In the Studio: QNAP TS-559 Pro
Posted Aug 31, 2010

Let’s be honest. Before Stephen Nathans-Kelly asked me to look at the QNAP TS-559 Pro Turbo NAS ($1,199 with no drives), pretty much the only thing I knew about NAS was that it stood for “network-attached storage.” But like Steve, I know that storage and backup are problems for most videographers, especially those with multiple computers running multiple operating systems, and that backing up to an attached drive can be inconvenient for any number of reasons. With NAS and hard disk prices dropping, it seemed like a good idea to at least consider how a NAS device could work for a videographer in a typical data-intensive environment. So here I do just that. The caveat is, however, if you’re looking for a comprehensive review of the TS-559 Pro, including an in-depth look at its advanced features, look elsewhere. Here, I’ll first describe what NAS is, what its strong points are for videography studios, and how the TS-559 Pro worked for me for simple file backup roles.

About Network-Attached Storage (NAS)
Let’s set the stage. I’ll assume that you have one or more editing stations with multiple projects in process, plus a computer that does financial, word processing, and other administrative tasks. I’ll further assume that your computers are on a 1GB network, and I’ll stretch my neck out and assume that you have both Mac and Windows computers (realizing that some of you may take umbrage at that last assumption).

Under this scenario, most videographers who think about backup at all are using direct-attached storage, where you attach an external drive to a computer and manually back up the files. This approach has multiple disadvantages, including that it’s manual rather than automatic and that large file transfers can be unreliable on USB and IEEE 1394 connections, though better with eSATA. Copying files to an external drive is also slow, and it seems to consume more CPU cycles than it should, slowing other operations on the computer to which you’ve attached the external drive. In addition, if you are in a crossplatform environment, it’s impossible to format the drive into a single file system that accepts files larger than 4GB and that both Mac and Windows computers can read and write to. In contrast, NAS devices such as the QNAP are boxes that sit on your LAN connected via an Ethernet cable. More specifically, they’re little computers—the QNAP powered by an Intel Atom dual core processor running Linux, with 1GB of RAM. The QNAP also boasts five storage slots for SATA disk drives that you can configure any number of ways, including RAID 0/1/5/6, 5+hot spare, and 6+hot spare. You can also configure the unit as a single disk or in JBOD mode, which stands for Just a Box of Disks, where you see each drive individually.

It’s similar to having a separate computer on the LAN that does nothing but store files, which is an approach that I’ve used casually in the past. However, in addition to hot-swappable, more accessible drives, the QNAP offers much more software-based functionality, including power management, multiple backup facilities, and the ability to serve as a web, database, FTP, iTunes, printer, and backup server. More importantly, in my testing with the unit, I found it much easier to send files to and fro from the multiple Windows flavors that I run, and my Macs recognized the unit 100% of the time, which isn’t the case with my Windows-based systems.

Getting Installed
QNAP sent my test unit with five 700GB discs configured as RAID 5, which meant that any single disk could fail without loss of data, though this cut capacity from 3.5TB down to about 2.7 TB.

Getting the unit installed is simple: You plug it in, plug in one or two Ethernet cables, and turn it on. In addition to the two Ethernet ports, the TS-559 Pro has four USB ports on the back, plus a VGA port so you can attach a monitor and run the unit directly. There are also two eSATA ports for more speedy file transfers in direct-attached storage mode. On the front is the power switch, some configuration buttons, and a USB port for USB disk copying operations.

Once you get up and running, you can set basic configuration options using buttons on the front panel, or you can log into the unit from a PC attached to the network, which seemed like the better idea. If finding the unit on the network is a problem, you can install an application from the supplied CD called QNAP Finder, which hunts down the TS-559 Pro on the network. Click connect and you’re taken to the administrative panel where you can log in.

QNAP TS-559 Pro
The QNAP configuration panel

Operation from there is simple. Most functions are wizard-based, so you don’t have to know a bit of Linux to get anything done. That said, beyond configuring the unit into my network workgroup and creating users with dedicated folders, disk space quotas, and rights to various folders on the disk, I didn’t try to get much done.

Once you have the unit configured, it appears like any other networked device on Windows computers and Macs. Click on any NAS drive from another Windows computer on the network, and Windows will prompt you to log in. It’s similar on the Mac, where you have to click the device and then click a Connect As button on the upper-right corner of the Finder. Once you log in on either system, you can access any disks that you have rights to via the Finder, Windows Explorer, or any application. It’s pretty much business as usual.

QNAP TS-559 Pro
Logging in to the NAS from one of my Macs

Backup
From my perspective, backing up my computers was priority No. 1, so that’s where I looked next. It turns out here the procedure differs with your operating systems. On your Windows computers, you install a program called NetBak from the aforementioned QNAP CD and then run through a simple wizard to log in to the NAS, identify the folders that you want to back up, how often, and when. From there, it’s all automatic.

QNAP TS-559 Pro
Backing up your Windows computers with NetBak Replicator

On the Mac, you simply use Time Machine, first enabling Time Machine support in the QNAP software. Then, when you open Time Machine, the NAS will appear as a storage option. Select the NAS, set all other options as normal, and your next backup will be stored on the NAS. Once the files are on the TS-559 Pro, you can use the supplied Remote Replication software to send the files to another remote NAS or even to the Amazon S3 cloud. Again, this function is wizard-based, so once you gather the necessary addresses and passwords, nontechnical users should have no trouble getting this done.

Apple Time Machine
Backing up on the Mac with Time Machine

For me, beyond backup, the NAS provides another valuable function for my shop, which is file distribution. Each time I review a workstation, I have to transfer about 500GB of files to the unit, representing about 15 Premiere Pro projects and multiple streaming encoding test files. Today, file management is ad hoc: I know these files live on the most recent workstation that I tested, but if I send that back without transferring the files, I’m out of luck. With the NAS, I’ve got it covered, and I can transfer the file to new machines without tying up two workstations.

I should note that I tried editing a project that lived on the NAS on one of my workstations, which proved possible but sluggish, especially during preview. In most cases, you’ll want to edit locally and just back up to the NAS for projects and project files you want to keep close at hand.

What’s this add up to? I’m definitely sold on the NAS concept for backing up and managing my data files, and I found QNAP’s software functional and easy to use. If you decide to investigate a NAS unit for your own shop, the TS-559 Pro should be on your short list.

Jan Ozer  Jan Ozer (jan at doceo.com) is a frequent contributor to industry magazines and websites on digital video-related topics.

 He is chief instructor at StreamingLearningCenter.com.