Review: 4 NAS appliances deliver big storage cheap

12-bay rack-mount systems from QNAP, Netgear, LenovoEMC, and Infortrend combine huge storage capacities, business-grade features, smooth setup, and easy administration

Storage requirements are growing for everyone -- small offices, branch offices, and departmental workgroups included. On the flip side, so-called entry-level storage systems have never been more affordable, expandable, or capable. Available in cabinet or rack-mount form factors, these low-cost appliances can combine enormous capacities with enterprise-class storage features and cloud services that ease remote access, file sharing, and off-site backup.

The four contenders in this roundup -- the LenovoEMC PX12-450r, the Infortrend EonNAS 1510, the Netgear ReadyNAS 4200, and the QNAP TS-1279U-RP -- are all 12-bay rack-mount systems that provide as much as 48TB of SATA storage. They can serve as iSCSI SAN targets, handle light server and database workloads, and support file sharing among Windows (SMB/CIFS), Apple (AFP), and Linux (NFS) clients. Naturally, they're also ideal targets for network backups, and they can easily replicate those backups off-site.

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The LenovoEMC PX12-450R I received for review came with four Hitachi 2TB drives installed. Under the hood, it pairs an Intel Xeon CPU with 8GB of memory. The rear panel includes four 1GbE connectors, plus two USB 2.0 ports and a connector for a VGA monitor. There's another USB 2.0 connector on the front of the unit for easy access. Dual independent 550W power supplies add an extra measure of reliability. The LenovoEMC proved to be the most consistently solid performer in my Iometer tests and provided the richest set of cloud connections of the group. It costs $5,999 without drives.

The Infortrend EonNAS 1510 boasts advanced storage management features such as snapshots and deduplication, and at $3,890 without drives, it bests the competition in price. My review unit came without any drives installed, so I put in four 4TB enterprise-class Western Digital drives. The system is powered by an Intel Core i3 processor and is equipped with 8GB of memory. The rear panel provides two 1GbE and two 10GbE network interfaces, six USB ports, a VGA monitor connector, and a serial port. Dual 550W redundant power supplies round out the package.

The Netgear ReadyNAS 4200 shines from both a polish and a performance perspective. My review unit came with six 2TB enterprise-class Western Digital drives. On the rear panel are four 1GbE connections, two USB 2.0 ports, two eSATA connectors, and a serial port. Hardware details include an Intel Xeon processor and 8GB of memory. The unit also included a 10GBaseT card that I did not test. The ReadyNAS 4200 costs $5,279 without drives.

The QNAP TS-1279U-RP wasn't the fastest of the bunch, but it is rich in features and provides plenty of value for the cost. My review unit came without drives, so I installed Seagate Constellation CS SED 3TB drives. I also tested the QNAP system's ability to use SSD for cache, via a pair of STEC s620 drives. These were removed for the performance testing. Inside the box is an Intel Core i3 processor and 4GB of memory, expandable to 32GB. The TS-1279U-RP costs $4,032 sans drives.

How I testedMy test lab consisted of a mix of servers including two HP ProLiant MicroServers running Windows Server 2012 and a Dell PowerEdge R715 running Windows Server 2012 R2, an HP 2920-24G switch, and a CyberPower UPS for testing orderly shutdown. I used multiple Hyper-V instances on the servers to generate network traffic for load testing. Before testing I updated the NAS units to the latest firmware release. In the case of the QNAP unit, I also tested a beta release of QTS 4.1. 

For performance testing I used Iometer. While some might say Iometer is getting long in the tooth, it is still one of the few open source tools commonly used to compare the performance of different storage systems. To create the tests, I used the OpenPerformanceTest32.icf Iometer configuration file available on the vmktree.org website. A handy Web-based results interpreter on the same site lets you paste the contents of the Iometer output file and see the results in a nice summary table.

Iometer uses either an unpartitioned disk, or a single data file named iobw.tst by default, for all operations. If the file does not exist on the target drive, Iometer will proceed to create one for you. In an attempt to produce consistent results with the same base file I used a program called TestFileCreator.exe (available here) that will quickly allocate a file of a specified size. 

