Picking A Hard Drive For Your NAS: New Green Beats Old Speed

Build Your Own NAS

Even a few years ago, enabling easily-accessible storage space on your home network was a cumbersome exercise. The simplest way to go was probably taking old, leftover hardware and building a minimalistic server with sufficient storage capacity and using some preferred flavor of Linux as the OS.

With this being the case, Samba, the open source interoperability suite that adds Microsoft’s Server Message Block (SMB) protocol, was needed for Windows computers to be able to access the server. Luckily, those days are over. Today you can buy ready-made NAS servers that satisfy the needs of the home office (or even small companies). Some come with storage built-in; others give you the opportunity to pick your favorite hard drives.

NAS Devices for the End User

For a while now, storage companies like LaCie, Promise, QNAP, Synology, Thecus, Western Digital, and even Intel have been offering network attached storage devices that are easy to configure, targeting small home and office audiences discussed above. Those NAS boxes are enjoying increasing popularity, since they offer users the simplest way to provide storage space on the home network (and despite the fact that many enthusiasts would prefer to roll their own storage box). Again, the majority of these devices employ some flavor of Linux, but rather than forcing users to enter cryptic commands on the command line, they offer a comfortable Web-based interface that can be configured through a GUI.

Simple, Easy to Use, and Fully-Loaded

The majority of NAS devices are much more than just a networked location used to dump your data. Thanks to the modular nature of Linux as an operating system, which makes adding functionality quite simple, the current crop of appliances also doubles as print, Web, DLNA, and iTunes servers. Actually, the only thing holding back the inclusion of even more features is the fact that testing and validation takes such a long time, and no company is especially keen on releasing a half-baked product.

Choosing the Hard Drive: Performance or Efficiency?

NAS boxes might share very similar feature sets, but when it comes to hard drive options, their manufacturers go in distinctly different directions. On the one hand, there are units that come pre-equipped with hard drives and are thus ready to use right out of the box. On the other hand, you find models that follow the BYOD philosophy; build your own device.

This second class of storage products lets users choose the hard drives themselves. The upside to this is that you can also think about what you’re looking for in a drive (aside from capacity, of course). In general, a drive’s efficiency should rate higher than its performance. This may sound counter-intuitive. After all, higher performance is always better, right? Well, almost. In most cases, it’s not the drives that bottleneck performance. Rather, it is the NAS device itself.

That’s why we found ourselves wondering about the sort of difference we'd see if we equipped a NAS with energy efficient drives rather than fast spinning models. Samsung kindly provided the drives for our little experiment. Representing the eco-friendlier option, we have the Spinpoint F2 Eco Green with a capacity of 1TB spinning at 5,400 RPM, while the T166 drive with a spindle speed of 7,200 RPM and 320GB of storage space represents the speedier alternative. A Synology NAS server with four drive bays serves as our test bed.

Marcel Binder
  • Is it a good comparison between 320 GB drives and 1 TB ones? Of course de 1 TB will perform better: much higher data density means less movement of heads and platters for the same amount of data. Gotta be faster. Nothing to do with the enclosure.

    Also I would like to mention from my own experience that heat can be a problem. I have a D-Link DNS323 and it cannot handle two server edition WD drives - it overheats.

    - Bertus.
  • evongugg
    If you buy a NAS, it's better to use the recommended drives, which have been put through hard tests.
    Other drives may experience RAID problems, burnout problems, etc.
    If you want to salvage a NAS hard drive, you may be dealing with a Linux type partition.
  • Weird concept to compare an "old" performance drive with a new eco drive, where by default the new eco drive is outperforming the old performance drive in all categories.
    What is the expected result? Yes, we guessed right, the new eco drive is outperforming the old performance drive in a NAS environment.
    Unfortunately that comparison does not allow any conclusion whether a NAS needs a performance drive or not, it only tells us that a new eco drive is better than an old performance drive.
  • awaken688
    Totally agree with "theaxe" on this one. Not sure what this proved other than if you choice is an old performance drive vs. a new green one, choose the green one. Show me the WD 1TB Caviar Black vs. an equivalent "green" 1TB drive and then we can see more of a comparison that means something.
  • cknobman
    good thing we have the comments section so I dont wast my time reading a pointless article. first thought is "why in the f would you compare a 320gb to a 1gb?" reading the comments let me know my thought is right and not to waste time reading a pointless article.
  • chunkymonster
    Our comparison showed that the difference in write performance between faster and slower spinning hard drives is minimal to nonexistent when they are used in a NAS. Instead, the NAS’ RAID engine becomes the limiting factor.
    Ok, I can understand the RAID engine being the limiting factor when using off the shelf NAS solutions, especially considering most off the shelf NAS solutions use software RAID. But, would a 5400RPM drive become the limiting factor, compared to a 7200RPM, when using a hardware RAID solution like an Areca, 3Ware, or HighPoint controller card? Any guesses?
  • davidhbrown
    I've been reflexively buying 7200RPM drives for everything (notebooks, NAS, desktops) for so long now, that just the *concept* of the article is a useful reminder that in some settings, other issues might be important. Too bad the specific comparison may be flawed, but it's not like exactly that hardware is going to be relevant in six months anyway.
  • Even with a 10 watt difference, the electricity savings is negligible. At the nation average of 12 cents per kWh, using 10 less watts 24/7 for a year works out to be a whole $10.50. On the year. Less than $1 a month. A far cry from what the article stated: "the difference jumps into the two-figure range. And that can definitely make a difference when the time comes to pay your electric bill" I'll take that 88 cents I save a month and go buy...wait, what can you get for 88 cents these days?
  • farrellj
    Just one thing...many consumer NAS boxes run a cut-down form of Linux...and Samba! And that makes it much more stable than some proprietary software that hasn't been as extensively tested as Linux/Samba has.
  • farrellj
    Just found out...the Synology DS409+ does use Linux!