Thecus N5200 NAS Review
By Gabriel Torres on August 16, 2008


Introduction

Thecus N5200 is a high-performance Network Attached Storage (NAS), a box where you install hard disk drives to make them available to your network, basically a small yet powerful file server for your home or office. The reviewed model allows the installation of up five hard disk drives, supporting RAID levels 0, 1, 5, 6, 10 and JOB, featuring three USB ports, one eSATA port and two Gigabit Ethernet ports. How is the performance of Thecus N5200 compared to other NAS boxes? Check it out.

Thecus N5200
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Figure 1: Thecus N5200 NAS.

With a box like this you can solve two basic problems on your home or office. First, it provides a central location for file storage. Usually on small home/office networks file sharing is achieved by sharing folders on computers and the computer that has the files you want must be turned on in order for you to access them. While on home environments there is almost no performance issues, on offices performance may be an issue as well, especially with we are talking about huge files (such as the ones manipulated by graphic design studios) being accessed by more than one user. If you are working afterhours and the user of that computer has already left and put a password on his or her computer, you may find yourself in trouble.

The second advantage of NAS boxes is that they usually also work as a printer server. On a typical home/office network if the printer isn’t connected to an external device that is working as a print server (some broadband routers have this capability) then the computer where the printer is attached to must be turned on all the times if you want to print documents. Almost all NAS boxes offers at least one USB port where you can attach your printer and configure the box to work as a print server, not requiring an extra computer to be turned on for you to be able to print your hardcopies.

You can also download pictures from your digital camera directly to the NAS box, through its USB port, making them readily available to all users on your network. So you won’t need to download them to your computer and then transfer them to the box. NAS boxes can be also accessed by IP-based surveillance cameras, so this kind of device can store video directly in the NAS.

NAS systems are more than simple boxes to install hard disk drives, as all of them accept RAID configuration in order to improve storage performance, to improve storage reliability, or both. The two basic RAID modes – 0 for performance increase and 1 for mirroring – are accepted by all NAS boxes, but more advanced levels especially 5 and 6 aren’t usually available on mainstream NAS boxes. Thecus N5200 provides as an advantage over competing products RAID levels 5 (a RAID0 system that stores parity information in order to increase reliability) and 6 (a more reliable RAID5 system, storing more parity information). For more information on RAID, please read our Everything You Need to Know About RAID tutorial and for a more in-depth discussion on the reliability differences between RAID5 and RAID6, read our RAID6 Advantages Over RAID0 and RAID5 article.

It is important to know that in order to achieve their maximum performance you MUST use a Gigabit Ethernet network. Fast Ethernet (100 Mbps) networks are limited to a maximum theoretical transfer rate of 12.5 MB/s (100 Mbps / 8), which is VERY slow, especially for large files. A 4.7 GB DVD image being copied between two computers over a 100 Mbps network would take 376 seconds – i.e., a little bit over 6 minutes – to be copied. In fact it will take longer than that, as this transfer rate is the maximum theoretical and on the real world the maximum transfer rate achieved is below that.

Gigabit networks provide a ten-fold performance increase over Fast Ethernet, sending the maximum theoretical transfer rate to 125 MB/s (1000 Mbps / 8). The same DVD image would be transferred in only 37.6 seconds (a little bit more than that for the same reason explained above).

So it doesn’t make ANY sense to buy a high-end NAS box – as it is the case of Thecus N5200 – to use it on a regular 100 Mbps network. If you don’t plan to migrate your Gigabit Ethernet (this is very easy to be done, as we will explain) then don’t buy this product. You can save money buying an entry-level NAS as they both will achieve the same performance on a 100 Mbps network.

Migrating your network to Gigabit is VERY easy. If you have a network at your home or office, you probably have a broadband router sharing the internet connection with all computers, plus allowing them to share folders and printers. You have two options. You can replace your broadband router to one that features a built-in Gigabit Ethernet switch or you can buy a Gigabit switch and install it on your network.

If you decided to go with the second option, all you need to do is to connect all computers to the new Gigabit switch and install one network cable connecting one of the switch ports (it doesn’t matter which one) to any empty LAN port on your router. So the router will have only two cables connected to it, one on its WAN port connecting it to your broadband modem, and one on a LAN port connecting it to your Gigabit switch.

Trust us; this upgrade is worth every penny if you transfer large files between your computers.

