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Thecus N7700 Network Attached Storage Server
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Date: Jul 20, 2009
Section:Storage
Author: Marco Chiappetta
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Introduction and Specifications

Although the worldwide economy may be shrinking, our needs as consumers to store large amounts of data continues to grow at a breakneck pace. Whereas only a few years ago it was uncommon for most PC users to have more than just a few digital images or media files, today virtually every aspect of our lives has some sort of digital component. Our mobile phones now take pictures, shoot video, record audio and handle e-mail. it seems like everyone has a vast MP3 collection. We all create numerous documents, presentations, etc. And high-resolution, multi-megapixel digital cameras are prolific--and all that data has to go somewhere, if you want to save it, that is.

While consumers have a seemingly insatiable need for data storage, the data storage needs of small business and enterprise users are consistently growing as well. In addition to all of the aforementioned data types, SMBs and the enterprise have to contend with large databases and a myriad of backup data necessary to comply with local, state, and federal regulations, among numerous other things. As such, a class of high-end NAS (network attached storage) devices targeted at a broad range of consumers and professional users has emerged, that are both extremely powerful and easy to manage.

One such device is the Thecus N7700 NAS Server. The N7700 can accommodate up to 12 hard drives (7 x internal, 1 x external sSATA, 4 x USB), it supports multiple RAID configurations, it had dual Gigabit Ethernet jacks that support load balance and fail over functionality, and it has an easy to use browser-based interface that's simple to manage. Some of the unit's main features and specifications are listed below, and we'll explore the devices inner workings and performance on the pages ahead.

Thecus N7700 NAS Server
Specifications and Features



This is only a partial list of the Thecus N7700's specifications--the entire list is just too long to post here. What these specs do show are the RAID modes supported, connectivity options, LED indicators, the disk interface, etc. What they don't show, however, is that the N7700 is less like a basic NAS device that simple gives users access to a storage volume over a network and more like a full system, disguised in a sleek, small-form-factor tower. You'll see what we mean on the next page...

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Thecus N7700 Exterior

Before we show you the Thecus N7700 in all its glory, we wanted to give you a glimpse of what's also included in the unit's retail package. Along with the device itself, users will find a basic printed user's manual, warranty and hard drive information cards, a standard power cable, an Ethernet cable, and two discs--one that includes a digital user's manual and a device discovery / installation utility called the Thecus Setup Wizard and another with a copy of DriveClone5 Pro, an easy to use file backup and drive cloning utility. We should note, that while DriveClone5 Pro is included with the Thecus N7700, that doesn't preclude the use of other automated backup utilities.

     
Thecus N7700 Accessory Bundle

In addition to the items mentioned above, the N7700 also includes 7 removable hard drive trays. In order to use standard SATA 3.5" hard drives (or 2.5" drives using 3.5" adapters sold separately) with the N7700, users are required to mount the drives into these trays before inserting them into the device. They have easy-removal handles and locking mechanisms for simplicity and security as well.

      
The Front Of The Thecus N7700, Door Opened, Button Close-Up

Which brings us to the Thecus N7700 itself. As you can see, the device has a mini-tower like footprint with a hinged and vented door on the front, adjacent to the power switch and two USB ports. Just below the door are an LCD which displays heath and status information about the device and its RAID array, and a quartet of buttons that can be used for basic configuration of the N7700 when users don't have access to a PC to access the unit's browser-based configuration menus.

The status indicator LEDs show power status (Blue), system status (system busy [blink orange] / fail [blink red]), hard drive activity (orange / red), WAN connection status (link green, activity orange), LAN connection status (link green, activity orange), USB activity (Blue), and eSATA activity (Blue). And the LCD displays information like the time and date, LAN and WAN IP address, and drive health and status.

      
USB Ports, Status LEDs, and Cooling Fans

The top and sides of the N7700 are bare metal panels, but there is a lot to see on the rear. On the back side of the unit you'll see two cooling fans, two RJ45 LAN jacks, an eSATA port, a serial port, an expansion slot, and the PSU cooling fan and cable jack.

During normal use in a home office environment, we found the N7700's cooling fans to be relatively quiet, but the unit most definitely is not silent. They do a good job of cooling the unit and drives though, as the unit always remained cool to the touch, even with 7 drives installed.

The serial port can be used to connect a compatible batter backup device, and the USB and eSATA ports can be used to connect additional drives beyond the seven internal units. Drives connected to the external ports appear as additional shared volumes when navigating the N7700 folders.

