Getting Up to Date with QNAP’s QTS part 2

One of my very first confessions to you when I started this QNAP saga nearly three and a half years ago was that I knew I was biting off much more than I could chew.

Specifically, I wrote: “this might be the toughest review I’ve ever tackled…” not just because of the far-reaching operational scope of the device, but also because “…the Taiwanese manufacturers behind the TS-451 haven’t been content to put this thing on the market and sit back, issuing the odd bug-fix update from time to time.” The flow of new features and improvements is unceasing. Throw in the third party developers also busy adding to the mix and you have more than enough to put the reviewer in the position of the man whose job it is to paint the Forth Bridge.

The Forth Bridge analogy was something that occurred to me in the original QNAP Review part 3. It now seems to me (seriously) that I could spend the rest of my IT reviewing career telling you about QNAP, QTS and nothing else. I shan’t do that—there’s a ton of interesting IT stuff to catch up with outside the QNAP box—but I offer this in advance as an excuse and apology to readers who feel they might be somewhat short-changed.

However, the comments are always open, and I hope you’ll shout out if there’s anything you feel I’ve left out or want to know more about.

NAS Meets Mobile

PERHAPS THE MOST OBVIOUS improvement in QTS 4.3.4 is the change to the File Station. This is the “Explorer for QNAP”, except of course that it’s browser-based, providing a remote window directly into the files and directories on the NAS.

And not only on the NAS. Since my early days with the TS-451 I’ve been able to use the File Station to inspect memory sticks and hard drives directly attached to the NAS through any of its USB interfaces.

There’s a caveat here: any USB device using the exFAT file system can only be read like this if you’ve paid extra for the required Microsoft licence. It’s only $3.99, but I’ve declined to buy into this so far. If Microsoft can be tight-arsed about this stupid little licence fee, well, so can I…

The exFAT licencing hasn’t changed with QTS 4.3.4, but the big new deal is that you can now attach any iOS or Android phone directly into the NAS using a USB cable and access its files just as if it were a USB stick. And for that: no extra licence required.

With the Honor 7X, I could tell I was using the right cable when this dialogue box popped up on connection.

Connecting my Honor 7X directly into the File Station won’t work with any old charging cable. It requires a data transfer capable cable (not the same thing as an OTG adaptor, which will typically connect your phone to a USB stick, and therefore provide a female USB A receptacle).

Once your phone or tablet is connected you can transfer files between the server and the phone using the File Station interface. And if all you want to do is backup the contents of your phone to the NAS you don’t even need the File Station.

The QNAP TS-451 Copy Button and USB Socket

QTS has featured One Touch Copy for several years. You set it up using the Backup Station app on the NAS and can thereafter backup whatever’s attached to the front USB port directly to the NAS simply by holding down the Copy button on the front panel for 2 seconds. With the arrival of QTS 4.3.4, this now works with your phone, whether it’s Android or iOS.

Pulling in the Cloud

As well as connecting to local attached devices like your phone, the newly revamped version of File Station can also scoop up your Cloud connections. QTS 4.3.4 now adds a Remote Mount service.

A useful tip, whether you’re copying or moving locally or more widely, is to open two instances of File Station within the same browser tab (NOT a separate instance in two browser tabs—that won’t work). This makes it very easy to shift files and folders using drag and drop or copy and paste.

This melds your local devices, external devices, Cloud services, and remote devices into a single manageable interface inside the File Station. From here it’s easy to carry out file management tasks such as copying and moving to and from remote to local devices

The first step is to install the new Connect to Cloud Drive app from the QNAP App Store. Having done that, I decided to test this feature by attaching my (much neglected since I started using Qsync) Dropbox service. I could also have added similar remote drive services from Microsoft, Amazon, Google and several lesser known companies, currently eight in total.

Generic network protocols—CIFS/SMB, FTP and WebDAV—can also be used to attach remote drives. You’ll need to be the sysadmin to do any of this, but facilities are available in Settings for the sysadmin to create Cloud drive connections for users.

Pictures into Words

QTS 4.3.4 OCR

Turning a picture of a text page into machine-readable text seems like a trivial task these days. But I’ve been following the progress of OCR (optical character recognition) since the pioneering days of the mid-1970s, and I still marvel at the process.

In the early ’80s my job as a journalist for “Practical Computing” introduced me to Ray Kurzweil, who was promoting the latest version of his ground-breaking KRM (Kurzweil Reading Machine). Foreshadowing the smart OCR we’re used to today, Kurzweil’s machine was the first to claim to recognise text of all kinds, and it was yours for a mere £25,000.

