By David Rasnake and Kevin O'Brien
Network-attached storage is a mainstay technology for working photographers these days. Essentially an external hard drive with an ethernet connection, network-attached storage (or NAS for short) has the advantage over Firewire or USB external drives of being able to share disk space between several computers across a network. Connect the device to your router, jump through a few setup hoops depending on the device, and the NAS's copious hard disk space is ready for immediate access as if it were another drive connected directly to each computer on your network.
For the more technically inclined, the possibilities for wireless networking, multi-computer, and even remote access with NAS devices are nearly endless. But if you're like many photographers, you may be less interested in what your NAS can do than in how easily it performs its most basic function: providing huge amounts of easily accessible storage space for images.
Announced today, the Western Digital ShareSpace is an NAS device offering either 2 or 4 TB (that's 4000 GB, folks...) of file storage space in a small form factor and a easily networkable interface, meeting – on paper at least – the basic criteria of massive storage space, multi-computer/multi-platform compatibility, and ease of use that photographers seek in an external hard disk solution. The device looks great, has a fantastic list of features, and offers loads of storage at a reasonable price. Could this be the perfect file storage solution for space-hungry raw shooters?
Build and Design
Although it's not the smallest NAS on the market, the 4 TB ShareSpace used for this review provides an impressive amount of storage space in a device that fits easily on most desktops. Basic footprint specs of our review unit are as follows:
Four large rubber feet keep the ShareSpace anchored in place and provide a bit of air space for ventilation on the underside. Given that our 4 TB review unit tips the scales at nearly 11 pounds, it's really not going anywhere anyway.
Let's get this out of the way early on: the ShareSpace isn't actually a single hard drive, but an enclosure housing four of them in a RAID configuration. We'll delve more into the specifics of RAID configuration throughout the review, but if you're a technophobe, all you really need to know is that a RAID arrangement allows the ShareSpace's four separate hard disks appear as a single ultra high-capacity drive when connected to your computer. No need to remember whether you stored those files on drive one or drive three: the RAID controller handles the dirty work for you, so all you see is a single, outrageously large (in this case, at least) storage area.
Speaking of drives, from the factory the 4 TB ShareSpace comes packing a quartet of 1 TB Western Digital GreenPower drives. As a power-saving measure, the ShareSpace's "Green" drives spin at a full 7200 RPM while being actively accessed, but spin up initially at a more energy efficient 5400 RPM and can park heads when the drive isn't being accessed.
The ShareSpace's brushed metal case looks great, and its roughly 8-inch cubed footprint is small enough to integrate easily with even small home office environments where space is at a premium. Power and backup buttons are the only two "controls" on the ShareSpace, but an array of indicators shows status of each of the enclosure's four drives as well as the network connection.
A front-side USB port provides backup/drive hosting options (more on this in the next section), and two additional ports on the back of the device allow further disk space expansion – though if you need more than 4 TB of storage you're either A) a professional videographer, or B) in need of some help in being more selective about how much stuff you're backing up.
The ShareSpace's metal shell is held on by two thumbscrews, making it easy to get at the drive array inside.
Even if you're wary of diving into the internals of computer equipment, the WD's internal arrangement is logical and transparent, making drive swapping a simple affair should the need ever arise.
Setup and Configuration
From a setup perspective, the ShareSpace is an overwhelming success. Most photographers I know are only somewhat acquainted at best with the finer points of sharing disk space across a network, but with the ShareSpace, getting multiple computers connected to a single storage area really couldn't be much easier.
If you're shaky about how all of this works, Western Digital is there to hold your hand every step of the way. A printed quick start guide shows you how to connect the device to your router, and a CD based on-screen installation process takes things from there.
If you're just looking for storage space, the ShareSpace's two separate default drive areas (download and public) can be mapped to your machine from the startup screen with a single mouse click. To say that this is the easiest NAS we've ever connected would be an understatement: the setup and drive discovery process is so much simpler than what's required from many competitive devices that it's not even a fair fight. With clear prompting, even those who are essentially computer illiterate can handle getting the ShareSpace's basic functions up and running: kudos to Western Digital for offering an NAS device that doesn't require an advanced degree in computer science to set up.
