Tuesday, October 11, 2011

First Impressions Review: Acer Aspire Easystore AH340

My 4 year old Infrant ReadyNAS NV+ only had a couple of hundred gigabytes of storage left on it, so I now had to make a decision: do I upgrade all the drives at once, or should I switch servers entirely? The epiphany I had came when I experienced a power supply failure in 2009. While the ReadyNAS was offline and had to be shipped back to the manufacturer for a replacement, I had no access to data. Note that while RAID protects you from a failure in any given disk, you still have single-points of vulnerability in your RAID machine's motherboard, power supply, and network card. Netgear's customer service so bad that they replaced my 1GB machine with a 256MB machine, so I knew that I would not stay with Netgear if I could at all help it.

Other raid vendors such as Drobo FS were just as expensive, and did not solve the ultimate problem I find in all RAID systems, which is that every RAID implementation is different. If your vendor went under, or you simply found a better deal elsewhere, you couldn't switch vendors and expect to just move your disks and have everything go well. In fact, if your RAID vendor went under and your hardware went bad, your disks will now be just a bunch of platters with no use whatsoever and you'd better have reasonable off-site backup.

The answer, then, is to run a commodity OS that's more or less configurable. In fact, if possible, doing away with RAID and running a standard file system that you can operate from any commodity hardware would be ideal. I considered doing what Michael Herf did and setting up a ZFS Nas, but instead found a refurbished Acer Aspire Easystore over at Cheetah Deals. At $270 shipped, I didn't think I could build a machine for less. (Herf paid $1500 for his ZFS wonderbox)

The Easystore runs Windows Home Server (WHS), which is not software RAID or in fact, RAID of any kind. All the disks you stick into the machine gets turned into NTFS disks, which means that if you have a hardware failure (not a disk failure), you take the disks out, stick them into a Hard Drive Dock attached to any Windows PC, and your data comes right back up. This is huge. It means you can abandon WHS with no real lockin, or move things to a newer bigger machine in the future. To defend against hard drive failures, WHS lets you designate certain folders to be duplicated, which means that their contents will be replicated across multiple drives, so if one drive fails you won't lose all the files. This is a nice feature, since for most media (like music, watch-once videos, etc) you don't have to waste space replicating them, but for your most important files, you'll get protection against drive failure.

The implications of this setup are interesting. First of all, if you fill all 4 disk slots on your EasyStore and you run out of disk space, you can't just pull out an existing disk and drop in a larger capacity one! That's because you have to attach a new disk, tell WHS to remove the old disk (it will then copy all the data off that old disk), and then stick in a new one with more capacity. Fortunately, you can use the USB ports or the eSATA ports to add new disks. One particularly intriguing approach would be to use a multi-bay eSATA enclosure in order to expand your WHS indefinitely. The other implication is that if you have a drive failure and that drive contained some non-replicated folders, you will almost certainly lose data. It's also impossible to upgrade the system drive, without doing a full restore from backup. Finally, if you do lose the system drive, you'll have to restore from a CD off another machine.

What's even more interesting is that you might not even use that feature all that often! One of the big features of WHS is that it can wake up all your machines at home from sleep or hibernate mode and back up them at night while you sleep! This is a full image backup, so you can now leave your data on your machine and not copy them over to your NAS unless you really need to share them. One big caveat is that the version of WHS that came with my EasyStore was 32-bit, so the recovery disk is 32-bit. If you need to restore a 64-bit Windows machine, what you'll have to do is to augment the drivers with 32-bit drivers via a USB disk. This is not for the faint of heart, but I performed a full backup and recovery of my 64-bit Thinkpad X201 with some hunting down of the various drivers on Lenovo's website, so I'm confident that the process will work. Obviously, if you don't run an all Microsoft Windows network, this feature will be less useful for you, though apparently you can use Time Machine with WHS. I've never met an Apple user who would condescend to buying a WHS though, so I can't imagine that this is well-tested.

One interesting thing is that in order to gain access to the NAS, your Windows boxes have to install a client. This turns out not to be a big deal: just download the client from the NAS (which exports a http server), type in the password, and away you go. Mac users can access the same folders via Samba.

But that's not all! WHS automatically exports videos, photos, and music over your local area network, which meant that for the first time, my PS 3 can now play videos directly off the NAS, something the NV+ could not do before. It also exports music via Firefly, so those of you who have Roku music players or SONOS will have no problems with exported music. The big feature for me, surprisingly, is photos. Photos now can be viewed on the big screen in the living room, letting you run digital slideshows off the NAS. I always knew this feature existed before, but what with having to copy data round on a thumbdrive, I never actually used the feature. I can only imagine that those with a XBox 360 would have just as much access to these features.

What's interesting to realize is that the WHS box is running Windows, which you can access using Remote Desktop. This lets you install CrashPlan, for instance, and get automatic off-site backups. If you're too lazy to transcode everything for the PS3, you can also install PS3 Media Player, so transcoding automatically gets done for you by the WHS. I also installed PlayOn, so the PS3 now has access to YouTube and Hulu. Now I can turn off/hibernate my big power hungry desktop whenever I'm not using it.

With all this going on, you might think that the puny Atom 230 on the NAS would be overwhelmed. Well, I recently did 3-4 things on it at once. I started a multi-hour copy job, started a 3 hour restore job, had Crash Plan running in the background, and played a video off the easystore from the PS3. The Easystore didn't even crack a sweat: CPU utilization was at 50%, and the network utilization was close to 20-30%. The video played smooth as butter. Performance on the copy operation, by the way, was a little better than what I could get out of the NV+. The NV+ topped out at 5-6MB/s on my network, while I could get the Easystore to give me 10-12MB/s on writes. I have no idea why the NV+ is so slow because it's apparently been benchmarked elsewhere with significantly faster write performance.

Then to top all this off, WHS had one more feature up its sleeve that pleased the heck out of me. It turns out that you can register a domain at homeserver.com, and set up account access to your WHS through the internet so you can have access to those files in your home directory anywhere you go. It's like having a massively unlimited Dropbox folder, though perhaps with a UI that's not as sweet once you're off-site. The NV+ advertised that feature but I was never able to get it to work, and it's very nice to see Microsoft doing it right. This by the way, also solves the problem of: "Hey, I've got this huge file I need to send to you, how do I get it over to you?" Just create an account for your friend, give yourself read-access to that folder, and have him login to your domain. The flip side of all this functionality, of course, is that you can no longer turn off your NAS when you go on vacation, but that's not that big a deal --- the Easystore also has a wake-on-LAN feature, which I'll test as soon as my huge copy jobs (for migrating off the NV+) are done.

All in all, my initial impressions of WHS and the Easystore are very favorable. If I'd known about all these features I probably would have jumped ships the last time my ReadyNAS died (yes, it died twice, once from corrupting its own boot sector and once from hardware failure). Obviously, it'll take months/years to see how reliable the hardware is, but the reality is, even if I have to build my own WHS box, I don't see why I would consider any other approach for my next NAS. Highly Recommended. Does anyone want a used ReadyNAS NV+ that still has about a half a year of warranty left on it?
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