Small Business NAS Review: WD Sentinel DX4000

Tuesday Jan 3rd 2012 by Joseph Moran
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Western Digital's latest NAS server offers small businesses loads of advanced features, but a couple of issues keep it from earning a rave review.

The lifeblood of any small business is its data, and how well a company accesses, manages and protects that data can go a long way toward determining the company's success or failure.  For small firms that want to minimize the costs and hassle associated with data storage, a compact and relatively inexpensive network attached storage (NAS) device is typically the way to go, and there’s no shortage of products from which to choose.

Western Digital’s new WD Sentinel DX4000 enters the crowded small business NAS market with a number of useful features you don’t typically see in similarly-priced products, but it suffers from a couple of noteworthy weaknesses as well.

The Sentinel DX4000 is a four-bay device available in two versions: a $949 4 TB model (with two 2 TB drives) and a maxed-out 8 TB version (with four 2 TB drives) for $1,499. Whereas most NAS products in this segment employ a customized Linux variant as an underlying operating system, the Sentinel DX4000 has Microsoft’s Windows Storage Server 2008 R2 Essentials (WSS) under the hood.

WSS is essentially a scaled-down version of Microsoft’s Small Business Server 2011 product. Unlike SBS, WSS doesn’t do things like run business applications (e.g. databases), host a company website or handle email. Instead, it focuses on storing, securing and sharing data folders.

Server Setup and Connecting Computers

The WD Sentinel DX4000 comes housed in a black metal and plastic chassis. Atop the drive bay access door on the front of the unit sits a backlit two-line LCD status display, and around back are a pair of Gigabit Ethernet ports plus a pair of USB 3.0 ports for external storage. The DX4000 also sports dual AC power connectors; this gives the unit redundant power supply capabilities, a feature typically found only in pricey enterprise-level hardware. The rub is that WD only includes one power brick in the box; buying the second will set you back an extra $60.

WD Sentinel DX4000

Western Digital's Sentinel DX4000 NAS server.

Either Windows (7/Vista/XP) or Mac computers can connect to the Sentinel DX4000. (We tested with Windows 7 and Vista systems.) The product supports a maximum of 25 user accounts -- a WSS limit -- and it doesn’t require a Client Access License (CAL) for each user or system that connects to the server. 

When we first our removed our 4 TB test unit from its packaging, a distinct rattling sound suggested something was loose inside the chassis. But a closer inspection revealed a fairly benign culprit: a bit of movement in the metal rails of the two empty drive bays.        

As soon as we plugged in the DX4000 (i.e. before we had pressed the power switch) the unit’s internal fan came loudly to life, and the racket continued until we had completed the server configuration, at which time the noise settled to a subtle hum. As we discovered later, however, powering down the storage server brings the fan noise back to full-bore until you pull the plug on the unit.

A few minutes after turning on the Sentinel DX4000, the server’s LCD status screen was reporting its IP address, indicating it was ready to be configured via Web browser. This initial setup process consists of a simple wizard to configure basic settings such as a server name, date and time, and an administrator password.

After setting up the server, you connect your various computers to it in similar fashion -- by pointing their Web browsers to the server’s IP in order to install a piece of client software. The process, however, isn’t without issues.

For starters, the server can only handle one computer installation at a time, so forget about trying to save time by setting up a bunch of them concurrently. Also, it’s important that the client computers be current on all operating system updates; otherwise installs tend to fail. Upon ensuring the systems were up-to-date, our installs went pretty smoothly.

Once you connect a computer to the Sentinel DX4000, it gets a Launchpad utility from which a user can access shared folders, backup his computer, or use launch a browser to access the server’s Remote Web Access feature (more on this later).

Server Management and Computer Backups

Although you handle the initial setup via a browser, you perform ongoing server management using a Dashboard utility. This isn’t nearly as convenient as being able to control the server from the browser on any PC (as is customary with NAS devices these days), though you do have the option to install the Dashboard on every computer along with the Launchpad.

From the Dashboard you can do things such as create user accounts and shared folders (a number of standard document and media folders are set up in advance) and determine what kind of access -- read, read/write, or none -- users will have to each folder. Many NAS devices put forth less-than-intuitive interfaces for doing this kind of stuff, but performing these tasks via the Sentinel DX4000’s Dashboard wizards is exceedingly simple.

In addition to creating new user accounts on the Sentinel DX4000, you can opt to join it to an existing Windows 7 HomeGroup or to a Windows Active Directory domain. (The key word here is "existing" -- you can’t create a new HomeGroup or domain.)

