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Fast five drive NAS box fills storage gaps

First INQpressions Thecus N5200 RouStor
Mon Dec 11 2006, 08:13
LAST JANUARY we told you about the Thecus N4100, a neat little shoebox Network-attached storage (NAS) device that would give you about a terabyte of RAID5 storage using the prevailing 3-400GB drives of the time. We liked it a lot, but there were a few rough edges. This summer, Thecus came out with the N5200 that addresses almost every quirk of the first and ups performance considerably.

There are two versions of the N5200, the vanilla N5200 and the RouStor version. The difference is that the normal version will load balance and failover across its network ports while the RouStor variant has a four port GigE switch on the back. To me it is a no brainer, go for the RouStor.

Thecus-n5200-and-n4100

The first thing you notice is that physical box is a bit bigger than its older sibling. It holds five drives instead of four, and does a lot more, so the size increase is understandable. The next thing that catches your eye is bright blue backlit LCD on the bottom, a truly welcome addition.

The LED shows LAN and WAN IPs, time, date, disk and fan status. It also allows you to set these things if you don't have a PC handy. Since there are only up, down, enter and escape buttons, setting IPs can be a pain, but in a pinch, it is a lifesaver. This addition gets two thumbs up.

The other thing you will notice is that the indicator lights on the left are much more clearly marked. There is also a USB port on the bottom for mounting the box on a PC without access to the rear of the unit. In short, it is now clean, functional, and much better laid out.

N5200-rear

The rear shows similar added functionality, and is again is dominated by a single large fan. The first new thing you will see is a physical off switch by the power plug. There are five GigE ports now, one WAN on the bottom and four LANs above that. Next to them there is a serial port, a USB port, with two more USBs and an eSATA sitting on top. There is nothing out of the ordinary, just what you would expect.

Still, you are probably not reading this to find out what the box looks like, you are probably more interested in the guts. The older N4100 had a single PCB and a backplane connected to the fan/case. The newer N5200 has the backplane separate from the case/fan and a motherboard with a daughtercard. The daughtercard has either the four GigE ports on the RouStor or a two on the normal N5200. There is also a 256MB DDR400 DIMM on the far right.

N5200-motherboard

Other than the fifth drive, this is where the N5200 differentiates itself from the N4100 in a big way. As you might recall, the 4100 had an Intel ARM based CPU, and my big gripe was that it was underpowered. It functioned well enough, but there was little to no headroom. If you were doing heavy transfers, the web management is just about unusable.

The N5200 is powered by a Celeron M at 600MHz, basically it has many times the raw CPU power of the older model. In my testing, I never saw the CPU hit more than 80%, and the web interface was always responsive, a vast improvement. Memory still stays the same at 256MB and it is not possible to add more.

Now that the physical side of things is taken care of, how well does it work? In short, very well, it is amazingly feature packed and fast. RAID levels have been expanded, it now does 0, 1, 5, 6, 10 and JBOD. 6 is the main addition, made possible by the addition of the fifth drive, basically it does it all.

It will work with PCs, Linux, BSD and Macs, a first as far as I know, and supports CIFS/SMB, AFP 3, NFS 3, FTP, and HTTP. You can authenticate off Active Directory now too, a handy feature to have, but if you have a full blown file server, a NAS box is a little superfluous.

The RAID itself has a few really handy features, mainly RAID level migration and expansion. They both do pretty much what they say, you can go from RAID 0 to 5 or add disks to an existing array.

When trying these new features out for the first time, I did what everyone in the world would do, jumped in and didn't read the manual. All I got was errors. Hmmm. After all of three tries, I found out the trick, you not only have to select the migration but the drives to migrate. I assumed that if you had one volume, just picking the levels to change would be enough. The Thecus method is much more logical, just a little counter intuitive.

Once you figure out the syntax, if you can call a GUI based method syntax, it worked like you would expect it to. No problems, nothing to report, it just did the job. I went from RAID 0 to 5 several times, added a disk to a volume, and generally mucked around until I got bored. It just worked.

When it comes to formatting, there was one added feature and one that I hope will be added in the next rev. The added feature was a rebuild speed level, high or low. Nice, but the one thing I would have killed for is a quick format for RAID 5.

Formatting on RAID 0 with five Western Digital 500GB RE2 RAID ready drives took a few minutes, long enough to not want to watch the progress box blink formatting, but not long enough to be worth going and doing something else. RAID 5 however took hours, the N5200 indicated around 10, but I usually set it to format shortly before sleeping so I can't be sure. You really don't want to watch the HTML management screen for 10 hours.

