Why do I need a NAS?
My home network is the epitome of a mixed operating system environment and it presents a perfect environment in which to test the QNAP TS-439 Turbo NAS. The network consists of 6 Mb DSL service connected to a D-Link DIR-655 Wireless-N Extreme router that supports Gigabit WAN and 4 Gigabit LAN ports. A variety of both Mac OS X and Windows laptops connect via 802.11n. On the Gigabit LAN, I have PlayStation 3 DNLA media client, an Ubuntu Linux box for downloading content via torrent and transcoding video, and, occasionally, one of the laptops for faster transfers.
The goal is to install the TS-439 to act as the file server, media server, and a host for backups of my MacBook Pro. This setup should also consume much less power and allow the computers to be suspended most of the time since the NAS can server media, act as a download client, or just spin down the drives if it’s not busy.
I was also interested in the Bit Torrent features of the QNAP TS-439 since that is one of the primary things that I use my Linux box for. Moving more functionality to the NAS allows my other systems to be off or sleeping and consuming less power. For instance, my Linux box consumes ~75 Watts during a torrent download while the TS-439 consumes only ~50 Watts. I’ll discuss the Bit Torrent functionality and power usage of the NAS more later. Let's take a closer look at the TS-439's features.
The $799.99 TS-439 is the latest in QNAP's "Turbo NAS Series" to provide extreme performance for massive data sharing, advanced RAID data protection, 256-bit encryption, and hot-swappable hard drive design for business and power users. The TS-439 features an 1.6 GHz Intel Atom processor and space for 4 hot-swappable SATA I/II hard drives. If that is not enough space, the TS439 has 5 USB 2.0 ports and 2 eSATA ports for easy backup and expansion.
QNAP’s four bay TS-439 Pro Turbo NAS is advertised as:
The latest power-saving NAS models featuring the Intel 1.6 GHz CPU, 1GB DDRII memory and stylish. These two models adopt vertical hard drive mounting which allows vertical air convection for excellent heat dissipation as less air is trapped beneath compared to horizontal hard drive mounting. The energy-saving processor of the NAS guarantees low consumption and allows 24x7 operation. The NAS also supports powerful features, including dual Giga LAN, RAID 0/1/5/6/5+spare configurations, Online RAID Capacity Expansion and Online RAID Level Migration, iSCSI target service with Thin Provisioning, AES 256-bit volume-based encryption, automatic policy-based IP blocking, instant SMS alert, and SSL secure certificate etc.
Setting up the QNAP TS-439
As soon as the QNAP TS-439 Pro NAS shipped, I ordered 4 identical 1 TiB Hitachi Deskstar drives from Newegg. My plan was to set up the NAS with 4 drives running in RAID-5, which provides about 3 TiB of storage while allowing the NAS to survive a single drive failure.
When everything arrived, I was in a hurry to get started.
The NAS has 4 easy to access and remove aluminum drive sleds. Four screws fasten each drive into its sled and they slide smoothly into the NAS. Each drive spun up and its light went green, with the exception of one drive. It was DOA and would not be recognized by the NAS. After troubleshooting the drive and convincing myself that it was not an issue with the NAS, itself, I had a new drive cross-shipped immediately. The DOA drive would give me the opportunity to try out the RAID expansion features of the TS-439.
Since Windows is not my primary environment, I configured the NAS via the web interface. By default, the TS-439 gets an address via DHCP from the router and reports this address on the front panel making it easy to find with any web browser on your subnet. I started the out by navigating the friendly Quick Configuration screens and setting up my three working drives as a 1.8 TiB formatted RAID-5; I planned to add the fourth drive later and expand the RAID to the full 2.7 TiB capacity.
It took about 30 minutes to create the 1.8 TiB filesystem and I was up and running. At this point, the NAS was available for reading and writing, but the RAID was still synchronizing so the data was not yet protected. The synchronization process took about 9 hours, but, in the mean time, I started experimenting with the NAS.
The most basic function of the NAS, as the acronym implies, is to provide Network-Attached Storage. The TS-439 provides many ways to access that storage including a web file manager (HTTP), FTP, NFS, SMB, and AFP. The web file manager is a simple way to access files via a web browser and to quickly grab a single file, but it is too rudimentary to really manage your NAS. FTP is similar in that you can fetch or upload files.
Really using a NAS requires that you mount the drive to your computer using NFS (for Linux and other Unix type OS), AFP (for Macs), or SMB (for Windows machines). It was easy to enable all of the sharing protocols and to then access the shares from Mac OS X, Windows, and Linux. Now that I was sure that I could access the NAS, it was time to start setting it up to be useful!