And once the ShareSpace's drives are mapped initially, they're there: both Macintosh and PC machines had no trouble finding the device again without prompting when connected to the appropriate network. As an aside, I was even able to successfully use the WD's iTunes server functionality to serve up music off my primary desktop computer to every machine on my network; iTunes takes a minute or two to mount the drive the first time around, but then you're up and running with no additional setup. Brilliant.
Of course, if you want to go beyond the basics, there are plenty of configuration options and tools to be found in the advanced side of the ShareSpace's browser-based configuration utility.
As noted, the ShareSpace has a built-in RAID controller, allowing its four discrete drives to function as a single disk in a variety of configurations. By default, the ShareSpace ships with a RAID 5 configuration: although it eats into the total available disk space, a RAID 5 drive configuration means that every bit of data you store to the ShareSpace is actually routed to at least two of its four drives; should any one drive fail, a RAID 5 configured ShareSpace still keeps all of your data intact, and can actually rebuild a drive from the parity data on other disks should you need to replace a faulty one.
In order to maximize disk space, you can also opt to reformat the device to either a RAID 0 (striped) or a RAID 1 (mirrored) setup via the advanced configuration menu. Depending on how much data you're clearing – remember that everything gets wiped when going from one RAID level to another – expect the reconfiguration process to take a couple of hours at most.
From a photographer's perspective, one of the ShareSpace's key features is a front-side USB 2.0 port capable of hosting other devices. What this means in theory, at least, is that you can attach an external hard drive or, better yet, a card reader and with a single press of the device's backup button pull your files – images from a day's worth of shooting, for instance – directly to the ShareSpace's download area.
In practice, it's sadly not that simple. First off, we were surprised that the port is recessed. From a functional perspective, it's almost impossible to attach most USB flash drives for instance, which simply don't fit into the ShareSpace's narrow recess. The same applies to some cordless card readers.
Secondly, the USB port will only mount the first drive it recognizes, which makes using multi-card readers difficult (since in most cases, separate drives are recognized for each card slot, even if there's no card inserted into a given slot). Hence, if you want to make the ShareSpace's front-side USB a part of your workflow, a single-type card reader is a smart investment.
Finally, the most damning issue with the direct-connect port is its speed. It would seem that having a USB 2.0 connection directly to the device – rather than across the network – would yield significantly faster file transfer speeds than pushing files from a computer-connnected card reader across a network. In our testing, however, this really wasn't the case, largely mitigating many of the ShareSpace's USB host port advantages. More on the ShareSpace's speed issues all around under "Performance and Benchmarks."
You can also use the front-side port to connect an external hard drive and, by pressing and holding the download button for more than three seconds, back up all files on the NAS onto the connected external hard drive. Unfortunately, transfer speeds are no faster in this direction, meaning that while one-touch backup is a really great idea, in practice it's just not as good as it should be.
As noted above, the ShareSpace can also serve as an iTunes server, allowing music from one computer to be streamed to every computer with iTunes on your network. Again, it's a nice touch that shows off one of the many benefits of NAS technology over direct-connect drive hosting.
The ShareSpace also comes bundled with a license of MioNet's remote file sharing software, which allows direct access to files on your ShareSpace from any computer with an internet connection. Although we didn't spend a lot of time playing with the MioNet software, the setup process is simple enough, and in one test attempt I had no trouble getting at my files from the coffee shop around the corner. The ShareSpace can also function as an FTP server – providing password-protected access to files for clients, for instance. For a working photographer, this array of personal and public remote access options are one of the ShareSpace's primary benefits.
Performance and Benchmarks
The ShareSpace supports the high-speed gigabit ethernet interface, with theoretical file transfer speeds of up to 125 MB/s. In practice, the ShareSpace claims to not only provide shared storage across a network, but to do it at speeds as fast or faster than Firewire or USB 2.0 direct-connected hard drives (assuming you have a GigE router, that is).