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Thecus N7700 Interior

Inspecting the internal configuration of the Thecus N7700 reveals that this is no ordinary NAS device. Beyond supporting seven internal SATA drives and multiple external drives via eSATA and USB, the Thecus N7700 distances itself from many other NAS servers in its CPU and memory configuration.

     
The Thecus N7700 Motherboard, Up Close and Personal

The motherboard nestled inside the Thecus N7700 is powered by an Intel Celeron M 1.86GHz processor which is coupled to 1GB of DDR2 memory. This thing is more like a pared down Linux-based small form factor system than it is a simple NAS interface for SATA hard drives.

The motherboard and its companions daughterboards are all sport blue PCBs and all of the major internal components are adorned with aluminum heatsinks. For the most part, the heatsinks are passive, with the exception of the CPU heatsink which is outfitted with a small cooling fan. Unfortunately, this small fan generates an audible, high-pitched whine, similar to the sound of the small fans in some performance-oriented notebooks.

     
The Unit's Active CPU Cooler, SATA Backplane, and Inserting A Drive Tray

Also attached to the motherboard is a small IDE-SSD which hold the devices Linux-based operating system. The small module is removable, but there's little reason to disconnect it other than to physically inspect it--without the SSD module, the N7700 is basically useless. However, connecting it to a desktop PC via an adapter may prove to be an interesting prospect for the hardware hackers among you.

You'll also notice the N7700's motherboard has an open DIMM slot, which means the unit's memory configuration is expandable. We experimented with a 2GB memory kit installed and didn't see much of a performance difference, but there may be some heavy-load scenarios that may benefit from installing additional RAM.

   
The Thecus N7700's 300-watt PSU

Powering the Thecus N7700 is an Enhance 300-watt, 80-Plus certified PSU. It is visible at the bottom of the unit, and sports a small cooling fan. The PSU also uses a standard 3-prong power cable, thankfully, so there's no need to worry about losing any proprietary cables with the N7700. 

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Configuration and Setup

Despite the Thecus N7700's relative complexity and powerful hardware configuration, setting it up is actually quite easy, thanks to simple to use drive trays and a well laid-out array of menus in its browser-based configurator.

          
Installing A Hard Drive In A Removable Tray

Installing internal drives in the Thecus N7700 requires two steps. First, the drives must be mounted to a tray using four screws. And then the tray gets inserted into the N7700 from the front. The trays just slide right into and out of the unit, but they can be locked into place using an included key.

For the purposes of this article, we procured seven Western Digital 1TB Caviar Green hard drives--one of them is pictured here, but we assure your its six other siblings were installed (and continue to be installed) in the device as well.

With the drives in place, the only other pieces of hardware that need to be connected are an Ethernet cable and the power cable. We connected the N7700 to a D-Link Gigabit switch as part of our internal network, fired the machine up, and then it was time to configure the device's software for operation.


The Thecus Setup Wizard

Savvy users can jump right into the Thecus N7700's browser-based configuration if they so choose, but Thecus includes a simple setup wizard with the N7700 to get you started. Once the N7700 is powered up and connected to a network, running the setup wizard will discover the device and give users the ability to alter a few basic options, like the IP address, DHCP configuration, etc.

Once done with the setup wizard, however, user's will need to click the "Start Browser" button to connect to the more comprehensive configurator.

           


     
Thecus N7700 Browser-Based Configuration Menus

All of the different menu options are shown in the screenshots above. 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.

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 Storage section 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. It's here that RAID arrays can be configured and shared volumes be created, etc. More on that on the next page...
 

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RAID and User Management

Configuring drives or setting up RAID on the Thecus N7700 couldn't be any easier. Once the drives are physically installed and functional, all that is required to setup an array is to log into the browser-based utility and check a few boxes.

 
Configuring RAID On The N7700

The image above is what the RAID configuration menu will look like with seven Western Digital 1TB Caviar Green hard drives installed in the N7700. As you can see, choosing the RAID mode is no more difficult than selecting a radio button and then choosing which drives to include in the array. With a full complement of drives like this one, RAID 5 with a hot spare or RAID 6 would offer a good balance of performance with some level of redundancy.


Advanced Options Menu

With the drives selected and RAID mode chosen, some more advanced options can be configured as well. Users are given the ability to enable or disable the file access cache or a Samba recycle bin or anonymous login authentications. It's here that users can also configure some aspects of the N7700's iSCSI functionality. The iSCSI block size can be configured as can the iSCSI CRC / Checksum feature.

