TL; DR: As an electrical engineer with more than 20 years’ experience in the automatic test equipment industry, Tim Higgins witnessed the rise in the late 1990s of high-speed internet connectivity and the desire to attach multiple computers to home networks. Looking to develop his HTML skills, Tim decided to start a website to educate the public on home networking. His site took off in popularity, ultimately resulting in the product review storehouse that is SmallNetBuilder. Today, Tim and the SmallNetBuilder team test and review network-related products, such as routers and storage devices, serving up valuable information regarding small-scale network infrastructure. Through the lens of his product testing business, Tim gave us insight into the evolution of network-attached storage (NAS) and the recent trend of managing data on-site.
Tim Higgins began his career as an electrical engineer in the automatic test equipment industry decades ago. It was Tim’s job to design equipment used to test the viability of chips built by semiconductor manufacturing companies. When it came to understanding new technologies, Tim was at the cutting edge, and he knew a tidal wave was about to hit the web with the rise of high-speed internet connectivity in the late 1990s.
While in Boston, Tim lived near one of the first cable modem companies and witnessed the beginning of the broadband network rollout. Tim told us with the new high-speed capabilities came the desire to connect multiple computers to a single network. However, the cable companies only supported attaching one.
“At the time, I wanted to develop my HTML skills and needed a topic to discuss,” he said. “I didn’t have a dog or kids to write about, so I decided to cover how to share an internet connection.”
Tim’s site quickly gained popularity, and the cable company noticed. When presented with questions about how to share connections between computers, the cable company would refer customers to Tim’s site. This gave rise to a career change that ultimately resulted in the founding of SmallNetBuilder as a business.
Today, SmallNetBuilder’s mission is to educate network builders on the right products to use in a given setup. The site features numerous articles detailing the specifics of many different models of equipment. SmallNetBuilder conducts product tests in a controlled environment, ensuring accurate data independent of environmental bias. SmallNetBuilder’s wireless test method will soon be in its 10th iteration and includes MU-MIMO and maximum throughput tests for up to 4×4 routers.
“We’ve been reviewing small network hardware, mainly in the form of network storage and routers,” Tim said. “But we also do power line adapters — basically, anything people use to build home and small business networks.”
The variety of equipment potentially involved in constructing or modifying a small network infrastructure is vast and growing — consequently, so is the need for detailed reviews of the latest routers, storage devices, and other equipment, including network-attached storage (NAS) devices.
Evolution of Network-Attached Storage Driven by Cost Savings
Tim gave us a brief history of network-attached storage and how its evolution was largely driven by cost savings. Network-attached storage refers to a file-level data server that provides access to a group of clients. NAS devices are often built as specialized computer appliances.
RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks) storage is often employed by NAS units, as they are strictly built for file sharing and streaming across the network. Any computer can be configured to do the same thing a NAS does, but a NAS will consume much less power and save on costs.
At the consumer level, Buffalo Technology manufactured the earliest low-cost NAS boxes providing a large file store without the complications involved in setting up a Windows server. Infant, which was purchased by NETGEAR, was the first to create an automatic RAID method to simplify setting up multiple drive systems.
Tim noted the key drivers for NAS were simpler setup and administration and lower costs through the use of open-source and the removal of Windows Server license costs.
“Setting up a Windows server requires a certain level of skill, and small businesses wanted to avoid it,” he said. “This was simplified by using Linux and putting a much friendlier face on it in terms of administration. NAS was basically started as a server replacement business.”
Numerous NAS boxes have been tested using SmallNetBuilder’s holistic methods, and the resulting reviews comprise a large portion of SmallNetBuilder’s content.
NAS — Pushing the Envelope of Virtualization, Caching, and Power
When asked about evolving wifi standards, Tim said the turning point for network storage was hitting the gigabit barrier.
“It’s the new standard,” he said. “As NAS processors got more powerful and cheaper, even entry-level systems powered by Marvell and other SoCs are capable of saturating a gigabit Ethernet connection for large sequential file transfers.”
According to Tim, this meant NAS manufacturers needed to look beyond performance, such as the ability to run VMs, as a way to drive product differentiation.
More powerful and economically priced processors, such as the Intel Atom, are necessary to keep devices running at gigabit internet speeds. NAS companies, such as NETGEAR and QNAP, have further developed NAS boxes for virtualized server configurations and better caching.
With virtualization, hypervisors, like Hyper-V, are loaded on a guest machine, while the physical host machine continues to run the installed OS. Server administrators can thus divide one physical server into multiple virtual ones. The need for less physical equipment saves businesses and home consumers energy on power, cooling, and replacement costs.
SmallNetBuilder allows visitors to filter NAS reviews by RAID configurations, which may be useful depending on the size and structure of a network. An inexpensive RAID 1, dual-bay NAS drive can be used for most basic consumer needs involving large media files.
“NAS manufacturers are now moving into the higher end of today’s server replacement business,” Tim said.
Evolving NAS innovations allow for smoother virtualization, caching, and power consumption.
A Move Back to Housing Data On-Site for Security and Accessibility
NAS is enabling people to step back from the cloud when necessary. Tim said the psychology of “knowing exactly where your data is” by keeping physical copies in close proximity to users helps quell fears of data loss. Popular cloud services are more likely to be the targets of attack than some unknown personal data box inside a person’s home office.
Furthermore, keeping everything within the private network setting keeps it secure from the outside world while simultaneously allowing easier access from within the network. Only the network users know what is stored on the NAS, and they know the file paths already.
While cloud services are popular and convenient for backup purposes, they are often sold in subscription format, meaning the continuous cost to store personal data is inevitable — even while the possibility of data loss remains. NAS boxes combine security with a generous amount of storage for a low cost, and the only continuous cost is in the form of power consumption.
In terms of security, Tim noted antivirus was added to NAS a while back. Not only does the NAS solution keep data private and local; it now keeps it secure with virus scans even when chances of infection are lower in private environments to begin with.
“The security advantages of storing data locally versus the cloud is only true if a network is properly secured,” Tim said. “If poor data hygiene is practiced, proper backups aren’t done, and services are improperly exposed to the internet, users may be better off using cloud services.”
SmallNetBuilder: Independent Product Tests in a Controlled Environment
Tim’s site has come a long way since the infancy of high-speed internet connectivity. Today, SmallNetBuilder continues its goal of performing product tests and publishing the results.
“We’re really the only consumer-focused publication that does a significant amount of product testing in a controlled environment,” Tim said. “We describe the equipment and the techniques we use, so when you pull up the chart, you can have high confidence that the data sets are reliable.”
SmallNetBuilder has an extensive database of hardware testing statistics in addition to the more summarized portion of the reviews. Bottom line summaries, as well as analysis of more than a dozen benchmarks, make SmallNetBuilder’s reviews incredibly detailed.
“We came up with a ranking method that really boils it all down,” Tim said. “We’re trying to create informed consumers.”