The one thing missing from this unit is a quick format feature. Server class RAID cards costing much more than the entire N5200 have it, so it is possible. I am not sure what it takes to add this feature, but it would be quite welcome.

The main setup is simplicity. You can either type in the IP you want on the front panel or simply reconfigure your PC to be on the same subnet as the NAS box. I hate tiny buttons so I just redid the IP on the PC. Five minutes later I was in to the configuration menu. The hardest part was the inevitable looking up of the default password, a ritual well known to geeks worldwide.

N5200-raid-and-main-menu

You are immediately presented with a menu that looks exactly the same as the N4100 but functions vastly better. There wasn't anything wrong with the GUI on the older box, just some layout quirks. Several menus had duplicate functionality and things were placed illogically at times. There were also a few places where you were taken to foreign screens instead of working in place.

Once again, I am pleased to say that Thecus listened to the gripes and fixed the problems very effectively. Things are laid out where you think they should be, nothing is out of place, and things just work logically. Good job here. There is only one 'foreign looking' screen, and that is still well laid out and very functional.

The menus are Status, Storage, Network, Accounts, System and Language. Status gives system health and general identifiers, Network is all things dealing with the LAN and WAN, and Accounts is about who sees what. System and Language are all about settings on the box itself, passwords, notifications and maintenance.

Upon logging in, the first thing you want to do is set up a RAID. I went to Storage|Disks and voila, was presented with list of the drives in the system and their health. One menu down was Storage|RAID. That was the one I wanted. It displays the total storage size, health, and a few details about the RAID.

The bottom has a button called config. Pressing it gets you the above RAID menu, and from there, life is pretty easy. Pick a RAID level, pick a bunch of drives, and click Create. Within about a minute, you will be presented with a success or failure screen.

There are also buttons for Expand and Migrate, and they do just what they say. Other than the little counter intuitive UI bits I mentioned earlier, there are no catches or problems. The only other thing was the speed, RAID 0 and 1 formatting took on the order of minutes, RAID 5 hours. Migrating and expansion was also as slow as RAID 5, after 10 minutes of a four to five disk RAID 0 expansion, it was at about 0.4%, so it was time to go do something else.

This is totally understandable, but when you want to test a bunch of options, well, block off a week. Sadly, while fast formatting is a distinct possibility, fast migration is not, you really need to move the data one bit, or in this case 5 blocks at a time.

Folder-setup-screen

Then it is on to folder creation, again, very easy. Click add, pick a name, description, public, browsable or not, and a size limit. It takes all of 5 minutes, no, actually far less time than that. If you don't make it public, you are able to set ACLs (Access Control Lists) from the Accounts menu.

That brings us to making accounts, groups and access permissions, this one is again simplicity itself. You can set up authenticate off an AD server, pick the usual server name, address and supply the requisite passwords, or do it manually. I suspect that most buyers of the N5200 will not have a full blown AD domain near the media center, so I will focus on the manual parts.

Both users and groups are set up in the same way but are near exact opposites. To make a user, you put in a user name, password, and are presented with a list of groups in a box on the left, potential groups on the right, occupied ones on the left. Select one, click the arrow to move it from one set to the other, and you are done. Group addition is much the same but without a password. Type a name, pick the users, click OK. Again, it takes less than a minute to make a user.

Acl-creation-screen

Remember the one foreign looking screen I mentioned before? Well, that is the ACL setup screen. Once you have your users and groups set up, you hit the ACL button on the folders you want to change permissions for. Then you see the above.

In this case, different does not equal bad, just different. It is very functional, the four types of user/group are colour coded. You pick your user, click on the button you want, Deny, Read Only and Writable. Removal is just as simple, click the user, and click remove. If you have any problems figuring this out, you should be relegated to playing slot machines and glared at if you so much as touch a PC.

Believe it or not, that is the core functionality. Other than formatting time, it took me about 15 minutes to go from first time login to having a shared volume, users and ACLs. As far as functionality goes, you couldn't ask for more.

On the UI side, there is the somewhat jarring ACL screen, and one other minor quirk. If you go in to a menu and try to accomplish something, creating a user for example, and hit cancel, it will not bring you back. It cancels, but you then must go to the menu and pick what you want to do next. No harm done, but it is a little disorientating at first. Once you realise how it's done, you simply work with it. ?

This is part one of two. Come back tomorrow for Part two.

 

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