Thecus N5200 NAS

On the previous page we briefly mentioned Thecus N5200 main features: five bays for hard disk drives, support for RAID 0, 1, 5, 6, 10 and JBOD, three USB ports, one eSATA port and two Gigabit Ethernet ports. Thecus offers two N5200 models and we reviewed the simplest one, also called N5200B. N5200 RouStor (N5200BR) provides an integrated 4-port Gigabit router. Thecus also offers another product, N5200 PRO, also available with or without the 4-port Gigabit router, featuring iSCSI and network failover support (if one LAN port fails it redirects traffic to another port).

NAS products are usually sold without the hard disk drives, and you must buy and install them by yourself. In the US, however, Thecus also sells its N5200 NAS with five 500 GB or five 1 TB hard disk drives already installed.

Now let’s take an overall look at N5200. In Figure 2, you can see its front panel. There you can find an LCD display where you can locally monitor and control the unit (the traditional way of doing this is through a web-based control panel, which is also available), power and reset switches, one of the USB ports and several LEDs to indicate the status of the unit and the status of each hard disk drive installed. On the front panel you can also find the five hard disk drive bays, which on this model can be locked by the use of a key. Each bay is in fact a small drawer where each hard disk must be installed. No screwless mechanism is used so you have to install four thick thread screws to fasten each hard disk drive, but the unit doesn’t come with the necessary screws.

Thecus N5200
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Figure 2: Front panel.

Thecus N5200
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Figure 3: Hard disk drawer.

Thecus N5200
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Figure 4: Hard disk drawer.

Each bay supports hot swapping, which is a feature that allows you to replace defective hard disk drives with the system turned on. But before removing the defective drive, you need to shut it down through the unit’s control panel.

Thecus N5200
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Figure 5: SATA connectors allowing hot swapping.

In Figure 6, you can see the unit’s rear panel.

Thecus N5200
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Figure 6: Rear panel.

Inside Thecus N5200

Thecus N5200 is in fact a whole storage-dedicated computer, based on a Celeron M-600 CPU with 512 MB DDR333/PC2700 RAM (Thecus, however, lists this unit as having 256 MB RAM on their website) and a 128 MB flash drive used to store its operating system. The CPU and the north bridge chip are cooled by passive heatsinks.

Thecus N5200
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Figure 7: Inside Thecus N5200.

Thecus N5200
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Figure 8: Celeron M-600 with its passive heatsink removed.

Thecus N5200 is based on an Intel chipset (unfortunately we couldn’t read what was written on top of the north bridge chip, as its marking as almost invisible; the south bridge used is a 82801DBM, a.k.a. ICH4-M), with its two Gigabit Ethernet ports controlled by individual Intel 82541PI controller. The Serial ATA ports are controlled by a Marvell 88SX6081 chip, while the USB ports are controlled by a PLX NET2282 chip. A SMSC LPC47M182 Super I/O completes the list of main chips used.

This product uses Japanese capacitors from Chemi-Con, which is great.

Installation

The installation of Thecus N5200 is very straight-forward. Install the hard disk drives, connect your network cable, turn the unit on and you are ready to perform the basic setup. The problem is that there are two Ethernet ports (one WAN and one LAN) and they are not labeled; use the lower one.

As we have shown, the unit is a small computer. Thus you need to wait until it has loaded its operating system in order to be able to use it. Thecus N5200 will emit one beep after you turn it on and another beep after it has loaded its operating system and it is ready for use.

The unit comes pre-configured to use IP address 192.168.1.100. The use of a fixed IP address has its advantages and disadvantages. The main disadvantage is that your local network must be in the 192.168.1.x range for you to be able to find the unit and configure it. If your router configured your network to the 192.168.0.x or 10.0.0.x (or similar) range you will have to change this. Also, you will have to make sure that no computer is using 192.168.1.100 address, which unfortunately wasn’t our case: our Linksys router default configuration is to assign IPs starting at 192.168.1.100, so we had our computer using the same IP address as the NAS box and, because of that, we couldn’t reach it. The solution was simply entering the router’s control panel and change the option called “Starting IP Address” from 192.168.1.100 to 192.168.1.2. This made our PC to get a lower address, resolving the conflict.

On the other hand, the advantage of using a fixed IP address is that it will never change and thus all configurations you make on the client PCs will never have to be changed in order to access the file server. You, however, can configure N5200 to get an IP address from your DHCP server (i.e., your broadband router), though we don’t recommend this (this is done at Network, WAN).

Solving this initial issue we could enter the NAS control panel by opening its IP address on our internet browser (http://192.168.1.100). Its default login and password is “admin” for both fields.

