Since the much-loved HP MediaSmart Server left the marketplace a few years ago, the gap for a compact, high-quality, high-capacity OEM server running Windows Server Essentials has yet to be filled.  The HP ProLiant MicroServer Gen8 is one option for those that are happy to acquire and install their own operating system, but it lacked the simplicity of previous generations and we’ve yet to see HP announce a Gen9 release of the product line.

Last year saw a couple of contenders try and fail secure the hearts and spending power of the home and small business server market. Seagate announced the Seagate WSS NAS – a product that seemed to receive very little marketing support (or distribution). I tried to get one on loan from Seagate, only to be told by the company’s PR representatives that they would not be making the product available for review. Go figure.

I did manage to secure the Thecus W4000 Windows NAS Server last February and found it to be a great proposition, let down by underpowered hardware. The lack of RAM was subsequently fixed by an enhanced, “PLUS” edition of the hardware. However, with just two OEMs delivering Windows-powered hardware to the market last year, the prosumer/small business NAS category has been largely left to specialist Linux NAS vendors like QNAP, Synology, ASUSTOR and others.

Fast forward twelve months from the release of the Thecus W4000 Windows NAS Server and the company’s sophomore effort, the W5810 Windows NAS Server is here. Powered by Windows Storage Server 2012 R2 Essentials, the W5810 is borne out of a similar concept to 2015’s W4000, with upgraded hardware.

Thankfully, the W5810 ships with 4 GB RAM as standard, so I’m not anticipating the freezing issues that dogged the debut last year, but perhaps more interesting is the selection of a newer Intel platform. Replacing the W4000’s ageing Intel Atom D2701 is a quad-core Intel Celeron J1900 SoC – a processor we’ve encountered on many NAS devices last year, all of them great performers. Connectivity includes a rear HDMI port (which is great news for your media library), twin Gigabit Ethernet ports, two USB 2.0 and three USB 3.0 ports, plus a front LCD display. With five hard drive bays, compared to the four offered on the W4000 NAS Server, the new model offers a lot to love – on paper at least.

At $659 the Thecus W5810 is positioned as a value Windows Storage Server NAS. It’s $200 more expensive than its predecessor but when you consider the additional RAM and extra drive bay, that’s understandable. The server supports fifty users or devices, making it an ideal hub for the home, home office or workplace.  With support for Active Directory Domain Services, integrated data depulication, advanced PC backup and super-simple remote access, the compact hardware offers a wide range of powerful features combined with simple setup and easy management.

Could the Thecus W5810 Windows NAS Server be the device to replace your aging HP MediaSmart Server, or secure a place at the heart of your small business? Let’s take a look.

What’s in the Box?

The tangerine styling of the Thecus W5810’s outer packaging leans heavily on Microsoft’s brand, shouting loud about the server’s integration with the Microsoft Azure Cloud and Office 365.

Aside from noticing the Thecus logo, you could easily convince yourself you were purchasing a first-party Microsoft server. That aside, the packaging and bright and impactful – a refreshing change to the business-like buff cartons housing many small business servers.

Open the box and you’ll find:

  • Thecus W5810 Windows NAS Server
  • Ethernet Cable
  • Power Cable
  • Hard Drive Screws
  • Windows Storage Server 2012 R2 Essentials Installation Guide
  • Drive Lock Keys (Two Sets)

Compared to other manufacturers, Thecus’ industrial design tends to favour function over form but the W5810 looks reasonably good. The cube-shaped form factor keeps the W5810 compact for desktop or shelf-mounted use while the chassis itself is robust – a steel outer with a plastic front panel offering a faux-brushed metal finish.

The front face of the server is obviously dominated by the five drive trays – equipped with locks, which is a great feature on a business device. The trays themselves are steel, with plastic fronts and very sturdy indeed. However, they jiggle around vertically when inserted into the server, even when locked.  While the lock itself is metal, the plastic latch used to open and pull out the drive bay is reasonably flimsy which reduces confidence during installation. Thankfully, the vertical travel didn’t translate into audible vibration in use.

Each drive is equipped with status indicators and you’ll find additional LEDs vertically positioned to the left for power, network access, USB access and overall status. A USB 3.0 port and power button are located below.

An LCD status panel is located at the base of the device with four protruding (perhaps excessively so) buttons used to navigate through the options. It offers basic system status and warning messages that may be useful if you’re located near the device.

Around the back, you’ll find the rest of the W5810’s connectivity line up which includes 3.5mm audio out, HDMI port, twin USB 3.0 ports, two USB 2.0 ports, twin Gigabit Ethernet sockets and a power input for the server’s integrated PSU. The internal power supply is equipped with a manual on/off switch.

Overall, the W5810 looks the business and is well specified with a comprehensive range of connectivity options – however, the poorly fitting drive bays disappoint.

Getting Up and Running

The Thecus W5810 Windows NAS has an innovative trick up its sleeve. While my review model arrived with all five drive bays empty, inside the chassis is mounted a 2.5″ ADATA SP600 SSD in which Windows Storage Server 2012 R2 Essentials is installed. Like its predecessor, this is a small capacity, 60 GB solid state drive which is tough (but not impossible) to access if you ever felt like upgrading.

