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NAS Reviews

{mospagebreak toctitle=Introduction, Internal Details}

Introduction

Updated 3/19/2009: Firmware revision info added

Buffalo Linkstation Pro XHL

At a Glance
Product Buffalo LinkStation Pro (LS-XH1.0TL)
Summary Updated, faster version of Buffalo's top-of-the-line single-drive NAS
Pros • ~ 2X throughput of previous-generation Pro
• Low Power consumption
• Excellent performance vs. price
Cons • Slow USB backup
• Only one USB port
• Status reporting needs improvment

Buffalo's has been busy revamping and simplifying its entire NAS product line. They are still in the process of rolling out the new models that they introduced at CES, which include the TeraStation Duo, TeraStation III and the subject of this review, the LinkStation Pro XHL. I'll tell you up front that the XHL has reset the bar for single-drive NAS performance, with about 2X the performance of all other single-drive NASes tested.

The XHL has a glossy black plastic case vs. the LinkStation Live CHL's matte black. But otherwise it's the same. The rear panel (Figure 1) holds the sole USB 2.0 port, which cannot be expanded via a USB hub. So you have to choose between using it to share a printer or attaching a drive for storage expansion or backup.

Front and Rear panels

Figure 1: Front and Rear panels

The Power Mode switch still requires the Buffalo NAS Navigator software to be used to automatically put the Pro into Sleep; there is otherwise no idle drive spindown feature. But you do now have access to three sleep / wake schedules for power management. The Function Button on the front panel can be used to reset the Pro to factory defaults and activate the Direct Copy function to copy the contents of a USB drive to the XHL.

The XHL draws only 11 W when active and 4W when "off". You'll hear the easily-replaceable fan when the XHL is booting. But even during the heavy load of testing, the Pro's fan was essentially inaudible. However, you will hear occasional dull "thunks" from the drive in a quiet room when it is busy.

Internal Details

Getting the XHL open required the same drill as with the CHL: removing the bottom stickers; releasing some recessed tabs with a screwdriver and carefully prying the rest of the plastic catches apart. The inside looks just like the CHL, so I didn't bother snapping a photo (see the CHL's photo instead). Instead of the WD Caviar Blue (WD5000AAKS) used in the CHL, the XHL had a 1 TB WD Caviar "Green" (WD10EADS) drive. The XHL also comes in a 500 GB flavor, which probably uses the Caviar Blue.

But what I really wanted was to see the new processor Buffalo hinted at during our CES meeting. Figure 2 shows that Buffalo stayed with a Marvell-based design. But instead of the "Orion" storage processor used in many current-generation mid-market NASes, there is a Marvell "Kirkwood" 88F6281 clocked at 1.2 GHz. RAM has been bumped up to 256 MB and a Marvell 88E1118 is used for the Gigabit Ethernet port.

The XHL board
Click to enlarge image

Figure 2: The XHL board

That bare spot below the two RAM chips looks like it can hold a second Ethernet chip and there are holes for another Ethernet jack at the lower left of the photo. I couldn't find any Flash on the board.


Features

The slideshow walks you through pretty much the entire interface and the LinkStation comparison chart from Buffalo's website lists the key features. The larger version of the chart shows all the features, except for the RAID modes, which apply only to the Pro Duo and Quad.

XHL Login landing page
Click to enlarge image

Figure 3: XHL Login landing page

In keeping with Buffalo's new simplified NAS strategy, both the new "Pro" and "Live" models include UPnP AV / iTunes media serving, remote Web Access and even BitTorrent downloading. But given their consumer vs. small-business focus, they don't include the ability to join an Active Domain for user authentication. But both, curiously, can join an NT domain.

Backup remains one of the LinkStation line's strengths and the XHL can do immediate or scheduled back up to an attached USB drive or another networked LinkStation or TeraStation. I would really like to see Buffalo (and all other NAS manufacturers) adopt the networked backup flexbility of the NETGEAR ReadyNASes, which can back up to or from both attached drives or any networked share.

The LinkStation can format USB drives in FAT32, EXT3 or its native XFS and supports read and write to all three. It will also mount an NTFS-formatted drive for sharing, but not write to it. As with other Buffalo NASes, you get one license for Memeo Backup, which is rather stingy, given the multiple (and sometimes, unlimited) backup client licenses offered with other products.

In Use

I am happy to report that the XHL features a completely redesigned web admin interface, which appears to be AJAX based. Navigation and organization are also improved and response was reasonably peppy. Figure 3 shows the view after you log in.

XHL Login landing page
Click to enlarge image

Figure 3: XHL Login landing page

As with previous LinkStations, the XHL has no log page. And I was unable to see if a log could be mailed to me, since I could not get the username / password login authentication method to work for emailed alerts.

Despite its improvements, the new interface lacks a Status page. Instead, there is only the left-hand System Information area, which is an insufficient substitute. There is other status information scattered around in other screens. But I could not find fan status, temperature or even firmware version anywhere. I would really like to see a System Status page brought back, hopefully using the expanding subsections that now are part of the GUI to present even more information in one place.

I fired up iTunes to see if it found the XHL, but it didn't show up. Once I moved a folder containing a few tunes over to the XHL, had it rescan and restart, however, iTunes found the XHL just fine. I ran some quick backups to an external USB drive, which ran without a problem. I'll cover backup performance in the next section.


