Building A NAS Server For The Home

With more data going digital the need to backup personal and business data is becoming necessary these days. One of my neighbors brought over a laptop the other night after the hard drive failed in it and informed me that all of his honeymoon pictures were on it. The drive was completely toast and he was in the dog house to say the least. He took the drive to Best Buy the next morning and paid the Geek Squad $59 to tell him the same exact thing. They offered to send the drive off to another repair facility where the prices started at $259 and the sky was the limit. He ended up sending the drive off to Drive Savers and refused to tell me how much he paid to get the data recovered. If I had to guess it was close to a thousand dollars, which isn't bad depending on what exactly is being recovered.

Right after this happened, my girlfriend started to question how we backup our data and rightly so.  The secondary drive I tossed in the Home Theater PC that was networked across the house was a great place to backup data, but it was not redundant. Since my girlfriend is big time into scrapbooking (and has a room to prove it for just that) it only makes sense to invest in a Network Attached Storage (NAS) Sever that was redundant.

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Since I knew that we would be backing up all of our personal and business data in one place it had to be robust, easy to use and offer redundant RAID arrays. I knew right off the bat that I wanted to run RAID 6 (Striped set with dual distributed Parity) due to the fact that two of the five drives could fail and no data would be lost. This meant that a NAS sever supporting at least five drives was needed. The Thecus N5200 high performance storage server seemed to gel with our needs and fit in the budget.

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The Thecus N5200 uses an Intel Celeron M processor running at 600MHz and 256MB of DDR memory for powerful data-processing capabilities. The N5200 has the capacity for five 3.5" SATA hard disks for over 3TB of storage (Thecus does offer an N5200 model that supports 5TB, but that wasn't needed for this application)! To keep data secure, the N5200 features various RAID modes, including RAID 0, 1, 5, 6, 10 and JBOD. Managing your RAID array is easy with the N5200's built-in RAID management features, including auto rebuild, hot swap, hot spare, disk roaming, and more. To backup your data, the N5200 comes with the Thecus Backup Application, as well as a feature called Nsync. With Nsync, users can have the N5200 automatically upload files to an external storage device via FTP at a designated time. The Thecus N5200 includes 3 USB ports, a Gigabit Ethernet port, and a 4-port Gigabit switch for excellent connectivity options. Users can even install a USB 802.11 b/g dongle for Wi-Fi capability. The Thecus N5200 NAS server has a ton of features that make it a solid choice for most home or business applications!

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I dug up five Western Digital WD1500 SATA Raptor hard drives to use in the Thecus N5200. As previously mentioned these drives would be run in RAID 6 as I wanted fault tolerance from two drive failures (the array continues to operate with up to two failed drives). RAID 6 is often used to make larger RAID groups more practical as it lengthens the time needed to recover from the failure of a single drive. Single parity RAID levels are vulnerable to data loss until the failed drive is rebuilt, which is critical if you don't keep a spare drive on hand. Dual parity gives time to rebuild the array without the data being at risk if one drive, but no more, fails before the rebuild is complete. Let's take a closer look at the Thecus N5200 before we fire it up with the drives inside.

Inside The Thecus N5200

Tecus N5200 NAS Server

The bundle included with the Thecus N5200 is fairly solid. It comes with a warranty card, driver and utility CD, network cable, eSATA cable, USB A-to-B cable, power cable (kettle lead), four drive cage keys and enough screws to install seven hard drives even though the N5200 only supports five hard drives.

Tecus N5200 NAS Server

The back of the Thecus N5200 has what you would expect: internet connections! The N5200 features a 4-port Gigabit switch, along with the individual Gigabit port. There's also an RS232 interface, for terminal access, and a USB port above that. At the very top of the back panel are two USB ports for hooking up other drives or a WiFi card to give the box wireless capabilities. Next to the USB ports is a lone eSATA port if an external drive is ever needed.  At the very bottom of the NAS server is a small power supply that does include a power switch. The 4-port Gigabit switch that is built-in the Thecus 5200 is often looked over, but it will save money down the road if you are installing it on a network with only four systems. A LINKSYS SD2005 10/100/1000Mbps Gigabit Switch will set you back roughly $60, so keep that in mind when shopping for a NAS server.