Creating User Accounts and Shares
The NAS supports user accounts so that you can control who has access to which shares. It also has user groups that will allow you to specify permissions by group. I started out by creating a user for myself and adding myself to the admin group.
While you could simply use the admin account as your only user, you would run into issues if you’re accessing files from Linux via NFS as I’ll discuss later. (Please read the Mixed Operating System Issues section below before creating any shares or copying files to your NAS if you intend to mount the shares from both Mac or Windows and Linux.)
In addition to creating a user for myself, I also created shares that I thought would be useful. At the time you create the shares, you need to decide which of your users can access them and if they can write to the share as well as read. Remember that if your wireless network is open and your shares are readable, anyone can search through your files.
I created a share for my Mac Time Machine backups, a share for my Archives, and a share to rip my DVDs into.
Putting the (S)torage in NAS
Once I had a place to put my data, I began filling the NAS. The TS-439 automatically creates a number of shares including Qmultimedia, which is used by the media server as the default content directory. I moved my Video library into this share so that it would be accessible to the built in Twonky media server. I also moved my Mac Time Machine network backup from the Mac Mini to the NAS.
About this time, the fourth drive arrived and I could finally expand the RAID to 2.7 TiB. I followed the instructions as presented on the QNAP website and started the RAID expansion. While the RAID is being expanded, it is still accessible at the previous smaller size and the data is protected. Once the expansion is complete, the file system is resized and the new space is available for use. The expansion process, going from a 3 drive 1.8 TiB RAID-5 to a 4 drive 2.7 TiB RAID-5, took approximately 2 days and 9 hours. Once the expansion was complete, the NAS showed the correct size and I had a 2.7 TiB RAID-5.
At this point, the TS-439 had checked out and was fully configured; now it was time to really put it through its paces.
One of the main reasons to install a network attached RAID is for transfer speed. Since I was running the QNAP TS-439 in such a mixed environment, I could test out the throughput using each of the supported mounting protocols (SMB, AFP, and NFS).
For my first benchmark, I used a 1080p version of Lord of the Rings Two Towers; coming in at 8048 MiB, it’s just the sort of large file that you might want back up on your NAS. See the chart below for the results.
The Intel NAS Performance Toolkit file system exerciser, a windows only benchmark is designed to emulate the behavior of an actual application, NASPT uses a set of real world workload traces gathered from typical digital home applications. Traces of high definition video playback and recording, office productivity applications, video rendering/content creation and more provide a broad range of different application behaviors. With the latest version of NASPT, users may even add their own custom traces. NASPT reproduces the file system traffic recorded in these traces onto whatever storage solution the user provides, records the system response, and reports a rich variety of performance information. The results are shown below.
ATTO is one of the oldest hard drive benchmarks that is still used today. ATTO measures transfers across a specific volume length. It measures raw transfer rates for both reads and writes and places the data into graphs that you can easily interpret. The test was run with the default runs of 0.5kb through 8192kb transfer sizes with the total length being 256mb.
Benchmarking Results: You can see from the file copy test above, mounting via NFS appears to be the fastest way to access the NAS. Although it seems slow, note that using SMB/CIFS on Vista is about 11 MiB/S on T-100, not Gigabit, so that means that it is running at nearly the maximum speed. The NASPT and ATTO benchmarks were run on the same Vista machine and the performance was at or near the maximum performance for large files. Unfortunately I did not have a Windows machine with Gigabit networking to test on, but according to QNAP, they get almost 80 MiB/s with SMB/CIFS via T-1000
Torrents, Twonky, and Printers (Oh My)
The TS-439 features a great many features in addition to its file server capabilities. The unit can act as a Download Station capable of downloading via Bit Torrent, FTP, or HTTP. There is also the Twonky UPnP DNLA media server that will allow your PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, or other media client access audio, video or pictures stored on the NAS.
The NAS can also serve up to 4 printers via the rear USB ports. There are many other services including a web server, database, and iTunes service which I haven’t explored yet but are described thoroughly on QNAP’s website. Below is an illustration of how QNAP's Download Station can support PC-less downloads & UPnP/DLNA Media Sharing.
As I mentioned above, I was very interested in trying out the Bit Torrent features of the Download Station. QNAP provides a very easy to use remote control app called Qget that allows you to start and stop downloads. You can also use your browser to control the Download station. As an initial test, I chose a random torrent and started a download. Given the size of the torrent, I was unsurprised to see a transfer rate of 320 KiB/s over my 6 Mib/s DSL. The torrent completed quickly with no problems. The one major issue that I found was the inability to use a block list like that from Peer Guardian or to restrict connections to I2P or Tor only. This means that your torrent connections will be open to spying by anyone that wants to record your IP.