After entering the control panel for the first time, it is strongly recommended that you upgrade the system firmware before doing anything else. This can be done by downloading the latest firmware from the manufacturer’s website to your PC and then choosing the appropriate option (System, Firmware Upgrade) from the product’s control panel to upload the file to the NAS box. In our case we upgraded from version 2.00.04 to version 2.00.10 and that is the version we used during our tests. After this procedure the box will need to reboot.

In Figure 9 we show all configuration options available on Thecus N5200.

Thecus N5200
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Figure 9: Thecus N5200 control panel.

It is impossible to us to cover in details all options available, as our goal isn’t to write a tutorial on how to use Thecus N5200 – this is the purpose of the product manual.

At this point you will need to build your RAID array – with this unit you can select the RAID stripe size from 4 KB to 4,096 KB. Go to Storage, RAID, select your disks and the RAID level you want to use, wait for the unit to build the array and it will be ready to be used.

You will have to create your own folders using the product’s control panel (Storage, Folder) in order to start using the product. For example, you may want to create a folder called “videos” to store and share videos, “music” to store and share MP3 and similar files, “images” to store and share images and so on.

Usage

Using Thecus N5200 is very simple. Just open its IP address from any computer located on your network and you will see all available folders. There are several ways to accomplish that. You can simply go to Start, Run (on Vista the path is Start, All Programs, Accessories, Run) and enter 192.168.1.100. You can map a folder to a drive letter, for example, make your “videos” folder located on your NAS box to be accessible on your PC as “Z:” drive (My Computer, Tools, Map Network Drive). You can browse your network using the My Network Places icon. These are the most common ways to reach your NAS box. The only detail is that by Thecus set N5200 to use by default a workgroup called “MyGroup,” which is different from Windows’ default workgroup, which is “Workgroup.” So pay attention on this while looking for your N5200 box.

After you reach the folders from your NAS box you can use them to store files just like if they were located on your PC.

N5200 provides several other options. It can be configured to be accessed as an FTP server, so you can download and upload files using an FTP client. As mentioned, you can install a printer to it and use it as a print server. And you can also access Thecus N5200 using AFP (Mac) and NFS (Linux) protocols. NFS, for example, allows the operating system to see the folders located inside the NAS box as if they were located on the local hard disk drive. And you can also use Nsync protocol for managing backups.

Thecus N5200 also provides the essential OCE (Online Capacity Expansion) and ORLM (Online RAID Level Migration) features, which allow you to change the RAID level or expand your RAID setup capacity without data loss.

Besides hot swap, Thecus N5200 also supports hot spare, which is a feature that allows a standby disk to automatically replace a defective disk in case of failure.

There are several other features present on Thecus N5200 and we mentioned the most important ones. As explained, we don’t want to transform this review into a tutorial on how to use this particular product.

Performance

We need now to talk about performance. As you may imagine, you can’t expect a remote file server to deliver files as fast as your local hard disk drives, especially because it is accessed through a network cable, which provides far lower bandwidth than the local SATA cable (Gigabit Ethernet provides a maximum theoretical transfer rate of 125 MB/s while SATA-300 drives provide a maximum theoretical transfer rate of 300 MB/s).

The single most important thing you must have to do in order to improve performance of any NAS box is to upgrade your network to Gigabit, as we explained on the first page of this review. If you don’t do that, you will access your NAS box only up to 12.5 MB/s. We obviously used a Gigabit switch during our tests.

We made a lot of measurements with a program called ATTO Disk Benchmark (version 2.36), which is available inside a package called “ATTO HBA Utilities” from ATTO. This program offers two tests, one called “I/O Comparison,” where it writes files on the disk being tested and then reads them back, and one called “Overlapped I/O,” which performs the same task but allowing these tasks to be divided and executed in parallel (“queued,” in the industry jargon). By default the program divides each task into four parallel operations and we kept this value. This program also transmits data using several different block sizes, from 512 bytes to 8 MB to show the difference in performance the block size makes.

We had three goals with our benchmarking. One, more obvious, was to compare the performance of the reviewed NAS box to other NAS solutions. For that we installed two Seagate Barracuda 7200.10 160 GB hard disk drives and configured them in RAID0 on each unit. The second goal was to compare the performance of the reviewed NAS solution to the performance of a regular PC sharing the same hard disk drive (Seagate Barracuda 7200.10 160 GB installed as a single drive and also two of them installed as a RAID0 array), in order to simulate a typical home/office environment and see if the reviewed unit provides any performance advantage of simply sharing your PC hard drive. And the third aspect was comparing the results with the performance of the hard disk drives installed locally, i.e., on the same PC we were using, to see the drop in performance when you read files located on another place compared if they were installed on your local hard disk drive.

