Storage Review: Western Digital ShareSpace WDA4NC4000

Storage is like money, you can never have enough. If you need to store, share and protect large amounts of data on a home or small office network, the Western Digital ShareSpace affords more than ample capacity, plus easy setup and configuration.

Hardware and Storage Configurations

The ShareSpace uses a relatively compact and cube-shaped chassis (made of metal but with a plastic front bezel) that’s almost eight inches high and wide, and a bit more than six inches deep. The back of the ShareSpace sports a Gigabit Ethernet port plus a pair of USB ports to connect additional storage devices or a UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply). Alas, it doesn’t support printers. Over on the front of the device is an additional USB port.

We tested the $999 (MSRP) 4 TB ShareSpace, which sports a quartet of 1 TB drives under the hood. (There’s also a $699 2 TB version that uses twin 1 TB drives, leaving a pair of empty drive bays for expansion.) Keeping all those drives cool requires a fan, but you wouldn’t know the ShareSpace had one by listening; we barely heard a peep out of it. Plus, the ShareSpace runs cool to the touch — it uses WD’s GreenPower drives, which the company claims use up to a third less power than conventional drives.

Western Digital ShareSpace
Western Digital ShareSpace

(Click for larger image.)
To balance capacity, performance and data protection, the 4 TB ShareSpace comes configured as a RAID 5 array, giving up a quarter of each drive’s capacity to store parity data (leaving about 3 TB available) so that in the event a drive fails, you won’t permanently lose any data. If you want, you can reconfigure the ShareSpace for RAID 0 or 1, or simply use the four drives as a single volume without RAID.

If one of the ShareSpace drives goes south, replacing it isn’t especially difficult, but neither is it quite as quick or easy as some other NAS devices, and drives aren’t hot-swappable so you must power down the unit before adding or replacing any. A quick glance at the ShareSpace’s front panel suggests that it might have a swing-out door that allows drive access, but instead you get inside the ShareSpace much as you would a PC — by removing a pair of rear thumbscrews and sliding off a three-sided cover.

From there, you access the drives from the side of the unit, mounted in special brackets with pull handles that do require a bit of elbow grease to remove or replace. The brackets themselves are simple plastic rails that affix to drive mounting holes without screws, so they’re easy to put on and take off.

Be advised, however, that (perhaps unsurprisingly) the ShareSpace accepts only Western Digital hard drives as replacement or (in the case of the 2 TB model) expansion drives. If you try to install, say, a Seagate Barracuda, the ShareSpace will recognize the drive but refuse to use it.

Administration and Features

Getting the ShareSpace up and running is pretty painless. An included Windows utility called WD Discovery can locate the ShareSpace on the network and take you to its browser-based configuration console, where the first thing you’ll want to do is assign a static rather than dynamic IP address.

Its not uncommon for NAS devices to suffer from cluttered, complex administrative consoles that make finding and configuring features a challenge, especially for anyone who isn’t an IT person (and doesn’t want to be). That’s not the case with the ShareSpace, however, which has one of best and most user-friendly user interfaces we’ve encountered in a NAS product.

There are two administration modes, basic and advanced. The former keeps things simple by displaying eight large onscreen buttons for major functions like user and folder management, system status, etc. To expose more esoteric and less frequently used functions like storage quotas, volume management or system logs (the ShareSpace also does e-mail alerts), one-click switches to advanced mode, which offers a more conventional six-tab interface, each with up to eight configurable items.

When you set up user accounts (you can also create groups) on the ShareSpace, you can also create private user folders at the same time. The ShareSpace can join a Windows Server (2000/2003, but not 2008) Active Directory domain to use existing users and groups. The ShareSpace supports access to shared folders via CIFS for Windows and Mac (OS X) systems. You can also share folders via NFS for Linux systems, though WD says this is unofficial (read: unsupported). For OS-independent access, the ShareSpace supports FTP.

