Eye of the Fox: Mastering TerraMaster

(subtitle: Tested Technology tecchies may know stuff but here’s a View from the Real World.)

by Barry Fox

When Microsoft launched Windows 95—it must have been around August of 1995—the company made it a very high profile happening, with posh venue press conferences, full page newspaper adverts and much grand talk from Bill Gates about 95 being “a very rich experience”.

At the time I was doing a weekly TV spot about new tech and Microsoft had sent the station a long B Roll video which extolled the wonders of Windows in general and 95 in particular. Inevitably, I had to talk about the video as it played, but mercifully the anchor man soon shut it down, saying “it’s only blooming plumbing so let’s talk about something more interesting”.

*This was the key feature for me. Terramaster’s own selling proposition was based on greatly increased security, following a spate of ransomware attacks on NAS devices of all kinds during the previous couple of years.
I remembered this last year when Terramaster kindly sent me a two-bay F2-221 Intel-based NAS on my promise to test a beta of the new Terramaster Operating System Version 5 (TOS 5). The USP* was that it finally breaks free from the dependency on obsolete Adobe Flash that bedevilled (still bedevils) the OS used by the F2-210 ARM-based NAS which I had bought with own hard cash.

Great. But, after all, it’s still “only blooming plumbing”.

BYO Drives

NAS devices are typically sold with empty drive bays. So when the F2-221 arrived I was immediately stuck with the need to purchase a matching pair of 4TB drives to give it a fair shot. Initially there was no TOS 5 to try but in the fullness of time (March 2022) a download install was offered.

This installation was described by Terramaster as a “beta test” and multiple newer—but still beta—versions followed. I was discovering along the way that Terramaster have their own ideas on how beta testing works: guinea pigs like me devote man-days to installing new versions, hitting multiple problems, describing them to Terramaster, getting back multiple suggestions on what to try, and then feeding back information about what did and didn’t work, until a new version is offered and the whole cycle starts again.

What’s clearly missing is a pool of shared information on what issues other testers have already found. It would save everyone a shed-load of time spent duplicating and describing discoveries.

In June 2022, TOS 5 moved from beta to official release. I could write a long boring book about what worked, what didn’t, and what issues were then superseded by fresh problems from a newer version. But I will spare you the shared misery of what I see as an OS plumbing lesson that will very likely be out of date before you read it.

Suffice it to say that I have lost count of the number of times I went back to brownfield, re-initialised the NAS (re-start device with the hard drives removed, then plug them in), say Yes to Initialisation, reformat the hard drives and re-install what I assume to be the latest version of TOS 5, usually then finding that there was actually a later, latest version to download manually.

Editor’s Note. We think Barry may have been mislead by Windows here. On seeing a zip file downloaded, did Windows leap in and prompt for it to be unzipped?

As Barry reports, unzipping the downloaded update file isn’t the recommended way of updating. If he’d followed the advice  (as we did for every update) simply to hit the Download button provided by the TerraMaster WebUI and, once the download was complete, to then hit the Update button, the exercise could have been pain-free.

Unhelpfully, the advice offered by Terramaster’s Help and User Forum on downloading and installing TOS5 do not tally with reality. Clicking on the downloaded OS Installation file triggers questions inside Windows about how I want to open the file and offers of links to the Microsoft app store. By trial and error, I found the trick was to unzip the .ins file with 7-Zip. As always, like assembling IKEA’s flatpack furniture, it’s easy when you have found out how.

The last significant milestone in this misery line was finally being able to access the re-initialised NAS from Windows. I did this not with the desktop app that TerraMaster provides (the Windows app is called TNAS PC and it didn’t work for me) but by doing what the clever people at Tested Technology suggested—namely forgetting all about the TerraMaster app, finding the local IP address of the NAS (e.g., pasting that into a browser and taking it from there.  In other words, treating the TOS5 TNAS much as you would treat a broadband modem when changing security settings.

So much for RTFM, Read The Friggin’ Manual.

