Over the last two or so years, I have become unintentionally familiar with many of the quirks, drawbacks and difficulties of small-scale NAS devices.
In no particular order, I have suffered from devices that dropped hard drives (once, the device refused to come back to life when a new drive was installed; the other wanted a new drive that was more expensive than a new machine). I have had a machine lose its controller after the manufacturer went out of business, which not only meant it was not restorable, but due to the encrypted RAID setup, it was also not recoverable. Thankfully there were backups.
I have also run into a NAS that would, if rebooted, default to acting as a DHCP server no matter how many times it was configured not to do so; while another NAS from a big-name vendor, currently in use but shortly to be retired, suffers a persistent file permissions problem that makes file-sharing difficult and irritating.
Because of all this, I have become a devotee of open-source D-I-Y NAS using the Linux-based FreeNAS operating system.
For the ordinary home user, however, that's a bridge too far, which is why I was interested to take the new LaCie Network Space 2 for a spin: does it, as LaCie says, work out of the box with no setup, and does it share files without pain?
What's in the box
One of the things I like about developments in home computing equipment in the last few years is the way things have become simpler and smaller, with less stuff in the box to fool around with before you hit the "on" switch. Driven partly, I suspect, by the impact of Apple's design attitudes - like the AirPort that has itself and not much more in the packaging - the rest of the industry has tried to reduce what I might call the physical overhead of buying and setting up new kit.
And so it is with the Network Space 2: there's the black box itself, a booklet and CD (both of which I will try to ignore for now), a universal power supply with male connectors for Australian, American and English outlets, Ethernet and USB cables, and that's the lot.
It's also not hopelessly over-packaged; I have bought power adapters with more junk packaging than LaCie uses, which is very nice.
So with the power supply and Ethernet connected, there's nothing to do but wait for the machine to boot and take it for a test drive.
When something is as simple as the LaCie, the designer should remember that users need feedback about what's going on - particularly for stuff like power-up and power-down. The Network Space 2 probably needs more than just the blue LED at the front. Let me explain why.
On my first power-up, I intended to run a stopwatch to time the unit's boot-up. Users might never notice a storage device that runs for 12 months without losing any data or giving trouble of any kind. But let that same device take ten minutes to launch, and everybody will think it's a lemon.
Since I didn't get myself coordinated in time, I missed the stopwatch on my first boot and decided to power-down and try again. Here's where feedback would be nice: if you really do need to power the unit down, how long should you hold the power button? The Network Space 2 takes quite some time to respond to the button, and I suspect that the less sophisticated user might get irritated enough to do something silly, like pulling the cable.
The feedback comes - eventually, when you've held the power button down for several seconds - but in my opinion, too slowly for many people.
Power-up is quick enough to satisfy most home users, I think: on an ordinary start, it took less than a minute for the blue LED to stop flashing and for the NetworkSpace2 to show up in Finder on the Mac box I happened to be near for the test.
Power-down, if you need to do a hard stop, only took 24 seconds in out-of-the-box condition.
Let's get going
In default, there's only one share on the Network Space 2 - which is probably suitable for the ordinary home user. It fits the aim of working out of the box, unlike more "businessy" systems that demand anything from permission-setting to drive formatting before they're ready to use.
It also means you don't actually need to install any utilities to get going. The Network Space 2 showed up automatically in all three of the operating systems that exist in my home - Leopard on the MacBook Pro, Linux on the laptop I use for my personal machine, and Windows for the rest of the family.
But you will want to install the admin system, because if nothing else, you'll want to set a password for default access, so that people who enter the network unbidden (where I now sit, there are four open WiFi access points in the neighborhood!) won't get at the files.
Including the business of loading the DVD, the install only took 43 seconds on OSX, and on launch, the icon pops into the menu bar (which isn't actually mentioned in the quick-start booklet, so it took me a while to stop waiting for the application to launch and notice the menu bar item to kick off administration).
Once you're connected to the management interface, the pages generally load quickly, and the layout is nice. In fact, the design of Web-based management intterfaces has come a very long way in recent years, with the interface fairly uncluttered, easy to read, and the meaning of most interface items are easy to understand.
A nice, uncluttered interface makes it easy to get going with the LaCie Network Space 2
User management is simple - and, heavens be praised! doesn't bring with it the user-permissions baggage that has plagued me with other NAS boxes (where one user can't open files created by another user because the NAS imposes strange permissions, no matter how the permissions are supposed to be set on the network share). No such problems occurred with the Network Space 2: no matter which user created a file, or from which machine I connected, files that were meant to be shared (and were therefore in the "shared" space) where sharable, just as I wanted; while folders marked as private were kept private.
