August 27th, 2019 by Mike Fulton
Categories: NAS, Networking, QNAP

A few months back, I bought a QNAP 451+ 4-bay Network-Attached Storage device. I had been using Drobo RAID boxes for fault-tolerant storage for over a decade, but the Drobo is a fairly simple device and I wanted something a bit more sophisticated.
For purposes of comparison, in case you’re not familiar, Drobo is a proprietary RAID storage device. You plug hard drives into it and it combines all of them together into a unified, fault-tolerant block of storage that offers roughly 60% of the raw total as useable storage space. Drives are hot-swappable so if you want to replace a bad drive you simply eject it and insert a new one of equal or greater size.

Drobo doesn’t use standard RAID formats.  They use their own proprietary format. Unlike standard RAID solutions, you don’t need a certain number of drives.  You can start out with just one drive, but keep in mind the system won’t be fault-tolerant until you’ve added a second drive.  The drives don’t eed to all be the same capacity, but if you pair a 500gb drivewith a 4tb one, your useable storage space will be closer to the smaller drive than the bigger.   Some Drobo units are Direct-Attached Storage (DAS) which connect to your computer via USB, Firewire, or Thunderbolt. Others are Network-Attached-Storage (NAS) devices with one or more Ethernet ports.

Some have 4 drive bays, some have 5, and some are even larger. Most are designed to use 3.5″ drives but there’s one model t hat takes 2.5″ drives.

NAS -v- DAS

There are some important differences between the Drobo NAS models and the FAS ones. Both aggregate the drives into a single fault-tolerant storage unit. You can divide that into one or more logical volumes. On NAS devices, the unit formats that volume and manages the storage. However, on DAS units, you format the volume using your computer’s OS, so it can be NTFS, FAT32, or even Mac HFS. This is important because it impacts file/folder security. On a DAS, if you format using NTFS, for example, then then you can manage all of the folders and files using regular NTFS security. Each file and folder can have its own security settings. on a NAS unit, however, security is managed by the device. On a Drobo NAS, you create shared folders and assign simple options to them on.

SMB 1.0

Oh, by the way. the Drobo NAS units use the common SMB protocol to make things available on the network. Unfortunately, it’s v. 1.0, which is known to have some security vulnerabilities. In fact, on Windows 10 you have to jump through a few hoops to enable SMB v1.0 on your system.

My Old Drobo

Before I got my first Drobo box over a decade ago, I was using a regular PC running Windows XP as a file server. One day one of the hard drives failed and while I didn’t lose anything critical, it got me thinking about fault-tolerant storage.  Of course, it’s possible to configure mirrored or striped RAID setups in Windows, but  I wasn’t convinced that was the way to go.

ABout that time, Cali Lewis was talking about the Drobo on her Geek Brief podcast and I was swayed.  So I got one of the original 4-bay models, with USB 2.0 and Firewire 800. The file server PC at only had Firewire 400 so I had it connected via USB. It was no speed demon but in other respects it got the job done. I’m a photographer and used it mainly to store my digital image files.
A few years later, I had extra hard dives laying around doing nothing so I got a second unit. Those two boxes were my main storage for about 10 years. Then one of the units broke down when I moved to another apartment and I decided to get one of the newer units with 5 bays and USB 3.0. And then a few months ago, I saw a good deal on Craigslist for an 8-bay fs800B unit so I got that, thinking I might be able to consolidate everything into one unit.

Other Choices


Over the years I’ve tried a few other NAS boxes from
Buffalo, Lenovo and Western Digital, but these units were aimed at the mass consumer market and were designed primarily for simplicity and ease of use nd did not offer the more sophisticated features I wanted.

So what are those features? Most NAS devices have some basic ability to run apps but in many cases this is limited to something simple like a media server or an image gallery t hat can let you view images you have stored on the unit.

Most have some sort of a download manger app where you can have the NAS perform downloads directly to the internal storage.  In many cases this includes Bit-Torrent.

One thing I Was looking for was the ability to run a security camera system. Modern security cameras are digital and broadcast their video feed to your network via WIFI or Ethernet.. Some NAS units have an app that lets you record and playback this video.

Some NAS units can run a basic web server. I wasn’t sure if I’d have a need for this, but it sounded worth investigating.

One app that QNAP provides for their NAS boxes is called Virtualization Station and it allows you to create and run a virtual machine running a full-blown operating system. This can be Linux or Windows, or whatever other Intel-based system you want. Well, maybe not Mac OS X ‘cos Apple doesn’t play well with others about that sort of thing.

The New QNAP

While looking at the various choices out there, the brand that bubbled to the top was QNAP. QNAP’s products range from relatively small and simple storage-only units to larger, more powerful full-blown servers. with lots of incremental steps in between. You have a choice of processors ranging from modest to extra beefy and the units have expandable memory.

The model that caught my eye was the QNAP 451+ 4-bay NAS.  Out of the box it came with a 2.0ghz quad-core processor and 2GB of RAM.  That configuration would be fine for most uses, but I wanted to use the Virtualization Station app so  I upgraded mine to 16gb.

I’ve created a VM (virtual machine) running Windows Server 2012 R2. It’s no speed demon but it works. I’ve set it up as a domain controller for my local network, and as a test web server.   I’m thinking I may also create another VM running some version of Linux, just to play with.

Expandable

Another feature I really like about this unit is the ability to expand the storage with external drives.  Most NAS boxes these days have USB ports you can use to connect an external drive but QNAP takes it a step further, offering a 4-bay expansion box that can be used as a stand-alone DAS or as an extension of the internal storage.  I just got one of these, and it took all of about 10 minutes to get it going, including mounting the hard drives.  It connects to the main NAS via USB 3.0 and then you manage it via the same web interface as the main NAS.  The only thing I don’t really like is that you cannot combine both boxes into one big storage pool.

In Conclusion

I’m generally very happy  with the QNAP products but it’s not without a few reservations.  First, their support seems to be a bit slow, and half the time I try to view the status of support tickets on their website, I get an “under maintenance” message.  The other thing is, most of their documentation is in the form of an unorganized collection of web articles and it can be rather difficult to find the info you need.