Performance

I put the XHL through our new test process and I wish I could tell you what version firmware was running. But as noted earlier, that information is nowhere to be found. Tests were run with 100 Mbps, 1000 Mbps and 1000 Mbps with 4k jumbo LAN connections.

Updated 3/19/2009: Firmware revision info added

Buffalo said that you must run its NAS Navigator application to find the firmware revision, which I found was 1.03 for the XHL. Update is done by downloading an updater application and running it.

Since backup is an increasingly important feature and there have been complaints in the Forums about abysmally slow backup to external drive performance, I have resolved to start checking this. I connected an UltraMax Pro Desktop Hard Drive, loaned by Iomega for an upcoming article on NAS backup, configured in RAID 0 for maximum performance. I then copied the 4.35 GB ripped DVD test folder that I use in the NAS Chart Vista SP1 file copy tests to one of the XHL's shares.

I set up an immediate Normal (full) copy job from the XHL to a folder on the Iomega drive and had it create a backup log file. I then ran the test with the Iomega RAID 0 array formatted in EXT3, then with XFS. I didn't run the test with FAT32 format, since it isn't a good choice, given its inability to deal with files over 4 GB.

Using the start and stop times recorded in the XHL's log files, I calculated a backup speed of 11.33 MB/s with the Iomega drive formatted in EXT3 and 10.76 MB/s with it formatted in XFS. Since that's only around a 5% difference and given the (in)accuracy of the measurement, I wouldn't attach too much significance to the difference. For reference, the Everthing USB 2.0 FAQ says that the "effective rate reaches at 40MB/s or 320Mbps for bulk transfer on a USB 2.0 hard drive with no one else is sharing the bus".

Figure 4 presents a summary of the benchmark tests run for the XHL, with only the 1000 Mbps and 1000 Mbps + 4K jumbo frame results plotted. Although write cache effects are in play at smaller file sizes, you don't see extreme boosts like the HP MediaSmart EX487, NETGEAR ReadyNAS Pro and even Iomega Home Media Network Hard Drive show.

Performance benchmark summary

Figure 4: Performance benchmark summary

Write performance averaged over the 32 MB to 4 GB file sizes comes in at 39.8 and 36.8MB/s for 1000 Mbps and 1000 Mbps + 4K jumbo connections respectively. Read speeds averaged 50 and 42.1 MB/s for 1000 Mbps and 1000 Mbps + 4K jumbo connections. While this might not sound impressive, it puts the XHL at the top of the NAS Charts when you look at just single drive NASes.

Note that jumbo frames don't provide any significant boost when writing and actually reduces performance at larger file sizes when reading.

The XHL does pretty well in the Vista SP1 filecopy testing, too, measuring 32.6 MB/s for write and 56.6 MB/s for read. For reference, the recently retested five drive Synology DS508 measured 36.6 and 59.9 MB/s write and read, respectively!

Moving on to a competitive comparison, Figure 5 shows the XHL's read performance with a 1000 Mbps LAN connection vs. the Buffalo "Live" CHL, Iomega Home Media Network Hard Drive (HMNHD) and the original LinkStation Pro.

The comparison against the Buffalo LinkStation Live CHL is perhaps the most striking, with the XHL turning in about 2.5X the speed of the CHL once you get past the 256 MB file size point. And there is about a 2X improvement over the original LinkStation Pro.

Competitive read comparison  - 1000 Mbps LAN

Figure 5: Competitive read comparison - 1000 Mbps LAN

Figure 6 compares the write performance, which is skewed by the cached performance of the Iomega HMNHD up to the 512 MB file size point. So concentrate on the results from 1 to 4 GB, where the Buffalo XHL outperforms the HMNHD by about 2 to 1.

Competitive write comparison  - 1000 Mbps LAN

Figure 6: Competitive write comparison - 1000 Mbps LAN

For further confirmation of the XHL's superior performance, we just need to look at the Vista SP1 1000 Mbps file copy results, where the XHL is about 2.5X the Iomega for write (32.6 MB/s vs. 12.7 MB/s) and 2X for read (56.6 MB/s vs. 27.9 MB/s).


Closing Thoughts

There were times in the past few years that I thought Buffalo had lost its way as a consumer NAS maker. Sure, new models appeared, but the user interface looked amateurish, the documentation was terrible (it's still not great) and product positioning was confusing with overlapping feature sets and unclear differentiation between its consumer and business offerings.

But perhaps the worst thing was that performance seemed to get worse instead of better in the newer products, particularly when compared with offerings from hungry upstarts like Thecus, Synology and QNAP.

But history is apparently repeating itself, since I just looked back at the original 2006 LinkStation Pro review, which, as it turns out, had a similar theme of "fastest yet" single-drive NAS. Simply put, the LinkStation Pro XHL sets a new standard for single-drive NAS performance as illustrated in the Price vs. Performance plot below. That's the XHL all alone at the top of the plot—just hover over any of the icons to see the other products.

1000 Mbps Average Read Performance

The Pro XHL doesn't pretend to be a server like the BYOD products from Synology and QNAP and won't function as a LAMP server or host a MySQL database. And if fancy, browser-based playing of your media files is what you are looking for, you'd be better off with an HP MediaSmart EX487 or Linksys Media Hub.

But if you want a Terabyte (or 500 GB) of fast networked storage that can keep itself automatically backed up and throws in simple media / iTunes serving, automatic Torrent downloading and even secure remote access, then the LinkStation Pro XHL is just what you're looking for.

Check out the slideshow See the slideshow for an admin interface walkthrough

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