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Group Test: NAS Drives
Staff Writers, James Morris, | Oct 19, 2015

Buyer's Guide

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Group Test: NAS Drives
Put an end to lost files and forgotten backups: we test EIGHT NAS drives for the home and office that will securely store all your crucial data.

Buyer’s guide

NAS drives can handle a variety of tasks, from PC backup to remote access and running a home media server. Here’s what you should be looking for

N ot every business needs a fully fledged server, and it would certainly be unusual if you had one at home. Often, it’s the ability to share files across a network that drives people to purchase a server, particularly small businesses. But if this is all you need, you’re better off with a network-attached storage (NAS) drive. A NAS drive is essentially a mini-server with the advanced capabilities stripped out – although many models allow you to add them back again via apps. This month we test ten NAS drives from some of the leading manufacturers in the field.

The most advanced NAS drives come in a rack-mountable chassis, intended to be installed in multiples or to supplement full servers in a dedicated rack. In this test, however, we’re focusing on a selection of two- and four-drive standalone NAS devices aimed at small businesses and home users. These are intended to sit on your desk, on a shelf, or even on the floor somewhere, and are relatively small and unobtrusive. 

When you are selecting such a device, the first question you need to ask is what you’ll use it for. Will it be simply a network backup device or will it also act as a shared media server? Are there any other server-type uses you’d like to take advantage of? Then consider how much capacity you need, and whether you want room for expansion. Some NAS boxes are sold pre-populated, but others require you to supply disks yourself – and only selected drives will be compatible. Power consumption is important, too, since you’ll most likely leave your NAS device on around the clock, so that it’s available whenever you need it.

A key feature of a NAS is the ability to configure the installed disks in a variety of different ways. The options available on your device will depend on how many drive bays it has and how many of these are populated. With a two-drive device, the simplest options are to configure the drives as separate volumes, or to concatenate them into one logical drive: these arrangements are sometimes called “JBOD” configurations, which stands for “just a bunch of disks”. 

For most purposes, it makes sense to set up your drives as a RAID array (the name stands for “redundant array of inexpensive disks”, although if you’ve invested in hefty 4TB volumes you might quibble with the description). There are several options here, offering different balances of performance, capacity and security.

Beyond drive configurations, the networking features should be considered. All this month’s devices have one or two Gigabit Ethernet ports, but the protocols they support vary a little. The most basic is Server Message Block (SMB), which allows Windows devices to access the storage over the network. Apple Filing Protocol (AFP) is Apple’s equivalent, although OS X devices are SMB-compatible too, and Network File System (NFS) is the Unix/Linux equivalent. 

HTTP compatibility is required if you want to access files over a web browser interface, while FTP support allows this protocol to be used to upload and download files. WebDAV is an extension of HTTP that allows writing as well as reading. For more enterprise-level connectivity, some of this month’s devices support iSCSI, which allows the network drive to behave like an SCSI-attached local disk – beneficial for software that expects locally attached volumes.

Media servers

Home users will be looking for a few different features. In particular, there’s a good chance you’ll want to use your NAS drive as a media server for all the devices in your home network. The core functionality here is UPnP/DLNA compatibility, which is a widely used protocol for sharing video, music and pictures in a read-only fashion between devices. All of this month’s NAS devices support it, and there are even smart TVs that can stream media in this way. For music lovers, iTunes compatibility means that the NAS device will conveniently show up automatically in your iTunes library.

Data backup from all of your network devices is likely to be the bread-and-butter task for a NAS server. A number of this month’s entries come with backup software and multi-user licences, but if you’re using OS X systems then support for Time Machine will be greatly beneficial. Some NAS manufacturers also offer apps for smartphones and tablets that you can use to access your files. You may want to share data outside your local area network. This is where the aforementioned HTTP, WebDAV and FTP support will be beneficial, although this can lead to security risks.

Many of this month’s devices also allow you to extend their capabilities by installing additional applications, including PHP frameworks that turn these storage servers into general web servers for hosting blogs, forums, or even e-commerce sites. It’s debatable whether it’s wise to host such things from a NAS drive, but the option is there. Whatever you intend to use your NAS for, there’s a huge range of options available, so study the reviews to find out which has the features to match your budget and needs.

How we tested

As well as comparing the features of each NAS device, we ran a series of performance tests on each of them, to simulate regular everyday usage scenarios. First of all, we measured the best possible performance by copying a large 1.96GB single file to the device and back again. If you store a collection of audiovisual content, this will give you an idea of how quickly you’ll be able to retrieve large video files. 

For more general throughput, we copied a 10.6GB collection of smaller files to the NAS device, simulating backup operations.

All of these tests were performed across a Gigabit Ethernet network to minimise network bottlenecks, and the host system for copying was an Overclockers Renda PW-E7F workstation with fast SSD primary storage, again to ensure that the NAS setup was getting the best data delivery possible. 

For the same reason we used a Gigabit network, with only the NAS device, router and workstation on it. Using a power meter, we measured the number of watts consumed when the NAS device was idle and performing the multi-file backup test.

For the NAS devices that came without drives, we used the same set of 3TB WD Red hard disks – either two or four, depending on the model. 

Since fault tolerance is more important than performance for a NAS drive, we configured RAID1 (mirroring) for two-drive devices, and RAID5 for four-drive devices.

Products in this Group Test

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