Inching toward the NAS of our dreams

Originally published 2006 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 03-Dec-2011.


Regular readers will know that I, like many others, am on an ongoing quest for an affordable bulk storage device.

Never you mind why I need all of those hundreds of gigabytes.

Actually, some people with an ever-expanding data hunger have it for perfectly legitimate reasons, not because of a burgeoning collection of illegally downloaded T.J. Hooker episodes and pictures of old ladies riding in steam trains with their ankles showing. Digital photography, digital video, document archiving; there are many ways to generate huge amounts of data these days. And a lot of the people doing it do not have the budget, or the big air conditioned room, for an enterprise-level data silo.

Offline storage doesn't help. Tape's a pain and too expensive, writable DVDs aren't big enough. Writable HD-Ray-Blu-DVD or whatever will be good when it's affordable (I'm not the only one who doesn't give a toss if the drives can play movies or not?), provided it's no less reliable than good writable DVDs today. But, right now, the only affordable offline solutions are the same as the online ones: Consumer hard drives.

So, for now, what we want is simple boxes that insta-magically turn drives into Network-attached Storage (NAS).

Need more space? Add more boxes.

I've been keeping tabs on this stuff. It took a long time before anybody got it right, and lots of companies are still getting it wrong.

A cheap NAS box has, for a start, to be available with no drives. The slightly old Buffalo TeraStation, for instance, would be pretty much perfect if it didn't sell for such a large premium on top of the price of the drives in it. But it does, and you can't buy one empty.

Many nerds don't even have to buy new drives to populate a NAS box. They already have a selection of 3.5 inch Parallel ATA (PATA) drives, here and there, that add up to something worthwhile between them. But if you can only buy NAS boxes that come with drives, your old used drives have to remain in Paperweight Mode unless you build a server to put them in.

And then, as I've mentioned before, there's the Curse of Spin-Down. This is what kills those apparently great products like the Linksys NSLU2, that just give you a USB port or three, and NAS-ify any USB Mass Storage Device you plug into those ports.

This seems like a solution, until you realise that every darn USB drive box out there never spins down its bloody drive. Oh, OK, maybe some brand name USB drive does - but those cost too much and, you guessed it, can't be had without a drive pre-installed.

No spin down is a slow, but sure, kiss of death for consumer drives. They can last a long time if they spend most of their life in sleep mode - which they will, in many network storage situations. If their controller lets them spin down.

Keep a cheap drive spinning all day, and you not only waste watts and add more noise to your life, but should also expect the drive to fail in a couple of years, if not sooner. It may still last for ages, but that's not the way to bet. And, sure, you can just yank the power from the thing whenever you reckon you aren't going to need it, but that's hardly an elegant solution.

When Netgear's SC101 Storage Central box first came out, I was hopeful. It accepts one or two PATA drives, does not come with them pre-installed, can run them as individuals or in mirrored mode, even allows volume spanning across multiple units, has easy setup, and, as I write this, it costs less than $AU200 delivered (rather less, in the States).

But then I cursed Netgear unto the seventh generation, for lo, the box did not spin down its drives.

But then, behold, there came BIOS updates, and one of them added spindown. Glory be.

Four drives per box would be nice, and so would gigabit Ethernet. But the SC101's hundred megabit connection is quite fast enough to play DVD rips - I mean, ah, deliver your X-ray scans or serve your out-of-copyright wax cylinder MP3s to numerous users.

There's still one non-trivial problem with the SC101, though - it uses a proprietary file system. So, if it dies, you can't plug its drives into a PC to read them, and you also can't just drop a drive full of data from a PC into an SC101 and go.

But, with the spin-down BIOS update, it sated many peoples' storage-lust.

The storage box that people (OK, two people) have been prodding me about more recently is the Thecus N4100, a promising looking box that isn't the cheapest NAS widget out there (by a long shot - it costs as much empty as some boxes do with 750Gb or more worth of drives in them...), but which has an impressive spec sheet. Which starts with four SATA drive slots, various RAID modes, and gigabit Ethernet.