Given that I have spent more than a day with one SME NAS trying to get it to give all employees access to the same files, and still failed (even with help from the vendor's tech support), I count this as a blessing.
I have, however, one issue with the UI: it doesn't cope well with disconnection. If the device is disconnected and reconnected - which is normal enough if you happen to use a laptop! - the LaCie Network Assistant application gets into trouble. My experience was that the application - not just the browser window - could not find a drive if I disconnected and reconnected it. The only option was to close the Network Assistant entirely and restart it so it could open the management Web pages - and this would happen even if the device was visible to the operating system for normal file operations.
Rather than put the home LAN (only 100 Mbps) between me and the Network Space 2, I ran my first speed test with the unit connected directly to the MacBook's Gigabit Ethernet port, and dragged a nice big file from the desktop to the unit: 8.8 Gigabytes, to be precise.
OSX estimated the transfer time at about 10 minutes; in fact, it took eight - I have known Finder to make a complete mess estimating the transfer time for large files, particularly when it's dealing with network storage devices. So it's doing better than a gigabyte per minute over a GigE interface, which should keep most home users happy.
For USB users, the "quick start" guide misses a piece of information which is quite important, and which had me confused right up to the point where I read the manual on the CD-ROM: USB isn't available until after you've connected the machine via Ethernet and run the setup Wizard.
This was only a stumbling block because it was unexpected, which meant that I was trying for half an hour or so to get one (any one!) of my computers to see the Network Space 2 over the USB port.
Here, I found my next stumbling block: working out how to enable the USB facility. The instructions are to access the Drive Information page, then adjust the USB share size "under the heading USB drive". Here, the problem is not the machine, but the manual: the descriptions in the manual don't match those on the interface, which means there was quite a bit of clicking around to work out what I was supposed to do. Here's a screenshot for anyone else encountering this little Easter egg.
You need to click exactly here to open the USB drive sizing dialog and use a USB connection
After that, the device showed up as a USB drive, and transferred a 1.18 GByte file in 48 seconds. I couldn't test it on an 8 GByte file, however, because Finder wouldn't send a file that large to the unit over the USB.
Another test I conducted, quite unscientific, would probably also be considered quite unfair, but I live in the real world. So I decided to find out what happened when the Network Space 2 loses power (which might as much be the fault of a stray foot as a blackout).
In the middle of a large file transfer (about 60 GBytes), I pulled the plug, and after waiting a few minutes, I restarted it. The result was a pleasant surprise: it only needed about five minutes to recover. In elder days, I've known external drives to need 30 minutes or more to come back when so mistreated.
Later, with the 60 GByte file transfered without interruption, I was interested to note that even that small amount of the total disk space is enough to slow down the start-up. Instead of starting in less than a minute, it needs about four minutes to be ready - which, if you plan on switching the unit off when it's not in use, means you'll probably want to delve into its power management to wake it automatically.
That brings me to the power-save features included in the Network Space 2. The obvious stuff is there - how long to wait before going to sleep, and a "deep sleep" mode that supports scheduled shut-down and start-up. And a nice touch is the option to switch the power light off if you don't need it.
Forgive me, but I don't actually have a huge server-based multimedia setup at home. I can, however, confirm that the unit will stream audio and video files quite happily over even a modest home WiFi setup. Someone with a proper multimedia lab will have to tell you whether this is the right box for a vast high-definition digital library.
But I can't claim to have "tested" its performance as a multimedia server. While such things are becoming increasingly popular, there remain a lot of home users who simply haven't ever backed up their computers; something affordable that works over the LAN is a big plus even for people who don't need a separate multimedia server.
There's also a backup scheduler application I should mention, the Intego Backup Assistant.
I didn't test all aspects of this application - for example, I wasn't going to spend a day seeing if it could create a bootable backup of my entire drive - but its simpler functions were easily accessible. It does all of the things that the home user is likely to need, with a nice, straightforward interface.
Although pitched at the home user, my feeling is that there's are many micro-businesses that would also like the LaCie Network Space 2. It's not the cheapest Terabyte you'll buy - but with its Ethernet connection, it's a step ahead of similarly-priced devices without the network connection.