The OpenPerformanceTest32.icf configuration file uses four different scenarios to test maximum throughput and random read/write traffic. The main objective of my performance testing was to subject each NAS system to the same mixed workload for comparison purposes, not to drive the storage systems beyond their network or storage bandwidth capacity. As you can see from the charts below, the LenovoEMC and Netgear systems were the strongest performers, though the Netgear also turned in the highest latency in two of the tests.

 

 

 

 

Common coreEach of the units we tested had a set of common features you might expect to find on any business-grade storage box. All four units support SATA drives only and provide removable disk trays to install any typical 3.5-inch drive. The drive trays in the LenovoEMC, Netgear, and QNAP units have screw holes for 2.5-inch drives on the bottom and 3.5-inch drives on the top. This makes it really easy to install drives of either size -- including SSDs, which generally come only in the 2.5-inch form factor. Infortrend provides a 2.5-inch adapter, which costs extra.

The systems run either a quad-core Intel Xeon or a dual-core Intel Core processor and between 4GB and 8GB of memory. (All but the QNAP sported 8GB of RAM.) All contain a minimum of two 1GB Ethernet ports with 10GbE ports as an option. The LenovoEMC and Netgear units have four 1GB Ethernet ports as standard equipment. Dual redundant power supplies come standard on all units, along with USB and serial ports to connect to a UPS. For connecting external drives, the LenovoEMC and Netgear units include USB ports on the front for easy access. The QNAP includes eSATA and USB 3.0 ports on the rear.

From a network protocol perspective, the units are pretty much the same. Options include AFP, iSCSI, NFS, and SMB. If you're using VMware for virtualization, you'll want a box with support for NFS, iSCSI, or both. FTP is a protocol most users won't need, but there's support for it across the board. SMB support generally equates to SMB 2.0, but the latest QNAP software provides limited support for SMB 3.0, which is the latest version found in Windows 8.0/8.1 and Windows Server 2012/R2.

Syncing data remotely between two of these devices makes it possible to implement a disaster recovery plan. All of the systems I tested provide at least rsync for remote replication. Rsync has been around since the mid-'90s and provides a very basic synchronization capability using standard TCP port 873. All four systems also provide the ability to take advantage of LACP (Link Aggregation Control Protocol) to bind multiple Ethernet ports together to increase bandwidth. With four 1GbE ports, the LenovoEMC and Netgear systems effectively give you twice the potential bandwidth as the other systems.

Cloud connectionsThe ability to connect to various cloud services for backup and file syncing will be a key feature for many users. The LenovoEMC PX12-450r offers the most diverse set of cloud connection options of the group. It's the only product I tested with a built-in link to the Mozy backup service. The LenovoEMC also provides connections to Amazon S3, the EMC Atmos cloud storage service, and the EMC Avamar backup products. The Infortrend EonNAS 1510 did not come with any cloud service connections.

Netgear's ReadyNAS includes the ability to sync shares to a Dropbox account. Netgear also offers a number of its own cloud-based services, including ReadyCloud, ReadyDrop, ReadyNAS Remote, and ReadyNAS Replicate. ReadyCloud is a secure cloud portal that provides access to files on the ReadyNAS device via Web browser. ReadyDrop enables file synchronization between the ReadyNAS and users' PCs and Macs. ReadyNAS Remote provides a secure VPN for remote access to the storage device, as well as a secure link for ReadyCloud and ReadyDrop.

QNAP's cloud connections include an automated Dynamic DNS updater (DDNS) to provide access to remote users without requiring a static IP address for the NAS. QNAP also has an Amazon S3 replication feature, a link to the Symform file sharing service, and the ElephantDrive cloud storage provider. QNAP's Qsync service provides synchronization between the NAS and clients for Android, iOS, OS X, and Windows. QNAP's Real-time Remote Replication provides one-way replication from one QNAP device to another or to an FTP server in real time or per a specified schedule.

