QNAP Systems NAS Server with Mtron SSDs

Executive Summary:

DV Nation put four Mtron 64GB solid state disk (SSD) drives into a QNAP Systems TS-411U Network Attached Storage (NAS) and sent it to Windows IT Pro for a look-see. Our reviewer jumped at the chance to play with the SSD technology, but concluded that it's wasted in a NAS storage device.

In "Is SSD the Future of Storage?" (March 2008, InstantDoc ID 98664), Jeff James discussed the advent of the solid state disk (SSD) and its impending impact on portable devices and enterprise computing environments. Although technologies are always improving, dramatic leaps such as the transition from spinning magnetic media to solid-state storage are rare. As a techno-geek, I jumped at the chance to take a look at the QNAP Systems TS-411U NAS containing four Mtron SSD Pro 64GB disks sent to us by DV Nation.

The Physical Specimen
The TS-411U looks like a typical 1U rack-mount storage device—the provided Quick Installation Guide even discussed the use of Serial ATA (SATA) drives within the enclosure. My first impression was of a generic NAS platform into which SSDs had been installed. A drop-down front panel sports an LCD with two menu control buttons and conceals four lockable drive trays. At the rear of the unit are two USB 2.0 ports, two Ethernet ports, and an Ultra160 SCSI connector. Redundant 150-watt removable power supplies are accessible from the rear, but the single shared AC line receptacle leaves the potential for an unplugged cord to be a single point of failure.

Configuring the System
I connected the power and network cables to the system and turned it on. After booting, the system displayed its DHCP address on the LCD. Using the front-panel buttons to navigate the configuration menus was fairly straightforward and intuitive. I installed the Quick Install Wizard from the included CD-ROM on a Windows XP desktop and was nonplussed when the installation made an uninvited connection to the Internet, triggering Windows Firewall to block the connection. When I later accessed the vendor's Help website, I was again confounded when the site launched unexpected scripts, causing Microsoft Internet Explorer to block them. Because the system's administration tool is web-based and the front panel displays the device’s IP address, the Quick Install Wizard isn't really necessary.

The admin UI offers a fairly wide array of configuration options. Notable configuration choices include NIC load balancing for failover or performance, RAID configuration, Active Directory (AD) domain membership, and file sharing configuration. The documentation wasn't much help as I struggled a bit to supply the domain information in the format the NAS device wanted, but after I got it set properly, I was able to manage share permissions using AD groups and users. The SCSI and USB ports allow for direct connection of tape drives and DVD burners, respectively, for backing up data that's stored on the NAS. The device software handles the backup operations.

You might be wondering how the TS-411U differs from a typical NAS system. The answer is that it doesn't. There are no tools, software or otherwise, geared toward the SSD element of the TS-411U. So what's the net benefit? In a word: performance. But the problem is that NAS simply isn't a good use of SSDs. NAS puts too many layers between the bus and the disk interface, and each layer injects latency, overhead, and bottleneck potential. As Jeff pointed out in his article, one application that could leverage the performance of SSDs, thus justifying their cost, is SQL Server databases—particularly tempdb. But with today's technology, no amount of physical disk speed can help NAS be a good storage option for SQL Server—or for other apps that could really benefit from a surge in performance.

Even though NAS isn’t the best use for SSDs, they did perform better than some traditional SCSI and SATA hard drive–based shares I had at my disposal and were much quieter, having nothing mechanical other than the power-supply fans. I didn’t measure power consumption, but it's logical that the absence of constantly spinning platters would require less energy and generate less heat than typical disk drives.

A Square Peg
Although there was a notable quickness about the TS-411U, the mismatch between the SSD and NAS technologies doesn’t provide a good ROI. The story would likely be different if the SSDs were used in a device that put the least possible amount of connecting technology between the system and the disk, letting you apply the power of SSD exactly where it's needed. I'm going to keep my eye on this new technology, though, in the anticipation that prices will drop over the next few years.

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