 
Building a RAID 5 Array

When done choosing drive options, the N7700 will then begin to build the RAID. Depending on the size of the array, this process can take from minute to hours--the larger the array, the longer the process takes.

After the array is done building, users can then setup and manage a number of other features of the N7700. By default, a number of shared volumes are automatically created. A share labeled 'naswebsite' is created for hosting a website on the N7700. Due to the fact that the N7700 is essentially a full system in a small form factor enclosure, Thecus has incorporated the ability to run a web server on the N7700. Another share named 'usbcopy' is also created, which you can probably guess is the repository for automatic copies from attached USB devices, and a 'usbhdd' folder is also created.

In addition to the default folders, however, users can create as many personal folders as they'd like and also assign permissions for groups or individual users. And functionality is also built into the N7700 for it to operate as an FTP, AFP, iTunes, or Media server.
 

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Performance

To test the performance of the Thecus N7700 NAS Server, we used a combination of synthetic benchmark testing and real-world file copy tests. Throughout the tests, the N7700 was configured with a 6-drive RAID 5 array (the seventh drive was configured as a hot spare.

The environment in which the Thecus N7700 was tested consisted of a D-Link DGL-4500 broadband router, connected to a D-Link DGS-2208 Gigabit switch. Our test machines and the N7700 we all connected directly to the switch, which in turn is connected to the router. Our file transfer tests were conducted on a Core i7 920 powered machine, complete with 6GB of RAM, a Marvell Gigabit Ethernet controller, and Windows Vista Ultimate.

Before conducting any tests, the switch, N7700, and test machine were rebooted and anti-virus software was disabled.

Our first tests were conducted with the ATTO Disk Benchmark. We mapped drive letter X: to the test machine and ran the default ATTO test. As you can see, the N7700 performs best when block sizes reach the 32K mark and performance is exemplary with the larger files sizes. In fact, according to ATTO, the N7700 is capable of write speeds 115MB/s range and read speeds if about 110MB/s.





In our real world file copy tests, we copied a 4.5GB ISO to and from the N7700 in the large file transfer test and in the small file transfer test we copied a directory filled with hundreds of MP3 files. For reference we also ran the same tests on a couple of other NAS devices we had in the lab at the time.

The numbers show the Thecus N7700 offering huge performance advantages over the other NAS devices, but despite its excellent performance the N7700 never attained the speeds reported by the ATTO benchmark. Regardless, the N7700 is clearly an extremely fast network attached file storage device.
 

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Our Summary and Conclusion

Performance Summary: The performance of the Thecus N7700 was excellent in every test we ran. In the synthetic benchmark tests, the N7700 hit read and write speeds approaching the theoretical limit of its Gigabit Ethernet connection (~115MB/s write, ~110MB/s read) . In the real-world file copy tests, the N7700 didn't quite reach the numbers reported by the synthetic benchmark, but it still put up the best performance we have seen from a NAS server to date.
 

 

Aside from its somewhat dated looking browser-based configuration menu system and audible cooling fans, there is a whole lot to like about the Thecus N7700 NAS server. The device offers a myriad of useful features, it is easy to configure even for novices, and performance is top-notch. File transfers are very fast and the device wakes up from standby almost instantaneously. Aesthetically, we also found the N7700 to be quite attractive and it is constructed of high-quality materials.

Throughout weeks of testing, experimenting, and just daily use, the Thecus N7700 never faltered--not a single crash, re-boot, or lost or corrupt file. The device instills confidence at every turn. As an aside, the N7700 has actually be up and running in the lab non-stop, glitch free with 41 days uptime, serving multiple systems and a TViX multimedia jukebox--this thing just works.

If there is an Achilles' heel to the Thecus N7700, however, it's price. Currently the N7700 sells for about $880 to $999 dollars without drives. Factor in a septet of large SATA drives and the price will easily break the $1200 mark. Obviously, with a price that high, the Thecus N7700 will only appeal to a select group of affluent home users or small business users, but if its features, performance, and functionality are what you need, the Thecus N7700 is sure to satisfy.

  

  

  • Excellent Performance
  • Attractive Form Factor
  • Highly Configurable
  • High Quality Construction
  • Easy To Use

 

  • Dated Looking Menu Systems
  • Expensive
  • Fans Somewhat Noisy

 



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