LaCie 5big Network 2: Network Storage with Some Quirks

At first glance, the LaCie 5big Network 2 could be mistaken for a new Borg ship in the Star Trek™ universe. However, it  is actually a 5-bay network file server intended for small business use. Casual users will probably find the LaCie sufficient; power users will be frustrated.

LaCie 5big Network 2 - front view

LaCie 5big Network 2 – front view

LaCie markets the drive as being flexible and easy to set up and use. This is mostly true, with a few caveats.  It is available in 15 GB, 10 GB, and 0 GB (diskless) versions. The diskless version ($375 MSRP) was tested.

I waited 3 months after initially putting the LaCie 5big Network 2 through its paces to write a review because I wanted to be as balanced as possible. I gave the LaCie 3 out of a possible 5 Low End Macs. However, depending on how you wish to use it, your mileage may vary (either up or down).

Readers should note that all testing and use was done with Macs, so I don’t know whether anything presented here would be different under Windows.

The Good

Easy to Set Up

There are 5 bays. I put a 2 TB hard drive in each bay and set up a RAID 5 array with 4 drives, and one as a spare [the 5big is also available with a variety of pre-installed hard drives]. Formatted size of the array was 5.5 TB. You simply attach the drives to the caddies and insert the caddies into the unit. When the LaCie boots up, you can access the setup via a web browser.

It obtains an IP address from DHCP by default, which was perfect for my home network setup. If you need to set it up some other way, just read the instructions, as there are alternate methods. One caveat: read the instructions carefully regarding boot-up. There is a specific sequence the unit goes thru while booting up, before it is ready to be accessed (signified by flashing lights) and it can take as long as 5-10 minutes to go thru this. Make sure you are patient and wait for the sequence to complete before trying to do anything (i.e., don’t turn it off and back on during boot up).

LaCie 5big Network 2: Back view

LaCie 5big Network 2: Back view

The web dashboard is fairly self-explanatory and will walk you thru setting up the drives. You can put in anywhere from 1 to 5 drives, and they don’t have to be the same size. The dashboard will give you the setup options available depending on the number and sizes of drives you installed. You get the best, most efficient results and use of drive space when you install more than one drive, all the same size.

Once you configure the drives and apply the configuration, walk away and pursue other endeavors. The setup could take a very long time—many hours to a day or so depending on the drives you installed. I left my setup overnight and it was complete in the morning. There is also a choice for “Automatic,” which lets the LaCie decide the best drive setup. This choice allows the LaCie to essentially set itself up with no further user intervention required. For my scenario, the automatic choice was identical to what I wanted to do anyway, so I was impressed.

Easy to Use

Once set up, it is easy to use (for the most part – see some exceptions below). There is a lot of flexibility in setting up shares and access. I just used the default, which will be sufficient for most home users. But it has the power to be a file server for a small office as well. I’m just guessing, but I would expect it could serve 15-20 users easily.

The LaCie automatically appeared on the Finder sidebar on all our Macs. Clicking on it opened the shares, and clicking on them mounted them on the desktop, ready to access. Couldn’t be easier.

There is also a software program, LaCie Network Assistant, which you can install and which resides on the menu bar. This also allows you to access the shares, as well as enter setup. It is not required, as all its functions are available in some other way, but I do find it convenient to have everything in one location.

(Reasonably) Fast

Copying to and from the LaCie is fast. I tested it on an Apple AirPort network, with the LaCie plugged in to the AirPort Extreme base station, which is attached via Ethernet to a Time Capsule in another part of the house. Access speeds to the LaCie are at least as fast as the Time Capsule.

I was copying a very large (~1 TB) file set to the LaCie, so I plugged my Mac into the same AirPort Extreme with an Ethernet cable to speed the copying. It did speed up quite a bit, but this scenario also caused a noticeable lag in access time from other Macs on the network. However, I doubt most people will be copying such a large amount of data very often. Copying the same amount of data from the LaCie, however, did not result in any performance degradation to other users.

I have read other, mostly older, reviews which find the 5big to be downright slow. I believe the speed issue has been improved thru firmware updates.  The LaCie notifies you when an update is available, and I installed at least three such updates in three months. While there are certainly faster units available, most small businesses should find the LaCie sufficiently fast for their purposes.

Flexible

The LaCie can serve as a AFP, SMB, NFS, print, and/or FTP server; Time Machine backup, iSCSI target, and media (including iTunes) server – any or all at the same time! You can also attach external drives by USB and/or eSATA and use these drives to either back up the information on the LaCie (more on that below), or as additional storage. The unit is discoverable in Apple Bonjour. There are two Gigabit Ethernet ports, which can be configured for aggregation or failover.

While all of this may sound great, there is, unfortunately, a flip side.

The Bad

User Manual

The user manual is actually better than most I have seen. For example, it does a great job of explaining the various RAID modes and the relative advantages and disadvantages of each.