I am, however, 90% sure that the N4100 is another bloody box that doesn't bloody spin its bloody drives down.

I base this belief on the fact that I can't find any mention of that feature no matter how many search strings I try ("power management", "idle", "spin", "spindown", "sleep", even "minutes") in the N4100 manual, in other peoples' reviews of it, or in its firmware update readmes. There've been a few firmware updates for the N4100 now, and the feature hasn't yet been added, which leads me to suspect that it's impossible to do it with the N4100 hardware.

(I also have a horrible suspicion that even if you try to safeguard against drives wearing out by using one N4100 drive as a hot spare - another of its fancy features - then that drive will be spinning all the time too, and will therefore be just as likely as any of the others to be on its last legs by the time you freakin' use it.)

Also, the new Thecus N5200 has power management specifically listed as one of its features. So I'm guessing the N4100 ain't got it and may well never have it, and the N5200 (which is more or less available now, though not here in Australia, and is just as expensive as the N4100) is the box you want instead.

Well, unless they update the BIOS and take the spin-down feature out again. Nothing surprises me, these days.


Herewith, a list of current NAS boxes which, according to my horde of goons readers, do have drive sleep features of one kind or another. You can find a much bigger list of boxes with and without sleep at the Chemnitz University of Technology TWiki, here, though it's not very up to date.

The Hotway (or "Mediasonic") HD9-U2LA, sold under generic names like "LAN Drive" here and there; by its appearance shall you know it. Only one drive, possibly a bit more personality than you'd like (firmware updates, ahoy), but cheap, and it's got spin-down!

At least some (and probably all) of the very featureful Infrant boxes, though apparently their spin-down support is less than totally cooked at the moment.

The Synology boxes, including their feature-packed DS-106e. It's not cheap for a box that can only take one drive, but the four-drive "Cube Station" isn't expensive, if you can use half of its features. And "one drive" can be 500 or 750Gb these days, anyway.

The Thecus N2100, currently $AU478.50 delivered, drives not included, here in Australia. Only two drive bays, but that makes it more portable (at least 1.3 formatted terabytes in a small backpack - that's 0.065 LoCs!), and power management's included. Apparently the 2100's "gigabit" Ethernet is pretty darn slow, though. But it runs Linux and supports software "modules" - just tgz-ed Linux executables - that let it do computer-y things all by itself, like BitTorrent downloads and apparently even blog updates (the sexiness of this last feature is not immediately obvious to me).

The Thecus N4100 (available in two hot colours for the same high price!) - but with OpenBSD installed on it. Kinky.

The Tritton Technologies (yes, that's how they spell it...) Simple NAS. As my correspondent points out, it not only has a drive spin-down feature, but that feature can work "all too well" if your Simple NAS has old firmware. It's also only a one-drive unit and the specs say it's only good for 400Gb or smaller drives (PATA, not SATA). But all is forgiven when you feel the price.

Maxtor's Shared Storage boxes, from the Plus on up, support spin-down, and also work as a USB print server, which is neat. You only get one drive bay in the two cheaper models, and you can't buy them without a drive pre-installed, but the Shared Storages are about as mass-market as these things get, so you can often find them marked down.

Like many single-drive boxes, the Maxtor ones have extension USB ports on the back that let you add more drives in standard USB enclosures. Bear in mind, though, that those drives will only spin down if their enclosures allow it, which they probably won't. Still, USB-expandable NAS boxes do provide a handy place to temporarily plug in anything you want the whole home or office to be able to access. One or two gigabyte thumb drives, in this situation, can make great data backup options for small outfits.

For somewhat rugged semi-individualists: FreeNAS, or the free home version of the ClarkConnect insta-server package.

For even weirder people: A KuroBox.

Honourable mentions: The "Icy Box" and IceCube Pleiades 400+ external boxes. Not NAS gadgets, but according to my correspondents they're that rarest of jewels, external USB and FireWire drive boxes that spins their drive down after a period of inactivity. The Icy Box apparently does it after ten minutes of idleness no matter what; the IceCube only does it when it's used in FireWire mode, possibly because the host PC tells it to and (mirabile dictu!) it listens.

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