The Twonky Media server is the standard for embedded devices or home theater installations. The media server comes completely preconfigured; all you need to do is check a box during setup and it’s up and running. When you copy your media into the Qmultimedia share, Twonky will automatically index it and make it available to media clients on your subnet. I had no problems copying my media to the appropriate place and then viewing it from my PS3. Of course, you need to make sure that the media is in a form playable by your media client; Twonky doesn’t transcode. My only issue with Twonky is the fact that, for a commercial product, it’s very poorly documented. As I said, it comes preconfigured and it’s pretty easy to understand, but I would have liked to see a manual or tutorial.
The print server is pretty basic, but it does everything a print server needs to do. I plugged my Brother laser printer into the NAS and shared it via SMB. It was no problem to connect to the printer from both my Mac and Vista machine. My particular printer wasn’t on the compatibility list at QNAP, but it seems to work fine.
Keeping Your Data Safe
Having a RAID is a great step towards keeping your data safe. A RAID-5 can provide you fast access to your data and the ability to survive and recover from a single drive failure without data loss. However, it’s always possible that you might accidentally delete a file or, even less likely, that your could have a single drive failure and then a second failure during RAID reconstruction. In order to protect against this, the TS-439 provides a few ways to backup your data.
I chose to attach a spare 1 TiB external drive to one of the rear eSATA ports. This allows the NAS to copy or synchronize selected shares to the external drive. Copy will do a full copy of the shares to the external drive. Synchronize will make the external drive share match that on the NAS by copying or deleting only what’s changed. I’ve chosen to synchronize my Archives (old photos and files) and my working laptop backups.
The synchronization process is very easy to setup and pretty fast. I’ve only had one problem with the backup process that won’t bother most people. My laptop backups are created using many hard-links, which allow multiple files to point to the same data so that copies of identical files take up less space. The synchronization performed by the QNAP TS-439 doesn’t duplicate these hard-links and causes the backup to be almost 3 times larger than the files stored on the NAS. If you see this kind of behavior, you’ll know why.
It’s not Easy Being Green
These days, everyone is trying to be green and conserve power. I’m aware that running a bunch of computers 24/7 isn’t easy on the electrical bill, so I was interested in the low power aspect of the TS-439. I used the Kill-A-Watt meter from P3 to test the devices in my server closet. As advertised, the NAS draws 50 Watts during normal operation. If it is not accessed and spins down the drives, it will draw only 25 Watts. For comparison, my Linux Core 2 Quad draws 75 Watts when running Bit Torrent and more that 110 Watts when transcoding video.
Getting your NAS to spin down may be difficult, though. At first I had a hard time. However, after a bit of experimentation, I can say that the NAS does spin down when it is idle. In order to be idle, the drives may not be accessed. This means, that you cannot be accessing the NAS at all. Any Mac or Windows machines awake on your subnet will not allow the NAS to spin down. This is due to the fact that both Mac and Windows machines poll the NAS to see what shares are available, which keeps the NAS up.
Though mounted Linux machines shouldn’t keep the NAS busy since NFS does not poll or otherwise use the network if you’re not accessing the filesystem. This is unless you have a file browser pointed at the mounted shares; to be safe, close any windows showing files on the NAS and any programs that are accessing files on the NAS. The NAS also will not spin down if it is running the Download Station services or if the Twonky Media Server is rescanning content directories. I set Twonky to rescan directories every two hours so that it doesn’t keep the NAS up too much.
All in all, there is a good compromise between keeping your media server up to date and accessing your data that allow the NAS to spin down most of the time and save power.
In addition to power usage, I measured how much the NAS heats up my server closet compared to the closet without the NAS. It’s not exactly scientific, but in my 3’ x 5’ x 8’ closet, the NAS increases the temperature 2˚F from 73˚F to 75˚F. The fan spins at its slow speed all the time and is supposed to speed up if the unit gets hot. I’ve never had my NAS get hot enough to require the fan speeding up.
This NAS is not exactly silent, and since you may be using this unit as a media server, you might be interested in its sound level. At the distance of about a foot, the unit produces about 40dB while the drives are spun down. With the drives awake it registers 44dB. While the NAS is performing a synchronized backup to an external drive, you can hear the drives accessing and the sound meter reads 46dB. By my more subjective ear, it makes about as much noise as a mini tower computer depending on the amount of drive access.
Mixed Operating System Issues
One of the key features of the QNAP TS-439 is its ability to operate in a mixed operating system environment so that you can access your data from any platform. If you happen to be accessing the NAS from only Mac and/or Windows machines, you should have no problems. However, if you’ll be using a Linux machine in addition to Mac or Windows, you’ll notice some problems with file permissions.
