|Introduction and Product Specifications|
As digital media increases in popularity, so will the demand for larger storage options, whether in the form of increased hard drives capacities or through the use of expandable network storage devices. The last time we broached the topic of NAS was with our article on two impressive SOHO units from QNAP. While not industrial strength solutions, both QNAP models offered a balance of hardware and software features that made them excellent solutions for both home and small business users. However, with the TS-101 being a single drive solution and the TS-201 being a two-drive option, they are limited when it comes to ease of expansion and growth in a user's storage needs. This is where the Thecus N5200BR NAS Server steps in.
The Thecus N5200BR NAS Server targets end-users with more demanding network storage needs. To offer a more universal solution, Thecus designed the N5200BR with five SATA II bays supporting numerous RAID options, an LED status read-out, router capabilities and a host of other features to make it a serious contender for home users and in the commercial environment where a highly configurable NAS unit is a must. On the surface, the Thecus N5200BR looks to have what it takes to fit a wide variety of NAS needs. In the pages ahead, we'll look below the surface to ascertain the strengths and weaknesses of the Thecus N5200BR NAS Server, with a goal of providing a complete and clear picture of what a unit like this can deliver.
|Retail Package and Physical Overview|
|Thecus provides an adequate retail bundle to help facilitate the complete setup and operation of the N5200BR NAS Server. Along with a requisite setup CD, Thecus includes a multilingual Quick Installation Guide that covers the initial setup of the unit. The system also comes with a 10' Cat 5e network cable, a standard power cord, hard drive mounting screws and five keys for locking each of the hard drive bays.
Encased in a black enclosure with a high gloss bezel, the system is relatively small, comparable to a mini-PC. The system comes with five lockable, hot-swapable drive bays supporting SATA II hard drives up to 1TB each, with a total of 5TB across all five. Driving the system is an Intel Celeron M processor running at 600MHz coupled with 256MB of DDR memory; a 90mm system fan cools the entire unit. The LCD control panel provides vital statistics, such as current Date/Time, RAID status, IP addressing and Fan status while manual clock and IP settings can be configured via the controls at the bottom of the LCD. To the left of the drive bays are Power and Reset buttons. When pressed for 5 seconds, the Reset switch will reset the system's IP and administrator password while a quick press will reboot the system.
Above the Power switch is a USB port for connecting a USB printer, drive or other supported device. Above the USB port are various indicators lights to provide users with basic system status cues. The top most item is the DOM LED which glows orange when the system is posting or when an upgrade is in progress. The second and third are the WAN and LAN LEDs, both of which flash green during network activity. The fourth light is a USB Copy LED which provides a solid blue light when files are being copied from a USB drive to the internal array. Lastly is the BUSY LED which will blink red when the RAID array is either damaged or degraded.
|Physical Overview Continued|
|Each drive bay opens by pulling the silver lever and prying to the left. This is a smooth, easy motion that moves the bay forward as the lever swings out. Once unlatched, the bay comes out easily, after which, a drive can be quickly mounted, securing it using four mounting holes on the underside of the drive and the provided screws. This holds the drive firmly in place and ensures proper alignment before inserting into the Thecus N5200BR NAS Server.
When we rotate the system to view the backend, numerous other connections are revealed. At the upper right is an eSata port which supports additional external hard drive expansion while two additional USB ports are offered for connecting supported hardware. Below the eSata/USB cluster is another USB port that allows the Thecus N5200BR to be connected directly to a computer to be accessed as a USB device. This does require some pre-planning, such as the allocation of space during the RAID creation process to specifically be used for USB storage. Ideally, it would be better if this space could be a folder, which would offer more flexibility in space allocation. We should also note that in testing, the USB connection was extremely slow on multiple systems and often paused for long periods during the filecopy process, leaving us to ultimately abandon timed file copy testing when connected to a system via USB. While it's an interesting feature, there is no logical reason to use it as it performs significantly slower than even 100mbps Ethernet.
Further down are four LAN ports which function as a switch, all rated at 1000mbps. There is also a WAN port which would connect to the network, which gives the flexibility of creating a separate sub-network, or the system can be set to share the same IP across all five ports for a passive switched setup.
|Software, Setup and Options|
|Basic setup of the Thecus N5200BR NAS Server is relatively simple, however, the software interface is unintuitive. The menu structure is quite bland and, as we dig deeper, the interface is often unclear and confusing. When we look at the QNAP interface from an earlier article, the menu was far more intuitive and we didn't need to reference the manual very often. With respect to the Thecus N5200BR NAS Server's web interface, we routinely had to consult the manual as there was often minimal details offered online or the menu was simply not clear as to its expected behavior.