You can use the WD Discovery utility in lieu of Windows to browse shared folders, and to map a user’s personal share (plus any public shares) as network drives in Windows. You won’t see the shared folder for each ShareSpace user displayed in either WD Discovery or Windows, because the ShareSpace only advertises public folders along with the personal folder of the logged-in Windows user (and the latter only if Windows username and password match those used on the ShareSpace account) to help minimize clutter.

Adjacent to the ShareSpace’s front USB port is a button that, when pressed, will automatically copy data from an attached device to the ShareSpace, or vice-versa. (Pressing for one second does the former, holding it for three seconds the latter.) This is a convenient way to get data on or off the unit, and you can specify a custom folder for either operation via the admin interface. Unlike the rear-mounted ports though, the front USB port is recessed, which may cause problems with bulkier-than-normal devices or connectors. For instance, a SanDisk Cruzer Micro flash drive was a tight fit, and an Imation Micro hard drive we tried wouldn’t fit at all.

Another way to get data onto the ShareSpace is through its built-in Download Manager, which gives you the ability to download files from Web or FTP sites directly to the ShareSpace. You access Download Manager by logging into the ShareSpace with special downloader account, which will let you build a queue of files, schedule downloads for off-peak times, or cap bandwidth use so that downloads don’t bog down your Net connection.

The ShareSpace has a built-in iTunes server, but that’s the extent of its media streaming capabilities; it doesn’t function as an UPnP AV media server, so you can’t access things such as photos, videos, or music from a something like a set top box or game console.

Backup and Remote Access

For backing up data stored on your various computers, the ShareSpace comes with WD Anywhere Backup, which is actually a custom version of Memeo AutoBackup. (You get a three-client license; additional licenses cost $29.99 but can be had cheaper in groups of three or five.) WD Anywhere Backup will backup the contents of user folders and let you customize backups by specifying particular folders or file types irrespective of where they’re stored. It will also retain multiple versions of files, encrypt backups, and while you can’t schedule backups, files are backed automatically up as they’re created or changed.

To access the ShareSpace remotely while on the road, WD includes a free subscription to its MioNet online service. After creating an account at MioNet, you download a browser-based Java applet that locates and connects to the ShareSpace. From there, you can access your ShareSpace’s public folders and share their contents with others (with either read or read/write access) by sending e-mail invitations that contain folder links.

Although WD claims that the MioNet applet is compatible with Firefox 3 (and sent us a screen shot to prove it), we were unable to get it to work on two different systems; our attempts produced the same error message repeatedly on both computers.

We’re not crazy about MioNet for a couple of reasons. The Java-based interface tends to be a bit slow, and downloading files can be a pain. There’s no right-click Save-As option, and while you can click-and-drag files from MioNet to your desktop, we found it to be hit or miss — we often ended up opening files rather than transferring them. It doesn’t help that the ShareSpace’s documentation contains virtually no information on MioNet. The documentation, MioNet’s confirmation e-mail and MioNet’s online help all make heavy reference to a remote control utility for PCs, which is not required to access the ShareSpace.

The Bottom Line

The price, $1,000, is not low, but 4 TB technically 3 GB in the standard RAID 5 configuration is a lot of storage. As long as printer sharing and media serving aren’t priorities, and you’re willing to be tied to Western Digital drives, the ShareSpace is a good place to keep your data.

Price: $999 (MSRP)

Pros: Simple setup and easy-to-use administration interface; lots of storage, and RAID 5 for data protection; relatively easy access to drives for replacement.

Cons: No USB printer support; only works with Western Digital hard drives; media server support limited to iTunes.

Joe Moran spent six years as an editor and analyst with Ziff-Davis Publishing and several more as a freelance product reviewer. He’s also worked in technology public relations and as a corporate IT manager, and he’s currently principal of Neighborhood Techs, a technology service firm in Naples, Fla. He holds several industry certifications, including Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) and Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA).

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