Like many, my family's data storage requirements are increasing at an exponential rate. High Definition home movies; work documents; 10+ megapixel photographs, etc. all require ever growing amounts of hard drive space.
And raw storage space isn't the only problem: Keeping all this data safe from hardware failures as well as maintaining easy access are important too.
In creating the SmartStor range, Promise Technology Inc. have come up with not one, but two plausible answers to this growing problem.
Read on to find out more
Promise's two bay NS2300N and four bay NS4300N Networked Attached Storage devices are an attractive and affordable solution to the modern data storage dilemma.
DESIGN AND BUILD
Despite their obvious size difference, both units share a common design aesthetic: A neat black and silver plastic encases both units. While the silver section is fairly smooth, the majority of the the black section has a gentle ripple to it. Overall, the build quality of both units was good, with all seams joining evenly. The only mismatch was the door on the NS2300N, which was slightly off kilter. Both the NS2300N and the NS4300N doors were a little flimsy compared to the rest of the construction but since these aren't parts used every day, I felt this was a minor concern.
The unit's are non symmetrical with curves and edges juxtaposing each other in an interesting and surprisingly stylish way. The right front of both units have a distinctively curved edge, featuring hard drive LEDs (two for the NS3200N and four for the NS4300N) that literally wrap around the corner. This allows the LEDs to be seen from the both front and (right) side views.
The front of the NS2300N has a single power button while the NS4300N has an additional One Touch Backup button. When operating at night, the units have a Matrixish feel with their constantly flickering green lights - one for each drive installed, a network activity LED, a system status LED and a power LED. All green.
Predictably, the rear of the units are also very similar. The two bay NS2300N has a large cooling fan vent, Gigabit Ethernet port, power connection and a USB port which can be used to attach a printer or external hard drive. The NS4300N on the other hand has an extra USB port (two in total), a second (smaller) cooling fan and a larger power connector.
Internally, the units both utilize a bright orange plastic caddy system to keep the hard drives in place. These caddies are screwed onto the standard side mounting points of the hard drives allowing the hard drives to be slid in and out with little effort. While they might look ineffective, the caddys work well and when screwed onto their host hard drives, are much sturdier than they look.
Overall, the design of both units is neat and aesthetically pleasing: For my money, their not the sort fo units you have to hide away in the cupboard, at any rate.
NAS stands for Networked Attached Storage and refers to a storage device that connects directly to your network via Ethernet (or WiFi). This connection allows the unit to be easily accessed by other computers with access to the same network. Unlike regular external hard drive cases, NAS devices do not need to be directly attached to a computer to function. In essence, these devices are small computers themselves, dedicated to the serving data to other devices connected to your network.
RAID stands for Redundant Array of Inexpensive/Independent Disks and from its professional roots, has become an affordable technology for consumers to improve the reliability and performance of large amounts of storage space.
There are many types of RAID (known as levels) which offer varying levels of performance/data security. The NS2300N supports the two most common levels - RAID 0 and RAID 1, while the NS4300N adds support for RAID 5 and 10.
In the NS3200N, RAID 0 (also known as striping) allows you to set up two SATA drives to appear as one large drive. For example, two 1TB drives (as tested) would appear as approximately 2TB. I say approximately because with overheads and inconsistencies in how we count mega/gigabytes, we are always short changed when it comes to storage. Without getting too technical, RAID 0 creates a single large drive using all available space, but offers no fault tolerance. In this configuration, if one of the two installed drives fail, all data is lost.
RAID 1 (also known as mirroring) on the other hand, sets up two drives as a mirrored set which usually provides little (if any) improvement in performance, but offers a complete backup of the drive's data on a second drive. In a RAID 1 configuration, the two hard drives in the NS2300N contain exactly the same information. This online backup comes at a price, however: The two 1TB drives from our RAID 0 example now allow for only 1TB (or thereabouts) of usable storage space. This is offset by far greater resistance to hardware failure: If one of the NS2300N's RAID 1 drives fail, the data is still retained on the other mirror drive.
With its two extra drive bays, the NS4300N is able to provide more complex RAID setups. RAID 5 marries greater storage space with security by creating what is known as a "striped set with distributed parity." Again, without getting too technical, this RAID level allows an NS4300N kitted out with 4x1TB drives a total of 3TB of accessible storage space, whilst providing safety from a maximum of one hard drive failure. For example, if one hard drive in a RAID 5 array fails, the RAID is still fully functional - And once the faulty drive is replaced, the RAID is once again protected from (another) single hard drive failure.
RAID 10 (which is more correctly known as 1+0) is really a striped RAID 1 set, mirrored. This basically allows a NS4300N with 4x1TB drives to allow for a total of 2TB of usable disk space. This increases performance and provides protection from a single hard drive failure in *each* RAID set. Of course this comes at the cost of 2TB of hard drive space.
As an example, here are some possible configurations of both units with a simplified set of characteristics of each RAID level.
