Users often ask me for drive recommendations, and while I provide general suggestions for FireWire drives in the SuperDuper! User’s Guide, I haven’t suggested any Network Accessible Storage (NAS) devices, mostly because I haven’t been entirely happy with the ones I’ve tested.

In general, most NAS units are Linux-based, with a drive that’s formated as ext3, which allow a large sparse image to be stored on the drive. This works well with SuperDuper!, and lets us properly preserve permissions and metadata with full fidelity. Some, like the LaCie “mini” Ethernet drive, are shipped as FAT32, and need to be reformatted as ext3 (or HFS+, or NTFS) before they can be used.

I’ve tested the Buffalo Linkstation and Gigastation, the LaCie mini ethernet drive, the Linksys NLUS2, and a number of others, and while they all work reasonably well when configured properly, none have been recommendation-worthy.

The units I’ve tried in the past have all had very old AFP (Apple’s network protocol) support, old enough to not support files larger then 2GB or so (even though their file system could handle larger), mostly because they’re all based on an old version of Netatalk. SMB can be used instead, and that does work, but you have to know to do it… and most users don’t. This means their backups would fail in various weird ways.

On top of that, these NAS units are pretty insanely slow. Even the Gigastation, using Gigabit Ethernet, did an initial backup running at less than 1MB/s. This improved once the first copy was done, but it’s painful the first time through.

So… nothing to recommend.

Until now.

Over the last week or so, I’ve been doing extensive testing with the Terabyte version of Infrant’s ReadyNAS NV, and I’m very impressed: impressed enough to give it a big thumbs up.

The ReadyNAS linked above is a 4-drive X-RAID unit (which has four 250GB drives set up for fault tolerance and speed, using Seagate’s Nearline SATA drives which—like Maxtor’s MaxLine III drives—are designed to have a longer life and more heat tolerance than regular drives) in an attractive case, with GigE capability. Like its competitors, the ReadyNAS runs Linux, but unlike the others they’re fanatical about keeping things up to date, and support the most recent Netatalk, which properly handles large files.

On top of that, they’ve spent a lot of time optimizing the unit, and it actually delivers very good performance—I got about 5MB/s on a full copy-- far better than the others, even over AFP. (More AFP-specific optimizations are promised for the future, too.)

But the goodness doesn’t stop there. Infrant knows that their OS can do more than just serve up shared storage, and they’ve gone ahead and created a nice port of Slim Devices‘ SlimServer, which runs on the ReadyNAS and can serve music around the house, through real Squeezeboxen or the Softsqueeze player. (In fact, Slim Devices is offering a bundle of a terabyte ReadyNAS NV and two wireless Squeezeboxen for $1499.) Infrant also supports UPnP streaming, etc, so it’s likely to work with the solution you already have.

And since they have good AFP support, you can point iTunes to its media share, and rip directly to it. Nice!

The ReadyNAS is not inexpensive (although the 250GB, easily expanded one isn’t too bad), and you might wonder whether you should just get a Mac mini with a FireWire drive instead. While you certainly could do that, the RAID capabilities built into the ReadyNAS are invaluable when you’re dealing with critical data. Infrant has clearly designed their unit to be rugged and reliable, and that’s obviously important. A failing/failed drive can be hot swapped for a new one, so your data remains safe even in the event of that inevitability.

The only real downside of the Infrant—other than the expense—is that it’s got a fan. Heat is the enemy of hard disks, so it’s important for the fan to be there, and they’ve made it temperature sensitive so it only runs as fast as it needs to. But, it’s not silent (although it’s not that bad), so if that’s an issue, this isn’t the unit for you.

Otherwise, a very enthusiastic recommendation: Infrant has done some really great work here.