Network file servers are wonderful things, they connect people and their computers together, let them share files and printers, backup their data and run shared applications. They can, however, be expensive to buy and a nightmare to manage, requiring specialist skills often not available in smaller businesses. Fortunately, there is an alternative in the form of the NAS (Network Attached Storage) appliance. Originally designed to plug into the LAN and simply share files, many can now do almost as much as a general purpose server running Windows or Linux. They tend also to be both cheaper to buy and easier to run, with minimal management required.
What is it and who is it for?
RAID specialist Promise diversified into the burgeoning NAS market a couple of years ago introducing SmartStor storage appliances for both home and small business use. The newly updated NSx700 family is the company’s small business solution, aimed at companies who might, otherwise, consider a general purpose Windows or Linux server for their data sharing needs.
Product strengths are, naturally, RAID protected storage sharing, with bundled backup facilities and integrated Web, database and multimedia streaming servers if needed. Simple Web-based management is the order of the day, added to which the Promise appliance can be shared by a mix of Windows, Mac and Linux/Unix clients with, unlike a Windows server, no additional client licences required.
Pricing & setup
There are two products in the NSx700 SmartStor line-up. A four disk appliance, appropriately called the NS4700 (the product we were sent for testing), plus a slightly larger, six bay, implementation—the NS6700. Both are available without any disks, the bare NS4700 selling for around £610 (ex. VAT) and the NS6700 in the region of £730 (ex. VAT).
Apart from the extra disk bays, the two models are identical with the same 1.8GHz dual-core Intel Atom processor plus 1GB of RAM as standard. Two Gigabit Ethernet ports are provided for LAN attachment and there are five USB ports (one at the front and four at the back) which can be used to attach external backup disks and copy data on and off using USB keys.
The internal disks are mounted into the carriers provided and simply slide into place in the hot-swap bays at the front. More or less any make or model of SATA disk can be used, although for maximum performance and capacity a matched set of drives is recommended. To this end Promise is offering pre-installed disk bundles, using enterprise-class drives covered by a business replacement warranty for 2 years. The cost of an 8TB NS4700, fully configured with four 2TB disks installed is £1,775 (ex. VAT) and a 12TB NS6700 costs £2,440 (ex. VAT).
Initial deployment is relatively easy. Simply plug the disks into the appliance, power it up and either point a browser at the built-in Web interface or install and run the special Windows management tool (SmartNAVI) supplied. Either way you can then run a setup wizard to give the appliance a name and tell it how to format the disks ready for network file sharing.
Two choices are available here, to either maximise capacity or data protection. We went for protection, which meant that we ended up with a RAID 5 array, although other RAID options are available if you go looking for them, plus support for hot-sparing and online capacity expansion.
Does it do it well?
The Promise appliance is well built with a solid metal casing and easy-to-handle disk carriers which lock securely into place. It’s not the quietest of NAS boxes, but it is acceptable with a thermostatically controlled fan to keep both temperature and acoustic levels within bounds. The appliance can also be configured to power itself off when not required, such as overnight for example, and stagger drive spin-up to, similarly, minimise energy consumption.
Performance is largely down to the speed of the disks used and the type of RAID setup. Dual Gigabit network interfaces also help and, overall, we were impressed with the results we got which match what’s possible with a similar general purpose Windows server. Likewise, when configured as an iSCSI target on a SAN (storage Area Network), the Promise appliance is more than adequate for most small business applications with a built-in PXE server as a bonus to support the remote booting of diskless clients.
Other nice features include the ability to seamlessly share files between Windows, Apple Mac and Linux/UNIX clients, with FTP and Web-based file sharing also built in. Added to which there are lots of backup options including support for Windows VSS (Volume Shadow copy Service) and Apple Time Machine, plus a bundled copy of Acronis Backup & Restore to take scheduled backups of client PCs. Snapshots can also be taken of the NAS storage, with the snapshots stored in a reserved partition on the appliance.
Where does it disappoint?
Although brim-full of features and functionality, we didn’t find the Promise SmartStor appliance that easy to configure or manage. In particular the setup wizard only covers the bare essentials, which meant having to hunt around the management tools to find out how to join the NS4700 to our Active Directory domain, configure users and groups, schedule backups and so on.
On the plus side, everything we wanted was there, it just took a long time to find it and work out how to make it all work. The ability to manage some features from both the Web-based interface and the SmartNAVI tool didn’t help, added to which we found the browser GUI far from easy to navigate, with confusing technical language and obscure terminology in places. The software tools also suffer from poor translation and spelling mistakes and we’d like to see the documentation improved with more emphasis on non-technical users.
Would we recommend it?
As an alternative to general purpose Windows or Linux servers, Promise SmartStor NSx700 appliances have much to offer. They’re well built, quick and very configurable, with lots of options beyond simple network storage sharing. The NAS market, however, is highly competitive and when it comes to configuration and management the Promise solution comes in second best. It does what it’s supposed to, but others do it better and require far less technical expertise to fully exploit what NAS appliances like the SmartStor NSx700 have to offer.