Notes on NAS and Mac OS X

Posted in Apple, Tech at 11 pm

So, I’ve been trundling down the road towards NASville for our Mac-infested home. NAS, Network Attached Storage, is enticing for a couple of reasons:

Low energy requirements: This is something I’m trying to stay conscious of with all of my new technology purchases. At this point, Amy and I have been using laptops for all of our computing needs. The last desktop tower I bought was my Blue and White G3 in 1999. That machine is on full time as a file server, iTunes server, and general storage and back up system. However, It sucks down quite a bit of electricity, at least compared to NAS devices out there.

Quite quiet: The fan noise of the G3 is muffled, sitting under a desk and we could move it to the spare room, but only if there was some spare room in the spare room. We actually keep the apartment pretty quiet so the TiVo and the G3 are really the the only thing that’s making noise as long as the refrigerator isn’t running.

Unlimited Storage: Well, not quite, but the G3 is limited to just 128 GB per the two drives that you can drop in there with the stock hardware. With an NAS I can continue to add more and more storage, depending on the device.

However, there are a number of roadblocks on the was to NASville. Mostly, of course, these are Mac-specific. Let me details the major issues:

Issue 1: File-sharing Protocols and Mac Compatibility

Let me break it down like this: If you’re not using AFP (Apple Filing Protocol), you’re going to have problems. AFP is by far the most Mac-like of the network file systems that are available. Unfortunately, AFP is also one of the least commonly supported. It falls behind NFS, FTP and way, way, way behind SMB, aka Samba, aka CIFS. SMB is the mayor of NASville. The biggest problem with SMB from the Mac perspective is the restricted characters in filenames. Mac users are accustomed to naming files with abandon using virtually any character they can type on their keyboards (with one exception: ‘:’ the colon.) However thru SMB, files can’t use the following characters: ” / \ [ ] : + | < > = ; , * ? and space, and the period ‘.’ can only be used once. (This is only GENERALLY true. Later implementations that Microsoft has released have overcome most of these limits, but they have either not released the specifications, or Apple has not upgraded SMB support in the OS to the later versions.)

So what’s the problem? Well, Mac users with archives of files that they’ve named on their own machines will occasionally have some of those restricted characters. That means moving files over to the new NAS drive will require renaming the files which might be a minor issue or a huge consideration. One major issue is applications: Mac OS X applications are ‘bundles’ of files. Those internal files cannot be renamed, or else the app will be corrupted.

The other protocols have issues as well, mostly on the Mac side. NFS seems to have a number of configuration issues that you have to deal with when trying to browse to the drive and getting it to auto-mount. FTP is okay except that the Finder mounts FTP connections as read-only, so you have to use an FTP client to connect to it. (Other options: MacFUSE or Dave.)

  • AFP: Best
  • NFS: Tricky to set up, Mac-like to use
  • SMB: Windows-native, filename restrictions.

Issue 2: File Systems and Mac Compatibility

Once the files have gone over the network to the NAS, it’s time to save the files to the drive. This involves the file structure of the hard drive that’s actually storing the file. There are a few options, but the most popular are FAT32 and NTFS. Of course there are problems with each. FAT32 was the last version of FAT that Microsoft published the spec for, but they’ve been trying to deprecate it in favor of NTFS. One of the ways they’ve done that is by not allowing recent version of Windows to create FAT32 partitions that are larger than a now measly 2GB. The problem with NTFS is that it’s so proprietary that only read access is available from the open source crowd. Apple hasn’t licensed the NTFS format from MS so Mac OS can’t do any more than read from it (if that in some cases).

Other file systems such as HFS+ (Mac’s own) or ext2 (from the Linux camp) are far less common among consumer products. The first would work great. I’m not sure about what might be usable for ext2 file systems.

  • HFS+: Best
  • FAT32: usable, but filenames are restricted, causing issues for applications
  • NTFS: unusable, read-only
  • ext2: ??

The summary

The longest single article I’ve found about NAS and Mac compatibility comes from Macintouch (no surprise). The real options from those reports and the ones I found are below. I’ve listed them in order of my preference.

  • TrendNet TS-I300W (Enclosure only, supports NFS, 2 USB ports.)
  • Synology DS-101j (Enclosure only, is EXT2, supports AppleTalk (hopefully AFP-like), Web server built-in. )
  • Apple AirPort Extreme Base Station, with 802.11n (Connect drive via USB, supports AFP/HFS)
  • SimpleTech SimpleShare (Not available without a built-in drive)
  • Infrant ReadyNAS: Pricey and (some say) noisy, but full featured and multiple bays.

I’m probably going to pick up the TS-I300W in the next few days to drop the 300GB drive that I bought recently at Fry’s. The Synology was the other option of where to start and it was a 50/50 chance that I would pick one of them. The TrendNet product has ended up as the first one I’ll try. If it doens’t work out, I have high hopes for the DS-101j. The AirPort Extreme Base Station is another option and will likely be in the future of our network (once we’ve got Macs that support 802.11n).

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