Nas systems tested: Which is the best nas?

The cloud has changed the way we backup, yet it certainly hasn't been the end of NAS. On the contrary: the need for massive storage capacity in the own network is only increasing. In addition, a NAS still offers much more functionality than any cloud. Only you have to choose the right one, because the choice for a NAS is often a choice for years. We tested sixteen systems. What is the best nose?

The fact that a nas is still called 'a nas' is mainly because we never use the name in full. A 'network attached storage' (a hard disk with a network connection) no longer covers the load. Even the cheapest NAS is already a mini server with more functionality than any other device in the home network. And yes, there is also at least one hard drive in it. The fact that the NAS effortlessly survives all changes, such as the rise of the Mac in the home network and the enormous growth of smartphones and tablets, is due to its flexibility. Nas vendors discovered early on that the user wants everything except the cost and complexity associated with a real server. Suppliers still invest heavily in the software on the NAS and everything that goes with it. Yet a NAS is indeed more than software, hardware remains important. A NAS must be fast, preferably be able to transcode a film on-the-fly for playback on a tablet, be able to store multiple backups and preferably securely, ie over multiple discs.

No WD and Seagate in the test

Although Western Digital was included in the test of NAS software, the brand is missing in this test of NAS hardware. Around the IFA fair in Berlin, Western Digital wanted to update its nas offering. Test samples were not yet available. Another name missing from this article is Seagate. This storage manufacturer has stopped developing NAS devices.

ARM vs Intel

Right through the nas offering is the division between ARM and Intel, or rather, between systems with a processor according to the ARM architecture and systems with a processor according to the x86 architecture. We know the x86 processors from AMD and Intel, but in a nas they almost always come from Intel. ARM processors do not have a single manufacturer, as ARM is a processor architecture that a chip manufacturer can license. Marvell has such a license, just like Freescale, which is owned by the Dutch NXP, and even Amazon. The latter bought the Israeli Annapurna Labs in 2015, and both Synology and QNAP have a nas in the test with such an Amazon chip.

An ARM processor works fundamentally differently from an x86 processor. An ARM processor can perform simple tasks quickly and economically, but must first divide complex tasks into less complex actions. An x86 processor does not need that, it can perform very complex operations. But for that an x86 processor needs more transistors: it is therefore larger, consumes more energy and produces more heat. That is why initially mainly ARM processors were used in nas devices.

Forced by the rise of smartphones and tablets, Intel has also started to develop more energy-efficient processors, and Intel's role in NAS devices has also expanded. More than half of the tested NAS devices now have an Intel processor. That's not to say that ARM's role is over. However, this is limited to use in the cheaper models, especially in the smaller models, such as the Asustor AS1002T and the Synology DS216j.

Where is AMD?

Although AMD also makes processors with an x86 architecture and these are often cheaper than comparable models from Intel, you will not easily come across the brand in a NAS. Only QNAP has nas systems with an AMD processor, but all in the more expensive segment. And so will the recently announced TS-x77 series, the first to feature the AMD Ryzen processor. It only comes in models with 6, 8 and 12 drives and with up to 64 GB of DDR4 memory.

Number of disks and memory

An important factor in the purchase is the number of drives. A NAS with space for more disks is already more expensive when purchased and becomes even more expensive due to the larger number of disks that must be purchased. Nevertheless, a NAS with more disks is often more sensible in the end. This is because more disks means less loss of storage space when you opt for raid and you can create a larger storage volume with relatively cheaper disks.

When a NAS is loaded more heavily, the amount of memory also plays a role, both in energy consumption and performance. 2GB of memory is now the standard for 2bay NAS devices, as is the case with the cheaper 5bay models. With 4bay models, 4 GB is increasingly the standard, with the Asustor AS6404T as the outlier with 8 GB.

Disk Formats

Raid is a method of protecting the data on a NAS from the failure of a hard drive. This requires using raid1 or higher. Raid1 is already possible with two disks, but then requires half the total storage capacity. From four disks you can choose a higher raid that requires a relatively smaller part of the storage capacity for protection. If you find raid difficult or want to combine dissimilar drives, choose one of the flexible raid options: Synology SHR, Drobo BeyondRAID or Netgear X-RAID.

Test method

For this test, 16 current NAS devices with space for 2, 4 and 5 disks (called bays) were selected. The selection is made based on price and availability. An attempt was also made to include more newer models in the test.

Each nas is equipped with the latest firmware and then tested for speed and functionality. The NAS is for this purpose together with the test system and a Gigabit switch from Linksys on a separate test network. For the speed test, we use the Intel NAS Performance Toolkit, which simulates real-life situations such as playing an HD movie and working with Office files. This has been done for jbod and raid0, and raid1 or raid5. Seagate 2 TB NAS drives were used for storage. These drives are equipped with special firmware to provide years of reliable yet above-average load, and are therefore ideally suited for use in a NAS. All data from the various tests can be found in the table accompanying this article. It also contains an overview of the most important functions and associated options, such as the number of packages and apps. The review of the NAS devices that are included in the table, but not discussed separately, is available online at www.computertotaal.nl.

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