Tecus N5200 NAS Server

After removing the three thumb screws on the back pack panel, the covers on the Thecus N5200BR can be removed.  Once the panels are removed you can see the motherboard inside and the front LCD panel. The Thecus N5200 is powered by a Celeron M-600 CPU that is passive cooled, along with the Intel north bridge chipset. The Thecus N5200 has a 128MB flash drive that keeps the firmware and software used to operate the box nice and safe. The red 256MB DDR2 400MHz memory module is from Kingmax. Since there really isn't anything to adjust or overclock on the inside there is no need to go into much detail about the internals.

Installing The Drives and Setup

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Not too many people have five identical drives lying around, but I did happen to have five Western Digital WD1500 SATA Raptor hard drives to use in the Thecus N5200. These drives came out in 2006 and are no longer in production as they have been replaced by newer faster drives such as the Western Digital VelociRaptor that I reviewed a number of months ago. Since I wanted to run RAID 6 and these hard drives are starting to show signs of getting old, giving them a fresh start in the Thecus N5200 sounded like a great plan. The weakness of these Western Digital Raptor WD1500 hard drives is the fact that they are only SATA 1.5GBps and not SATA 3 Gbps, so keep that in mind during the benchmark results. 

Thecus N5200BR Drive Installation

Installing the drives in the Thecus N5200 is very simple and the only thing that is needed is a Philips screwdriver and about five minutes of free time. In order to attach the hard drives to the trays, simply attach the four screws to the bottom of drive through the tray. Once all the drives are installed they can be locked in place so no one can open a tray and pull one out when you aren't around. The box itself measures only 230mm x 190mm x 230mm, so if you are worried about theft then be sure to secure the entire server as well.

Thecus N5200BR Drive Installation

The Thecus N5200 only has connections for the standard SATA backplate, so if you wanted to use IDE drives or the original Western Digital VelociRaptors (WD1500GLFS), you are out of luck with this model. The new Western Digital VelociRaptors (WD1500HLFS) with the standard backplane do work in the Thecus 5200!

After all the drives are installed and everything is ready to go the NAS server can be fired up!

Thecus N5200BR Drive Installation

I headed to the Thecus website to download the latest setup wizard as the driver disc that came with the storage server was version v1.1.7 and the latest posted on the Thecus website was v1.1.9.6 from way back on 11-14-2007. Since we got this server in 2008 it means they haven't updated the driver disc, which is something we frown on half a year after a new version of software comes out. After downloading and installing the setup wizard we fired up the program and got ready to get the server going.

Running The Setup Wizard

Thecus N5200BR Setup Wizard

Once the setup wizard is off and running it will automatically try to discover the device on the network for you. Pick the NAS server you want to configure and hit next.

Thecus N5200BR Setup Wizard

Next the wizard will ask you for a password even though you haven't setup a password yet. The default account and password are both 'admin'.

Thecus N5200BR Setup Wizard

Next up is the network configuration and it is here that you get to name your N5200 and configure the network IP address. If your switch or router is configured as a DHCP Server, configuring the N5200 to automatically obtain an IP address is recommended. You may also use a static IP address and enter the DNS Server address manually.

Thecus N5200BR Setup Wizard

The last step in the wizard allows you to change the admin password, which is something you should obviously do.

Setting Up The Server Continued

Thecus N5200BR Setup Wizard

Now that the setup wizard has completed the rest of the setup needs to be done from the Web Administration Interface that is used to configure the network settings of the Thecus N5200 for your network. You can access the Network menu by pointing the browser to the IP address that you setup (default is 192.168.1.100). If you can't reach the router make sure you have completed the setup wizard correctly. If you see the screen above you did things correctly and you can log in with 'admin' and then the password you already setup.

Thecus N5200BR Setup Wizard

After entering the control panel for the first time head directly to the system menu and select to upgrade the system firmware before doing anything else. The latest firmware can be downloaded directly from Thecus and more than likely an upgrade will be needed. In this situation I upgraded from version 2.00.04 to version 2.00.12, which offered a number of improvements.