(2x 1TB hard drives)
No data protection
One hard drive can fail before losing data
(4x 1TB hard drives)
RAID 10 (1+0)
3TB usable data
While a technical examination of each RAID level (and technical weaknesses) is beyond the scope of this review, more information can be gleamed from the Wikipedia entry, here, including RAID 5 hot spare which the NS4300N supports.
In my testing, I chose to put the units in what I felt was the most cost effective (and the most likely consumer) configurations possible. I chose RAID 1 for the NS2300N, with its mirrored data security and RAID 5 for the NS4300N. All things being equal, RAID 5 is arguably the configuration closest to the performance/safety sweet spot (only available on the NS4300N) and considering all the options available, provides the most data storage with some level of protection against hardware failure.
SETUP AND USAGE
Setting up the units was a cinch. I quickly attached the orange caddies to the hard drives and slid them in. Once the ethernet and power cables were connected (and switched on) the units came to life. After a few seconds a loud beep from each announced their readiness. Opting to avoid the included software, I jumped into the router setup and quickly found the units' IP addresses. A few clicks later, my web browser opened up the units' web interface login pages. Easy.
I then went in and quickly adjusted the clock and power saving settings before starting up the wizard. I set the the NS4300N up as a RAID 5 array, while on the NS3200N, a RAID 1. As the unit's created the arrays, a “System Busy. Please wait...” prompt appeared along with a progress bar. About twenty minutes later, our four 1TB Samsung Eco drives (with the help of the NS4300N) had become a 3TB RAID 5 array, while a little earlier, our 2x 1TB drives in the NS2300N became a mirrored RAID 1 array. For those about to pick up one of these units, just be aware that the bar sat on 99% for an almost uncomfortable amount of time.
Throughout the build (and all testing in fact), both SmartStor units were extremely quiet. When the units first fired up, the fans did spin up quite violently, but returned to an acceptable level shortly after. While the Samsung Eco drives (running at 5400) may have assisted, we were highly impressed with both units (lack of) noise. They weren't silent by any stretch but in my opinion they weren't unacceptably loud either. As a comparison, our D-Link DNS-323 was noticeably louder. It is also worth mentioning that our NS4300N is a "Revision B" unit, which has has had its fan RPM's tweaked and from what I understand, a marked improvement over Revision A units.
Even our two year old BenQ Joybook was significantly louder. Overall I was impressed with the noise level - particularly with the NS4300N as it housed four drives.
A note on the hard drives used for testing: All tests were performed using 1TB Samsung Eco Drives. These drives run at 5400RPM and while the low RPM decreases overall performance, it also means less noise; less heat and ultimately less strain on the components.
File transfer tests on both units (to and from my Windows XP machine) resulted in decent, but not stellar, speeds. The results of the average of two separate real world tests are listed in the table below.
NS4300N to PC
PC to NS4300N
Folder containing 5 Megapixel images (1.2GB) = 1 minute 28 seconds
142Mb Open Office 3 (142Mb) = 9 seconds
Folder containing 5 Megapixel images (1.2GB) = 2 minutes 13 seconds
142Mb Open Office 3 (142Mb) = 14 seconds
NS2300N to PC
PC to NS2300N
Folder containing 5 Megapixel images (1.2GB) = 2 minutes 13 seconds
142Mb Open Office 3 (142Mb) = 14 seconds
Folder containing 5 Megapixel images (1.2GB) = 2 minutes 8 seconds
142Mb Open Office 3 (142Mb) = 15 seconds
Over the past few months, the units have worked flawlessly, serving documents, photos and streaming high definition videos without any problems whatsoever: In fact, on a recent 41 degree Celsius day - with a room temperature of at least 30 degrees, the NS2300N reported an operating temperature of 38 degrees with its outer case feeling barely warm!
User management and files sharing preferences were easy to setup. I chose to use the web interface for the bulk of my interaction with the units and found the interface straight forward and easy to use. The sharing settings allow for Windows (SMB), Macintosh, FTP Sharing and Unix/Linux protocols. Should you want to, both units can be used as Print Servers, provided the printer is on Promise's compatibility list.
User management was also a cinch. Creating accounts with varying levels of privileges allows the user to effectively protect data from accidental deletion, or avoid prying eyes. As an example, I setup a read-only account so that my Popcorn Hour could view but not delete any files. This offers easy to setup protection from accidental deletion.
While serving files is the mainstay of NAS/RAID devices, both Promise units are able to be extended via Promise's SmartNAVI tool with the addition of optional add-on plugins. With the right plugins installed, the SmartNAVI tool allows the configuration of backup scheduling, Automated file downloads (Bittorrent and other file downloading), SmartSync data backup, as well as user and file sharing management.
The unit could also be setup to send an email alert system to automatically email if there was a problem, as well as be connected to an APC Uninterruptible Power Supply. The only feature I missed was the ability to Wake-On-LAN. Otherwise, this thing was packed to the rafters.