Initial configuration involves running the Thecus Setup Wizard. The wizard detects the system on the network and then walks users through the basic configuration of the NAS. Once identified, the wizard requests answers to certain details, such as network configuration options, what services to enable by default, hard drive setup and password management. Once complete, the remainder of the system management/configuration is handled through the web-interface.
The web-interface is broken down into several sections; Status, Storage, Network, Accounts, System and Language. The Status menu provides basic information on the system. The System sub-menu offers details on CPU Load, Fan Status, Up Time and status of the various system services. The Info sub-menu provides the option to alter the System Description while the Printers sub-menu provides USB printer make, model and status as well as the option to clear the queue and restart the printer service. The server only supports a few printer models at this time, however, this will improve with future firmware updates. We had no issues using our older HP 1100 Laserjet with a parallel to USB adapter, yet a new HP P1006 Laserjet would not respond to print requests.
The UPS sub-menu provides settings that work in conjunction with a broad range of supported UPS systems to trigger a graceful system shutdown in the event of a power failure. The Power Mgmt sub-menu offers the ability to schedule server shutdown and restart on a 7 day calendar. This is useful for conserving energy usage when it's known that the system will not be used. The About sub-menu provides details on the system Make, Product No. Firmware version and Up Time.
The next section is Storage, which offers a host of configuration options related to storage and data management. Under the Disks sub-menu the system reports on what drives are installed, their Capacity, Model, Firmware version and Status as well as offering control over Disk Power Management. The drives can be set to shutdown from 30 to 300 minutes in 30 minute increments. We would like to see more precise settings, ranging in 5 minute increments much like the QNAP devices we mentioned earlier. This would give greater control in the reduction of energy usage overall when combined with the scheduled shutdown/startup component.
|For configuring the hard drives, the RAID sub-menu gives the capability to create a new array and set the space allocations. We should note that multiple arrays are not possible, so there cannot be two RAID 0 arrays, and single drives cannot be configured separtely either. Once the drives are in place, any additional drives added later would be added to the current array, extending its storage capacity. The system offers an excellent choice of RAID options including:
This is also where USB space would be specified, by first creating a RAID array and specifying a percentage for USB storage. Once built, the remaining unused percentage can be allocated for USB usage. The Folders sub-menu provides access to the system default folders as well as offering the option to create new custom folders. Both existing and new folders can be customized to control whether they are Browseable and/or Public while also setting size quotas in Gigabytes.
There is a File System Check sub-menu that cycles the system through a file system check to ensure data integrity. Another useful option is the ability to mount ISOs. This can be beneficial when using the unit in a commercial environment where installation CDs need to be accessible to multiple users or for gamers who may want to put their game ISOs on the server and install from there. There is a 50 ISO limit, however, they can reside in any folder that exists on the array. Lastly, there is the Nsync sub-menu. Nsync provides the ability to synchronize a particular folder on the server to a remote location, scheduling it to run at a set time daily, weekly or monthly. This can be useful for remote backup situations where it's important to have multiple copies of files at different locations. Nsync can also be set to use only a certain amount of bandwidth, from 256kbps to Unlimited, which can be useful if replication needs to occur during high traffic periods.
|Network and Account Settings|
|The Network menu is where the Thecus N5200BR can be fine tuned to fit most any network environment. To start, the WAN sub-menu offers IP, Gateway and DNS settings for the server as well as specifying whether it should use DHCP and IP Sharing. The LAN sub-menu provides further control, specifying whether the LAN ports are to be run on a subnet (default). The WAN LAN Exchange sub-menu provides the control to change the behavior of the rear LAN / WAN ports. By default, the single port is designated WAN while the four port are set to LAN. With LAN WAN Exchange, this can be flipped if needed.
The Services sub-menu offers control over common settings, such as WebDisk (HTTP) Support and port specification (port 80 default), Secure Webdisk (Secure HTTP) Support and port specification (port 443 default) as well as enabling/disabling SMB/CIFS Sharing and File Access Cache and UPnP support. Thecus also offers individual submenus for enabling/disabling Apple File protocol (AFP), Network File System (NFS) and File Transfer Protocol (FTP). There is also a Media Manager Settings sub-menu that permits the enabling and setting of a custom media folders for access to all network devices through UPnP. If the Web-Server module is installed, a sub-menu will be present with the status of Web Server along with the option to Start, Stop and Test the service.