Another thing you can do via the Dashboard is restore data from the nightly backups that the Sentinel DX4000 automatically performs on every networked computer. Moreover, you have the option to create a bootable USB Flash drive from which you can do a complete "bare metal" restore of a computer in the case of a complete hard drive failure or similar catastrophic event. We successfully performed both folder and full backups in our testing.  

The Sentinel DX4000’s capability to comprehensively backup and restore client computers makes it a standout in the segment, which is why its inability to backup itself is such a disappointment. Due to a limitation of WSS’s built-in server backup utility (it doesn’t work with volumes 2 TB or larger), the utility has been omitted from the Sentinel DX4000.

This leaves no out-of-the-box way to back up the contents of the server (including any computer backups it’s storing) to an external hard drive. WD is working on a fix for a future firmware update, but there’s currently no timeframe for its release.

For the time being, therefore, the only way to back up a Sentinel DX4000 is via an optional third-party add-in utility from KeepVault. This subscription-based software will back up the contents of the server to both a local drive and the cloud, and prices start at $300 annually for 250 GB of online storage. (Costs rise to $999 a year for 1 TB of online storage, but you can back up as much as you want locally no matter how much online storage you buy).

Although the added cost of having an off-site backup is entirely justifiable, it’s unfortunate that the Sentinel DX4000 effectively requires you to pay extra for something as rudimentary as on-site backup capability.

Remote Access

Providing easy access to files from outside the office isn’t always something at which small business NAS devices excel, but the Sentinel DX4000 does a good job of it. This is due to the Remote Web Access (RWA) feature of WSS, which lets you access shared folders and stream media through a very attractive and well-designed browser-based interface.

As an added bonus, you can use RWA to remotely control desktop Windows PCs, a feature most small business NAS devices don’t offer. The catches are that it only works with business versions of Windows (i.e. no Home editions), and because it uses an ActiveX control, it requires Internet Explorer (general file/media access can be done with any browser, however). 

To enable access to your Sentinel DX4000 from outside the office, a RWA setup wizard will take you through the steps of setting up the server with a new or existing domain name (which may involve added charges) or creating a complimentary subdomain at Microsoft’s remotewebaccess.com domain (e.g. yourservername.remotewebaccess.com).   

Storage Expansion and Maintenance 

The 4 TB Sentinel DX4000 comes with its two SATA drives configured as a RAID 1 mirror, leaving about 2 TB of usable storage available. Thanks to the Sentinel DX4000’s automatic RAID migration feature, when we added an additional 2 TB drive to the unit, it converted itself to RAID 5 in the background without disrupting access.

Performance, however, was noticeably degraded during the conversion process, which took an exceptionally long 25 hours to complete. Suffice it to say this should be considered a weekend rather than a weeknight job. When we pulled out a drive to simulate an abrupt failure and then replaced it, the rebuild time was considerably shorter -- about six hours.

Drives slide in and out of the Sentinel DX4000’s storage bays without the need for trays or tools, but it’s important to note that the Sentinel DX4000 only supports specific WD enterprise-grade (higher reliability) 2 or 3 TB hard drives -- the unit won’t work with other brands or even WD’s own consumer/retail models. (We tried inserting a Seagate Barracuda, but it wouldn’t even fit into the bay.)

By the way, neither the Sentinel’s access door nor the individual drive bays have any locking mechanism, so it’s important to keep the entire device in a secure location. (You can also "lock" the drives by assigning a password via the Dashboard, which WD says will prevent them from being accessed from outside the Sentinel DX4000.

Bottom Line

The 4 TB Sentinel DX4000’s $949 list price is more or less in line with competitors such as the Iomega StorCenter px4-300 (4 TB/$999) and LaCie’s 5 big Network 2 (5TB/$899), and those products don’t offer  networked computer backup, remote desktop access or the option for redundant power supplies.

Of the Sentinel DX4000’s shortcomings, the inability to back up the server to an external drive without an extra-cost subscription is probably the most troublesome; hopefully WD will get that fixed sooner rather than later.  

Price: $949 (4 TB), $1,499 (8TB)

Pros: Automatic migration from RAID 1 to RAID 5 when adding drives; dual AC connectors enable redundant power supply; does full backups of networked computers; good remote access features, including remote desktop to Windows PCs.

Cons: Setting up computers can be time consuming, error-prone when not up-to-date; RAID migration takes an extremely long time; can’t back-up server itself without optional add-on software.

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