First Looks - Thecus N7700 eAegis Reviews

 

Introduction

THECUS, with already an enviable portfolio of Network Attached Storage (NAS) products, have commenced shipment of the much anticipated N7700 NAS consisting of seven bays supporting SATA II based hard disk drives. The unit comes with a generous 1GB of memory for dealing with extensive power hungry applications requiring strenuous read, writes. The now traditional Thecus trademarks are the standard RAID features supporting levels 0,1,5,6 10 and JBOD. Aside from the RAID features, the smooth layer of icing on the cake has to be the addition of multiple file system support by inclusion of ext3 and ZFS platforms. The latter being a SUN initiative and this announcement will bring a huge smile on the faces of many weary SUN users, who have been demanding this feature for a while and now finally supported - kudos to Thecus for making it happen.

The N7700 joins an impressive host of other Thecus NAS arrays which include the multiple awards winning N5200PRO, the five bay classic that played a significant role in establishing Thecus as a major player within the SMB, Educational, Governmental and Enterprise sectors.

Thecus N7700Availability is a little hazy, we understand they are currently under mass production and should reach the US shores by mid to end November 2008. Pricing, currently is slated to be around the $1099.00 street price level. Our review product versioning was one of the first manufactured batches hot off the production line.

Superior Attributes

Our first glimpse of the Thecus N7700 unit was on the Thecus stand at the Computex 2008 exhibition held annually in Taipei, Taiwan. The visit was a double whammy for eAegis, with Thecus presenting us with an outstanding achievement award for consistently leading Thecus sales and support for the product range, as well as getting a glimpse of the N7700 the seven bay NAS. The exterior appearance has not dramatically changed, aside from a few minor esthetic changes; the unit remains exactly the same on the outside.

As far as comparisons go with the other Thecus products, the N7700 has no peers, suffice to say the N5200PRO is still one of the finest 5 bay units manufactured and attracts a totally different set of users than, we predict the N7700 will attract. We cannot say we totally agree with the present market and product classification listed by Thecus on their website, but the Small and Medium size businesses will most certainly show keen interest as will the enterprise inter-departmental users, and of course the home users that have an innate hunger for digital applications, high definition video / audio playback and recording, as well as video rendering/content creation. A warm welcome awaits the N7700 from these and many other potential users.

Whilst the Thecus N5200PRO is powered with an Intel® Celeron M 1.5GHz Processor and 512MB DDR system memory, the Thecus N7700 sports an Intel® Celeron™ M 1.86GHz processor coupled with a the NEW 2GB DDRII memory (all systems after October 2009), which at the moment is supposed to be upgradeable but not confirmed by Thecus. The extra horsepower and memory upgrade is a welcome addition, but, the inclusion of the seven bays is one that may tilt the balance for the N7700 when it comes to sheer capacity requirements. Currently, with the availability of the 1.5TB SATA II drives, it would mean the N7700 can pack a gargantuan 10.5TB unformatted capacity. This capacity level storage space is fast becoming a buyer’s market with a plethora of NAS products that are currently on offer.

Attention to Detail

The curvature on the N7700 is more of a design statement than a functional driven requirement; hence the look and feel is very much dependant on personal taste and one that does not require a detailed analysis.

It seems Thecus may have paid close attention to many users requesting a door to cover the drive bays. If so, then the inclusion of a door on the N7700 will be a refreshing welcome for those users. We at eAegis have mixed feelings about this feature. When open the drive bays run cool when closed the temperature rises, irrespective of the design aspect and ventilation holes. This applies to all NAS units that have this feature. Again, a subjective issue that needs to be addressed by each individual as the outcome of resultant temperature fluctuations will be dependent on the final location of the unit as well as housekeeping for any NAS unit, which should be subject to being cleaned on a monthly basis to remove any excess dust around the drive bays.

The unit has two large fans exactly as we have seen in one of the other NAS appliances we reviewed recently, the outcome of the installed fans is exactly the same. The unit when first booted does emit a high level of noise but once settled, becomes relatively quite. The large fans use their large blades to extract the air from the unit at a gentle pace and hence creating a near silent experience. Both fans are software controlled with one being a 120mm and the other 90mm, the former is a chassis cooling fan, and the latter a CPU cooling fan.

Opening the unit is a simple affair, the right and left panels are released from the back by removing a couple of screws. The right side reveals a motherboard with the back facing out and hence one cannot get a view of the mainboard components. Removal of the back panel provides access to the power supply and parts of the mainboard. A 300Watt power supply supports the complete system and should be adequate for seven 1TB drives.

