One of the wonderful things about the storage industry is how rapidly prices fall and new technologies become available to more people.

What is less wonderful is that as this sophisticated technology moves down market, it keeps the same terminology and mindset from bigger, more sophisticated applications. Several friends have small businesses and I’ve been watching their struggles with technology – and helping where I can – and the experience has given me a new appreciation for how far apart Main Street and Silicon Valley are. So this post is a NAS primer for the SOHO market.

SOHO NAS – some definitions
Small Office, Home Office, Network Attached Storage. If you have broadband, either DSL or Cable (or as I do, a Wireless ISP), you have a network. Usually ethernet is used to connect your computer to the broadband modem/router. If you have more than one computer in your small/home office, you almost certainly have them networked together, either with an ethernet cable or wirelessly, using Wi-Fi.

The network is important because without a network, you can’t have Network Attached Storage (NAS from now on). The advantage of NAS is that everyone on the network can store files on the NAS box. NAS systems are often used to back up important data and to share data among two or more PCs. On a Windows system the NAS box will appear as another disk drive, like Drive H.

You can plug it into your broadband router using an ethernet cable. All the computers in your office will be able to access it from there.

Easier, better and much, much cheaper
NAS systems got started about 15 years ago, when they cost over $10,000 for a few GB of storage. Today you can get a 1,000 GB of raw capacity for less than $1,000.

It’s a paperweight, drink warmer and storage appliance!
Today there several toaster-sized NAS boxes intended for home and SOHO use. The good folks over at AnandTech just did a low-end NAS round up which, if you aren’t technical, is pretty incomprehensible. I’m using their careful research and my experience with storage and small businesses to translate their data into something non-technical SOHO folks can use.

And no, you don’t want to use your NAS appliance as a drink warmer.

Move 16 bits & what do you get? – one day older & deeper in debt
I’m assuming you have a SOHO workload. That means you have up to 10-15 PCs with people looking up or generating business documents such as invoices, quotes, letters, tax forms, spreadsheets, presentations, ads, direct mail postcards and the like. You AREN’T editing uncompressed video, performing 3-D resevoir modeling or storing movies on your PCs.

This is important because business documents don’t take up much space. One megabyte (MB) is pretty big for Word or Excel files. The NAS boxes we are looking at can all store 500,000 one MB files, so each of these boxes should be able to handle your business needs for years to come.

SOHO priorities
Unless your small business is a computer or software shop, you don’t want to be fussing with computers. You just want them to work. Thus this list of priorities is different from what you’d read about in an evaluation of these products in the computer press.

In my view, SOHO computer product priorities are:

  1. Ease of use
  2. Reliability
  3. Price
  4. Performance
  5. Expandability

The first three are tightly bunched, while performance is a distant fourth. Why isn’t performance more important? Because the performance of these boxes exceeds what even 15 SOHO PCs are likely to require. Also, it is likely that your SOHO network is operating at 100 Mb/s, which even a slow single drive can saturate, and these boxes have four drives. So while the fastest NAS box might read or write a one MB file a few milliseconds faster than the slowest, you won’t be able to tell the difference

Reliability is why I strongly recommend RAID 1 over RAID 5 or the dangerous RAID 0. RAID 1 creates two complete copies of your data. Disk drives are very reliable devices, but they do fail, often without warning, and having two complete copies of your data ensures that your business life continues with minimal disruption.

Techies like RAID 5 because it offers greater capacity for the dollar, but when something breaks, RAID 5 is much more likely lose your data than RAID 1. RAID 0 is not for business use, unless your business is video editing or the like, where you always keep a copy of your data in a safe place, and you need the very highest performance and your file sizes are large.

Meet the contenders
These four-drive NAS boxes are:

  • Buffalo TeraStation
  • Infrant NV+
  • Intel SS4000-E
  • QNAP TS401-T

Ease of use
AnandTech and a recent PCWorld article agree that set up is easy – at least for the kinds of people who do these reviews. And much of the complexity of these devices is imposed by Windows and Active Directory. If you have Active Directory you probably have a knowledgeable support person who can handle these devices. My comments are aimed at people who don’t have AD and don’t have an on-site support person. But if you can’t program your Tivo, then get help. These things are harder than Tivo.