While our tests primarily dealt with straight file sharing - The Popcorn Hour A-110 was happy to retrieve Hi-Def content via SMB - both the NS4300N and NS2300N are both DLNA servers and with plugins downloaded from the Promise support site, can supports digital media streaming of numerous formats for various devices.
Current plugins available at the time or writing are: iTunes server, DLNA Media server package and the Download Station package allows the transfer of Bittorrent, EDonkey, HTTP and FTP transfers to run autonomously.
While the SmartNAVI tool was easy to use with its graphical user interface, the additional "advanced" setup via the browser was a little confusing. While SmartNAVI is available for Windows and OSX, I would much prefer one single HTML interface to interact with the NAS. Having both HTML and SmartNAVI could lead to confusion, particularly as the two interfaces are not congruent.
Up to two hot-swappable SATA drives.
Up to 3TB of storage using two 1.5TB hard drives.
Data sharing over the network with Gigabit Ethernet.
Speed up data transportation rate by Gigabit Ethernet with Jumbo Frame.
One-touch backup of designated file folders on client PC.
Smart NAVI Utility.
Enterprise-proven RAID technology with RAID 0, 1 support.
Network print server with USB printer.
DLNA media server for digital home network environment.
iTune Server, Download Station.
Download Station for HTTP/FTP/BT/Edonkey protocol.
Support Microsoft ADS; User, Group, and Quota management.
UPS support with automated shutdown.
Heterogeneous environment: Windows, UNIX, Linux, and Macintosh.
Quick and easy-to-use Setup Wizard.
Powerful web-based GUI for remote management.
Email notification for activity/backup status and system errors.
Advanced chassis design for minimum power consumption and ultra-quiet operation.
Up to four hot-swappable SATA drives; provides up to 4TB of storage using four 1TB hard drive
Data sharing over Gigabit Ethernet
Enterprise-proven RAID technology with RAID 0, 1, 5, 10 support
One Touch Backup of designated folders on client PC
SmartSYNC backup for automatic client backup
Snapshot for instant backup and restoration
NAS to NAS replication for remote backup
USB HDDs, Printer and UPS Support
Supports Microsoft ADS; User, Group, and Quota management
FTP/SMB/CIFS/AFP/NFS Network Protocols Support; Shared Storage for Windows, Unix, Linux, MAC clients
Quick and easy-to-use Setup Wizard
Powerful web-based GUI for remote management
E-mail notification for activity/backup status and system errors
Advanced chassis design for minimum power consumption and ultra-quiet operation
If I go back far enough in my computer experience, I can recall a time when all my documents were backed up on a set of five and a quarter inch floppy discs. And for those really important documents, I might have created an alternate set, you know - Just in case.
While many will (quite rightly) suggest that RAID is neither foolproof, nor a form of backup – and I technically agree - I also have to disagree. You see, three Terabytes of data is a lot of data. The reality is that there is no real easy way to back up this sort of disk space for the average user. This would take about 100 25GB Blueray discs or 500 odd DVD-Rs.
NAS/RAID technology - while technically not a backup - allows the average person to be able to store vast amounts of data with relative safety on the cheap. The only other real option is to buy a bunch of spare hard drives and keep them in the cupboard, which when you think about it, is like a very very slow, never complete, RAID 1 mirror.
Both the NS2300N and the NS4300N have proved to be rock solid in our three month stint with them. Even faced with the Australian summer, the units didn't miss a beat. The speeds were acceptable and if you are looking for reliable (cost effective) storage with some form of data security, the NS2300N - or for greater storage space the NS4300N - are ideal.
With the vast array of features offered and the flawless performance I have encountered, I have little hesitation in recommending both units to those looking to enter the NAS/RAID storage game.
Considering the performance, features, build and cost, I give them both a solid 9/10. While speed could be better, it is only an issue if you are constantly moving data around. Considering many still use a non-Gigabit network - and likely usage patterns - speed is not strictly critical (within reason) in a NAS/RAID device. Besides, when it comes to RAID, reliability and usability should certainly trump out and out speed. And lets not forget that the I stands for Inexpensive.
The SmartStor NS2300N has a recommended retail price of $199US while the four bay NS4300N (revision B) is currently retailing for $429US. For more information, visit Promise's SmartStor product page. ** Update 28.01: Word on the street is that NS4300N's are under $400US if you look hard enough.
Flawless operation in our tests
Easy to use interface
Cool operation under hot conditions
Average transfer speeds
The use of both SmartAVI and web interface can be confusion
No Wake On LAN.
A final note on NAS hard drives: For those considering a NAS device, I would highly recommend slower (cheaper, quieter, cooler, less power hungry) 5400RPM drives as even at Gigabit Ethernet speeds, the likelyhood of the drives slowing the system down is (in my experience), negligible.
[Ed. Stay tuned to read our upcoming Promise SmartStor NS4600N and DS4300 reviews!
These units were demoed at MacWorld and we will have all the details in a First Impressions review, followed by a more in-depth write-up.]