Management capabilitiesAll four NAS boxes provide similar Web-based management interfaces. You'll find icons with links to the typical management functions to configure network settings, manage storage, and install updates. For the most part, the systems provided a snappy Web interface for performing the typical management functions, though I experienced some slowness on the Infortrend EonNAS 1510 when switching pages. Power scheduling is a feature common to all the units, allowing you to set daily on and off times or configure different schedules for weekdays and weekends.

You won't need to update system firmware very often, but it should be an easy task to accomplish. Several of the systems will check in with the vendor website and compare the current firmware version with the latest available. An alert on the management page will let you know if a newer version is found. All of the systems provide the ability to manually update the firmware by uploading a file through the management Web page.

Netgear's ReadyNAS definitely had the most responsive and visually pleasing interface of the group. Graphical displays on the system performance page show plenty of detail on CPU, network, and storage. A pop-up display provides more detailed information when you hover the mouse over an item such as a disk number on the status page. Creating new shares or iSCSI LUNS pops up a simple form presenting pertinent information such as amount of space available.

The LenovoEMC PX12-450r uses icons to indicate the different functions and features, which are grouped together under a common theme such as network or storage. One nice feature of the QNAP unit is an automatic redirection when you change the IP address of the network interface. Others disconnect immediately and make you reenter the new address. One feature missing from the LenovoEMC PX12-450r interface is a network bandwidth display. LenovoEMC offers a Nagios plug-in, but provides nothing out of the box to show how much data is travelling across the Ethernet ports.

Virtualization and extrasSeveral products have features targeted squarely at supporting different aspects of virtualization. LenovoEMC has a feature called IVX for Integrated Virtualization Extension. It basically allows you to run a virtual machine on the NAS box itself using the embedded CPU and system memory. The possibilities were limited by the 8GB of system memory in my test system, but this feature could be useful for running a small footprint VM. Creating a VM requires storing an ISO file of the operating system install disk on the NAS and using VNC to connect into the running virtual machine.

The latest version of the QNAP operating system, QTS 4.1, includes partial support for SMB 3.0 (read: performance improvements) and support for Microsoft's ODX (Offloaded Data Transfer) feature. It also supports the SMI-S management standard for integration into Microsoft's System Center Virtual Machine Manager. Additional support for VMware's VAAI (vStorage APIs for Array Integration) brings a similar capability to Microsoft's ODX. QNAP also provides a plug-in for VMware's vCenter Server for managing storage resources.

Netgear's ReadyNAS includes the ability to install custom apps from a marketplace. Once loaded they appear on the main system page. Options include Dokuwiki, Media Wiki, WordPress, Drupal, Joomla, SugarCRM, a Subversion server, and lots more. QNAP has similar add-on support with apps such as Dropbox and Google Drive Sync, Drupal and Joomla, Git source code control, and many more. There is plenty of overlap, but QNAP's app catalog is definitely more extensive than Netgear's.

All four NAS products offer the essential features necessary to provide large amounts of storage to smaller organizations or workgroups. You could use 4TB drives to get 48TB of raw space if that's what you need. Most likely the decision will be driven mainly by available features such as cloud connectivity or virtualization support. Performance across the various products wasn't all that different, though the LenovoEMC and Netgear systems pushed more IOPS and the Infortrend and Netgear boxes suffered the highest latencies.

The difference in base cost is significant from low to high, but you get more features and better performance with the more expensive units. The QNAP TS-1279U-RP offers the most options and extras, while the LenovoEMC px12-450r offers stronger performance and the most cloud storage options. Overall, the Netgear ReadyNAS 4200 offers the best combination of performance, features, and polish.

This story, "Review: 4 NAS appliances deliver big storage cheap," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in storage and the data center at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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Tags Configuration / maintenancenetwork-attached storagestoragehardware systemsnetgearLenovoX1Data CenteremcApple

More about Amazon Web ServicesAppleCyberPowerDellDropboxEMC CorporationGoogleHitachi AustraliaHPInfortrendIntelISOLinuxMacsMicrosoftNASNetgear AustraliaQNAPSeagateVMware AustraliaWestern Digital

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