With QTS 4.3.4, OCR is now built into your NAS. The new OCR Converter app (you’ll also need to install the Text Editor app to use it, and have at least 2GB of RAM in your NAS) converts texts in images into machine-editable documents. You can either run this as a one-off job per document or create schedules to perform conversion tasks on a batch of documents at specified times.

Unlike dedicated OCR apps like Abbyy Finereader or OmniPage from Nuance, the QNAP app only offers output in plain text or as a PDF (or both). And disappointingly, it doesn’t appear as a service inside other apps like the File Station or Photo Station. Ideally, you’d like to be able to right-click on a file and be offered the option to OCR it. In the current version it presents only as a stand-alone app or a scheduled process.

Grabbing a Snapshot

Ransomware Warning

Ransomware stinks. It’s one of the very nastiest Internet developments we’ve seen in recent years. If there’s an upside, it’s that users are at last beginning to understand the importance of backing up their data, something I’ve been preaching to readers for the past three decades (and have even recently started to practice myself).

But standard backup procedures don’t necessarily fit the bill when it comes to ransomware. Victims won’t just need to restore a few damaged or lost files. Typically ransomware will have encrypted whole directories of crucially important files and applications. Restoration will probably be time-consuming, and you may have trouble getting everything back in the right place.

The tecchies call these two goals “recovery time objective” (RTO) and “recovery point objective” (RPO). Properly managed snapshots will enable any system to get back quickly (RTO) and precisely (RPO) to the point before the damage occurred. To do this, the snapshot has to take several precautions.

The process needs to warn the system to get ready for a snapshot (say “cheese”). Running apps and the file system wind up any current transactions and then momentarily freeze into “smile mode”. The snapshot is taken and the system then gets the signal to resume business as normal.

Obviously, if we’re going to interrupt the system we want the whole process to be over as quickly as possible. QNAP’s QTS 4.3.4 uses some key techniques to achieve this:

  • Firstly, the data transfer rate is maximised by ensuring the snapshot takes place within the same “storage pool” as the volume containing the original files (I’ll enlarge on this below). This contrasts strongly with traditional tape backup that pumps the data file by file out down a wire into a relatively slow-moving transport system.
  • Secondly, QNAP copies the data block by block. A hard drive read head may have to dart around the hard drive’s tracks to assemble a file, whose blocks probably won’t be conveniently linked sequentially. This wastes time: if the blocks—including the blocks that hold the relevant directory information—are accurately mirrored into a different part of the storage pool, individual files can be recovered from the snapshot exactly as from the original file system.
  • Perhaps the greatest speed up, compared with traditional backup arrangements, is that snapshotting ignores blocks that are unchanged since the previous snapshot. It knows where to find them when it needs them.

Setting Up For Snapshots

When I first started this adventure with the TS-451 and the four 6TB drives sportingly supplied by Western Digital, I set up a single static volume in RAID 10 configuration. “Volume” here is an abstraction that defines drive space irrespective of its physical implementation, whether part or whole of a single drive or distributed, as here, across a number of drives. A volume has the crucial characteristic of being space within which the firmware can create one or more filesystems. Filesystems allow the operating system to create directories and store individual files.

The volume I created is “static” because it straddles the entire capacity of the RAIDed four drives. I’m not going to be able to expand it.

There’s another layer of abstraction I could have slipped between the physical drives and this volume. That’s something called a Storage Pool.

A storage pool aggregates the capacity of any number of underlying physical storage devices, some or all of which may be RAIDed or not. Volumes can be created within the pool, either occupying the whole pool space or leaving some of the pool space spare. It’s within this spare space that snapshots—of whole volumes in that pool or of the contents of those volumes can be created, stored and listed.

So this time I began by creating a storage pool instead. The process is very similar: select each of the four available disks set them to RAID 10 and create the pool.

But here comes the difference. Having created a storage pool instead of a static volume I now have the ability to create a volume within that pool. And I have a choice of the kind of volume:

  • A static volume will behave exactly as if I had skipped the create a pool stage; the new volume sits directly on top of the RAID group. This is the fastest configuration for random file access—up to 20% faster than the next choice which is a thick volume. But taking up the whole space would preclude using snapshots.
  • A thick volume uses as much of the storage pool I’ve just created as I choose. If I avoid the max I can leave room to create snapshots. A thick volume can also be expanded easily. Thick volumes are what QNAP recommends for general use.
  • The third type is a thin volume. These can start small and take up space from the storage pool only as required. Useful if you’re creating multiple volumes.

I settle on a thick volume of 5 terabytes which leaves me about 5.7 terabyte spare for snapshots. I can change this ratio later if I find it’s insufficient.

This volume creation wizard also allows me to choose the number of bytes per inode (a hairy factor that relates to the maximum size my volume can be and also the number of files or folders it’s able to contain) and to choose whether to encrypt the volume or not.

