Remote Storage with the Newisys NA-1400 NAS Appliance

Storage
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May 7, 2006 by Devon Cooke

Product
Newisys NA-1400 1.0 TB
Network Attached Storage Appliance (1.0 TB model)
Manufacturer
Newisys
Market Price
~US$1,200

THE PROBLEM

Hard drives are noisy. Well, not noisy exactly; most are well below the 30 dBA@1m threshold that is our rough dividing line between noisy and quiet. However, once a system has been made quiet, the hard drive often remains as the primary source of noise. This is especially true for systems with lots of storage, as high capacity drives tend to be noisier than smaller drives.

There are several approaches to reducing drive noise, but all involve compromises.

  • Use a notebook drive. The most effective solution, but not practical for everyone because such drives tend to be smaller, slower, and more expensive than regular drives.
  • Soft-mount the drive, either by suspending it or placing it on a bed of foam. Effective for reducing vibration-induced noise, but does nothing for direct acoustic noise.
  • Use a HDD enclosure. Can work for reducing direct acoustic noise, and can help vibration noise. However, not all enclosures are effective, and the ones that are tend to cause overheating.
  • Use solid-state storage; both RAM and Flash-based versions exist. Unfortunately, these solutions are very expensive, especially when the costs are broken down per gigabyte.
  • Some combination of the above.

If these compromises are acceptable, then it is quite possible to build a system where drive noise is not an issue at all. A notebook drive in an enclosure is often completely silent for practical purposes.

However, there are a some situations where these compromises are not acceptable, either because the cost is prohibitive or because the loss in performance is unacceptable. In general, these are systems that require mass amounts of storage: Studio systems, A/V workstations, and especially Home Theater PCs. All of these require more capacity than a notebook drive or two can provide, and none can rely on using enclosures — the first two because the additional risk of failure is unacceptable in a commercial environment (downtime costs money), and the last because of the additional space required. In addition, all three applications have much to gain by reducing drive noise. Recording and mastering require as little background noise as possible, and home theater PCs should be quiet even when not in use.


A terabyte or two of storage is a tough challenge to silence.

AN EXPERIMENT

So, what options do these systems have for reducing noise? With a little creativity, a new compromise can be worked out. If drive noise cannot be reduced enough to be satisfactory, why not remove the drive from the system altogether? Most motherboards can boot from a network, so why have any local storage at all? There are no space or size restrictions on network storage, and capacity is virtually unlimited. Best of all, the drives don't have to be located near the user, so noise is simply not an issue. The idea is intriguing, and we've never seen it done with Windows before

Of course, there are some very obvious drawbacks associated with network storage, namely reduced performance, especially in increased seek times when the network is busy. And, our experience with computer terminals told us that remote hardware often has serious consequences for system responsiveness.

Nevertheless, we decided to go ahead and experiment with the idea to see if it was feasible. After all, most systems access the disk very little once they are up and running. With a few registry tweaks, it is possible to minimize disk access and keep the operating system running entirely in main memory. With enough RAM, it may even be possible to disable the disk-based page file entirely. The longer seek times would still affect load times when a program was first started, but with luck the programs would run at full speed afterwards.

This approach would not work with disk-intensive programs, such as video editing or encoding software. However, for these programs it is throughput that matters, not seek times. A dedicated gigabit network can (in theory) provide the same throughput as the ATA-100 interface — still easily enough to accommodate a single drive. In addition, the most time-consuming tasks tend to be limited by the CPU, not the storage system.

All in all, we thought we had a good chance of succeeding in our experiment. However, we still needed a way of putting the storage on the network. Building a whole new system just for serving files seemed a bit of a waste, and the additional cost didn't seem worth it just to run a few disks remotely. Besides, a much better solution is available: Network Attached Storage, or NAS for short.



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