For me, storage is a huge pain. On one hand, it’s simple. Buy a bunch of hard drives, back everything up, repeat. But I want to simplify it further. I hate having one system that’s speedy for in-office editing and another that’s slow, but network-connected. I couldn’t find anything that offered both a network connection and fast thunderbolt-like speeds when attached locally until I came across QNAP’s TVS-871T networked-attached storage solution that also features dual Thunderbolt connectivity.
I like to have one solution that I might buy into several times, but that works the same throughout my entire workflow and no matter where I am. I don’t want to have a Promise RAID array for live work and a separate Synology box that I then have to transfer to from the Promise device. I just want everything to live in one place, to be accessible everywhere, and to move at the fastest reasonable rate considering wherever I am at that moment.
Synology’s systems have a great user interface and amazing features that easily let anyone manage multiple users, password-protected folders, etc. While I was less familiar with QNAP’s system, it didn’t take long to figure out the two offered extremely similar support. However, the TVS-871T included Thunderbolt for lightning-fast local connections; and I didn’t get far into a phone call with Synology’s support team before they told me they don’t have any plans to do something similar.
Now, alternatively, I could get a Mac desktop system and set that up with extra storage and OS X Server, etc. But in my search for the perfect solution, I downloaded that and tried it, but there is no way that someone that doesn’t know their networking tech will ever get that working. It’s just a bit too far over my head — and likely over yours as well (assuming we’re all photographers and not necessarily IT specialists). Of course, Windows users have similar options, but I imagine there might be some of the same tech-related barriers to entry for that to actual be a viable solution.
And so, this is why I was so excited when I first saw the 871T. I asked them for a temporary review unit, and they happily obliged.
I’m not averse to the occasional Terminal-based fix for an issue I’m having with my Mac if I have the directions of what to copy and paste from a reputable blog online. But I’m not the most tech-savvy IT person, either. Setting up the QNAP did take just a few minutes, but I ran into a few issues that I needed help with soon after. However, this was after having changed some settings on my router. Nevertheless, QNAP’s support team was responsive and incredibly helpful. I felt I had an ongoing, virtually direct connection with the same support tech (I believe we even talked about when he got off work and when he’d be back down in Corona, CA, or somewhere nearby), and the problem I had caused was resolved relatively quickly.
From my limited understanding, you can take advantage of multiple Ethernet ports and connect them to a switch to increase your throughput. But again, you’d have to ultimately connect all this through relatively expensive and/or complicated adapters to eventually go through the Thunderbolt port on your Mac anyway. To the best of my knowledge, there’s only a single-port Ethernet-to-Thunderbolt adapter available, so I’m not sure you’d even get the speed out of multiple ports from a network-attached storage (NAS) system on a local network, though it may alleviate some minor bottlenecks to having just one port out, comparatively.
Regardless, this is definitely the most simple solution. When I’m on the go, I have access to a great portal that lets me set virtual partitions with varying amounts of data allotted for each user, each with their own password, etc. I can set passwords for individual files or folders, make myself the administrator so I keep control over every aspect, manage bandwidth on a per-user basis, and set up backups for each system that connects to the system. There is so much more I can do, but that’s a pretty good start that covers me for just about any client need.
When I’m home, I pull my laptop out of my bag, plug in a Thunderbolt cable, and I instantly have a local connection that runs as fast as those hard drives can go. It’s the perfect intersection of robustness and simplicity. Once I get one, I put a second one anywhere in the world to back up to, and I’m done. One solution, clear as day.
As with most network speed tests, results may vary — a lot. But there are essentially three types of connections and, therefore, three different categories of speed that you’ll see with a solution such as the QNAP depending on how you connect: via non-local network connection, local network connection, or direct Thunderbolt connection.
Non-Local Network Connection
When you’re on the go at another hotel on the other side of the planet, or at your mother’s house for Thanksgiving, you’re going to connect back to your NAS over a non-local, Internet-based connection. You sign in online through QNAP’s portal, and from there you can upload, download, change settings, etc., all at the not-so-speedy upload rate of whatever Internet connection you’re stuck with. Your download rate will be limited by the upload rate of the Internet connection wherever your QNAP is based (be it at your home or in your office, etc.). Because download speeds are almost always many times faster than upload speeds, it can be extremely beneficial to get a great plan for yourself.
These days, many larger cities have access to fiber-based connections that feature identical and extremely fast upload and download speeds. So instead of being limited to a relatively normal and pitiful upload speed of 4-10 MB/s, you could see speeds as fast as the normal download speeds for whichever area you’re traveling within, which could be upwards of 20-40MB/s. That makes a huge difference when uploading the kinds of large files we photographers often do to back up on the road. At the end of the day, everything is dependent upon the data rate you get through your ISP.
Local Network Connection
When you’re at home or in the office and connected to the same wireless network as your QNAP server, you can see a significant up-tick in data speeds. This is because your computer can go directly through your router to communicate with the NAS system without going through the Internet. When I tested this connection in my home with a decently fast TP-Link AC router, I saw consistent speeds of greater than 40MB/s. That’s not bad for sitting on your couch and grabbing a few files here and there as you need them.
