What you need to know when buying a NAS drive
There has never been a better time to employ network-attached storage (NAS) and store your data online.
At the medium- to large-business level, NAS solutions can now house entire virtual machines (VMs), with individual PCs as clients that log into a centrally managed virtual PC. But for most people, whether you’re a consumer, enthusiast or small business, a NAS drive is fundamentally a central repository to securely keep on tap your gigabytes – even tens of terabytes – of essential data.
In the office, that could be business databases or collaborative projects, while for most home installations it’s more likely to be media files. A NAS drive is the perfect home for archives of stored music and photos, as well as video files captured from TV, DVD and Blu-ray.
Performance is all about good read and write speeds. While a hard disk mounted inside your PC can copy files and play video with ease, the same isn’t always true when that disk is network-attached. A fast processor is the gateway to ensuring the server software running on the NAS can quickly juggle data on demand.
Look for good write speeds. Good read speeds are easier to find, but a slow NAS will dawdle with file writes and keep you waiting, and waiting, to copy over big files. Demand at least 40MB per second (MBps) for sequential writing; the best units will reach and exceed 100MBps.
Rather than simply choosing the fastest processor, which will hit you hard in the pocket, you may like to consider power consumption. A faster NAS will cost you more to run, and often require more and louder cooling during operation.
Ease of use
You’ll use an admin interface, accessible through your web browser, to install the NAS on your network. These vary in complexity and ease of access, for both essential and deeper functions.
Some admin interfaces are text-heavy, but a graphical approach can simplify administration duties for less tech-savvy users. When there are so many possible features peripheral to the core task of file serving, you’ll need all the skilled interface design you can find to make your storage investment really work for you.
Features you need
All modern NAS drives now include at least one gigabit ethernet port. Unless you have a 10Gb router and a switch that handles link aggregation to your compliant dual-port NAS, the effective speed limit of your storage will be inside the 1Gb network window – around 115MBps in practical terms.
The more bays the merrier. Dual-bay enclosures allow only Raid 0, which is good for speed but offers poor data security, or Raid 1, which halves your available storage space and undermines performance. With four bays or more, a whole world of useful choices become available. Most common is Raid 5, which forms a parity array and stripes data across three or more disks. This enhances read/write performance, while simultaneously affording one disk’s breakdown without you losing everything.
Six-bay NAS drives make future expansion easier, and sacrifice less space to redundancy data. For home media use, every modern NAS includes server software that enables the sharing of photos, video and audio to a UPnP-compliant client such as flat-screen TV.
Security camera recording is also possible on all the units tested here.
If you need to use this function, check to see whether your camera is supported.
There were no losers in this round-up – all four NAS drives worked very well in our tests. The Iomega StorCenter px6-300d is a good all-rounder. It’s expensive when bought with six disks, but offers better value with none, at £550. It provides usefully quick file-copy performance and a wealth of features for use in a business environment.
If performance is the goal, the Netgear ReadyNAS Pro 6 delivers. It’s not the most intuitive to set up but, once it’s running, you’ll find it fast and capable. Material quality is decent, but would benefit from better quality control during assembly.
The Qnap is the cheapest unit on test, but it offers all the essential features of a powerful NAS drive. Build quality and economy are its stand-out assets. For more modest duties, its ARM processor is all you’ll need to serve up data on-demand.
The Synology DS412+ struck the best balance between economy and performance, with excellent read/write performance in an attractive, quiet and well-featured chassis. We also found it the easiest to manage through Synology’s approachable and thoughtfully designed DSM interface.
How we test
Where NAS units were supplied with disks, these were left in place for testing; the two diskless drives were fitted with four 2TB Hitachi Deskstar 7K3000 disks (HDS723020BLA642). These are 7,200rpm SATA 6Gbps drives, with a 24x7 availability rating, and are well-suited to NAS apps.
All NAS units were configured to use a Raid 5 array, allowing us to test performance in the most common setup.
We tested on an isolated local gigabit network with a DrayTek 3900 router, Netgear gigabit switch and Cat 6 cabling. Read/write performance was measured with QuickBench on a MacBook Pro, using AFP for its improved large-file sequential performance. The power consumption was recorded at idle with disks spun down, and with the system under load.