Account Authentication handles all user login profiles, whether provided by Active Directory or hosted locally on the Thecus N5200BR NAS. The Users sub-menu is where local user profiles are created, including User Name, User ID, Password and Group assignments. The Group sub-menu allows for the creation of user groups to help organize things. Each of the two aforementioned menus are rather simplistic, lacking any major control over group permissions. This would all be handled on a folder level basis, which is less than ideal for efficient user access management. The Batch Management sub-menu allows for the importing of users via a comma delimited file, which can be useful if a mass addition of users is needed.
Under the System menu, the Notifications sub-menu offers control over system beep notification while offering advanced settings for e-mail notification configuration. The Logs sub-menu provides system event information such as booting, user log in and network interruptions. The section is broken down by Info, Warn and Error with the ability to download all logs locally as a logal.tar.gz file. The remaining sub-menus offer control over system date/time, configuration backup and restore, module management which allows for custom module add-ons such as Web Server, or IP Camera management which turns the system into a security camera DVR with supported cameras. There is also controls for factory resetting the unit, changing the administrator password, upgrading the firmware and performing a system shutdown or reboot. Lastly, the Language menu controls the system language setting to any of 10 languages with the option to add more via the module installation menu.
|Power Consumption and Transfer Rates|
|Once the system was configured and setup, we performed some basic tests to assess general power consumption and transfer speeds. For reference, we used a QNAP TS-201. In each scenario, both systems were configured with two identical 500GB Western Digital Caviar drives configured as a JBOD array.
First, we cycled each system on and logged the peak wattage each system drew using a Kill-a-Watt meter. The QNAP TS-201 was more steady hovering around 48w while the Thecus N5200 hit a peak of 85w for a few seconds before settling down to 58w. Once each system booted fully, we left them sit for 10 minutes and logged the wattage draw while the drives were spinning. The Thecus N5200 consumed 7w more than the TS-201 system, however, considering the size and increased processor and memory compliment of the Thecus N5200, this was fairly impressive. Once the drives spun down, however, the Thecus N5200 consumed nearly double that of the TS-201. This is further compounded by a 30 minute minimum cycle vs. the QNAP TS-201's 5 minute minimum as well as a system fan that runs continuously rather than spinning down when there is no load on the system, a feature the QNAP TS-201 benefits from. During the file copy process, both units increased their consumption by 6w compared to sitting idle with the drives spinning.
|Performance, Features and Conclusion|
|Performance and Features: From a hardware standpoint, the Thecus N5200BR NAS Server offers support for a total of 5TB of storage using SATA II drives in JBOD, RAID 0,1,5,6 and 10 arrays, along with four switched Gigabit ports. The system also delivers some processing muscle with its 600MHz Celeron processor and 256MB of DDR memory. Additionally, the system has a compact design with a relatively small footprint, that is comparable to a mini-PC. The LCD readout is a useful, albeit limited, feature for a quick look at the system status. However, the LCD is not a substitute for the information that is available in the web interface.
From a software standpoint, the Thecus N5200BR NAS Server suffers from a poorly organized, and a sometimes confusing, layout. There are many advanced features that make the system highly configurable to fit a multitude of uses and environments, but users will often have to reference the User's Manual for guidance. Once we got the hang of the flow, we were not hampered from achieving what we needed, but the system would benefit from a more intuitive front end in our opinion. The good thing is that if Thecus chooses to redesign some of the menus, it should be easily upgraded through a firmware update.
On the performance side of the equation, the Thecus N5200NR NAS Server was impressive. Network performance was excellent, offering 4x the speed of our reference system. Power consumption was moderate, however, updating hard drive spin down times to more finite settings and offering more fan control could have a significant impact on overall power draw, for the better. Conversely, having the option to automate system shutdown and restart helps minimize power consumption as well as wear and tear. But missing from the unit we tested was an automatic power on after a power failure.
The Thecus N5200BR NAS Server is one of several models available from the company that offer robust NAS capabilities in a compact design. With a great feature set that delivers solid overall performance, the Thecus N5200BR NAS Server should appeal to both business and home users looking for a complete NAS system. While the software side is far from perfect and it's helpful if the user already has a good understanding of networking, the pitfalls are not insurmountable and the effort may pay off in the end by delivering a relatively low power and fast NAS server capable of serving up over 5TB of storage.
The Thecus N5200BR NAS Server is priced at around $700, so it's not the cheapest unit out there, however, for the amount of features you get, this unit looks to be under priced compared to other NAS units with similar capabilities. The biggest issue we have is with the software interface and hard drive spin down times, which hopefully will be addressed in future updates and would make the Thecus N5200BR NAS Server an even more attractive system of this type.