Speed bottlenecks with the device's direct-connect USB port were our first clue that all might not be as well as it seemed with the ShareSpace, however. Tested transfer speeds were significantly under what we had hoped for on an external storage device with nearly 4 TB of usable space. No matter if you were transferring data over a gigabit network connection or copying files off a drive through the front USB port, observed speed left much to be desired. In order to mimic a best-case gigabit connection scenario, we measured the time it would take to transfer 4.48 GB of photos from my laptop connected directly to the ShareSpace via ethernet. With the RAID 5 disk configuration, the system took 9 minutes and 25 seconds to compete, at a transfer speed of 8.2 MB/s average. In RAID 0 mode, it took 8 minutes and 54 seconds, or 9.3 MB/s on average. In either case, it's a far cry from 30-plus MB/s average speeds expected from a gigabit interface.
Assuming the slow-down to be somewhere in the ethernet interface, we expected much better speed for direct file transfers using the front-mounted USB port and the auto-backup feature. In reality, things were even slower here, working out to around half the file-transfer speed that we saw going over the network. In RAID 5, the ShareSpace needed 37 minutes to transfer 9.54 GB of data – a rate of 4.4 MB/s. This test was performed using a Western Digital Passport Elite external USB drive, which normally peaks out at around 28 MB/s when transfering files to a computer. Running the test with the ShareSpace configured in RAID 0 mode, we copied 9.64 GB of data in 33 minutes, at an average speed of 4.98 MB/s.
For a storage system that has 2.7 TB of available space in RAID 5 mode or a full 4 TB in RAID 0, to fill up that space at the transfer speeds we observed would take literally forever. At 4.4 MB/s over USB in RAID 5 you would need more than 7 days to complete a 2.7 TB. In RAID 0 with slightly more space it would take almost 10 days at 4.98 MB/s.
Obviously, it's unlikely that you'll be filling up the ShareSpace all at once, and hopefully the device's speed issues can be ironed out with a firmware update. Still, with over-the-network speeds consistently under 10 MB/s in a best-case scenario, we found the ShareSpace less than ideal for working directly with images, and almost impossibly slow for video: unless you're doing some simple adjustments, be prepared for long save times when accessing files directly across the network. Although the latest version of Lightroom had no problem discovering and cataloging files stored on the ShareSpace, depending on how involved your editing work is, you may find the device's speed limitations make it more sensible to handle image workflow locally and use the ShareSpace only as a backup.
Similarly, the speed and connectivity issues associated with the device's front-side USB port make it difficult to envision how a photographer might easily integrate this port into his or her workflow. There's so much potential for direct-from-card copies here, but with all of the caveats involved, we're betting most users will prefer to keep transferring images to their local hard disks as a first stop. Better the devil you know, as they say.
Heat and Noise
We were also pleasantly surprised by just how quiet the ShareSpace is in operation. Even hitting the drives for video file work, the device was barely audible over other typical home office white noise – making it impossible to get an accurate reading. With a desktop computer running simultaneously in the same room, we're willing to bet that you'll never even notice the ShareSpace is there.
Likewise, a desktop-grade cooling fan on the back side of the ShareSpace keeps temperatures low. While you'll want to make sure to give the device a little vent space just to be on the safe side, after nearly an hour of hitting the drive the device was barely even warm to the touch. Our readings never topped out much beyond a very manageable 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Unlike some NAS enclosures, you won't be heating a small room with this one under normal operating loads.
In most every area except pure performance, the WD ShareSpace is an excellent storage solution. What may be the most straightforward discovery and configuration process on the planet for an NAS makes this device an excellent choice if the thought of configuring networks puts you in a cold sweat. And while, at a full $1000 out the door for the 4 TB model, the ShareSpace isn't cheap, the price to capacity ratio here is pretty good: you'd be hard pressed to source the drives from this enclosure for much less than its retail price, and given how much value the housing's RAID controller, ethernet connection, and USB ports add, you're looking a pretty decent bang for your buck all around.
The ShareSpace's Achilles' Heel is unquestionably speed. To say we were expecting more from a GigE interface is an understatement. Indeed, the ShareSpace really doesn't really take advantage of gigabit speed at all, and the painfully slow front-side USB transfers mitigate the usefulness of one of this enclosure's coolest features for photographic workflow. Obviously, you're not going to be using your NAS as scratch space anyway, but even so you may find that the ShareSpace simply doesn't make sense for direct file access. As a backup tool or a way to share limited numbers of files, though, it doesn't get much simpler than the ShareSpace.