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Thecus' latest 2U rack-mount server straddles the line between heavy equipment and prosumer — something attested to by the Coolermaster fan found on the CPU inside.
The dual 500W redundant power supplies certainly make enough noise to make this thing destined for a server room, but the inclusion of HDMI over the standard VGA port is certainly a bit of a head scratcher. We'd imagine that compared to VGA, HDMI in the server room is next to non-existent. Regardless, it acts as a normal video-out port — but unless you install your own OS, attaching a monitor and keyboard will only let you tweak the BIOS and watch the non-verbose Linux boot, with no maintenance possible from the command line.
Flip down the protective cover and you'll find that it's an eight-bay machine with individually lockable drive caddies, although curiously the cover itself cannot be locked. There are two USB ports at the front, another four at the back, three gigabit Ethernet ports, a serial port, two USB 3.0 ports and an eSATA port. Should you want more, there are another three expansion ports available, serviced by a PCI-e x1 slot and two PCI-e x4 slots, so if you need the likes of 10GbE, it's possible. You can even fit a slim-line SATA optical drive in if you so choose, but we did not have one on hand, and so couldn't test how the web UI would allow access and what you could do with such a drive. Certainly, if you wanted to install your own OS on the system, you could choose to boot from such a device — it is, after all, just a standard x86 machine with a custom-rolled Linux build.
At this point, it's worth mentioning the lid being screwed in — specifically, screws that are on the top and the side. This isn't exactly the quickest machine to get into, especially if rack mounted.
Once open, the present dual 1GB DOMs let themselves known, with the first running the system and the second running a back-up in case the first fails. The NAS itself is reasonably powerful for a dedicated mid-range storage product, running a dual-core Core i3 2120 @ 3.3GHz, and featuring an impressive 8GB of RAM (with two slots left to spare).
All eight drives are served off an expansion card run by LSI's SAS2008 chipset, supporting RAID 0, 1, 1E and 1 by default. This is irrelevant, however, as Thecus bypasses these and uses it merely as a pass-through; RAID levels are handled in software, and JBOD, RAID 0, RAID 1, RAID 10, RAID 5 and RAID 6 are offered. Disks can be formatted with EXT3, EXT4 and XFS.
The SAS controller also allows any SATA-based device up to SAS 6Gbps to be connected. It operates on a 4x PCI-e 2.0 interface, meaning a maximum theoretical throughput of 1GBps. Stacking this thing with SSDs would be a waste as a result — best to stick to mechanical hard drives.
Frustratingly, Thecus still doesn't ship with DHCP turned on by default, something that thankfully can be fixed easily through the included software. Unlike its smaller units, you cannot set the IP manually through the unit's menu buttons and display; you have to use the software.
Once the IP is set, it's time to load the web interface — the very same one that Thecus uses for its consumer NAS.
One thing that Thecus could instantly improve is the information it provides for arrays. Rebuilding status and info on which drives are faulty requires more clicks than necessary, and often the RAID-management page doesn't update itself.
It looks like the unit could do with further firmware tweaks, too; upon upgrading firmware, we were told that the RAID had been set to degraded status. Ordinarily, this wouldn't be an issue — you'd check the status, see if the degraded array is already rebuilding and, if not, see where the error is. Thecus' log contained no information as to specifically what had caused the degradation, and we couldn't press the "Edit" button on the RAID-management page until we had done a full restart of the machine. Eventually, the button re-enabled, letting us discover that a drive had been booted from the array. For what reason this occurred was never mentioned.
Similarly, yanking two hard drives to simulate failure gives no hints as to what actually happened, with the system log reporting that "The RAID on system [N8900] is suffering the severe disk problem." There was no mention of what disks failed.
The N8900 otherwise offers the usual glut of features served up by consumer NAS: AFP, CIFS, NFS, Bonjour, UPnP, SNMP, iSCSI and ADS protocol support; iTunes, web and FTP servers; local user/group support; Rsync back-up, ISO image mounting and Printer/UPS support through its USB ports. Like many consumer NAS, there's also a bunch of modules that add extra functionality, like a newsgroup downloader, a mail server, an IP cam tool, a TwonkyMedia server, a torrent application, Dropbox support and more.
Copying a 3.4GB ISO file over a gigabit network saw us hit an average of 60MBps to a RAID 5 array comprised of five 500GB drives — obviously your own configuration and file-transfer habits will change this figure, but it's in line for the hardware involved.
Thecus continues its "rough diamond" reputation. It certainly costs less to go Thecus rather than the competition, and many will be blinded by the impressive feature list. The firmware needs work, though, from a reliability and information point of view, and, unless you're a small business really counting your pennies, we suspect that this will ultimately keep it out of the server room.