Why virtualise your NAS environment?
Thecus N5550 NAS device
Do much more than just store data with this 5-bay network-attached storage device
- Five drive bays
- Well priced
- Stacks of features to play with
- Needs clearer and more in-depth documentation
- Build quality doesn't feel great
There is plenty to like about the Thecus N5550. It has five drive bays yet it doesn't cost the Earth, and it can be almost endlessly configured via extra modules from Thecus and third parties. However, it's a device that does require a fair bit of tinkering so only consider it if you don't mind getting your hands dirty.
Price$ 789.00 (AUD)
The Thecus N5550 is a five-bay network attached storage (NAS) device that's capable of fulfilling many tasks. Its primary purpose is to keep your data secure via drive redundancy, built-in McAfee virus scanning and back-up procedures, but it can also be used for media streaming, cloud storage, video surveillance recordings and much more. It's definitely feature-packed, to the point where it's suitable for a small office environment. However, it can be quite a difficult NAS to use at times so it's probably not the best device to go for if you are looking for something straightforward.
With five drive bays, there is potential to create one large redundant RAID scheme, or even to create two different types of RAID arrays within the same housing. It supports 3.5in hard drives up to 4TB in capacity, so you could install up to 20TB worth of hard drive space without redundancy. In our tests, we configured the Thecus to run two RAID arrays over four 1TB 3.5in drives, one array without redundancy and one array with redundancy. It's great to have such versatility in a single unit. The possibility is there to also use RAID 5, RAID 6 and RAID 10 arrays for more flexible redundancy. Because it runs an Intel Atom CPU and has 2GB of DDR3 SDRAM its performance is also swift.
We had no problems reading large files off the Thecus' two RAID arrays by copying them to the 10,000rpm WD Velociraptor hard drive in our test PC. It recorded a transfer rate of 78 megabytes per second (MBps) using the RAID 1 array when copying data to our test PC. The RAID 0 array, which favours performance over redundancy, recorded 92.4MBps. Copying data from our test PC back to the NAS, the RAID 1 array recorded 76MBps and the RAID 0 array recorded 93.8MBps. Smaller files were copied to our test PC at a more subdued rate of 60MBps for the RAID 1 array and 72.2MBps for the RAID 0 array. We copied them from the PC and back to the RAID 1 array at 65.8MBps and to the RAID 0 array at 74.6MBps.
Overall, we found the Thecus N5550's responsiveness to be excellent and its Web interface was also quick to respond to our commands. A lot of capabilities are built in to this interface, which not only has a stack of features that you can use to configure and optimise your storage, it also allows for extra programs called modules to be installed. These can enhance the feature-set a lot, adding more media serving capabilities, Dropbox integration, direct BitTorrent downloads, IP camera recording functionality and many more tasks.
These modules can be installed only after manually downloading them from the Thecus Web site and then uploading them onto the NAS, so it's not the most streamlined of procedures. Once a module is installed, you have to enable it and you can configure it by clicking it to access its Web page. Some modules, such as the Local Display module, which allows you to control the NAS and even browse the Web from the NAS itself, also require the latest firmware to be installed. We found some of the modules to be fiddly to use, such as the Dropbox module, and we attribute this to poor documentation regarding what needs to be done to set them up. We had no problems with other modules, such as the Twonky server, which was easy to set up.
One thing that we found disappointing about the N5550 is the lack of a proper smartphone app to configure it and to allow you to access data from it in an easy manner. There is one app for Android called Thecus Dashboard, which only shows basic network information about the NAS, and there is another called Thecus Share, which could see our NAS, but could not read any media off it (we used the Twonky Video app to access video files without problems though, and a file manager was also able to see files off the NAS). We'd like to see these apps get better, and we'd also like to see Thecus develop a cloud app for use with this NAS, similar to what other NAS vendors like Qnap and Synology have. (Some third-party apps may be available that do this though.)
On the plus side, you can create a dynamic DNS account and the set up the NAS so that you can access content from it remotely via FTP, and you can also install and enable the Dropbox module to synchronise all your files. Any files that you add to the Dropbox folder on your NAS will then synchronise with your main Dropbox account, and vice versa. To get the Dropbox service to work, we had to fiddle around with the NAS' settings. Mainly, we had to make sure that the NAS could access the Internet. We had to go to the Network settings in the Web interface and make sure that the right network port was being used as the gateway to the Internet (there are two LAN ports on this NAS, which can be used for redundancy or for extra bandwidth). Once we established that the NAS was on the Internet, it was then a matter of linking our Dropbox account with the NAS server. Again, we wish that Thecus would provide more detailed, and easier-to-understand instructions on how this and its other modules can be configured to work. There are forums dedicated to Thecus modules that can provide lots of extra information, and we high recommend visiting them.
There is one module that can turn the N5550 into a stand-alone computer of sorts. It's the Local Display module, which allows you plug in a monitor (via VGA or HDMI) and input peripherals (via USB) to control the NAS directly. It runs a custom version of Linux that also includes a built-in Firefox Web browser, through which you can stream Flash video (not very well due to it having a relatively low-power CPU for that sort of thing) and it also allows you to access the NAS' Web administration page. The thing about this module is that it's needed to run some useful third-party modules, such as VLC, which then allows you to view content off your NAS directly. You can simply open video files through the VLC player and play them right off the NAS without going through another computer. High-resolution files may not play smoothly though.
To sum it up, the Thecus N5550 offers a rich playground environment for tinkerers and we think that if you don't mind getting your hands dirty and spending a bit of time reading up on how things work, you can get a lot of enjoyment out of it. It can perform a large range of tasks apart from simply storing and sharing data from multiple users and computers on a network, and that includes an ability to stream content to iTunes and DLNA devices, as well as synchronise with Dropbox via an add-in module.
You can find it for a very reasonable price if you shop around — we found it for $599, which is at least a couple of hundred dollars cheaper than 4-bay models from Qnap and Synology and you get the extra drive bay and more RAM for your money — but you can also tell that it's a cheap device when you start using it. It could use clearer labels and instructions in many cases, and the physical aspects of this NAS, including its front panel buttons, door and the drive bays that host the 3.5in hard drives, aren't of the quality that we've seen on more expensive devices from the likes of Qnap. Nevertheless, it's not like you'll always be tinkering with the hardware (until you need to hot-swap a drive and re-build a redundant array), so if you don't mind that, and if you also don't mind a device that really makes you tinker and look for information on how to get things done, then go for it.
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