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Author: Joseph Moran Review Date: 5/10/2007
When you need to add storage to a small home or office network two common options are to use a storage device connected directly to a PC (far from the best approach from a sharing perspective) or go with a network attached storage (NAS) device that connects directly to your network and thus is more easily shareable.
But if you can't decide between local and networked storage, the TrekStor DataStation maxi z.ul may be the answer. The DataStation is kind of a hybrid that has characteristics of both a NAS device and a USB- or Firewire-connected hard drive. For example, it connects directly to your network rather than to an individual computer, but unlike a NAS device the DataStation isn't configured or even accessible via TCP/IP. Instead both tasks are performed using a special client utility that makes the DataStation appear as if it were attached directly to the system it's running software on.
The DataStation's underlying technology is called NDAS (for Network Direct Attached Storage), and if this idea seems familiar to you, you may recognize it from our review of the Ximeta NetDisk which also uses NDAS last year at Small Business Computing. It turns out that the DataStation's technological underpinnings are licensed from Ximeta, but TrekStor takes pains to point out that it's not simply a case of rebadged hardware, pointing to unique characteristics including a custom-designed circuit board and fanless black aluminum chassis (the Ximeta's is plastic). Also included with the DataStation is an L-shaped metal bracket that can either act as a vertical stand or allow you to hang the drive under the surface of a desk. It's a handy way to conserve desktop space, but it doesn't work with every kind of desk it didn't with ours.
The DataStation is available in five capacities ranging from 160 to 500 GB. Our test unit was the entry-level 160 GB version with an MSRP of $199, while the largest model carries a $309 price tag. Incidentally, all DataStations are single-drive devices, but that doesn't necessarily mean that RAID is not an option more on that later.
Getting the DataStation up and running on a network is about as difficult as it is with a NAS, which is to say it isn't particularly difficult. You connect the DataStation to an Ethernet switch using a CAT5 cable (just like a NAS device) but instead of configuring it via a browser you install a software driver, which appears to Windows Device Manager as a SCSI adapter #151; and then use a Windows utility to locate and configure the drive.
The driver and software make up the first layer of security for the DataStation, because both are required to access the drive. In fact, before you can use the DataStation you must "register" the device by entering a 20-character alphanumeric code that's unique to each unit. This code provides read-only access, and for write access as well you can enter additional 5-digit write key.
Once the appropriate codes have been entered the utility will let you mount the drive in Windows, where it will take up residence in My Computer as if it were a local drive. To access the DataStation on other systems, you repeat the software installation process on them the license allows you to do so on as many systems as you want, but the practical limit is 64 users, according to TrekStor.
One limitation to the DataStation's access control scheme is that there's no user-based access control like you get with a NAS device. Put another way, once the software's installed on a Windows system, every profile on that system can see and access the drive. You can, however, use NTFS permissions to protect files and folders on the DataStation just as you would a conventional hard drive.
The DataStation software is available for both Windows (98 through Vista) and Mac OS 10.3 or later, as well as many popular Linux distributions. The Linux versions don't come on the CD, but you can download them from Ximeta's site at here. (The DataStation has a USB port that you can use to access the drive on a single system without the software.)
Performance and RAID
One of the purported advantages of NDAS over NAS is improved performance as a result of a network protocol that's more efficient and optimized for storage than TCP/IP, a claim that we found had merit when we tested the Ximeta last year.
To see if that was still the case with the DataStation, we copied a group of files totaling 2 GB to and from the device over a wired 100 Mbps Ethernet connection. Copying the data (i.e. reading) from the DataStation to the PC took 4 minutes and 8 seconds, while transferring the data in the other direction (writing) took slightly longer at 4:45. When we performed the same test with a Maxtor Shared Storage NAS (with a similar 7,200 RPM, 8 MB cache, single internal hard disk), the transfers took much longer, at 5:54 and 6:53, respectively.
Though DataStation is a 100 Mbps Ethernet device, these days it's common to see Gigabit Ethernet even on relatively inexpensive NAS devices. To see whether the added bandwidth of Gigabit Ethernet would negate the advantages of NDAS, we repeated the test with a Hammer myshare NAS device that had Gigabit capability as did the PC and switch we used in all the tests. (The myshare actually has two disks, but we configured it in spanned mode so that only one was used during the data transfer.) On the myshare, our data transfer tests took 3:43 and 4:22 respectively, so while it was faster than the DataStation, it wasn't by much, indicating that the DataStation's performance can hold it's own against the faster interface.
Though the DataStation is only a single-drive unit, it does allow you to do RAID 0 or 1 (striping and mirroring, respectively) by using multiple units and aggregating or "binding" them via the utility software. You can also join multiple DataStations together into a single large volume. We couldn't test these multi-drive features since we only had a single device, but they do provide an interesting point of differentiation from single-drive NAS products, which don't offer an easy way to expand capacity (or any way to get RAID) after purchase.
The DataStation is priced competitively compared to NAS, in most cases coming in at the same price or perhaps a bit cheaper than a NAS device of the same capacity based on our unofficial survey of online retailers (the German-designed DataStation is only available from a handful of vendors, Amazon being the most notable among them).
In spite of the agreeable pricing, we don't think the DataStation maxi z.ul will necessarily sway NAS shoppers since it requires special software and limits the capacity you can get in a single device. On the other hand, since the DataStation is can act as both networked and local storage at the same time, it can be useful when your needs call for both local storage (e.g., for applications or to stream digital media to an A/V media server device) that you also want to access from multiple systems.
Price: $199 (for 160 GB)
Pros: good performance, acts like local storage, can expand capacity and add RAID by adding additional drives
Cons: requires client software for access, no user-level access control
Joe Moran is a regular contributor and columnist for PracticallyNetworked.