NAS Wars 2017: Best avoid the Buffalo TeraStation 5410DN RAID

Welcome to the second of seven NAS stress tests, where we brutalize NAS devices to failure and then attempt to see if they can be recovered. This week, we evaluate the Buffalo TeraStation 5410DN. This one's gonna hurt.

Let's put this project into context. The whole purpose of a RAID is that if a drive fails, you can recover with no data loss. In this series, I'm pounding on each NAS to see how (or if) it recovers.

Almost all the NAS reviews out there just talk about adding storage, and the various apps that come with the devices. I haven't seen any that stress the machines to the point of failure and back to restoration, which is the whole point of these devices.

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I've subjected each candidate machine to a series of torture tests. Beyond that, I look at performance, apps, user interface, and so much more. This time, we're testing the Buffalo TeraStation 5410DN. The news is not good.

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I had high hopes for the Buffalo device. It was a late entrant to our contest, arriving on my doorstep just one day before I filmed the big NASapalooza box opening. As the only device with a built-in 10Gig Ethernet port, I had expectations that this would be the one to beat.

Not so much. In fact, overall, the Buffalo is the worst device of our entire test series, and the only machine that I'm actually going to advise you to stay away from. Some of you know from my article on how I test products that I don't like publishing negative reviews that say things like "Don't buy this."

I would rather just privately give constructive feedback to the vendor. My reasoning is that products evolve. Useful feedback from a reviewer can often make a product better. I'm always glad to take another look at a product when it's really ready for prime time.

But if I feel that buyers could be put at risk when buying a product, it's my obligation to protect buyers first, regardless of whether that decision results in some negative publicity for the vendor.

That is the case with the product I'm evaluating today. The Buffalo TeraStation is a NAS storage device, a machine you're going to be using for your entire storage archive and quite possibly betting your livelihood on.

Given how important the device will be in your day-to-day work, I cannot, in good conscience, recommend you buy the Buffalo TeraStation 5410DN. There are far better alternatives. Not only are all the other NAS devices in this series better than the TeraStation in terms of RAID functionality, usability, and performance, but on a cost-per-bay basis, most are also considerably less expensive.

Annoyances

My testing started with some small annoyances and then just got worse. This thing has a key lock on the front, which really started to annoy me after a while. The NAS door won't close unless it's locked, so you can't just unlock the box and store away the key. To be able to get at the drive, I wound up keeping the key next to the box, which defeated the whole purpose. It's a minor complaint, but the cheap tubular lock is both very standard and easy to pick. The addition of a key lock doesn't add much of a security improvement, it simply adds friction to the management process.

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There's a lot of friction in the management of this device. Everything is more work than it needs to be.

The Buffalo had another annoying quirk. After initializing the RAID, it insisted on powering off rather than rebooting. For almost every configuration change it insisted on shutting down. I couldn't just manage it from my desk. I had to get up, walk back into my garage, and power it back on.

For me, it's only a short walk, but insisting on a physical press of the power button instead of a reboot could be a real pain if you're trying to manage this thing from offsite or across a larger office.

RAID tests

In any case, let's move on to our first test: drive failure discovery.

It took the Buffalo about 10 minutes to detect a bad disk. One of the best features of the device is how it notifies the user of a problem: the entire display turned an ominous red. Very, very cool. It was immediately clear there was a problem.

Unfortunately, that's where the good news ended. The Buffalo only uses an SMTP gateway for notification. Many ISPs block outgoing SMTP. Therefore, I could not get email to travel through my cable provider, so I got no email notification when the system went down. The Buffalo does not support SMS notification.

After logging into the web interface, nothing was displayed indicating that there was a failed drive. After digging all the way into the drive and RAID configuration screens, I did eventually find an error notice, but for something as important as drive failure, it shouldn't be buried so deeply with no notice at the top level of the UI.

We will give the Buffalo points for passing the drive failure discovery test, but it could have done a better job displaying that information in the management interface. As we'll see for the next two RAID tests, needing to do a better job is a theme with this box.

Now, let's move on to test 2. Rebuilding the unmatched replacement drive worked, but only after some highly unnecessary hassle. When I inserted the replacement drive, the Buffalo didn't allow it to be joined back into the RAID.

I wound up contacting tech support, and was told that formatting a drive after inserting it into the chassis would not work. I was advised to remove the drive, unscrew all four screws from the bracket, connect it to a PC, and do some fancy command-line magic. Then, and only then, was I to screw the drive back into its bracket, return the drive to the array and attempt to rebuild it.

It turned out that worked, but the Buffalo initially showed the wrong capacity for the replacement 3 terabyte drive. I had to do another shutdown and startup to get the right capacity.

The tech support folks also told me to update the firmware. The gotcha was that the web interface for the device insisted I was running the latest firmware update -- which I was not. Tech support told me to download a special application, install it on my PC, connect into the NAS, and then update the firmware.

From my many interactions with the tech support folks, I got the definite impression that disk and system management is meant to be done from Windows, and the web interface on the NAS box itself was an afterthought. That's a big pain, and a big fail.

As for RAID test 3, scaling the RAID array itself to a larger capacity, that was a complete non-starter. There is no option whatsoever to rebuild the array for a larger drive. This machine will NOT grow with you over time.

I was deeply disappointed with the Buffalo's RAID performance. It got (barely) two stars out of five.

Usage and performance

And it gets worse. Other than some sort of malware scanner, this box has no add-on apps at all. None.

