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When is a NAS not just a NAS

Network Attached storage as sexy as I could make it

By Steve Hullfish | November 20, 2010

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Why do other guys on PVC do all the sexy reviews about stuff like new cameras and I always choose to write about unsexy stuff like waveform monitors and network attached storage?

Probably because when I write about something it's because I just need something that is going to do a job for me in the background while I get the work done with my clients and creative partners. Hence, another unsexy, but critical review of something to make your life a little better while you get out and get stuff done. May I present the QNAP TS-659 Pro? QNAP has a bunch of other NAS and server products, but this one seems pretty well suited for my small business.

Writing a review of a NAS (network attached storage) seems like it should take about ten words and I'd be done. Basically, "It's reliable, priced right and easy to set up. Period." However, since I needed SOMETHING sexy about a plain-vanilla kind of product, the QNAP NAS has some pretty darn cool features that make it more than just a plain old NAS.

To start with, it's a nice small unit. The one I tested has six drives. Mine is loaded with six 1TB eSATA drives. If I wanted to upgrade, I could pop in 2TB units. I recently purchased a bunch of 2TB eSATAs for about $200 each, so that's pretty inexpensive. It's actually possible to hot-swap out the 1TB drives - one at a time - with 2TB drives maintaining all of the data and allowing you to upgrade the size of the RAID without losing any data. The QNAP TS-659 Pro has a built in Intel Atom CPU, so this is not just a bunch of RAID5 capable drives in a box. It's got some smarts of its own.

There are a few things that appealed to me out of the box. It was pretty much plug and play, which is right up my alley. I am not a hardcore network/IT geek. I wasn't all that sure I wanted to review this unit because I knew it would take some time for me to get this up and running by myself. I was wrong. I received the review unit immediately before I was going on a long road trip. I prayed that I'd be able to get it set up before I went away, so I'd have a fair amount of time to judge how reliable the unit was. To my surprise, I was able to set up one of the cool, basic features in about ten minutes, which was about all the time I had before I had to pack up and be on an airplane for a month and a half.

image The first thing I did with the QNAP was to set it up for networked Time Machine backup of all of my Mac computers. I also have a bunch of PCs, but I was pressed for time and the Time Machine feature was all I had time to setup initially. The physical set up was pretty basic: Slide in the drives, plug in a power cord and an ethernet cable. Done.

The software portion of prepping the QNAP server, formatting the drives and then linking four Macs to see the QNAP as their Time Machine backup drive took about 10 minutes. Strangely enough, I did this about a month before a catastrophic drive failure of my aging family iMac which shares the network with my home office, so the timing couldn't have been better. I can report that the backup worked perfectly.

So while I was gone, for about six weeks, the QNAP simply ran in the background, saving all of the Time Machine stuff from the Macs I'd funneled to it. When I returned home, it was time to see what else this thing could do and if I could figure out HOW to do with my own highly limited IT skillset. The results of those experiments, for me is what sets the QNAP apart from other NAS solutions that might not have as robust of an arsenal of software.

Obviously, the biggest use is simply to back up stuff. QNAP did this very well through Time Machine, but it is also capable of utilizing third party backup and archiving software like Retrospect, or you can use its own "Backup Exec" software to monitor and manage backups from multiple computers - basically anything attached to your network. But that utility is pretty much a given and isn't much to recommend a product for accomplishing.

The extras are what do it for me in making a decision between one NAS and another, and QNAP has a list of some pretty cool stuff of which it's capable. Some of it is within the realm of some other NASs, but QNAPs list seems a little longer than most.

image One cool application/feature is QMobile. Mobile media is THE THING right now and QMobile is QNAP's entr©e into THE THING. It's an application for iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad users. It allows you to browse and play the multimedia files stored on QNAP, or download/auto-sync multimedia files to your iPhone/ iPod Touch/ iPad so that you can play them offline. QMobile takes a little set up on your QNAP and a little set-up on your mobile device, but the results are worth the effort, especially if you have clients that find it pretty cool that you can not only produce cool videos for them, but make them show up automatically on their sales staff's iPhones or iPads.

image One of the other things you can do for greater access to your assets while on the road - or for access by clients if you want to provide it to them - is to allow access to the QNAP over the internet. Because most users are on the other side of a NAT router or are using a dynamic IP for their internet connection, it is usually a little inconvenient to have to memorize an IP address and keep people informed as it changes. To make things easier, you can register a free DDNS account and set up that information on the QNAP. Once that's done, you and your clients can share files using a specific host name, instead of a cumbersome IP address.