For a happy short while I thought I was winning and would finally be able to use the TOS 5 NAS for its intended purpose—storing my files for remote access.

No such luck.

I copied a big batch of files from a Windows PC hard drive to the NAS and found that not all of the files had made it across. Stupid mistakes of mine? Windows woes?  Or a bug in TOS 5?

Editor’s Note. Not a bug in TOS 5. We suspect Windows, or Barry’s LAN here. Or possibly just Barry.

Our advice to him (bravely ignored) was to try copying a small number of files to start with, just to test the connection. Here at Tested Technology we demonstrated for Barry the transfer of several thousand files back and forth across our LAN to our own TerraMaster F2-221, all without a hitch.

I had lost the will to try and attach blame and find a fix. By the time I have gone down another maze of rabbit holes, wondering why the just-initialised NAS is still saying it is Uninitialised with WOL Disabled, there will doubtless be a newer new version of TOS 5.

And that’s the rub. If I know I am at fault when something on my system goes awry, I will buckle down and spend however long it takes to learn what has gone wrong. I’ve stuck with Windows 10, partly because my hardware is deemed unworthy of Windows 11, and partly because I don’t want to be an 11 pioneer. So, if it’s Windows to blame, then it’s almost certain that Googling a short keyword description will find someone who has suffered similarly and found a fix.

With Terramaster TOS 5 in the loop as another variable, I can no longer muster the will to find out whether it’s me, Windows, TOS 5, or a bad luck combination of some or all of the parts, or a sum of all the parts.

Since TOS 5 came out of beta and became a final product, there have been multiple progressively more final versions. I am sure TOS 5 will come right in the end but I am now taking a holiday from its pain, putting the F2-221 back into its cupboard and entrusting my files to the ARM TerraNAS which despite (or because of) its tried, tested and still-Flash-dependent OS is a good solid bit of kit.

Editor’s Note. There have been around a dozen updates to TOS 5 since it came out of beta. Barry seems to regard this as a measure of the operating system’s instability. But this frequency of updates is by no means untypical of other NAS manufacturers having to fight back against hacker attacks. Tested Technology’s view is that Terramaster appears to be working doubly hard to strengthen its security at the same time as trying to catch up with QNAP and Synology on applications and features.

The plumbing expert enthusiasts at Tested Technology are however made of far sterner stuff than me, and will doubtless go on analysing each new final version of TerraMaster’s TOS 5. Sooner or later, when newer versions of TOS 5 are slower to appear, I will open the cupboard, retrieve the F2-221 and very likely start to live happily ever after with the potentially good value NAS running potentially good TOS 5—and no longer asking for non-existent Flash.

Editor’s Note.

There’s a happy ending to this story.

Barry eventually brought his Terramaster NAS over to Tested Technology, where we hoped to demonstrate the error of his ways by executing immaculate file transfers. We failed. Files vanished exactly as he had reported.

In fact, it wasn’t long before the entire NAS vanished from the network. It had forgotten its own IP address.

We conjectured that there must be a hardware failure. On further investigation, this turned out to be wrong. Barry eventually recovered  the will to find a fix and stumbled on the real solution some months later. Coincidentally, Tested Technology also ran into a very similar problem with our own F2-221 at around the same time.

The initial installation of the TOS 5.0 operating system appears to check the drives, which ideally should be “factory-fresh”, that is to say, unformatted, with no file system. However, if they are already formatted, TOS 5.0 seems to accept them—crucially, without checking the integrity of the file system. If the preformatted file system is in fact damaged, errors are not reported. The storage of data (e.g. transferred files) or metadata (e.g. the device’s IP address) on this damaged file system accounts for the mysterious vanishings we ran into.

Barry wrote up his conclusions about this on the Terramaster Forum. It’s not clear whether the problem has been addressed in TOS 5.1. But backing up the existing data, reformatting the drives from scratch and then restoring the data has resulted in a reliable F2-221 he now feels he can trust.

Barry Fox 22-Aug-23

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