For example, watching non-techies try to figure out how to log into a device’s webserver can be sobering – the idea that entering a URL (what’s that?) into a web browser would give one access to a device’s functions is non-obvious. I checked the manuals and here’s what I found:

  • Buffalo TeraStation: Includes a Windows utility called TeraNavigator that loads from a CD. It leads you to the TeraStation’s administrative webpage, which you can bookmark. You’ll want to refer to this daily to see if there are problems, like a drive failure, that you need to fix. Buffalo also covers how to access the storage from a Mac. The storage should show up on the Mac desktop automatically, and they cover what to do if it doesn’t. It seems like the browser-based management should work also, but they don’t say. Other than recommending RAID 5, Buffalo’s manual was pretty good, with lots of pictures and diagrams and seemed usable by novices.
  • Infrant NV+: Has a helpful bit with its Windows/Mac/Linux RAIDar management utility. RAIDar is used to discover Infrants’s ReadyNAS devices on the network and start the ReadyNAS web-based configuration utility. The manual, which is the best of the lot, does a good job of detailing the issues with clear explanations and lots of diagrams and pictures.
  • Intel SS4000-E: Intel’s documentation definitely has a technical bent. The quick start guide is densely packed and a little intimidating. All the information is there. You’ll just have to buckle down and focus on each piece. The user manual is designed for technical resellers, not end users. The information is there and well-organized, but if you don’t have some familiarity with subject matter, you’ll get lost pretty quickly.
  • QNAP TS401-T: The best documentation of Mac OS 9 of the bunch – just five years out of date. Also, the best documentation of the LCD display for any of these boxes. But if you are a Mac OS X user, forget it. The Linux portions seem pretty lean too. The Windows client is geeky as well.

I’ve scanned the web for reliability information and haven’t found anything that points to any exceptional or problematic behavior. Four disk drives and RAID controllers don’t use all that much power – maybe 75 watts – which is well below what the mass produced power supplies offer. These boxes don’t offer much redundancy beyond data redundancy, but my several hundred watt receiver – which I often crank up – hasn’t had any problems in five years. Ethernet components are very reliable, so unless the Disk Array Angel of Death visits you, I don’t think there is a whole lot to recommend power and network redundancy for SOHO use. It’s a wash.

The SOHO business folks I know tend to be price-aware, if not price-sensitive. QNAP’s distribution is retarded, so the $1,000 plus price – without drives – I found online may reflect limited competition more than anything else. The drive-less Infrant NV+ can be had for a more reasonable ~$600 online, the same as the channel-oriented Intel box. But the hands down value winner is the Buffalo Terastation: available online with 500 GB of RAID 1 capacity for ~$700.

I don’t think performance is all that important in the SOHO space, which is why I put it fourth on the list. The files aren’t very large, the I/Os per second are few, even with 15 PCs on the LAN. AnandTech spends a lot of time testing RAID 5 performance which, due to parity calculation requirements, varies quite a bit. I haven’t seen any tests of pure RAID 1 performance, so it is probably safe to assume the box’s network interface limits performance. AnandTech did test RAID 0 performance, and sure enough, the Buffalo is the slowest, topping out at about 7 MB/sec, while the QNAP and Infrant do 3-4x that. Which sounds conclusive unless you think about the SOHO environment: lots of small files. A one megabyte file, which is large for a Word document, will take about 1/5th of a second on the Buffalo, and 1/20th of a second on the fast boxes. Can you really tell the difference?

These boxes all have USB2 ports for storage expansion. Some offer print servers and some don’t. They all support 500 GB drives and may support larger, once they’ve tested them. Some offer two gigabit ethernet ports for redundancy and others only one. Not a lot of differences. If you know you’ll need more storage than a couple of these boxes will provide then you probably need to move upmarket to a larger appliance with more bells and whistles.

And the winner is:
Oddly enough, they come out in alphabetical order:

  1. Buffalo TeraStation – Pros: Lowest cost, reasonable documentation, 7×24 telephone support. Cons: slowest, docs not as good as Infrants, requires Windows PC.
  2. Infrant NV+ – Pros: Fast, fine documentation, cross-platform RAIDar management utility. Cons: Higher cost.
  3. Intel SS4000-E – Pros: Intel quality and support (for resellers). Cons: Geeky (though complete) docs, higher cost, reseller focus means they don’t expect or support average SOHO users directly.
  4. QNAP TS401-T – Pros: Fast, lots of features. Cons: Higher cost, poor docs, limited US distribution.

The StorageMojo take
Lots of vendors aim for the SOHO market, usually when they are getting chased out of higher margin markets. The “appliance” idea has been popular in Silicon Valley for over a decade, yet few “plug it in and it works” products actually reach consumers. Buffalo seems to have done the best job of understanding what the SOHO market needs and delivered it. You won’t go wrong with the other products though, you’ll just spend more. And that is a big improvement over just five years ago, for which we can all be thankful.

Comments welcome, as always. Moderation enabled to keep spammers on their toes. Pointers to other products in this space welcome, as are experiences with any SOHO storage product.

Update:Rather than spread this post over two URL’s, I decided to continue it in one piece, so I changed the title from yesterday’s.