QTS 4.1 New Software Features
It’s been a long-standing tradition that every time I review a QNAP Turbo NAS Server, there must be a new release of the system software to go along with it. I finally broke that string this time, as the QTS v4.1.2 software is largely the same as the software I tested the TS-451 with, back in October. The two new big features that it brings are Virtualization and HD Video transcoding.
Virtualization has taken the IT universe by storm in the last 5-7 years. I can vouch for the fact that there are even large deployments of virtual servers in Antarctica. While the concept has spread somewhat to other devices, it’s primary application is in large, multi CPU, multi-core servers. When you look below the surface of a NAS, you might be tempted to think that the natural evolution of the device is to become a Storage Area Network (SAN). That’s certainly a valid growth pattern, but QNAP also recognized that the basic architecture of a NAS is not that far off from a typical server. With that info in mind, they made the leap to bring the same virtualization concepts and techniques that are in wide spread use on enterprise servers to a NAS platform. Ultimately, it’s largely a function of software, more than anything else. Let’s take a closer look at what virtualization brings to the NAS ecosystem.
The old IT infrastructure used the NAS strictly as a storage device, connected to the rest of the network devices through a switch. Just as virtualization was driven by Moore’s law and the fact that 16 CPU cores now fit easily into a 2U rack slot, the use of multi-core CPUs in a NAS server opens up brand new opportunities for expanding the functional footprint of the device. I’m a whole lot more excited about deploying virtualization on this new QNAP TVS-x63 series, with a quad core AMD CPU inside, than I was for the TS-x51 series that I tested last time. The home user may be able to get by with only one VM running the operating system of their choice, but a small business probably has a wider variety of needs. They may also have most of them covered by garden-variety servers. Just like VMware in the data center eight years ago, you have to start somewhere. Let’s take a look at where that might be.
The illustration above uses CADD data as an example, but it could easily be any kind of data. Let’s say you are a professional photographer or a graphics designer, and you are working out in the field or interfacing with a client. Instead of downloading a 24 Megapixel image to your 10” tablet, and using the local application to open it and display it, why not let the NAS server do all the hard work, and just download the 1080p image to your HD screen. It will happen a whole lot faster, especially if you are relying on a 4G network for access. The same will be true if you’re sitting at home browsing any kind of hi-res media – music, video, photos over 802.11n Wi-Fi.
One other advantage in the scenario we just discussed is that the source data for the file you are accessing never gets transmitted to your mobile device or remote PC. Data tapping is becoming more prevalent, especially outside the US, and it’s not unrealistic to be worried that your proprietary or secret information might be intercepted by the person with the notebook computer sitting in the corner of the café. Maybe there’s a permanently installed antenna in the coffee shop that just sucks everything into a big storage array in the apartment two floors up. The fact is, data protection has evolved since the early days of BYOD and keeping the ‘real’ data behind the firewall instead of sending byte-perfect copies of it all over the world is a strategy you need to embrace. Once again, you might ask why the average home user should care about this, and I can only say that more and more people are carrying around and accessing more of their personal, legal, and financial data than we could have imagined ten years ago. Why would I carry around a copy of my tax returns on a notebook HDD or flash drive that is easily lost or stolen, when I can simply display it in a browser window, without leaving a trace of the original data on a network that I don’t really trust?
On-The-Fly Video Transcoding
Building on the idea that your NAS is really a server in disguise, and it can and should be, processing data instead of just serving it up to the user base; video transcoding shoots to the top of the list of things I think it should be capable of. Unfortunately, the CPU component of almost all the consumer-focused NAS units sold in the last few years has been completely incapable of performing this task in any meaningful way. This is not so much a question of software availability, but an issue with the hardware. Part of the blame has to be assigned to the NAS manufacturers, who all said to themselves, “Hey, our NAS runs perfectly well with this new Intel Atom CPU.” That was a good line, back in the days of wired networks, and low-res media. Throw a few tablets and notebooks onto a crowded Wi-Fi network, and watch the lag times pile up as everyone is streaming 1080p video in real-time access mode. That’s still based on the assumption that all the NAS users are located in the house, and not surfing their multimedia files from a remote location. At least the typical gaming PC is still sitting on a GbE connection, over Cat5. Everybody else is lucky if they’re on a multi-stream 802.11n connection.
The QNAP TVS-863+, combined with the QTS v4.1 and higher operating system, allows on-the-fly video transcoding and background transcoding as another option. This lets you convert video that’s stored on the NAS and content that’s streaming from the net into any of the myriad of screen resolutions that your portable devices support natively. It will be a long time before every screen gets upgrades to 1080p, and by then 4k video will be more common. That’s something you don’t want to try and send over the typical 802.11n channel of your two year old Wi-Fi router. While Intel’s Celeron is hardly the ne plus ultra of CPUs, at least if you look at desktops, the simple comparison in the image above should be enough to convince you that the Intel Atom was a major stumbling block to implementing this technology on earlier platforms. Now substitute an AMD APU with Radeon R5e graphics cores for the Celeron and you have even more graphics processing power at your fingertips. When we get to the Video benchmarks in the NASPT test suite, you will see the difference for yourself.
QvPC is an offshoot from the introduction of virtualization to the NAS platform. Bringing together several recently implemented technologies, such as virtualization, hardware-accelerated transcoding, cloud integration, unified & tiered storage, RAID protection, SSD cache acceleration, video output, and peripheral integration provides synergies that go beyond the basic functions that each of these technologies deliver on their own. Let’s walk through a couple capabilities that are part of QvPC.
- QVM Desk directly accesses multiple virtual machines, along with data storage on the NAS. You switch VMs as if using multiple PCs connected to the same keyboard, mouse, and monitor. Compared with remote desktop access through a web browser, QVM improves efficiency and minimizes network issues.
- QvPC Technology makes it possible to run an Android-based VM, play Android games on a big screen, and if you have a touchscreen, use them like an Android-based PC. In a mixed mode world, you can use Google Chrome to access the Internet, plus download and directly save online content.
- QvPC Technology also allows you to create virtual household PC for each member of the family. With independent VMs, you have complete control over file access and user permissions. Functions like Snapshot can restore files and data if any of the VMs crash. Screen sharing allows parents to seamlessly monitor their children’s Internet usage.
That’s the newest set of features available in QTS 4.1. Now, let’s look at the Turbo NAS Server that hosts all those new capabilities.