Thecus N5200BR Setup Wizard

During the firmware upgrade the system will beep and need to be rebooted, but the process is simple. The process does take a few minutes as the firmware file itself is 32MB in size.

Thecus N5200BR Setup Wizard

With the Thecus N5200 restarted I checked to make sure the firmware version was updated and sure enough it's running version 2.00.12 just fine.  

RAID Creation and Usage

Thecus N5200BR Raid Setup

To get the Thecus N5200 online you need to create a new RAID array under the 'Storage' tab. The Thecus N5200 supports standard RAID levels 0, 1, 5, 6, 10, and JBOD. You choose a RAID level when you create a system volume. The factors for selecting a RAID level are:

I personally went with RAID 6, which is essentially an extension of RAID level 5 that allows for additional fault tolerance by using a second independent distributed parity scheme (dual parity). Data is striped on a block level across a set of drives, just like in RAID 5, and a second set of parity is calculated and written across all the drives; RAID 6 provides for an extremely high data fault tolerance and can sustain two simultaneous drive failures.

Thecus N5200BR Raid Setup

I forgot to take a screen shot of the RAID configuration when I was setting up the system, but it basically looks like this and you can select which drives to use or keep as a spare.

Thecus N5200BR Raid Setup

One thing that should be noted is that once a RAID array is being created there is no way to stop it once the wheels are turning. The RAID build itself takes a very long time to complete, which might be a sign that the ULV Celeron processor that is being used could use some more horse power. To build our 5 disk RAID 6 array it took roughly 360 minutes, which is 6 hours for those that are trying to convert that in your head. I went to sleep when it was building the array, so I'm not sure how accurate the built in timer was.

The Thecus N5200 has a ton of features so be sure to check out the entire 90 page user's manual if you want to see what you are getting into when purchasing one of these NAS servers. Setup will vary depending on how many drives you have and how you will be using it on the network. Setup wasn't too bad and the documentation was pretty good compared to some of the user's manuals that I have seen.

Benchmarking The Thecus N5200

To start out testing I fired up the ASUS WL-500W Super Speed N multifunctional wireless router loaded up with firmware version 2.0.0.1 (1-31-2008) and benchmarked the performance of the RAID 6 array and the Thecus N5200BR.

Thecus N5200 RAID 6 benchmarking with CrystalMark 2.1

The performance wasn't too impressive as 11.5MB/s isn't earth-shattering by any means.  This was on a 10/100 router though, so let's change over to a Linksys SD2008 10/100/1000Mbps version 3.0 Gigabit switch and see what happens.

Thecus N5200 RAID 6 benchmarking with CrystalMark 2.1

Using a Gigabit switch drastically improved performance since the Thecus N5200 needs more bandwidth to transfer data. The single most important thing you must have to do in order to improve performance of any NAS box is to run it on a Gigabit network. If you spend the ~$700 on a NAS server then be sure to spend the extra ~$100 for the Gigabit switch! A 10/100 switch or router is only good for transfer rates of up to 12.5 MB/s, which kills performance. Now that this has been shown by using Crystal Mark 2.1, all the other benchmarks will be done on the Gigabit switch. The Thecus N5200BR comes with a 4-port Gigabit switch, but my application required 8-ports, which is why I used the Linksys SD2008 switch.

Thecus N5200 RAID 6 benchmarking with ATTO 2.34

ATTO has been around for some time, but it is still a very popular hard disk benchmarking tool that offers nice features to benchmark RAID setups. The first benchmark that I ran was the one called 'I/O Comparison', which is where the benchmark writes files on the disk being tested and then reads them back.

Thecus N5200 RAID 6 benchmarking with ATTO 2.34

The second test I ran with ATTO is called 'Overlapped I/O', which is where the benchmark performs the same task as in the comparison test, but allows the tasks to be divided and executed in parallel.

As you can see the performance numbers between the benchmarks differ, which is why more than one benchmarking utility is needed when looking at hard disk performance.  Let's take a look at how the Thecus N5200 does when using an FTP client in a real world test.

