Review: Buffalo LinkStation Mini

Thursday Jun 26th 2008 by Aaron Weiss
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Buffalo's network attached storage drive packs big capacity into a tiny package.

Little is the new big. There was the Mac Mini, the iPod Mini and even the Mini Cooper. And small still looms large with the LinkStation Mini, from Buffalo Technology. The LS Mini is a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device – essentially an external hard drive that plugs into your network.

The drive's most remarkable feature is its apparent paradox: small on the outside, big on the inside. The Mini really is, well, mini – it's about the size of a small paperback and weighs in at just over one pound. Yet, it packs one terabyte of storage capacity. Its street price is just slightly north of $600.

What a Difference an Inch Makes

Squeezing so much capacity into such a small space isn't quite magic. The LinkStation uses 2.5-inch laptop-size hard drives rather than the 3.5-inch drives typically found in NAS units. There are actually two 500GB hard drives, paired in a RAID array.

You can configure the unit in either RAID 0 or RAID 1 configurations. RAID 0, or "striping," divides data across both drives for maximum performance. If either drive fails, though, all data will be lost. In RAID 1, or "mirroring," data is duplicated to both drives on every write. You will only have 500GB total capacity in RAID 1 mode, but you'll be protected in case one drive failures.


The Buffalo LinkStation Mini NAS
The Buffalo LinkStation Mini NAS packs one RAID-configured terabyte of data into a palm-sized package.

Unboxed

For those of us who usually skip the manual when setting up new hardware, the LinkStation Mini vindicates us. The unit is very simple to get going. It includes a power plug and a nifty flat-profile Ethernet cable. Plug one end into a network switch and the other into a power outlet; flip the power on, and you're good to go.

You can connect the Mini's single USB 2.0 port to another external hard disk or to a USB printer you wish to share it over the network. You cannot use the USB port to connect the Mini directly to a PC.

Because the Mini's 2.5-inch hard drives run slower than 3.5 inch drives, they also produce less heat. With no need for a cooling fan, the Mini relies only on passive vents, which results in nearly silent running – except for the quiet clicking of the drives themselves.

The unit takes about 30 seconds to boot up. By default, the Mini will try to automatically acquire an IP address through DHCP. Assuming it succeeds, it will be available on your network and visible through browsing available file shares.

Although Buffalo thoughtfully pre-loads the electronic manual and supporting software installer for both Windows and Mac on the LinkStation itself, you can use most of the unit's features without installing anything at all. Because it communicates through the network, it doesn't need any drives. Buffalo's software does enable some specific conveniences—like "auto" power mode that turns the drive on and off with the PC. Complete administration and management is available through a Web browser pointed at the Mini's local network address (or name).

Share and Share Alike

The primary appeal of a NAS ‑ compared to a direct-connect external hard disk ‑ is networked file-sharing. Because the NAS is really a small computer wrapped around a hard drive (or in the Mini's case, a RAID pair of drives), it can share files over a variety of protocols.

Most people will communicate with the Mini on a TCP/IP network, but those who own older Macs can optionally enable AppleTalk.  Sharing files using Windows File Sharing (known as either Samba or Server Message Block SMB on Unix and Linux) is on by default, and you can also enable FTP access for any shared folder.

The Mini is also touted as a "media server," which means that you can share specified folders using DLNA ‑ a streaming media protocol. For example, if you load a folder of MP3 files and enable media server sharing, DLNA-aware clients like iTunes and Windows Media Player 11 will automatically see the shared media, including tags like artist and title.

DLNA-supporting hardware is increasingly available, including Buffalo's own LinkTheater and Sony's PlayStation 3. You can allow or deny DLNA access to specific network clients, which are listed in the Mini's media server configuration screen.

You can also access files on the Mini from anywhere via the Web if you choose to enable Web access. Using Buffalo's included software, you can register the Mini on the Web and log into it remotely. A Web-based navigation interface lets you browse folders and view or download files. Support for UPnP lets the Mini "see through" your firewall, or you can choose to manually configure port forwarding.