You could also connect locally via Ethernet, but again, if you’re going to plug a cable into your computer — well, that’s what’s so awesome about having Thunderbolt.
Direct Thunderbolt 2 Connection
The previous two options are available with any NAS system today. However, it’s the direct Thunderbolt 2 connection that makes this so attractive. Want to offload an entire hard drive of data onto the NAS? It might take more than a day or two to do that over a typical connection. But plug yourself into one of the two Thunderbolt ports on the back of the 871T, and you instantly have access to speeds that reach the limit of the hard drives you have inside the box. This is exactly why you get this: for the ultimate flexibility.
Moving data this fast, you start to see a property that affects any data transfer rate: smaller files will typically transfer much more slowly than single, large files. A bunch of tiny JPEGs might transfer at only 80 MB/s on the same connection that a ten-gigabyte movie file might transfer at 900 MB/s. There are a couple reasons for this, but between the images above and below, this is why you’ll see a difference in speed. Still, you can see how a six-gigabyte OS X image transferred at an average rate of more than 400 MB/s while smaller raw images transferred at still-respectable, but slower, speeds. Regardless, we’re still talking an average of a three-fold increase in transfer rate even for these smaller files when compared to local network connections.
The one caveat to this – and it's a big one in favor of the QNAP – is that I was only given four hard drives to test in this system. With room for eight hard drives, this system can reach almost 1 GB/s. That's as fast as any reasonable live-workstation setup. You can even get faster speeds if you set up some of the bays with SSDs instead of normal HDDs. For this reason, I included a great video review of the full speed capabilities below.
What I Liked
- Direct Thunderbolt connectivity combined with NAS solution
- Great, solid build quality
- Fantastic support
- Ease of use
- Can connect to look like local drive through OS if set up properly
- All the user management features of any professional NAS system
- Quick set-up option makes it easy to get right in minutes out of the box
- Supports Time Machine, but also has its own backup options
- A lot of things that aren’t worth mentioning here and are very specific to certain cases…but there’s a lot more this “box” can do from serving as a hub for your studio's video surveillance needs to using SSDs for even faster transfer rates
What I Didn't Like
- Still not 100-percent dummy-proof, but close (the support is amazing, so this isn’t a huge deal for me)
- Some features of file management only work in Chrome and are not necessarily supported in Safari
I searched for months for a solution like this; and I finally came across this a number of months after it was announced. It’s still relatively new, and no one else has anything like it. I’m not sure why no one else will do this, but I don’t really care. This QNAP is the perfect solution that solves all of my problems. I don’t need an IT gear head to do a thing for me. I can manage it myself, add and remove my own hard drives, and customize the file structure for my own needs with a few simple clicks.
Here’s the thing: Synology and QNAP are probably the top two NAS companies out there. They’re both well-known and create quality products. And I do have a little more experience (and perhaps a slightly greater natural affinity toward) Synology’s systems. But when I need to get to my files from anywhere in the world (whether it’s when I’m traveling to LA, which I do a lot, or to some amazing place in Mexico that Mike Kelley is dragging me to yet again — what a drag), I don’t want to kick myself wondering why I didn’t transfer that one folder from my Promise RAID storage to the NAS before I left. And when I get back to the office, I would still have to transfer folders constantly between both devices and also between my computer depending on what I needed to shuffle around for the next edit.
There is so much to be said for having your archive be your live work system and also to have that same system be your backup in yet another duplicated, but geographically separated environment. The less you travel, the less this will matter. But then you’re likely not in need of a NAS system to begin with. For me, this is huge. You can get a non-Thunderbolt TVS-871, but adding that T offers priceless flexibility and simplification to an already complicated lifestyle. The TVS-871T is the perfect, all-in-one solution — end of story.
I Lied...A Little
At the time of requesting the unit for review, the 871T was the only system I had seen that offered both NAS connectivity and Thunderbolt connectivity (let alone Thunderbolt 2). But since then, QNAP has released something that seriously blew my mind. Their even newer TVS-x82T series is all I could imagine needing for a decade or two. The expansion options are virtually endless with as many as eight standard 3.5" drive bays, an additional four dedicated 2.5" SSD bays, an additional two mSATA bays for easy acceleration, and yet another three PCIe expansion slots that you can fill with graphics cards or even more SSDs of the ultra-fast PCIe variety. The future-proofing was already incredible in the still-capable and current TVS-871T we've been discussing. But if you're the kind of person that wants to future-proof your studio for decades, this is the one box that might actually do that.
The TVS-x82T comes in three varieties including the TVS-682T, TVS-882T, and TVS-1282T which feature four 3.5" HDD bays and two 2.5" SSD bays, six 3.5" HDD bays and two 2.5" SSD bays, or eight 3.5" HDD bays and four 2.5" SSD bays respectively – all in addition to the PCIe slots and dual mSATA acceleration options.
For all of these, we're talking a starting price-point of about a couple grand depending on the model – without hard drives. But this is more than normal, especially considering what you're getting and what you're saving in time, headache, and overall hassle. These newer systems are definitely on my radar.