Buffalo doesn't sell a bare system. It's always sold with drives included, so I found it a bit difficult to determine price per bay. I wound up factoring in the price of the exact drives provided, removing them from the list price, and then coming up with $192 as the Buffalo's price per bay. That's the third most expensive of our set.

Read/write performance was adequate, but nothing to write home about. It does offer a network recycle bin.

The Buffalo failed completely when I attempted to move my test directory of Mac files over to it. I was told by my friendly tech support tech that it "does have known problems with Mac files." They should not be selling this to Mac users, period.

Finally, the management interface itself is dated. It would have been compelling in 2007, but not in 2017.

Final verdict

The complete lack of applications, mid-level performance, and higher-end price resulted in our lowest usability and performance rating: only two out of five stars. Given the wealth of much better offerings on the market, I just can't recommend the Buffalo.

From the terrible RAID performance to the reliance on low-level Windows command line magic, to the inability to scale over time, to their old-style interface and lack of applications, to its complete failure to manage Mac files, there was more and more bad news at every test. Two stars out of five -- and that's generous.

Don't buy this. I'll show you some far better devices, for substantially less money, over the next few episodes. You can do better. Hopefully, as it designs newer products, Buffalo will do better, too. This one seemed phoned in.

That's it for today. Stay tuned. We have five more NAS reviews coming, plus a wrap-up where I'll take you behind the scenes to discuss methodology and compare all seven devices side-by-side.

Vendor response

As a general practice, if I write something critical about a company or its products, I give the company the opportunity to respond with a paragraph or two explaining their perspective. I gave that opportunity to Buffalo and it provided the following response.

I will say that I disagree with some of what it said, especially based on my lab test results, but it's not impossible that either the device I was sent had some unusual problem or I was wrong and misread something. I will send the box back to Buffalo, and it'll test it out in case something was wrong with the build itself.

With that -- and with no edits whatsoever except formatting -- here's Buffalo's response:

We'd like to start by saying that we were more than a little surprised by this review. Customer response regarding this unit has been overwhelmingly positive. Since there were so many perceived issues, we hope you'll allow us a rather extensive reply. First let's talk about the biggest issue we see. Under normal operation, there is no circumstance where a configuration change should even trigger a restart, much less a shutdown. In fact, the only situation that should require a reboot of a TeraStation is a firmware update, since that essentially involves updating the entire operating system. If your unit was shutting down after any configuration change then it was exhibiting abnormal behavior which we would normally address through our 24/7 North American based technical support group. We'd like to work with you regardless to try to reproduce your issue. This is not a symptom we have ever seen.

To the issue of drive failure, it's difficult to simulate a true drive failure that occurs during normal operation. Under normal circumstances an end user would call our support line to get a drive replacement. The blank, unformatted replacement drive would arrive in the correct drive tray for the TeraStation in question. Once the replacement is installed it is only necessary to press the function button on the front of the device to initiate a rebuild of the RAID array. If you put a previously used drive in as a replacement, it can cause issues. The windows diskpart commands are sort of an overkill in case you used a drive with TeraStation partitions on it, that gets recognized as a system unit. Very rarely will a customer have the very specific situation that is resolved by that procedure.

The lock on the door is to prevent a curious user from inadvertently causing a problem. Under normal operation the only time the door would need to be opened is to replace a failed drive, which should be a rare occurrence. We disable the locks in our lab for the most part.

The lack of installable apps is because we include the functionality most useful in a business network by default. It also contributes to device security. While some NAS devices with installable apps have been hit with app-based ransomware recently, we're not aware of any such occurrence on our units. We believe that our closed firmware approach contributes to this.

From a performance standpoint, we typically get 110-120 MBps read/write in our testing on a 1GbE connection and 600-700 MBps over 10GbE. It's unclear what speeds you were seeing, but if it's substantially lower than this we'd like to investigate why.

Moving on to error notifications, yes, we rely on SMTP. While it is true that most ISP's block TCP port 25, most major webmail provider allows the usage of other ports specifically to enable sending mail. We have provided walkthroughs for these configurations in our knowledge base. We also integrate with the major SNMP vendors by using TeraStation specific templates available as an alternative to email notifications. In addition, NAS Navigator will display an error (available for Windows and Mac) and you should get a blinking orange information icon when logged into the user interface.

Regarding the perception that it was designed to be managed in Windows, all management of the device is done through the web interface, and it's not possible to change any configuration on the device outside of it. NAS Navigator is simply installed to make finding units on a network easier.

As far as "known problems with Mac files", we've been unable to replicate the error you saw. We did say that we "had seen some problems with Mac system files" but those are limited to the replication function of the TeraStation, and only when using AFP.

You pointed out that the RAID can't be expanded. This is partially accurate. Our four bay units are shipped fully populated. In order to change to larger drives you would have to replace all four drives. With a TeraStation this would require creating a new array. Our eight and twelve bay units are available populated with only four drives allowing the array to be expanded by adding additional drives. This is accomplished through the web interface with no down time. A RAID 5 or 6 array can have drives added on the fly.

We believe some of this may be due to the differences inherent in being the only 'drives-included' NAS in the group, which is specifically to save time (and therefore money) for installers and IT pros. Enthusiasts may enjoy the out-of-box experience of a ground-up build - but if you pay the bills by selling your expertise and service to clients then this can be a luxury you can't afford.

Thanks to Buffalo for taking the time to respond.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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