User Management

Sharing your files is one thing ‑ sharing them with everyone and anyone, is another. You can create users and groups through the Mini administration page, and then assign varying privileges (read, write, delete) to users or groups for each shared folder.

Alternatively, the Mini can join an NT Domain or Active Directory, in which case it will authenticate users in that domain. For non-Windows networks, you can delegate authentication to an alternative SMB server rather than the Mini itself.

More Storage or Printing

You can plug a USB hard disk into the LinkStation Mini, and it shows up as a connected USB device in the Mini administration page. The Mini also shares the external disk on the network under a share name you specify.

The Mini can format and create shares on an additional hard disk, but it supports only FAT32, EXT3, or XFS file systems (the internal drives are shipped in XFS format). When I connected a USB drive formatted with NTFS, the Mini would let me read from it, but not write to it.

Rather than add more storage, you can share a USB printer using the Mini, which includes a built-in print server. You will need to install the printer vendor's drivers on each PC printing to the LAN.

Backup and Alerts

If you have more than one Mini, your Mini-cluster can automatically backup shared folders. Select which shares to backup, choose a destination Mini and define a schedule for automated goodness.

In fact, you can backup with just one Mini, but you will have to backup the data from one share to a separate share.

You can also receive messages from your Mini. Configured with the addresses of up to five recipients, the Mini can trigger automatic e-mail alerts for conditions including disk failure and backup completion, plus status reports on disk usage. Mail notifications would be even more useful if a wider variety of trigger events were available, such as downloads of marked files, or access by particular users.

Big but Slow

Some of the LinkStation Mini strengths can also be liabilities, if you have a need for speed. The small, quiet 2.5 inch hard drives run at 5,400 RPM, whereas many 3.5 inch drives now spin at 7,200 RPM.

Network connections are not the fastest way to move data between hard disk and PC, particularly compared to USB 2.0 and Firewire. The LS Mini does sport a gigabit Ethernet jack, but you'll only see gigabit network speeds on a network with gigabit switches and gigabit clients, which is not yet common. Real work gigabit network performance is also impacted by computing speed, and the Mini is not exactly powered by a supercomputer.

So what does it all mean? To put performance in perspective, some numbers.

On my test system, the internal SATA hard drive writes data at about 32MB/s (megabytes per second) and reads at 40MB/s. Testing a SATA USB 2.0 external drive reveals nearly identical read and write speeds.

Using a 100mbps network connection (the most common kind), writing the same test file to the LinkStation Mini clocks in at just 0.5MB/s, while reading the test file rates 6MB/s. When I re-tested the Mini on a gigabit network connection, write and read speeds nearly doubled. Note that network speed ratings are in megabits per second, and when the math is said and done, the Mini is pushing data at about 80 percent of the theoretical maximum for a 100mbps network.

Of course, any other NAS would be similarly limited by network speeds. A NAS with a faster processor would probably put up stronger numbers on a gigabit network.

The bottom line is not that the LinkStation Mini is a slow NAS, but that NAS storage besides enterprise products is inherently slow relative to direct-connect hard drives.

Does Size Matter?

Does portability matter when you are dealing with a NAS?

If the Mini could be easily moved between locations and directly connected to a PC via USB 2.0 as an alternative to the network connection, its impressively miniature size would make a more compelling argument. You can connect the Mini directly to a single PC using only the network connection, but to do so requires using a crossover cable and manual configuration of TCP/IP settings. That's not exactly convenient.

Still, the ($600 street) Mini presents a distinctive offer, packing a terabyte into such a tiny footprint. Its NAS feature set is thorough, particularly two-click support for running a media server. And with its miserly power consumption of just 10 watts makes it easy to justify running 24/7.

Aaron Weiss a technology writer, screenwriter and Web development consultant who spends his free time stacking wood for the winter in Upstate New York. His Web site is: bordella.com

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