I’ve mentioned that the space within the pool that is not used for volumes (regular file storage) is where the snapshots are stored. This spare space gets encroached on as any thin volumes expand automatically into it, or a thick volume is manually expanded. In either case, older snapshots will be discarded as necessary to make room.

Or not. It’s up to you. If you decide you don’t want your snapshots over-written like this, you have the option to make some or all of this extra space secure for snapshots by creating “guaranteed snapshot space“.

This ensures that expanding volume space will never encroach on your snapshots collection. However, by default snapshots within this guaranteed snapshot space will automatically be deleted on a first in first out basis to make room for new ones.

This is a default policy that can be changed by the user. The whole of QNAP’s snapshot handling is in fact immensely flexible. Confusingly so, for the neophyte, as I can confirm. However, the offered defaults seem to work very well.

Snapshots In Action

Snapshots are taken in the Snapshot Manager, accessible from the main Storage and Snapshots menu. You can also get to this feature through the File Manager.

Unlike backups, which can select individual directories or even individual files, the source of any snapshot has to be an entire volume. (You can also set up snapshots in terms of LUNs—logical unit numbers. A LUN is another way of defining what is effectively a volume, so I’m going to ignore the distinction here.)

You can either set up a snapshot schedule or hit the button marked Take Snapshot to create a one-off.

For one-off snapshots you choose your source volume, select your target storage pool, and then define how long you want to keep it for. This can be either permanently or anything between a few minutes (useful for testing) and a matter of months.

Scheduling is more likely to be your choice for serious snapshotting. You’ll be offered a screen to choose the various options of how the snapshotting is to be handled—the retention time of the snapshot as discussed above, what to do when storage pool space runs out and so forth. You then set up the frequency of the procedure and the time of day or night to carry it out.

That fact that you’re snapshotting entire volumes doesn’t mean you’re confined to thinking in terms of volumes when you want to get your data back. Certainly, if you’re repairing the damage from a ransomware attack, a whole volume restoration will probably be the quickest and most convenient solution. But the joy of snapshots, as implemented by QNAP, is that you can dip into them on a directory by directory or file by file basis, just as you can from a standard backup.

As an added convenience the snapshots can optionally appear in the File Manager, where they show up in exactly the same way as the rest of your volumes, directories and files.

QTS 4.3.4 Wind Up

Qboost frees up memory, cleans up junk files and schedules apps to wake up when you need them, closing them down when you don’t.

This hasn’t been a comprehensive coverage of all the new features in QTS 4.3.4. But I’ve tried to discuss the most useful stuff. I apologise particularly to the cute new Mr Qboost for selling him short. But as his job is to smooth things over inside QTS, I hope he’ll forgive me diplomatically.

Tested Technology has been covering this QNAP NAS for almost three years. The original series ran to six parts, a total of over 10,000 words. This two-part catch-up feature adds another 5,000.

If you still feel short-changed you can find a wealth of videos on YouTube—subscribe to the official QNAPTV channel and perhaps some third parties like SPANdotCOM.

QNAP users should seldom be lost for guidance, thanks to the HelpCenter and HelpDesk apps. The lively online community forum is another great source of information.

PS: QNAP Acknowledgement

Regular readers will know that this journey through QNAP and QTS has been an adventure at arm’s length from the manufacturer. Like all the reviews you will read in Tested Technology, our hands-on is handed off to the reader uninfluenced by commercial factors.

We often benefit however from generous donations of the hardware and software reviewed here. In fact, we largely depend on this to keep Tested Technology free of advertising. But donations are reported fully to you.

This is what we did with the original TS-451 NAS enclosure from QNAP and with the 6TB drives donated by Western Digital.

In the same spirit, I should point out that this catch-up supplement, bringing you up to date on the QTS 4.3.4 developments, was based on work we did on an upgrade from the original TS-451 enclosure.

The QNAP TS-451+

QTS 4.3.4 runs perfectly well on that TS-451. But when they heard we intended covering this latest version of the operating system, QNAP very kindly offered to upgrade Tested Technology’s four drive enclosure to the improved TS-451+.

That “+”, it turns out, is actually a multiplier. The new enclosure has twice the number of processor cores (4 instead of 2), twice the RAM (8GB instead of 4GB) and twice the potential hard drive capacity (maxing out at 4x12TB drives instead of 4×6 TB drives). The TS-451+ is black instead of the earlier model’s cream. All we had to do was transfer those four 6TB drives into the new enclosure.

Thank you, QNAP. Thanks, in particular, to QNAP’s Marketing Specialist, Yo Lun Yen, for occasional help with some of the finer points of technology and for suggestions about the new features worth drawing to the attention of our readers.

Chris Bidmead

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