REVIEW: BlackArmor NAS: Polished, with open-source heart

BlackArmor NAS 440 is a Johnny-come-lately to the NAS market, but the manufacturer, Seagate Technology LLC, seems to have done its homework. Aimed at small businesses with 50 or fewer employees, this Linux-based appliance is full-featured and flexible, with the promise of further extensibility via freeware and open source widgets in the near future.

Unlike a great number of NAS offerings on the market, the Seagate BlackArmor NAS 440 is more than just a small Linux box with Webadmin slapped onto it. Although late to the crowded SMB storage market, the BlackArmor appliance is a solid filer with a level of polish that should make it welcome in any small office seeking a few terabytes of network storage.

Seagate, of Scotts Valley, Calif., has done a good job of catching up with the Joneses. BlackArmor boasts the now-expected features, including fully enabled drive trays for easy expansion (BlackArmor 420 comes with two drives, but four trays), print server (unidirectional), backup utilities, dynamic DNS, USB backup and drive mounts, and the now-standard NFS/CIFS/FTP trio. However, Seagate has wrapped and polished these features in a way that stands out from its foreign competition. You could easily create a functional equivalent to BlackArmor using Openfiler, OpenNAS, or just straight Linux, but you’d have to work very hard to build it for the same bucks, the same power draw, and the same polish.

[The Synology Cube Station, a 2009 InfoWorld Technology of the Year Award winner, is another sweet low-end NAS. See the Test Center’s review.]

My great frustration with testing NAS devices is that the available tools such as Iometer and IOzone are designed to bypass the bulk of the operating system and dive deep into the mechanics of the storage subsystems. As a computer scientist, what I really wanted was something that just about anyone could run and confirm my results. The answer turned out to be the new Intel NAS Performance Toolkit (see my review). It lets you run a wide range of tests — from office document reads and writes to video playback and recording — either separately or all at once, and it couldn’t be simpler to use.

udos to the Seagate team for including both Windows and Mac setup tools — Mac users are typically left out in the cold. Installation is literally as easy as plugging the unit into the network and letting it get a DHCP address. Seagate’s Discovery tool will search your local network (same subnet only) and display all the BlackArmor servers it can find. Check the box next to your server, and Discovery will display all the shares, with private shares popping up a standard user authentication window. Just click the Manage button to open a Web browser to the administrator interface.

The Web GUI can be forced over HTTPS by uploading an X.509 PEM-formatted SSL certificate or clicking the Generate New SSL Key button to self-sign. Another feature that moves BlackArmor out of the SOHO realm and firmly into the SMB market is how the dual LAN connections can be aggregated into either a round-robin load sharing or a fail-over configuration. Seagate claims this unit can handle upwards of 20 simultaneous users, and I just bet it’s through the load sharing that this tiny unit is able to handle the workload.

Another indication that Seagate is listening to users is the ability to change the Web access and FTP port numbers — handy if you’re already running something on the normal firewall port. One of my favorite features is the download manager, which allows you to schedule Web or FTP downloads from either anonymous or authenticated sites. The download manager also lets you throttle the queued tasks so as not to overwhelm your normal operations. It’s a good way to keep a local cache of drivers always updated while not sucking up precious prime time bandwidth.

Although NFS is supported, Seagate has not included NIS (Network Information Service) or Kerberos authentication. All NFS security is by allowed IP address, which might explain why NFS is turned off by default. Most SMB customers are using CIFS anyway, and configuring allowed IP addresses may be fine for the rest.

Seagate has additional features planned for the near future. On the blackboard are both freeware (but not open source) and open source widgets to extend the platform, additional UPS and DDNS support, and perhaps even greater power optimization. Seagate promises a drop in average power consumption from 45 watts to 15 watts with a forthcoming firmware upgrade, and I’ve got to imagine that judicious sleeping could drop the power usage even lower.

The crowded NAS marketplace is churning out some very capable gear at very affordable prices. The differentiation will lie in what services the vendors can shoehorn into the box, and how fast they can make those services run while keeping the price reasonable.

Brian Chee is a senior contributing editor to the InfoWorld Test Center and the founder and manager of the Advanced Network Computing Laboratory at the University of Hawai’i School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology.

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