Note that only 32 GB of the available 60 GB is partitioned for use by Windows – you’ll need to dig into Windows Disk Manager yourself and format the unallocated space yourself if you wish to access the full capacity of the SSD. That’s a little scrappy from a user experience perspective.

Unlike competitor devices, there’s no second drive to mirror that boot volume, but it means that Windows starts up very quickly from cold. It’s fully independent of the five drive bays equipped on the W5810 which means that you can maximise storage capacity for your data – that’s a big tick in the box for me.

Thecus-w5810-7

It’s difficult to see the SSD clearly inside the chassis, but it’s mounted above the W5810’s SATA backplane – you can see the SATA and power cables on the top right, connecting the drive to the motherboard.

With the OS pre-installed, you can simply connect power, data and fire up the server immediately, or take a few minutes to add some data drives. As usual for our NAS reviews, I installed two 6 TB Western Digital WD Red hard drives, which were then configured in a RAID 1 array. You can take advantage of Windows own Storage Spaces feature for drive pooling, install a third-party pooling application or simply use the RAID options available in Windows Disk Management – the choice is yours.

Microsoft’s Windows Storage Server 2012 R2 Essentials setup doesn’t take too long to complete, thankfully. Select your language, enter a license key (the key is on a sticker affixed to the server), enter an administrator password and the device reboots. After a short while, you’ll be invited to configure the server with a short and simple wizard that allows you to personalize settings for your organization.

Compared to other NAS platforms, Windows Storage Server has some gaps in its ease of setup – there are no storage configuration options in the wizard, for example, nor are their network settings to allow easy configuration of  a Static IP address. So you’ll have to quickly dive into Windows Server’s configuration panels to complete setup. Now, if you’re a seasoned Windows Server admin, that’s no problem – however, if you’re new to the platform (and let’s remember, Windows Server Essentials is positioned for self-installers that may not necessarily be administration experts) it’s a different story. The platform is certainly powerful, but there’s still a way to go before Windows Server Essentials matches competitors for ease of use.

Windows Storage Server 2012 R2 Essentials is designed to support “affordable, easy-to-use, cloud-connected NAS appliances” for small businesses and small office/home office (SOHO) environments”, Microsoft says. It provides a cheaper alternative to Windows Storage Server 2012 R2 Standard or Workgroup whilst providing reassurance to those users that want the Windows operating system across their network environment. It supports up to fifty users, which is more than sufficient for small business and SOHO users.

Windows Storage Server 2012 R2 Essentials is only available to manufacturers – unlike Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials, you can’t just buy the software off the shelf and install it on any machine, it only ships with hardware. However, think of the platform as the best of Windows Storage Server and Windows Server Essentials brought together into a single, great value package.

You get most of the advanced storage features available in Windows Storage Server 2012 R2 Standard such as data deduplication and BranchCache (although you miss out on Failover Clustering and Virtulization support). However, unlike other Windows Storage Server SKUs, you also get the Windows Server Essentials Experience role and full Active Directory support (with the server able to act as the domain controller to set up an Active Directory or join an existing Active Directory domain). That makes the platform a more flexible (and cost-effective) option for small businesses than either Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials or Windows Storage Server 2012 R2 Standard.

The Windows Server Essentials role enables easy management of the server using a simplified Dashboard. Users, shared folders, storage, remote access and data backups (for server and clients alike) can all be managed with a few clicks using simple, wizard-based walkthroughs. If you predominately use Windows PCs in your business, you’ll find that the incremental backup features available on the W5810 (and other servers offering the Windows Server Essentials experience) are the best around, with third-party competitors charging many thousands for similar features.

Whether you’re a fan of Microsoft’s Storage Spaces for drive pooling, or prefer a third-party alternative, the benefit of the Windows platform is that you can take your pick from a range of options if the in-box solution isn’t right for you. But advanced features such as data deduplication will ensure that you can maximise the storage space available across the W5810’s five bays.

Remote Access too is simple to set up and Microsoft’s Remote Web Access experience allows you to access your data quickly and conveniently from desktop, tablet or smartphone.

Of course, from a Microsoft perspective, the addition of the Windows Server Essentials Experience role gives the company the opportunity to sell you the benefits of cloud integration. Office 365, the Azure cloud platform and Microsoft Intune all integrate (to greater or lesser degrees) with the on-premise server platform, and you’ll find identity management and user account control across your cloud and local services are all made simpler with Windows Server Essentials integration.

However, the Windows Server Essentials Dashboard only covers a subset of the vast array of features available on the platform. That means for more advanced features – should you need to dig into Active Directory configuration, or storage deduplication for example, you’ll need to switch out of the Dashboard into more traditional Windows Server territory: snap-in console windows, the Server Manager panel and so on.

Even common tasks for a NAS, such as storage configuration, sit outside of the Dashboard in Windows Disk Management. Overall, that leads to user experience inconsistencies which, again, more experienced administrators will cope with just fine, but for newer users, straying outside the comforts of the Dashboard will offer a steep learning curve.

To be honest, this situation hasn’t improved since the release of Windows Server 2012 Essentials – much of Microsoft’s development effort has been focused on integrating their online services into the Dashboard – a clear revenue generator – over improving the usability of core features. Many of these basic NAS functions should be integrated into the Dashboard too.

If a single, consistent and easy user experience is important to you, then a competitor NAS solution should be considered.