Priced at around $600 without any storage (or $900 with 4TB), the ReadyNAS Ultra 4 is expensive compared with other high-end NAS servers. However, it's well worth the investment for those who need a robust and secure NAS sever for their backup, file-sharing, and media-streaming needs.
The server offers an excellent backup feature that doesn't require software installation on the workstations. The front-accessible drive bays and the flexible X-RAID2 configuration make replacing/upgrading the server's internal storage a nonissue. The Ultra 4 is also great where it matters the most: performance.
It's far from perfect, however, for being rather unfriendly to novice users and lacking other handy features such as PC-less download or the support for IP cameras. For this reason, home users who want something slightly cheaper with more features might also want to check out the Synology DS410.
Design and setup
The ReadyNAS Ultra 4 is compact for a four-bay NAS server. On the front it has a large door that opens to reveal the hard-drive trays, which can be pulled out easily without using any tools. Once a hard drive is installed, a tray can be firmly locked into its place via a latch. Below the drive bays' door, there's a small LCD that shows the IP address of the NAS server and the current status of the internal hard drive. On top of the drive bays are a USB port and a Backup button that quickly copy content of a USB drive to the server's internal storage.
On the back, the server offers two Gigabit Ethernet ports and another two USB ports. The network ports can be used at the same time for failsafe and load-balancing purposes; they won't work together to increase the ceiling throughput speed. The USB ports are to host external storage devices or printers. The ReadyNAS Ultra 4 has the least number of ports we've seen in a high-end NAS server. Others tend to offer four or more USB ports and a few eSATA ports.
The Ultra 4 comes with a setup booklet that walks you through a few simple steps to set the server with the network. One of the steps involves installing the Netgear ReadyNAS RAIDar software utility that helps detect the NAS in the network, browse its share folders, and launch its Web interface for further customizing the server's features. Following the instruction, it was really easy for us to get the server up and running.
The server can handle four SATA hard drives up to 2TB each, making the total storage up to 8TB. However, you won't be able to have this amount of storage with it; by default, the server sets up its internal hard drives using Netgear's X-RAID2 configuration. This is a proprietary RAID setup that allows you to dynamically expand the volume without having to back up or restore the existing content. With X-RAID2, data integrity takes precedence.
For example, when the server has only two hard drives, they will be set up in a RAID 1-like configuration (also called "mirror," where only half of the total capacity is available) to guard it against single-hard-drive failure. Now if you add another hard drive, the volume will be dynamically expanded and will change to a RAID 5-like setup, which is balanced between data integrity and the most amount of storage space. And you can keep doing that until the bays are all occupied. At most, when all four bays are occupied with 2TB hard drives, you'll get 6TB of storage out of the server; the other 2TB is used for redundancy overhead.
The best thing about X-RAID2 is the fact that you can change/add/remove hard drives at any time, even when the server is running, without worrying about damaging the RAID setup. It's especially convenient when you want to increase the server's storage capacity, by swapping out its existing hard drives with larger ones. As long as only one hard drive is being removed or changed at a time, the system will take care of rearranging the data. This process, which is transparent to the users, can take hours, however, depending on how large the hard drives involved in the process are. You can keep track of this process either via the front LCD or the server's Web interface. You can also use hard drives of different capacities with X-RAID2 as long as the replacement hard drive has the same capacity or larger than the one that's replaced.
In our testing this worked very well and this is probably why Netgear doesn't make it easy for you to change the ReadyNAS Ultra 4's RAID configuration. In other words, you can't manually set up its hard drives into RAID 5 or any other standard RAID configurations using the Web interface, and we don't know if there are other ways. Though this might upset those who want to have more control over their storage, we don't see why anybody would want to use any other RAID configurations other than what the Ultra 4 has to offer.
The Ultra 4's Web interface, which is well-organized and responsive, allows you to access and manage all of its features. The server, however, is clearly geared toward business users. The wording of its Web interface and the way features are designed to be managed, though affective, are unfriendly to home/novice users.
Take, for example, assigning user access privileges to a share folder; here you are presented with a long input field where you have to manually type in usernames that you want to grant certain types of access (read only, full access, or no access). This is a cumbersome process that is prone to errors. With other NAS servers, this can be done just via a few mouse clicks with existing user accounts being listed for you to pick from. Other features of the Ultra 4 are also managed in this similarly nonintuitive way.