When you access the NAS from Mac or Windows, files are created using your user account that you set up on the NAS. If you are just logging in as Admin, they are being created with UID 0, which is root on any Linux box. So, when you mount the NAS via NFS on your Linux box, none of your files belong to you. This can be problematic if you want to move, delete, or edit any of those files. Moreover, if you manage to create files from Linux, they may appear locked when you mount the shares from Mac or Windows machines. This is clearly not the situation you want to be in.
Fixing this problem is pretty easy, it’s easiest if you do it before you create any shares or copy any data to your new NAS. After you’ve got the NAS configured with drives and have created your user accounts, enable SSH Access (or telnet of you’re trusting). SSH and telnet access are found under Admin > System Tools > Remote Login; just check the Allow box. Now, you can use any SSH client to connect to your NAS as Admin (SSH and telnet are usable only by Admin). Anyhow, log into your Linux box and have a look at your /etc/passwd file to determine your UID (the number associated with your username). You can then login to the NAS and change your UID by editing /etc/passwd on the NAS. Be careful to save a backup and change only your user’s UID. Do not change the UID for Admin, who knows what kind of trouble that would cause.
Once you’ve ensured that your UID(s) match on your Linux system(s) and on the NAS, you’re in good shape. Now you can start creating shares and giving your users permissions. If you’ve already created users and shares, you’ll need to change the ownership of those file and directories using chown. That is beyond the scope of this article; I’m sure that you can ask your favorite Linux guru or Google.
Tips and Tricks
If you are going to set up NFS or try to connect to your NAS from outside your home network, you will likely want to configure your NAS with a static IP address. This will make is easier to mount NFS shares and to set up port forwarding.
If you have experience with Linux (since the NAS runs Busy Box Linux), accessing the NAS via SSH is very powerful. You can tweak configuration items like UID, move data between shares very quickly, and even install packages using QPKG and the Isty Package Management system. I installed “wakeonlan” to allow me to log into the NAS and wake sleeping systems on my LAN.
When you need to copy a file from one share to another, if you mount both shares on your computer, files will be copied from the NAS to your computer and back again over the network. This is very inefficient since you’re really just moving them around on the NAS. You can create a “root” share that points to “/” and give access to this share only to the administrator. When you mount this share, you can see all of your shares as subdirectories. While this is convenient to move files from one share to another instantly, it is also a bit hazardous since you could accidentally delete something, so treat this feature with care.
Final Thoughts & Conclusions
I found the TS-439 very easy to setup and use. The NAS served up files at reasonable speeds, and the performances of NFS was excellent. I am happy with the media server functionality and it was very simple to get my media served up to my PS3. I would have liked a manual or other comprehensive documentation for Twonky, though. Also, I had some issues with the finer configuration points such as setting the UIDs so that I would have proper permissions on all my files. I should mention that I contacted technical support with a number of my questions, and they were quick to respond and very helpful.
My most significant disappointment was the Torrent functionality of the Download station. Without peer blocking and anonymous networks, this client won’t be useful to most people. For this reason, I’ll be sticking with Vuze running on my Linux box. It means that I’ll be using 75 Watts of additional power, but the extra security and privacy is worth it.
A quick comment on the sound produced by the NAS: The process of expanding the RAID from 3 to 4 drives was quite noisy and should be comparable to reconstructing the RAID after a drive failure. That is due to the fact that all of the drives were constantly reading and writing. In general, the NAS is fairly quite; it makes about as much noise as a desktop computer. It’s perfectly reasonable to keep in your office or server closet, however I wouldn’t want it in my entertainment center.
At an MSRP of $900 with a range of significantly lower prices (starting at $725) available from retailers, the QNAP TS-439 NAS is still a bit pricey. There are much less capable 4-bay NAS units starting around $255, but many of these units don’t support all the protocols (i.e. NFS or AFP), the data protection options (i.e. replication to an external drive), or the overall configurations (i.e. SSH login to edit internal configuration or install Linux packages) available on the the TS-439. Clearly the TS-439 stands out in it’s complete flexibility; other NAS units offer similar features, but few expose the ability to tinker with the OS or to add packages that can turn the TS-439 into a low power consumption web server with a complete content management system and a database if you desire.
Legit Bottom Line:
For a user willing to pay the $900 price tag for a fully featured NAS, the TS-439 Pro Turbo NAS is a good choice. It is well-designed and has flexibility that power users will appreciate. It has tons features, but a number of these require workarounds and the Torrent client has an unresolved issue.