Monitoring Progress

The usual LCD panel (BLUE) is included and was first deployed by Thecus for their own NAS and followed suite by many other manufacturers. The progress monitoring features are typically: Status - System Busy/Fail, HDD1-7 Activity/Fail, WNA/LAN Activity and IP Address designation, USB and eSATA connectivity and progress status. The unit like others can be controlled from the front panel with menu based option allowing selection of appropriate features for overall management.

Ease of Connectivity

The Thecus N7700 has Four (4) USB 2.0 Ports two at the front and two at the back. Support for a whole host of USB peripherals is provided and tested by us when we connected 4 differing USB external HDD units and a variety of printers for sharing. We did notice the lack of a one touch back up button for USB external drives missing once again as a feature. We are not convinced that is a must have feature, alternatively one can schedule a USB copy as and when required by merely inserting the drive and backing up as and when required. We are certain this will not feature as a critical factor when buying your next NAS. Ethernet connectivity is via two RJ-45x2: 10/100/1000 BASE-TX Auto MDI/MDI-X WOL supported ports that facilitate Link Aggregation for 802.3ad, load balance and fail over. Load Balancing, which allows you to balance traffic across the two ports to maximize transfer rates, as well as Failover which in turns allows you to have the luxury of the second port taking over in case the first port fails.

Redundancy via RAID

Obtaining Peace of Mind (POM) does not have a value label associated with it. En route to achieving total POM for Data Redundancy can be had via RAID and a higher allowance for capacity than would normally be required. This may seem a little daunting to those that thought redundancy is achieved merely by slapping 2-4 drives in a RAID environment and relaxing with your feet up with a refreshing drink in one hand. Not quite! Keep the drink chilled we will back, we have work to do. N7700 with seven bays and a host of RAID modes supported gives us the opportunity to reach heights otherwise were difficult with smaller bay units.

Supported RAID modes - RAID 0, 1, 5,6,10, JBOD, that is good start and the RAID features that it supports are Auto-rebuild, Hot-Swap, Hot-Spare, Global Hot-Spare and this in combination with Multiple RAID support allows a host of RAID permutations that will blow any random number combination sky high! For the sake of this exercise we will restrict ourselves to a few critical data backup options.

This scenario is going to assume using all seven bays to their optimum level.

RAID 5 – Requires three drives minimum – so; one can have 2 volumes (six drives) and a Spare Drive in the seventh bay. Mirroring – Volume 1 to Volume 2 and having a spare drive too in case of one of the drives fails.

RAID 5 and RAID 1 – RAID 5 – Three drives in Volume 1, with RAID 1 two drives in Volume 2 and RAID 1 two drives in Volume 3. Volume 1 (RAID 5) backs up to Volume 2 (RAID 1) and this in turn backs up to Volume 3 (RAID 1). This allows for the highest level of redundancy in one unit, whilst optimizing capacity as well. So, time to get our chilled drink now?

Of course, the other RAID levels can also provide a similar path to planning for a recovery of data in cases of disaster. Refer to our ‘RAID explained’ at the end of this review to get a better understanding, if needed.

Tangible Extra Features

Thecus N7700 has a few gold nugget features that justify its claim to their products having enterprise level features at prices that equate to less than a quarter of their enterprise counterpart products.

iSCSI – Support for iSCSI initiators makes it easy for users to centrally manage and deploy storage for the entire network with ease and allow consolidation of storage from the same central core. Thecus was the first SMB NAS manufacturer to support iSCSI and recognized the advantages of leveraging this at the SMB level

Stackable – Connect up to another five N7700 units and manage them via a master control panel.

Filesystem - A choice of ext3 and ZFS file systems, previously only a single option now extended to multiple options allowing an array of users that were otherwise not keen to move over to the Thecus platform, can now do so with some ease. The ZFS file system is one that will encourage all SUN based users to immediately adopt the Thecus as a NAS of their choice should the need arise for one.

ext3 - The ext3 or third extended file system is a Journaled file system that is coming into increasing use among users of the Linux operating system. It is the default file system for the Red Hat, Fedora and Debian Linux distributions. Why to migrate from ext2 to ext3? Four main reasons: availability, data integrity, speed, and easy transition. Although its performance and scalability is less attractive than many of its competitors such as ReiserFS and XFS, it does have the significant advantage in that it allows in-place upgrades from the popular ext2 file system without having to backup and restore data.