However, while the instructions overall are pretty good, they are woefully lacking in one area: telling you how long various setup actions may take. For example, when setting up RAID, the instructions read as follows:

Rebuilding a protected RAID array takes many hours, depending on the capacity of the disks and your NAS’ available resources…

I don’t know about you, but when I read this, I thought, “Oh, 5-6 hours. OK, no problem.” I did not think 2 ½ days! There are other examples where things take far longer than I thought they should have, and LaCie should tell you this. Simply managing user expectations would help ease a lot of potential setup frustration.

No SSH Access…

…either to the files or the unit itself. You can access files via SFTP, but there is no way to get to the Linux server that powers the LaCie. This is disappointing for power users, because the LaCie does not take advantage of much of the power of Linux, and it could probably do a lot more if we could get to the operating system. A quick Google search shows that some users have proposed ways to hack the LaCie, but I have not tried it.

Back Up Your Backup (Just Don’t Be in a Hurry)

There is a great feature which will allow you to back up your backup. You can attach an external drive, either via USB or eSATA, and you can set up the LaCie to automatically (or manually) back up some or all of its files to this external drive. This is particularly useful if you want to keep a copy of your backup off-site in case a real disaster strikes.

I attached an external eSATA drive and began a backup of all files on the LaCie (which, at the time, was approx. 1.9 TB). It took 3-½ days. Yes, 3-½ days to copy less than 2 TB of data via eSATA. Now, eSATA can handle 300 MBps (megabytes per second). Why did it take 3-½ days to copy 2 terabytes??? A simple calculation would show that, even making a generous allowance for speed reduction due to overhead, it should have taken less than 4 hours.

Problematic File Deletion

Don’t try to delete large amounts of data, at least on a Mac. I accidentally copied 750 GB of data to the wrong share. Because there is no way to access the Linux server built in to the LaCie, and simply move the data in a few seconds, the best route seemed to be to recopy the data to the right share and delete it from the wrong one. (Moving it with the Mac would entail copying it from the LaCie to Mac, then back up to the LaCie, unnecessary because I already had the data on the Mac).

Copying it to the right share was easy enough, but deleting the wrong copy was a nightmare. It was apparently going to take more than a day, according to the dialog box estimate. I finally stopped the job and fired up Ubuntu Linux on VirtualBox, connected to the LaCie via NFS, and the deletion just took a few minutes.

Now, in all fairness, this has more to do with how the Mac OS handles file deletion versus how Linux does, but it is still a frustration. The LaCie dashboard allows you to browse files and delete and move them, but repeated efforts to use the dashboard continually resulted in apparently locking up the unit and forcing a power reset.

When “Reset” Is Not “Reset”

About that “power reset.” The power switch on the back is not a “hard” switch, but rather a “soft” one. This means that it does not physically switch off the power. Rather, it initiates a software shutdown of the unit, which, theoretically, results in it powering itself off in a few minutes.

This is great most of the time, as it prevents you from abruptly shutting off the unit and corrupting your data. But when the unit is locked up, this means you have to physically unplug it to shut it down. Then, if this corrupts your data, the LaCie is not of much use until it has rebuilt the RAID array (which, again, can take “many hours”). The instructions make NO mention of this at all; I had to figure it out by trial and error.

Problematic File Deletion, Part 2

Deleting files can be wonky in general. Occasionally, I would be unable to delete certain files that had been backed up to the LaCie. It would say I did not have the proper permission, the file was in use, or make some other excuse. The solution to all but the “file in use” problem was to once again access the unit with Ubuntu on VirtualBox, and change the attributes and/or permissions on the files, then delete them.

Note that this process is not trivial even for an IT professional; it is likely beyond the ability of the casual user. “File in use” (even though the files clearly were NOT in use) errors required rebooting the LaCie, which solved most but not all occurrences of this problem. Eventually, I had to reformat and start over. Fortunately, this involved an external drive I had connected, so reformatting was less of a problem than had it occurred with the main array, but it was still a pain.

Conclusion

I suspect that most users will not encounter the problems I did, as they will probably not be that demanding of the LaCie. Knowing what I know today, after three months of testing, I will say that I would recommend the LaCie 5big Network 2 for most users, even though LaCie has plenty of room for improvement. Once you figure out the quirks and get it set up, you can pretty much forget about it and just use it. To me, and I suspect to many users, ease of use over the long haul will probably outweigh quirks in the initial setup. More demanding or power users should probably explore other options.

Summary

Good

  • Easy to set up and use.
  • Flexible.
  • LEM friendly—worked great on a G3 running 10.4 Tiger.

Bad

  • Deleting large numbers of files can be problematic, especially for novice users.
  • Instruction manual suffers from Jekyll/Hyde syndrome.
  • Limitations frustrating for power users.

3/5 LEMs


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