QuTS Hero and ZFS: What does it mean for creative workflows?

If you’ve been following storage news, one of the items to hit the hype mill is QNAP’s wider rollout of their QuTS Hero operating system, supporting ZFS storage. This week’s release of the 6-bay TS-h686 and 8-bay TS-h886 marks the first time ZFS has been available in a QNAP desktop product — or, to my immediate memory, any entry-level commercial desktop storage product.

Older creators may remember when ZFS first hit the market in Sun Microsystems storage servers (and let’s be real: you’d have to be at least an Elder Millennial to remember Sun Microsystems even existed). A broader segment of creative pros likely remember ZFS as an intended successor to Apple’s HFS: read-only ZFS support first appeared in Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard in 2006, with full support planned (and subsequently scrapped) for Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard in 2008.

ZFS was, and is, a big deal for business storage; it not only brought cool new features to the table in an accessible way, but spawned a sea change in the filesystems that followed, with features like:

  • Native encryption: protecting your data against physical theft
  • Data integrity: extensive use of checksums verifying files across their lifetime, plus built-in data scrubbing to correct file corruption
  • Self-healing: using the data integrity features, silently detect and correct any inconsistencies, never returning bad data; can also automatically replace a failing disk with a standby disk
  • Snapshots: allowing you to easily roll back changes (like accidental deletions or overwrites)
  • Inline compression: maximizing storage space by rapidly compressing or decompressing files as they’re written or read
  • Deduplication: really maximizing storage space by identifying duplicate files or data blocks and only storing them once
  • Storage pools: making it easy to expand storage capacity by adding another set of disks

If you’re using Linux’s btrfs (as on Synology NASes) or Apple’s APFS today, both owe a good deal of debt to ZFS.

This evolution of QNAP’s product line, bringing ZFS not only to new QuTS Hero devices but also optionally to many older QNAP NASes, is a monumental shift in storage options for solo creators and small-to-medium creative and media businesses. It’s also a completely different animal than other existing RAID and RAID-like solutions, though, so it’s worth digging a little more into the details.

Why might I want a QuTS Hero ZFS NAS?

For customers with known storage needs who want the best combination of data durability, bit rot protection, and performance, ZFS on adequate hardware is very difficult to beat. RAID-Z 3 stands practically alone in protecting against failure of up to three disks at once. Checksumming and scrubbing eliminate bit rot almost entirely transparently. Compression and deduplication can stretch your effective storage capacity beyond the nominal capacity of your drives. (Yes, even many creative assets can benefit from ZFS’s lossless compression, though not necessarily with earth-shattering savings!) But these features do come at a cost, and interested creatives will be splashing out for QNAP’s higher-end hardware — from our long experience with ZFS, we don’t anticipate even an upgraded TS-h886 will be truly adequate for more than 1–2 users in a 2K, 4K, 6K, or 8K workflow. For designers and still photographers, on the other hand, the TS-h686 should prove capable for working on your Photoshop and Illustrator files and raw photos, while a TS-h886 should have power to spare even with a small workgroup.

If you’re a happy QNAP user but you’ve been lusting after a larger, higher-performance NAS with class-leading features, QuTS Hero might also be a good fit for you. This would include many high-output photo studios or small-to-medium video studios, where you likely started with a desktop NAS and are now looking for a larger, rack-mount NAS for your growing asset collection.

If you’re already using ZFS elsewhere in your storage chain, you should — but we haven’t had the opportunity to test this — be able to replicate your data using standard OpenZFS facilities. Adding a modern, supported ZFS solution to your self-built ZFS NAS or older ZFS NAS might be a great option for you.

Why might I not want a QuTS Hero ZFS NAS?

There’s one huge reason our typical creative customer might not want to go with QuTS Hero or any other ZFS-based solution: you have to start with a complete array. While many creatives have become accustomed to add-a-disk solutions like Drobo’s BeyondRAID, Synology’s SHR, and QNAP’s RAID level migration, ZFS RAID-Z was built for a different kind of user. In most cases, you must start with the number of disks you ultimately intend to have, and you cannot easily migrate to another RAID-Z level. If you’re the fairly typical solo photographer or video ninja who likes to start your NAS with one or two disks and expand your storage capacity and your data protection as you go, QuTS Hero with ZFS will not be the right solution for you.

Budget can also be a major blocker for ZFS-based solutions: the level of functionality ZFS provides means it demands a lot of horsepower and a lot of memory. Both of these drive up costs; QNAP’s desktop ZFS solutions ship with Intel Xeon D processors, which are substantially higher-powered and substantially more costly than the processor in a typical NAS. If you intend to use any of ZFS’s advanced features, nearly all of our customers would also need to upgrade the RAM: QuTS Hero desktop units come with either 8GB or 16GB of RAM, while a general ZFS rule-of-thumb is that deduplication requires at least 1GB of RAM per raw TB of disk. (i.e. The standard configuration would offer adequate performance for only 8–16TB of installed disks.) Most customers using a QuTS Hero NAS for online storage would also want to jump up to the higher-end TS-h886; deduplication and compression rely heavily on multithreaded performance, and the entry-level TS-h686 has limited processor threads available.

For many existing QNAP users whose current NAS will be gaining QuTS Hero support, QuTS Hero and ZFS are also unlikely to be a great fit: you can’t migrate from QTS to QuTS Hero. If you want the advantages of ZFS, installing QuTS Hero involves a complete reinitialization of your NAS and the erasure of all its disks. Combined with the fact that many of you may be using 4- and 5-bay units where ZFS’s advantages are less apparent, we’d strongly recommend reaching out for a consultation if you’re wondering whether QuTS Hero would be a worthwhile upgrade for your usage and your storage goals.

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