NAS shoot-out: Thecus N5200XXX

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The Thecus NAS is fast and flexible, but lacks the simplicity and ease that business users need

For many InfoWorld readers, the name Thecus will not be a familiar one. This Taiwan-based corporation has been around since 2004, and I remember when it showed off its first NAS in 2005. If you go to the Thecus website, you'll find an overwhelming number of different NAS options (about 30 at my last count). If you look at the market share numbers for NAS, Thecus is usually part of "other." This is unfortunate because these NAS boxes are little powerhouses.

The Thecus N5200XXX was certainly the fastest and -- I dare say -- the most flexible NAS I tested. Its performance is excellent, and the software is powerful, but this box isn't for a newbie. In the hands of an IT person or prosumer who knows what they are doing, this hardware can sing. But if you are a small business looking to get your data protected and have little IT expertise to draw on, you should probably search elsewhere.

The five-bay N5200XXX model is the largest of the Intel Atom-based XXX series before you get into rack-mounted systems. Thecus does have seven-bay tower units in higher-end lines based on Intel Celeron and Intel Core 2 Duo processors. The unit Thecus sent me for testing had six 2TB drives (Western Digital RE4). An extensive drive compatibility list on the Thecus website nicely breaks out supported drives into enterprise-grade and consumer-rated models. If you plan to go with 3TB drives, the Hitachi Ultrastar 7K3000 and Seagate Constellation ES.2 are the only two on the enterprise list.

Thecus N5200XXX: Hardware considerations
The Thecus hardware is a mixed bag. The solid steel case and a big 200W power supply will give you a workout when you take it out of the box. Unfortunately, the rest of the unit doesn't measure up to the case itself. The chintzy plastic door either would not open or would not shut after it was opened. I was tempted to tear the door off out of pure frustration. The hard drive trays look fancy, but they're merely stylized plastic and very flimsy. The good news is that they are lockable. There's a single USB 2.0 port in the front, but it sits behind the accursed front door and placed on the far left side of the unit, which made it more difficult to get to when I had the NAS on a shelf in the server room.

The back is fairly straightforward: a single eSATA, four USB 2.0 ports, two Gigabit Ethernet ports, and a nine-pin serial COM port. Yes, you read that last one right -- a serial port. At first, I could not imagine why that would be there, but then I realized that some of my older UPS units at home still communicate with serial ports. I tried to use it, but from what I understand, it is for factory use only. The only other gripe I have with the Thecus hardware is that it was easily the noisiest NAS in my testing. If you have to place it on a desk in a remote office, the people there will not be very happy.

Thecus N5200XXX: Software and administration
I had never used Thecus hardware before, so I came to the Web interface fresh. I did use the online demo to get familiar with the front end before the hardware arrived. The Web GUI is clean and organized. It also includes "search" and "help" features to assist you in finding and executing almost any function that the hardware is capable of. These search and help functions will be used often because there is a plethora of options and settings to choose from. Thecus provides a setup wizard that discovers the device on the network but then simply logs you into the Web GUI, where you are left to your own devices to find what you need. Definitely not a job for beginners. 

Highlights of the Thecus software include the modules system and the iOS and Android applications. The Thecus module system -- similar to those of QNAP, Netgear, and other NAS boxes in this category -- allows you to add functionality by downloading and installing separate packages. The only major complaint I have that some modules seem to duplicate native box functions while other modules would seem to be better off as native components. The iOS and Android applications were straightforward. One is a dashboard application (that seems to crash quite a bit on my iPhone and iPad). Another allows you to access the various media that you have stored on the device.

Overall, business users -- especially those with little technical experience -- will be put off by the overwhelming number of software options and the complex administration of this NAS. There is no question that this powerful NAS could handle almost anything you throw at it. I spent literally hours looking into the various functions and features available. Thecus would be a better fit in the hands of people with solid IT experience. If acronyms like double DOM (disk-on-module), ZFS, and XFS and get you excited, then this box is for you.

Thecus N5200XXX: Backup and cloud services
For backing up, Thecus gives you rsync and the ability to connect an external USB or eSATA hard drive. Thecus doesn't offer cloud services that ease backup or off-site access to files on the NAS. With other vendors adding replication services, remote access, and cloud backup functionality to their products, the absence of these services represents a glaring omission in the Thecus solution. Backing up 4TB of data with rsync to another box worked perfectly, so I don't have issues with what Thecus does provide, but for nontechnical users rsync is a big deal to try and get working. The no-brainer alternatives that Iomega, Netgear, and QNAP provide via their websites are much better suited to business users.

Thecus N5200XXX: Performance
There is no question the Thecus NAS was the fastest I tested. In my speed tests with SMB/CIFS, NFS, and iSCSI this box was always the clear winner. The lone exception was AFP, where Thecus ran dead last (sorry, Mac users). As with the other NAS boxes, I also used the hardware in various scenarios, including hosting VMware images; serving as a iSCSI target; hosting SMB/CIFS, NFS, and AFS file shares; and serving as a Time Machine backup target. In most business cases, the performance difference between the fastest NAS in this test and the slowest is only about 20 percent. But if you need the fastest hardware, this box showed its moxie over the more expensive models.

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