FTP Upload and Download Testing

The previous page of synthetic benchmarks looks great and makes it easy to compare performance, but what about real world testing? For this, I downloaded the latest version of WinSCP (v4.1.6) and transferred some game demos from a client system to the Thecus N5200BR server.

Thecus N5200 FTP Testing

I uploaded the game demos Devil May Cry 4 and Race Driver: GRID to the Thecus N5200BR and noted that the upload speeds topped out at around 33Mbps to 34Mbps, which isn't too shabby.

Thecus N5200 FTP Testing

Once the files were uploaded to the network attached storage server, I then downloaded them to a new location on the client machine.  The download speed was quicker and the top speed seen was 46Mbps during the download.

The last test I want to run on the Thecus N5200BR is the Intel NAS Performance Toolkit Exerciser. The Intel NAS Performance Toolkit is a file system exerciser and analysis tool designed to enable performance comparisons between network attached storage (NAS) devices. Intel NASPT focuses on user level performance using real world workload traces gathered from typical digital home applications: HD video playback and record, data backup and restore utilities, office productivity applications, video rendering/content creation and more. Intel NASPT reproduces the file system traffic observed in these traces onto whatever storage solution the user provides, records the system response, and reports a rich variety of performance information. The end result is readily comparable performance measurements that are useful to developers as well as intuitive and compelling to consumers.

Thecus N5200 - Intel NASPT Benchmark Results

The Intel NAS Performance Toolkit is one of the only benchmarks that I am aware of that was designed from the ground up just to measure NAS performance. The benchmark tests 18 different test scenarios to give you a great overall idea of how the NAS performs.

Final Thoughts and Conclusions

Thecus N5200 Power Consumption

When it comes to power consumption the Thecus N5200 doesn't consume too much since it has just an Intel Celeron M processor running at 600MHz and 256MB of DDR memory inside. I pulled all the drives out and found that the storage server consumed 36W without any drives installed.  With all five of the 150GB Western Digital WD1500 Raptor hard drives installed the idle power consumption jumped up to 93W. While moving files between the server and a client and running a benchmark the power consumption only jumped up to 103W, which was a bit of a shock.

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Final Thoughts and Conclusions:

The Thecus N5200BR that I used in this article was my first time using a Network Attached Storage server and it was a positive experience at the end of the day.  The setup took a little longer than I expected as building the RAID array could take many hours to complete.  To build my RAID 6 array with five 150GB hard drives it took over 6 hours, which seems like a long time.  After talking to Thecus they informed me that building a five drive array with 1TB drives could take nearly 15 hours to complete! Obviously, the time to build an array will depend on the drives, capacities and the type of array being built.

The use and features of the Thecus N5200 were impressive and this is partly due to the fact that it has been on the market now for well over a year.  The firmware and setup wizard have been updated a number of times over the months and my testing went without any problems.  I was a little nervous when I started building the server as the Western Digital WD1500 hard drives I used were not on the HDD compatibility list provided by Thecus, but the N5200 was compatible with them!  When it comes to noise levels, the Thecus N5200 was right around 61dB when measured about a foot away from the unit with all the Western Digital Raptors inside spinning at 10,000 RPM.  The reason we didn't spend time testing the noise level is because it depends on what drives you use, and there are just too many out there to test them all.

When it comes to pricing, the Thecus N5200BR can be found for $684.99 plus shipping, which puts it just over $700 by the time it gets to your door. By the time you add in the five hard drives needed for a RAID 6 array you are easily over $1,000 for a setup like this. This may seem like an exorbitant amount, but you can easily spend that in data recovery if you backup to a single drive and it fails for some reason. Compared to other NAS servers on the market the Thecus is priced lower than competing 5-bay models from QNAP and Synology.

For those that want a little more power in order to complete building RAID arrays quicker the Thecus N5200BR Pro might be something to take a closer look at. The Thecus N5200BR Pro features a faster Intel 1.5GHz Celeron M Processor and 512MB DDR system memory. This results in even faster response and more concurrent connections. In order to get this performance boost the price jumps up to $799 plus shipping, so if you need more power take a look at that one.

Legit Bottom Line: The Thecus N5200BR is fairly easy to setup and has all the features that you need in order to back up your data and keep it secure, thanks to double redundancy.