Storage

Three NAS Devices For Efficient Small-Office Backup

Synology DS409slim

Truthfully, the real reason I wanted to get my hands on Synology's DS409slim NAS unit was because of the press release I was sent, which boasts that the DS409slim is about the same size as a coffee mug. That intrigued me, because up to that point, a 1.6 x 3.2 x 5.3 inch (WHD) Buffalo LinkStation Mini was the smallest NAS unit I'd encountered.

Apparently, they have some large coffee mugs at Synology. The DS409slim measures 4.1 x 4.7 x 5.6 inches (WHD) -- a smidgen larger than the LinkStation Mini. In its defense, however, the DS409slim can accommodate four 2.5-inch drives while the LinkStation Mini can only handle two.

Hardware

The DS409slim ships by itself, without any drives -- you have to fill it on your own. Unfortunately, although 3.5-inch drives have reached 2TB, their 2.5-inch relatives currently top out at 500GB.

The drive supports JBOD, RAID 0, RAID1, RAID 5, RAID 5+spare and RAID 6, which means you can get 2TB of storage (roughly, before accounting for parity overhead) with four drives (1TB if you're using RAID 1). The unit has two USB ports and an eSATA port and will accommodate external printers and disk drives.

I stuffed the box with four Seagate 320GB Momentus 7200.3 drives. While not the highest capacity of the series (it goes up to 500GB), the Momentus' 7200rpm spindle speed makes it a better choice when compared to typical 5400rpm notebook drives. (Larger drives used for desktop systems have moved away from that slower spindle speed.) The drives install on trays that are supplied with DS409slim; the trays then slide into the unit on internal rails. It's pretty much a no-effort operation.

The total cost to duplicate the setup would be $400 for the DS409slim itself plus $80 each for the hard drives, based on online pricing.

Installation

As with other NAS units I've tested, the DS409slim uses a browser-based management tool called the Synology Assistant to set up the unit for access. The installation disk puts an icon for that tool on your desktop so you can access it whenever you wish. I ran into some compatibility issues under Windows 7 that initially stopped the installation, but on the second try the OS fixed the problem on its own (Windows 7 just said it had applied its own parameters to the software).

The Assistant contains nine primary menus; clicking on any one of them causes a cascade of additional options to appear. All told, the options are quite comprehensive and cover everything from shared folder creation to backup settings to how to manage peripheral devices attached to the DS409slim.

Taken in total, the bounty of options has the potential to make setting up the unit a conceptual mess. However, Synology has grouped them logically and in a clear fashion. The electronic user manual will help somewhat, but it's more of a generic tome for all of the Synology product line. As with most similar products, if you've never set up a NAS device before, it could take you as long as 20 minutes to do so. If you have, you could practically close your eyes and breeze through it.

Performance

"DIY" NAS boxes are rarely optimized. It's not because the hardware itself is lacking. Instead it's typically because we, as consumers, look for low prices when we roll our own.

For example, with the four $80 Momentus 7200.3 drives installed, the DS409slim had a respectable write time of 5 min., 38.9 sec. That was good for a second-place finish among the three NAS units I tested. Its read time of 4 min., 9.5 sec., however, was the slowest of the group. While that isn't that far away from Seagate's second place time of 3 min., 42.6 sec., it doesn't hold a candle to Netgear's 2 min., 47.8 sec.

If you want a drive that's faster and has more capacity, Seagate's 500GB Momentus 7200.4 might make a significant difference, but it would do so at a $50 per drive premium and a total cost approaching $1,000. A 2.5-inch hard disk may keep the power requirements and overall footprint lower, but there is a price penalty for that size and capacity when compared to its 3.5-inch counterpart.

Best fit

A consumer or low-end business environment would be the best home for the Synology DS409slim both from price and performance standpoints although it could have a place in a startup midsized business.

Could Direct Attached Storage be enough?

While NAS is getting less expensive, Direct Attached Storage (DAS) drives -- external hard disks attached directly to your computer -- are still the kings of the cheap. If you're really trying to pinch pennies, you should be able to attach one of these external drives to one of your networked PCs and, after a few parameter changes, access it from other PCs on the network.

I decided to test the theory with the DataDock II drive from Fantom Drive. The 1TB DataDock II runs $280 direct from the vendor. A 2TB version costs $370, while a 3TB model will set you back $540. What's interesting about this particular device is that, unlike many DAS drives, it's a RAID box (capable of RAID 0 or RAID 1) and has four ports: USB, Firewire 400, Firewire 800 and eSATA.

After setting up the drive, which is really just a matter of plugging it in and turning it on, I adjusted the network settings on two systems (one outfitted with an AMD Athlon 64 X2 running at 3GHz with 2GB RAM, along with the system used for the NAS devices) to allow it to be shared and started the transfers using eSATA (which, at a speed of 3.0Gbs, is the fastest of the four interfaces).

Writing 8.05GB of mixed data to the DataDock II took 5 min., 40.1 sec. -- only two seconds slower than Synology's DS409slim, which held second place among the three NAS units. Reading that same data from the DataDock II took 3 min., 18.6 sec., only 30 seconds slower than the fastest NAS unit, Netgear's $2,000 ReadyNAS NVX.

At this point, if you're a basic consumer looking for a single storage solution for multiple PCs, the DataDock II (or a similar drive at a similar price) is probably looking like quite an attractive option. It is, for an individual or a one-person office with multiple systems.

However, you won't get amenities like back-up timers, maximized capacity within a secure RAID variety (the DataDock II only offers RAID 0 or 1), or drive condition information. For those features, which are important to businesses, you're going to have to pay more.

Bill O'Brien is a freelance writer who has written a half-dozen books and more than 2,000 articles on computers and technology, including Apple computers, PCs, Linux and commentary on IT hardware decisions.

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