Wikipedia Definition of ZFS: In computing, ZFS is a file system designed by Sun Microsystems for the Solaris Operating System. The features of ZFS include support for high storage capacities, integration of the concepts of Filesystem and volume management, snapshots and copy-on-write clones, on-line integrity checking and repair, and RAID-Z. ZFS is implemented as open-source software, licensed under the Common Development and Distribution License (CDDL).

Range of Network File & Media Services

Network File and Media services offered with Thecus N7700 is inclusive but not limited to, CIFS/SMB for SMB/CIFS, HTTP/HTTPS, FTP, NFS v3, AFP, basically a heterogeneous environment that allows multiple platform clients to share the N7700. The Media Streaming support is adequate and allows Compatibility across UPnP AV, iTunes server supporting File Types: AAC, MP3 w/ ID3 tag, Photo Web Server Supported File Types: GIF, JPG (JPEG), BMP, PNG, Supports EXIF display, Supports slide show. Thecus continues to add more support across the range of services, but also relies on their party add-on outfits to realize this potential.

Easy Backup

Backup is via FarStone Drive Clone PRO 5.0 which is schedule based with incremental backup services. Furthermore disaster recovery can be facilitated using the same software to ensure rapid recovery at times of disaster. NAS remote replication can be achieved via Thecus proprietary Nsync service.

Take a look at the features of the FarStone Drive Clone PRO 5.0 by clicking here and downloading the features that make the package a useful addition to the N7700.

Performance

Thecus N5200PRO kept the fastest NAS in its class title for almost the whole period until the recently launched N7700. The N7700 is designed, as we expected, to continue the tradition of having an excellent turn of speed allowing it to claim the title as the fastest NAS in its class.

Test Environment

Thecus N7700 (3x500GB – Enterprise Class)

Firmware Revision: FW 2.01.04

RAID 5 Configuration

Network

NETGEAR FSM726 10/100Mbps + 1000Mbps ProSafe Managed Switch

Test Method

There are two tests that we used to measure performance on the Windows platform:

Real-World testing utility that consist of workload traces gathered from typical digital home applications, traces of high definition video playback and recording, office productivity applications, video rendering/content creation as well as a broad range of different applications, using 1024 KB sequential block reads and writes on a 2 GB test file, as well as Drag & Drop of a 2 GB file over CIFS, Windows default network protocol.

The outcome of the Real World Test performance results will provide a tremendous dilemma for those users who value performance as a high priority in the pecking order for selecting a NAS. Thecus N7700 will not disappoint as clearly depicted by the tests. Read and Write speeds are a tad below the 100MB/s, and during our numerous runs, the N7700 did hit above 100MB/s, but this was not sustainable.

Drag and Drop is a methodology used by a majority of users to move data back and forth on their individual systems. As such, we feel this method should form an integral part of our testing of products and to ensure a return in results depicting a realistic process. Drag and Drop results show a marked improvement over many products we have tested and resultant figures clearly set the N7700 apart from its competitors.

The overall results clearly depict the Thecus N7700 to be a high performing seven bay NAS that will take some beating. In both category tests the 100MB/s barrier seems to no longer be an illusion but more appropriately a definitive reality.

Overall Conclusion

Thecus N7700 follows closely on the heels of its sibling the Thecus N5200PRO as far as being the fastest NAS in its class. The N5200PRO quickly established itself as a major leader on performance and the N7700 it seems may continue to hold the performance crown in the mid range SMB NAS category. The N7700 has a generous seven bays and can support a total 10.5TB based on the available capacity currently supported by SATA II format. The overall capacity support will increase as larger capacity drives become available on the market. Notable features such as, iSCSI initiator support as well as stackable availability, the expansion of capacity becomes a lot easier. Adding capacity seems to be a breeze, with the support of both online RAID expansion and online RAID migration. The jewels in the crown of the N7700 must be the support for multiple Filesystem in the form of ext3 and ZFS. The latter being the biggest jewel. Those users that require remote replication maybe be pleased to hear Thecus now claims to allow versioning control within Nsync, allowing users to plan strategically for disaster recovery. All in all, the N7700 is a fully fledged Network Attached Storage system that is not only fast but with the added features, make it a MUST have NAS, as part of one’s storage portfolio.

This review is courtesy of: eAegis Product Testing and Evaluation Division.

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