On the next two pages we are comparing below the results achieved with 128 KB blocks. We will present the complete results for all block sizes after these pages. The PC that was sharing the hard disk drive was based on an ASUS P5K-E motherboard (Intel P35 chipset, so RAID was controlled by ICH9R) with Intel Core 2 Duo E6600 CPU, 2 GB RAM (DDR2-1066 Dominator from Corsair) and GeForce 8800 GTS 320 MB from Gigabyte.

Performance: I/O Comparison

Below you can see the results for the “I/O Comparison” test using 128 KB blocks, given in KB/s. “Local” means the performance achieved by reading the drives locally and “Remote” means the performance achieved by reading the drives from another computer on the same network, thus simulating the typical configuration found on home and small offices, where files are read from another computer located at the same network. “Single” is obviously only one drive (Seagate 7200.10 160 GB) while our local/remote RAID0 configuration was built based on Intel ICH9R using two Seagate 7200.10 160 GB. On all NAS we installed these two drives in RAID0.

Thecus N5200

On this test Thecus N5200 was the fastest NAS box, being 48% faster than Thecus N3200 and 108% faster than Promise SmartStor NS4300.

A RAID0 array created and shared on a regular PC was 23% faster.

Of course you can’t expect to achieve the same performance as if the disks were installed locally. Our local RAID0 array was 222% faster than the one built with Thecus N5200.

Thecus N5200

On write performance Thecus N5200 presented an impressive performance, similar to a RAID0 system shared from a regular PC. It was 116% faster than Promise SmartStor NS4300 and 128% faster than Thecus N3200.

Once again don’t expect to achieve the same performance as if the disks where installed locally. Our local RAID0 array was 255% faster than the one built with Thecus N5200.

Performance: Overlapped I/O

Below you can see the results for the “Overlapped I/O” test using 128 KB blocks, given in KB/s. As explained, the program was configured to use four parallel operations.

Thecus N5200

Here Thecus N5200 achieved a terrific performance, the same as if you were reading data from a RAID0 or a single drive shared from a regular PC. Its performance was impressively 25% higher than if you were reading data from one of the disks installed on your local PC!

Thecus N5200 achieved a read performance 249% higher than Thecus N3200 and 404% higher than Promise SmartStor NS4300.

Thecus N5200

On write performance Thecus N5200 only lost to the performance achieved by hard disk drives installed locally. It was 89% faster than a single drive shared on a regular PC, 128% faster than a RAID0 system shared on a regular PC, 153% faster than Promise SmartStor NS4300 and 166% faster than Thecus N3200.

Performance: Complete Results

If you are interested, you can find below the complete results for our tests.

I/O Comparison

Thecus N5200
Thecus N5200
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Thecus N3200
Thecus N3200
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Promise SmartStor NS4300
Promise SmartStor NS4300
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RAID0 – Remote
RAID0 Remote
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Single – Remote
Single - Remote
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RAID0 – Local
RAID0 Local
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Single – Local
Single - Local
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Overlapped I/O

Thecus N5200
Thecus N5200
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Thecus N3200
Thecus N3200
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Promise SmartStor NS4300
Promise SmartStor NS4300
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RAID0 – Remote
RAID0 Remote
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Single – Remote
Single - Remote
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RAID0 – Local
RAID0 Local
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Single – Local
Single - Local
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Main Specifications

Thecus N5200 NAS main features are:

* Researched at Newegg.com on the day we published this review.

Conclusions

Thecus N5200 is really a high-end NAS box target to users that want a NAS solution with above-the-average performance. Here is a summary of what we found about this NAS box.

Strong Points

Weak Points

This product is recommended for the home or office user that manipulates large files and wants a high-performance NAS box and doesn’t mind paying more for that. For the average user, however, there are products that offer a better cost/benefit ratio, like Thecus N3200, which costs half the price of N5200’s.

Keep in mind that if you don’t have a Gigabit network and don’t plan to migrate to this speed then you can buy the cheapest NAS box you can find, since performance will be limited by your network; all NAS boxes achieve the same performance level on a 100 Mbps network.

Originally at http://www.hardwaresecrets.com/article/Thecus-N5200-NAS-Review/606


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