Instead of trying to be all things to all users, the MN4L+ was designed to function specifically as a NAS, and that is something it does fairly well. Taking a minimalistic approach, it lacks a display and status indicators, but connection and usage are fairly easy. In addition, the $659 retail price is more than half that of its competitors'. If you're looking for nothing more than a NAS, the Sans Digital MN4L+ is a terrific option.
Iomega StorCenter ix2
The acquisition of Iomega by EMC Corp. holds the promise of new, innovative storage solutions. With Iomega's status as a leader in the consumer and SOHO storage space, and EMC's entrenchment in storage for the enterprise, the latest offering from Iomega combines the strength of both companies.
A dual-drive appliance, the Iomega StorCenter ix2 is a network storage device targeted at small business. Indeed, the ix2 is user-friendly, but it also has advanced management and backup capabilities, usually reserved for NAS devices for larger organizations.
The ix2 has 1 TB or 2 TB of storage capacity, depending on the model. With a management interface comprised of vibrant, snazzy colors, and with Vista-esque icons, users can easily manage data access and sharing along with a host of other tasks. RSA encryption helps to safeguard data residing on it. Other specs include RAID 1 and Gigabit Ethernet. The drives are SATA II and the appliance is outfitted with a 400MHz processor and 128 MB of memory. There are two USB ports that allow for sharing of printers and other peripherals.
The device setup took less than 10 minutes. StorCenter is the software that comes with the appliance. StorCenter was installed on a Windows Vista machine. When the ix2 was connected to the network, it was detected via DHCP without any problems by the software. The StorCenter interface walks a user through initial configuration, such as device name and admin account setup.
Midway through testing, reviewers switched the ix2 to another subnet. The ix2 easily reconfigured itself to the network information. The StorCenter interface picked up the new network IP address without a hitch.
The ix2 does the duty of a traditional NAS device—housing data and allowing for the management of access and retrieval of that data. Yet, the ix2 does a lot of other really cool things as well. The appliance can serve as a streaming media server. It's UPnP- and DLNA-compliant, so it can work with a wide range of digital devices. There is support for Bluetooth as well; pictures from smartphones can be uploaded to the ix2.
The media streaming works wonderfully. Simply set the folder containing the media as the media folder (a scan for media files can be initiated as well.) A client running media players like Nero, Apple iTunes, Windows Media Center or any DLNA-compliant media device can receive the stream.
CRN Test Center reviewers tried to test the Bluetooth capabilities using an Aten USB wireless G/Bluetooth adapter, but it would not work with the combo network adapter. After a few failed attempts, we discovered that it will only work with a stand-alone Bluetooth dongle adapter. Still, the ability to transfer data from a Bluetooth device to the NAS is rather unique.
The ix2 can even function as a low-cost video-surveillance system. The camera supported for this device is from Axis. When the camera is active, the live camera display can be viewed remotely. You can record through the interface as well.
With the Retrospect software backup feature, there are two options for backing up data: by creating restore points for recovering data and older versions of files or a computer's entire hard drive, or by saving a copy of the most recent files and overwriting all previous versions. Other noteworthy features include support for additional external storage and power management of connected UPS devices. The management interface can be set to a variety of languages. The StorCenter ix2 mixes the price and convenience of a standard external hard drive, and adds the functionality of NAS devices costing much more. The 1-TB model lists at $299 and the 2-GB for $479. For low-cost, abundant storage, and its feature-rich goodies, the ix2 is a great deal for the small business that can live with the smaller capacities.
The bottom line: Depending on your needs, any one of these four storage devices reviewed by the CRN Test Center would be a solid choice, and easily recommended. As an all-around device though, you can't beat the Netgear ReadyNAS Pro. Its speed, intuitive design, and ease of use place it at the top of our list. With the functionality to do just about anything you can ask of it, this NAS is ready for action.