Our family thrives on having a home network. My oldest daughter is often up in her room, working on homework on her desktop PC, but often borrows a laptop to get things done while kicking back on the couch. My younger daughter likes working on homework in my wife's home office, which means she's also not using her desktop PC. I'm checking email and editing or writing early in the morning on a communal laptop in the dining room before heading down to the basement lab.
So having a central repository for files has become a necessary luxury for my daughters. For me, it's a critical necessity since I'm constantly installing software on test systems over the network. I've been using an Infrant (now Netgear) ReadyNAS 600, but I'm always on the lookout for more flexible and robust solutions.
The problem with the ReadyNAS—and any device that's purely a storage device—is that it lacks flexibility. While it supports third party add-ons, such as the Logitech / Slim Devices Slimserver, it's really a fixed function device. While you can certainly build your own home server, using Windows Home Server, BSD or any other OS, those aren't generally as flexible a storage platform.
Enter the Norco DS-520G. Sporting a 1GHz ULV (ultra low voltage) mobile Celeron CPU and dual gigabit Ethernet ports, Norco has built a platform that can be used as a dedicated NAS device or home server appliance. Norco also makes a model known as the DS-520F built with a 600MHz ULV Celeron M and dual fast Ethernet ports. We built up a Windows Home Server using the DS-520G and found a lot to like, along with a couple of warts. Continued...
Using the DS-520G
After installing Windows Home Server with attached keyboard, mouse and monitor, we ran the DS-520G as a headless server. The supplied WHS connect software allowed us to manage the Norco / WHS combo from any Windows XP or Windows Vista system, as long as it was a 32-bit version of Windows.
Using WHS, we ran a couple of quick file transfer tests. Copying a 1.26GB folder of mixed content from a Windows Vista system (running Vista Service Pack 1) to the Norco took about 78 seconds, or about 16.1MB/sec. This is not blazing fast speed, by any standard, but is certainly adequate, and better than some dedicated home NAS drives we've tested.
We also copied the same folder to the DS-520G on one system, while reading large amounts of data from the server using a second system. That file transfer took 100 seconds, or about 12.6MB/sec while the system was under load.
Note that this was copying a folder of mixed files of differing sizes, but many were fairly small. Also, there's no doubt that Windows Home Server may have some overhead as well. We also streamed two 1080p movie streams to two different systems over Gigabit Ethernet, and noticed no hiccups or stuttering in either audio or video. So it looks like the Norco can acquit itself quite well as a home server.
Since the DS-520G offers two Ethernet ports, you could load it up with a Linux distro and use it both as a small server and a hardware firewall. A 1GHz Celeron M probably isn't good enough for anything heavier than a home or small department file server; we certainly wouldn't recommend it as an application server.
The Norco is also a little noisy in operation. Since we'd probably stick this in a closet somewhere, that's not a big deal, but it's worth thinking about if you have to live with it in a quiet home office environment. Continued...
Final Thoughts: Good, but Pricey
A bare DS-520G with no memory or storage is available for about $599. You'll need to add RAM, hard drives, and an OS. If you want to install Windows Home Server, you'll need to pony up about another $170 for that. Linux or BSD, of course, can be installed for free. The system is quite capable of running FreeNAS as well, which also costs you nothing.
Even discounting OS costs, a DS-520G with a 1TB drive and 1GB of RAM will set you back roughly $950. You can get any of a number of 1TB NAS devices for $500 or even less. If all you need is storage, than a NAS drive is a pretty straightforward solution.
If you want the additional flexibility of a server, including user accounts, disk quotas, security policies, and added applications, the Norco makes for a simple, light duty server that doesn't require a lot of attention. It's a slick little package that's easy to set up and manage. Sure, you can build your own small server for well under $1000, but it won't have the storage flexibility or small footprint. But you'll want to weigh the cost versus benefit ratio carefully.
Product: Norco DS-520G Home Server Appliance
Company: Norco Technologies
Pros: Easy to configure; capable of massive storage capacities; lots of OS choices
Cons: Pricey; a little noisy
Summary: If you want a compact home server capable of gigabit speeds and offering massive storage expansion, then the DS-520G bears serious consideration.
Installation and Setup
The DS-520 ships barebones, and resembles any of a number of storage appliances. It supports up to five 3.5-inch drives in removable sleds, plus has an internal slot for a 2.5-inch hard drive and a compact flash slot.
The system uses a Marvell 88xs6081 SATA controller to handle storage chores. The 88xs6081 is an 8-port controller supporting full SATA 3Gbps speeds and a 133MHz PCI-X interface. Oddly, the device looks like a SCSI controller to the OS, so you do need to install drivers, unlike mainstream SATA devices that look like IDE controllers.
In addition to the five 3.5-inch drive sleds, the DS-520G offers three eSATA ports and four USB 2.0 ports. According to Norco, the system is capable of RAID 0, 1, 5, 6, 10, and JBOD arrays. We didn't test the RAID features extensively, however.
You can connect a monitor to the VGA port, and use a standard PS/2 keyboard and USB mouse for initial software setup.
Memory resides in a single SODIMM slot, and accepts 200-pin DDR-266 (PC2100) or faster memory. A compact flash slot is also built onto the main board, and can be used to store bootable firmware.
The motherboard itself is fanless, but a slow turning, 120mm fan is built into the rear of the chassis.
It's quite simple to install drives into the removable sled. As with a standard PC, you can set up drive configurations in the system BIOS setup program.
We installed Windows Home Server onto a 1 terabyte Western Digital WD1000FYPS GreenPower drive into the Norco for initial software installation. Note that Windows Home Server has a known problem with file corruption using certain applications with files stored on the drive. However, these are generally corner cases, although being aware of the issue will help avoid any problems.
The Norco unit we tested came with 512MB of DDR memory—adequate for running Windows Home Server, but it's a relatively light amount of memory for any kind of serious load. Anyone planning on running WHS extensions may want to equip the system with 1GB of RAM. Continued...