Review: Buffalo Technology LinkStation Pro

Friday Sep 15th 2006 by Aaron Weiss

The LinkStation Pro Shared Network Storage appliance enhances earlier versions of the storage product with increased maximum speed, thanks to its SATA hard drive and gigabit networking. It's also quiet and cool.

When it comes to computer networking, small businesses and homes look a lot alike these days. It makes sense. After all, both environments share increasingly similar technology needs — especially when it comes to storage. You can never have enough.

The days of needing to crack open your computer case to add storage are behind us. External hard drives, which plug into USB 2.0 or Firewire ports, are popular alternatives, and great for mobile use. But for a fixed installation — such as an office or home — network storage offers several advantages over a basic external hard drive.

Buffalo Technology LinkStation Pro Shared Network Storage
Buffalo Technology LinkStation Pro is quiet and efficient.

A NAS, or Network Attached Storage, device such as the Buffalo LinkStation Pro simply plugs into a router, switch or hub. Controlled by a miniature computer, the NAS connects to your local area network and makes its contents available through a network file share. At its simplest, a NAS like the Buffalo LinkStation Pro quickly adds several hundred gigabytes of storage capacity persistently available from anywhere on your network — or, over the Internet, if suitably configured.

The LinkStation Pro enhances earlier LinkStation products with increased maximum speed, thanks to its SATA hard drive and gigabit networking. For small businesses, it adds Active Directory support to integrate access to shared storage with network-wide Windows authentication services.

Out of the Box
The LinkStation Pro is available in a range of storage capacities, from 250GB ($299) up to 750GB ($899), with several models priced in between. A slim black box, at three inches wide by six inches high, the black LinkStation Pro, you can place it anywhere it has access to power and a network connection to your router or switch.

A wireless version of the LinkStation Pro is not available, but you can add a wireless bridge to its wired network jack to piggyback wireless capability onto the unit. (Of course, it still needs power.)

Four green LEDs dot the face of the unit, indicating status of power, network activity, and informational and error codes. The internal hard drive is cooled by a small fan that runs virtually silent.

Two USB 2.0 ports on the rear support additional, conventional external hard drives. Adding external drives is a quick way to increase capacity of your networked storage although, unlike purchasing a higher-capacity LinkStation Pro, each external drive may require its own power (depending on its size).

When you power up the LinkStation Pro, it will attempt to automatically connect to your local network. Most routers will automatically assign an IP address to the unit. Otherwise, it defaults to a built-in IP address that an administrator can connect to and configure the LinkStation with compatible settings for the local network.

The unit includes a setup CD for Windows, which installs the Buffalo NAS Navigator, a unified interface for managing attached Buffalo network storage devices. Other than displaying the unit's network address, though, the Navigator is helpful only to map a Windows network drive to the network storage share. More advanced users don't even need help doing that.

Like a router, the LinkStation Pro is managed primarily through a Web browser. Simply connect via HTTP to the LinkStation's IP or network name. The LinkStation Pro does not support secure HTTPS connections.

Using the administration interface, you can configure a wide variety of features. The LinkStation Pro can get its date and time from an Internet-based NTP server, or be set manually, for example, and you can choose among English, German and Japanese languages.

The Network settings interface lets you manually configure the LinkStation Pro's network parameters, if necessary. Gigabit network users, in particular, should try the "Ethernet Frame Size" setting. Here you can specify several so-called "jumbo" frame sizes, which can significantly improve throughput on a gigabit network by including more data in each packet of traffic

The LinkStation Pro can be setup as part of a Windows workgroup, NT Domain, or ActiveDirectory. User authentication can be set to several sources, including the LinkStation's internal user management, an external SMB (aka Samba) server, or a Windows Domain Controller.

While the average home users may not use any access controls, small businesses will find it particularly valuable to grant access to different shares to different users or groups of users.

Each shared folder can be configured for access by one or more methods, including Windows file sharing, AppleTalk for Macs, FTP, and the LinkStation's backup facility.

Default folder attributes include read-only and read/write access, and any users or groups can be assigned to either category. Thanks to its rich set of access controls, the LinkStation Pro is suitable for business environments where highly granular access is desirable.

By default, the LinkStatio Pro enabled AppleTalk access but disables FTP access. Either state is easily changed globally, and individual shares can opt out of either access method.

Back It Up
The LinkStation Pro makes it more difficult to claim that you forgot to back up your data. Its flexible backup scheduling interface lets you setup backups of shares on the LinkStation Pro to connected USB drives or other LinkStation Pros. Its built-in backup software can create archival, replacement or differential backups on a schedule ranging from daily to weekly to immediately.

Optionally, backups can use compression and/or encryption, and generate a log file. Of course, most users will also want to backup data from a network PC to the LinkStation Pro. For this you'll need to rely on third-party software. Buffalo includes a single-license version of Memeo AutoBackup for Windows, but you could opt for backup tool you like.

Danger, Danger
Has something gone wrong? If so, the LinkStation Pro can let you know. It can emit a beep for help under several configurable conditions, including excess heat, or disk or fan failure.

The unit can also send e-mail alerts to up to five recipients should the disk or fan fail. You can trigger an e-mail when a backup operating completes or, on a schedule, a drive status report indicating free space and other status parameters.

Unfortunately, the unit can send e-mail only through an open mail relay, and does not accept a login or password for SMTP servers that require authentication. For many broadband users this should not be a problem now, but an increasing number of ISP's seem to be migrating to authenticated relays to cut down on spam. We hope Buffalo addresses this limitation in a future firmware update.

Performance May Vary
Strictly speaking, the SATA hard drive inside the LinkStation Pro is faster than your network — this is one advantage where internal hard drives connected to your PC motherboard are hard to beat. Like all NAS devices, the LinkStation Pro is bottlenecked by your network speed.

These days, many homes and offices still run on 100Mbit networks. The LinkStation Pro should average about 10MB per second on a typical 100Mbit network, especially for large files. To put these numbers in perspective, a 3.5GB file transferred to and from the LinkStation Pro in less than six minutes. While this throughput rates only 25 percent or less that of an internal hard drive, the convenience of networked storage is sometimes more valuable than sheer speed.

Of course, on a gigabit network, the LinkStation Pro can stretch its legs. You can expect a 2-2.5x throughput increase on a gigabit network, to an average of 20MB per second or more — or less than 3 minutes for a 3.5GB file.

You've Got Storage
Analysts like to call one-box solutions like the LinkStation Pro an "appliance." Appliances should be quick to deploy and easy to use. The LinkStation Pro clearly meets both criteria. In its most basic usage profile, you can unwrap the LinkStation Pro, plug it into your router, and within minutes add anywhere from 250GB to 750GB of capacity accessible from anywhere on your LAN.

Its feature-rich user access controls, including granular share permissions and Active Directory integration, provide the LinkStation Pro with the necessary business credentials to operate in a more secure environment.

Because it consumes only 21 watts of power and generates little heat or noise, the LinkStation Pro quietly, efficiently, adds smart storage to a network with ease.

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