You can also access QNAP through WebDAV, which allows a webserver to appear as a standard network drive. With WebDAV support, it's even easier to remotely share folders with clients and employees via http/https protocol. You just mount the network drives (web folders) to one of the share folders on the QNAP. Sharing folders through WebDAV with clients is very secure compared to other methods.

All of this file sharing stuff with clients is a very good thing. Since starting my own business I've gone from relying on FedEx primarily, six years ago, to sending and receiving lots and lots of files from remote clients all over the world. My clients are increasingly dependent on this workflow and so am I as I share projects with my "virtual post house" with sub-contractors from coast to coast, working on scripts, edits, delivering footage and graphics. Anything that makes managing that torrent of data easier on me, my clients or the others on my team is a very good thing.

So much of this stuff is beyond what I felt I could ever set-up myself. I prefer to spend time writing scripts than writing code or learning about IP protocols and IT stuff, but QNAP has an excellent website with video tutorials and very good step by step instructions on how to do each of these tasks.

This thing has a bunch of good video/production type applications, but QNAP doesn't single out our industry exclusively, so there are some other kind of cool things it can do for general business or even the home entertainment users. QNAP can be used as a media server with a Playstation 3 to create a home entertainment system. It integrates very well with Macs, where it can be used to serve iPhoto, Aperture and iTunes files.

QNAP can also host multiple websites and ftp sites instead of paying for an outside provider, though for me, this isn't a big thing. I'd be a little worried about limiting the throughput and accessibility of my websites and ftp sites to my little, local internet service provider. I think most people would prefer to have website and ftp sites served from some centralized host with lots of bandwidth and failsafes. If you wanted to save some money on your web and ftp hosting, though, this would be a way to cut those ties. You'd need to do a little budget investigation to see how much it was costing you for your external hosting and to decide if you had too much traffic to rely on your local connection. My website and ftp sites actually probably don't have enough traffic to warrant the expense I pay for an outside host, but there's a level of comfort and accountability that I like. However, having my ftp on my local network would sure speed up my uploads to my ftp and website. Most people have much slower upload times to remote hosts through their ISP than they do downloads, so having a local ftp to upload to would help alleviate that for me. I'd want to do some testing to see if it changed my client's download times. If it slowed my clients down enough, I definitely wouldn't do it.

I didn't try it, but the QNAP does have two gigabit LAN ports, so I believe that could have sped up at least my internal network copying. I only plugged in one of them.

Another cool thing, since it has a built in processor and is essentially its own little computer, is that you can do one-touch USB backups either to OR from the QNAP. So, for example, I plugged in a CF card reader into the QNAP, hit the little one-touch USB backup button and all of my files from my Canon 5D Mark II CF card were instantly transferred over to the QNAP without having to go through a computer. I also could have sent back-ups from the QNAP to a USB drive during the day and then taken the USB drive with me off-site at the end of the day.

It can also serve as a stand-alone Bit-Torrent downloader.

Proof of QNAPs broader market for their devices is evident by the fact that you can even use it as a surveillance station/recorder with IP video surveillance cameras.

So, if you've been considering some kind of NAS purchase, but couldn't pull the trigger because it felt like a lot of money for what is essentially just a data insurance plan (though that's certainly a good enough reason for the investment), then check out QNAP. Maybe all of the "other hats" that the unit can wear will tip the scales in favor of a purchase decision.

FTC disclaimer: QNAP loaned me a unit to use for my review. I'm sad I'll have to return it…or buy it, but this review was not influenced by the temporary loan of the unit, though QNAP DID save my daughter's iTunes library, for which she probably would have sold her little brother. That's probably enough of a reason to write a good review.

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