For small office networks of less than ten people justifying the cost of Mac OS X Server can be difficult, especially where an external supplier handles your email and web services. That’s not to say having one wouldn’t be useful, but you can just ‘get by’ with personal file sharing and you can do without the administrative hassle.
One alternative to investing in a full-blown server is to buy some Network Attached Storage (NAS): effectively a networked hard drive that acts as its own server. Until recently, such appliances have been costly affairs, and despite the advantage of reduced administration, the bang per buck (or gigabyte per pound) has made them an overly expensive option. With its TeraStation range of appliances, Buffalo is clearly aiming for this gap in the market.
At first sight, the TeraStation bears more than a passing resemblance to the subwoofer in a 5.1 stereo speaker system. The similarity is enhanced by the circular status display set in the middle of the front panel. Four pairs of LEDs indicate the activity and status of each of the four internal 7,2000rpm ATA100 disk drives. A further three LEDs indicate the status of the network connection, active power, and diagnostics status. The box itself is just smaller than a ten-inch cube, with four USB ports – two on the front, two on the back – a serial port, power socket, and a twisted-pair 10/100/1000 Ethernet socket. Buffalo have seen fit to install two power switches on this small cube – a flick switch at the rear and a standby switch on the front.
Although Buffalo provides client and admin software for Windows users, Mac users have to make do with the built-in web access for administration purposes. Installation is straightforward – plug in the power and Ethernet cables, and switch it on. The switch at the back provides power to the whole device, while the standby switch is there so you can switch it off, giving the device enough time to do its various house-keeping jobs. The first time you turn on the TeraStation it’s supposed to default to a DHCP assigned address. In practice we had to make use of a reset button at the back. Unfortunately, the TeraStation doesn’t appear to support ZeroConf (Bonjour), so finding the address of the device manually will require querying your router. However, once over this hurdle it’s a straightforward matter to get at the web interface via the browser of your choice.
It’s possible to configure the internal drives in a number of possible configurations, the obvious ones being: four separate drives; two RAID 1 arrays; and one RAID 5 array. This last option gives you some increased performance and excellent fault tolerance, but effectively reduces the available storage by 25 per cent. In this case, if one of the three drives should fail (indicated on the front panel via a red status LED), you can shut the machine down, replace the faulty drive, restart and carry on as before – the data from the missing drive will be rebuilt using the data from the other three drives.
You can attach additional drives to the USB 2.0 ports to add external storage to the device, or to act as backup devices. Indeed, the web interface actually supports up to two RAID 5 arrays, giving you some upgrade room. Although the TeraStation isn’t intended as a Mac OS server replacement, it does provide basic Print services (both Mac and PC) if you sacrifice one of your four USB ports and connect a printer.
The TeraStation supports both Windows and Mac file-sharing, and you can share one volume via FTP. You can define access controls in terms of both users and groups, but in test the only way we found to get FTP access to work was when we shared an open access volume. The TeraStation does support Linux boxes, but only via SMB protocols (ironic, given that its internal hardware is actually a 266MHz Freescale PowerPC, with 512MB of RAM, and a Realtek Gigabit Ethernet card running Linux.)
Shared volumes are actually just folders on one of the drives, so there’s no way to limit their size. Indeed there’s no support for quotas, so users can run riot in terms of storage use, if left to their own devices. (Usefully, for PC users, an additional volume, ‘info’, is always available containing copies of the client software.) In terms of backups, the web interface lets you configure up to eight backup tasks. You can perform partial or full backups to any attached USB device, from one drive to another, or to another TeraStation on the network.
In use, the networked storage was neither blazingly fast nor sickeningly slow. Indeed, for Macs that access the networks via a wireless connection, the bottleneck still seemed to be the wireless connection. Although the external LEDs will warn you when a drive fails, actually replacing one of the things could prove easier said than done. Clear instructions for doing so are included, but it’s a disassembly rather than a hot-swap job – at the price though, this shouldn’t be too surprising. One other thing worth noting is that thanks to the single large fan the device was fairly quiet, but there was a noticeable ‘beating’ from the four drives’ motors. It may look good, but it’s probably not something you’d want on your desktop next to your monitor.
With 1TB external drives costing roughly the same price as the 1TB version of the TeraStation, without RAID or general network access, Buffalo has a compelling product on its hands. If you’re looking to add a server to your network, make sure that the TeraStation can’t solve your problems before taking on the headache of administering Mac OS X Server.