Network Attached Storage — Plays well with others

Ian Yates
11 February, 2007
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You can never have too much storage space in your home, and the same applies to your Macintosh. Actually, make that Macintoshes plural, as most people can no longer stop at just one Macintosh. If you have a family, you know how hard it is to share just one computer. If you’re without a family, you can actually afford more than one computer. No matter how you ended up with multiple Macs, the resulting problem is universal — where did all your files go?

You know you already own the latest album by your favourite band, but where is it? And where on earth are the photos you took just last weekend at cousin Katie’s wedding? They’re not in the camera — already looked there. And one of the kids is screaming about missing homework and predicting all sorts of punishment from the teacher if it can’t be found. There’s just got to be a better way to keep everything accessible, from whichever Macintosh happens to be nearest or has the shortest queue of family members waiting their turn.

Welcome to the world of Network Attached Storage, universally known by its acronym NAS. These devices connect to your network along with your Macintoshes and provide gobs of storage, which can be accessed by any of your computers. You might think you can do exactly the same thing with one of your existing Macs, and you’d be right — you can indeed share the hard disks on any Mac with any other Macs. However, when you do that, you need to leave the shared Macintosh always powered up, and you will also soon run out of space, because you’re now storing everyone else’s files.

A NAS device is a more elegant solution, since it requires no monitor, mouse or keyboard, and is designed to store upwards of 1000GB of your photos, music, videos, homework and whatever else you care to digitise. As an added bonus, you can also access a NAS device from a Windows or Linux PC, should any of them be lurking on your network. And a NAS device is the ideal place to save backups of the files from the hard drives of each individual Macintosh. And all these NAS devices have backup software included in the box.

On trial. For this review we stuck with desktop devices with a sub-$1500 price tag, including offerings from Iomega, LaCie and Maxtor. We had also planned to evaluate NAS devices from Intel, Seagate (which owns Maxtor) and Western Digital but the reviewer’s astrological alignments defeated us. In the case of Seagate and Intel, their NAS products are in the midst of being updated and only their previous models were available by deadline. Western Digital’s My Book World Edition II has no support for Macintosh at the moment, but support is promised “real soon now”. There are also much larger, industrial strength NAS devices available, which have removable hot-swappable hard drives — and price tags to match.

There is a lot to like about these NAS devices and not much to dislike. All the reviewed models are essentially plug-and-play — if you already have a network. Each unit expects to use DHCP to get the necessary network settings from your router, and each vendor supplies an applet which hunts down their respective NAS devices, thus saving you the need to guess which IP address they’re using. Once discovered, the devices can be configured and administered using your favourite web browser. Configuration isn’t onerous either — you can do nothing and just start using the vast available storage space, or you can set up different user names and passwords if you want to keep control of who gets access to which folders on your NAS box.

All these NAS devices include support for add-on disk drives via their USB 2.0 ports, which may seem unnecessary now, but will soon be appreciated when you’ve filled up what seemed at first to be an endless empty space. You could add another NAS unit to your network, but just being able to connect a smaller drive to offload important but less accessed files is a welcome feature. The same USB 2.0 ports also support sharing a printer — which means you won’t have to remember to power-up the Mac with the printer next time you need to print from a Mac which has no printer of its own.

Another feature shared by all the reviewed NAS boxes is their support for media streaming to a “Digital Media Adapter”. In other words, you can keep all your music, photos and videos on your NAS device and they will all be available to whichever media player you have hooked up to your TV or stereo. This could be another Mac running Front Row, or a dedicated media player, or (shudder) a Windows Media Center PC. Either way, it means you’ll have plenty of room for your media files and you won’t need to keep your regular Macintosh powered up just to watch TV or listen to some music.

By comparison. Of course there are also some subtle differences between these competing NAS devices. The LaCie Ethernet Big Disk is the only one with support for direct connection to your Macintosh via USB — which means it can be used as direct storage without a network. The others can only use their USB ports for add-on storage or printers. The Maxtor Shared Storage II offers a choice of full capacity or half-capacity using RAID 1, also known as mirroring. Although this cuts your storage in half, it provides security because two copies of each file are kept on separate internal hard disks. If one disk should fail you can still get to your files while you arrange a replacement for the dead hard drive.

The Iomega StorCenter 1TB takes security one step further by supporting the RAID 5 specification. Unlike RAID 1 mirroring, RAID 5 only sacrifices the storage capacity of a single disk drive, and inside the Iomega NAS there are four 250GB drives available. If you choose RAID 5 you will still have 750GB available for your files, and you can keep working without interruption should any one of the four drives fail. The Iomega box also has another trick up its sleeve: WiFi. Wireless network support is built-in, allowing you to locate the NAS device anywhere there is power, if you have a wireless network. If you don’t have a wireless network, the Iomega StorCenter can operate as a WiFi access point, adding wireless to your existing wired network.

Australian Macworld’s buying advice. The choice between these NAS devices is really simple: you pay your money and you make your choice. Each one provides all the essentials you could ask for in shared storage, and as the price increases, so do the features. For solid fast shared storage the LaCie Ethernet Big Disk is hard to beat on price. If you need the security of RAID 1, then the Maxtor holds instant appeal. If you need RAID 5 or you want your NAS available without wires, step up to the Iomega StorCenter. None of these will disappoint.

Maxtor Shared Storage II - 1TB

Type Network Attached Storage
Rating 4.5
Pros RAID 0, RAID 1, share printers
Cons Requires external power supply
Ports 1GB Ethernet, dual USB 2.0
SRP AUD$1199
Manufacturer Seagate
Distributor Maxtor Australia 1800 147 201
Ian Yates

LaCie Ethernet Big Disk - 1TB

Type Network Attached Storage
Rating 4.5
Pros Support for attached printers, additional storage via USB
Cons Requires external power supply
Ports 1GB Ethernet, dual USB 2.0
SRP AUD$819
Manufacturer LaCie
Distributor LaCie Australia 02 9669 6900
Ian Yates

Iomega StorCenter Wireless Network Storage - 1TB

Type Network Attached Storage
Rating 4.5
Pros Wireless, RAID 0, RAID 1, RAID 5, share printers
Cons Requires external power supply, noisier than the others
Ports 1GB Ethernet, WiFi, dual USB 2.0
SRP AUD$1499
Manufacturer Iomega
Distributor Iomega Australia 02 9925 7700

Iomega StorCenter Network Storage - 500GB

Type Network Attached Storage
Rating 4
Pros RAID 0, RAID 1, share printers
Cons Requires external power supply
Ports 1GB Ethernet, dual USB 2.0
SRP AUD$749
Manufacturer Iomega
Distributor Iomega Australia 02 9925 7700

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