The HP Media Vault 5150 is a Linux-based network-attached storage (NAS) device that aims to be the end-all-be-all for home and small-office network file management and media service. It boasts not only a large capacity (700GB or 1.4TB depending on how you allocate it), it also has a hardware RAID-1 option and USB ports for attaching additional storage. Its internal drive bays use SATA drives, and the internal capacity theoretically is upgradable to the limit of SATA drive technology, and it hooks into your network through Gigabit Ethernet. Running out of bandwidth, therefore, is not in the cards.
The HP Media Vault runs an SMB server, serving up browsable shares to the network. Due to its large capacity, it's very useful for a number of purposes, and it comes outfitted with a number of helper applications that allow home users to maximize the benefits of having such a device around. These bundled applications allow users to run an iTunes server, share photos on-line with automatic gallery generation, expose selected directories to the Internet and stream media to properly enabled appliances that hook up to TVs and stereos. In other words, in addition to being an all-purpose backup server, this thing aims to be your TiVo, your jukebox, your photo server, your document server and your Web server, all rolled into one with an automated backup cherry on top.
All this functionality is administrable through a handy-dandy suite of programs bundled with the device that runs on any modern Windows box. It makes efficient use of open-source programs for nearly all its features, and it is generally a well-engineered little piece of technology. Certainly, home brewers who are looking to create their own NAS appliances could do worse than look at what HP has pulled off with this little gadget.
The Media Vault lives up to its hype rather handsomely. It's pretty easy to administer with the bundled software—easy enough that an average computer user should have very little difficulty getting up and running and secured. The documentation that ships with it is aimed entirely at novice users, walking them step by step through the self-explanatory configuration screens and leaving, as far as HP is concerned, nothing to chance.
The automatic backup function is a particularly nice touch—although underneath the hood, it's little more than an active cp script running in the background, the interface on it is slick and should make data protection miles easier for the average Joe. As someone who climbed out of the hell of doing sysadmin work in my younger years, I must confess that I think it's rather like giving condoms to teenagers—it's better that they have the ability to protect themselves, but most of them probably won't think of it when they're in the heat of the computing moment. Still, we can hope.
The UPnP/DLNA server option, which is what allows the Media Vault to act as a streaming server for set-top boxes, actually works only with a limited number of devices, as the standard is pretty new. But, it seems to work with those devices seamlessly. A number of programs also receive DLNA streams, most particularly VLC and MythTV, which means Linux-savvy home users can use the Media Vault as a streaming server all on its own instead of configuring a separate streaming server for their media automation systems.
The Media Vault ships in a completely unsecured state—no password is required to log in or configure the device. To my mind, for a device aimed squarely at the average Joe end of the market, this is the perfect default. I've seen people I otherwise care for very much turn into incomprehensible babbling masses when confronted with a factory-set admin password—they generally don't know enough to look for a sentence like “factory default login”. Of course, this is a double-edged sword, as there's nothing actually compelling users to set a proper password or to take the additional available steps to secure the box, so there will doubtless be a number of unsecured servers coming on-line in the coming months as the Media Vault is adopted by its core audience.
Attaching external storage to increase the capacity (or to back up) the Media Vault is also dead easy. Simply plug in a hard drive, allocate it with the administration utility, and assign it a mountpoint. Once that's done, you're ready to rock and roll. The Media Vault supports ext3 and FAT32 filesystems natively, and it supports NTFS on a read-only basis.
Finally, a number of nice little options are available, such as control over hard drive spin-down intervals and LED brightness—both of which are very nice if you decide to set up the device in your bedroom.
That's not to say that all is wine and roses. There are a lot of niggling little problems with the HP Media Vault that keep it just on this side of perfect.
The first, and perhaps the most irritating, is that despite the easy kernel-level support for NFS, HP has chosen to strip this functionality from the Media Vault. The Media Vault only serves up files over Samba, and although Samba is nice, it requires extra tweaking and software installation for Linux and Mac clients compared to NFS. HP could have broadened its market at virtually zero expense simply by leaving NFS in the system.
HP also has, alas, not organized its documentation in a way that's particularly friendly to those of us who don't—or can't—use the included administration software. This is a shame, as administering all but the most advanced functions of the Media Vault is simple for anyone with a Web browser and an SSH connection. With a little digging around—and the help of the good folks at HP's Marketing department—I found the Web admin panel, enabled SSH, and got the server up and running. See the Configuration without Windows sidebar for instructions on how to configure your Media Vault if you want to do it the old-fashioned way.
To get full functionality out of the server, you have to use HP's bundled administration software, and this software doesn't play nice with most operating systems. More to the point, it plays nice only with Windows XP and Vista—it won't even install on Windows 2000 or older systems, and it doesn't work with Wine. This is a problem if you're wanting to use some of the more advanced newbie-friendly features, such as the iTunes server or the auto-generating photo albums and video playlists.
However, if you're willing to go without those things, most everything else can be accomplished from the Web admin panel. And, if you're a better hacker than I am, you can configure the iTunes server manually over SSH using the instructions on the Firefly home page (www.fireflymediaserver.org).
However, to my mind, the most egregious problem is that currently no firmware restore exits, nor any hardware reset, nor are there any operating system restore disks either bundled with the product or available for download. This means that if you screw up the system, you're screwed. And, as the root partition is writable, screwing this thing up while you're hacking it is easy. One misstep, and you've bricked the device, and there is no recourse short of shipping the item back to HP, and it's unclear whether the repair would be covered under warranty.
Despite my lengthy griping above, this is a seriously well-designed NAS. HP has done its homework and designed a box that will hit its target market right between the eyes. Unfortunately, it's not going to do more than that, so despite the fact that I've been really impressed by it, my buy recommendation is a tepid one.
For Linux users looking for a safely hackable NAS, it might be a bit much. The lack of any system restore means that this box is fragile and might not play nice if you prod it in the wrong place. It's likewise priced on the high side for what it delivers to someone who isn't using it from a Windows machine and doesn't need serious data redundancy.
For average home users who are big into Web 2.0 services, it likewise should be a very useful item, saving a lot of time and making it even easier for people to plug their lives in to the Internet or take the bother out of managing their media collections over the home network.
For the price (almost $700), the HP Media Vault 5150 is in the no-man's land between a great value and an overpriced toy. It's well-outfitted, physically robust, well-designed and has a lot of great little features that make it ideal for a small-office/home-office environment. Particularly impressive are its easy backup features and its extensibility. I personally have found it quite useful as a footage server, storing recordings and raw video for projects I'm working on in my studio and for streaming draft projects out to the screening room for previews.
A subset of the Linux market will find this box well worth the price. If it suits your needs, it should be an excellent addition to your network. But, if you're not in the position to take advantage of the Windows-only value-added features, and the data security that the RAID and scheduled backups afford you isn't worth paying the premium for, you may want to give this one a miss. Here's hoping HP continues to build great Linux-based devices, and in the future leaves them a little more open for those of us who like Linux on more than just our servers.