Review – OrangePi NAS Expansion Board
Today we look at the OrangePi NAS Expansion board and see how well it performs, go through some use cases for it, and look at what it takes to get setup and running.
You can purchase the OrangePi Expansion board here.
OrangePi Zero NAS Review
Today we will be taking a look at the OrangePi NAS Expansion board that is meant to be used with the OrangePi Zero. How well does it work, what kind of performance can you expect, and what might be some use cases for this product.
The NAS Expansion board is an add-on for the OrangePi zero that adds the following functionality:
- 2 USB2.0 Ports
- MSATA Interface
- SATA Port
- Power output for mechanical disk, (Presumed 5v)
- Component Audio/Video output
- Built in Microphone
- Infrared Receiver/Transmitter
The expansion board connects to the OrangePi Zero via a 13pin header built into the OrangePi Zero and comes with 3 standoff/screw sets to secure the two boards to each other when connected.
Possible Use Cases
The main use that I would see this product for is of course, a NAS, otherwise known as Network Attached Storage. Basically, a device on the network that is accessible to any other device on the network for storing or retrieving files. You could set this up where it is accessible to devices outside the network over the internet.
Of course there are many things you could do with a file server running linux. Using it as a media server, possibly using a program such as PLEX, or even as a basic web server for the purpose of hosting your own website or project websites, ever hear of an Upside-Down-Ternet?
OrangePi Zero Specs
The first two are the original Orange Pi Zero boards, they are both identical except for one contains 256MB of RAM and the other contains 512MB of RAM. They both use the Allwinner H2+ processor, which is an ARM A7 quad core processor running at 1.2Ghz. They also have 1 USB 2.0 port, a 100Mbs Ethernet port, built in 2.4Ghz N spec WiFi, as well as a 26 pin GPIO bank unpopulated with pins, and a additional 13 pin function interface meant for use with the numerous expansion boards available for the OrangePi Zero.
The OrangePi Zero 2 has all of functionality of the previous OrangePi Zero, but also has an HDMI port, a Raspberry Pi style camera connector, built in Bluetooth, and a built in 8GB of EMMC flash storage. The final variant has the same features as the Orange Pi Zero 2, but has a upgraded processor in the Allwinner H5, a 64bt Quad-Core A53 ARM processor.
Setup is not very difficult at all software wise, so long as you have some experience with linux commands and SSH. I used the Ubuntu Server image available on the OrangePi website. And was up and fully running in the space of about an hour.
The hardware setup was considerable more difficult. I really struggled for a long time figuring out how I wanted to configure the hardware for the NAS. Should I run a MSATA SSD, or a mechanical hard disk. What about both? How do I power all of this since the Pi Zero wants power through a USB Micro B OTG connector, the NAS Expansion board wants power through a barrel jack and is specifying 2Amps, and the Mechanical Hard Drive wants power as well with another .75 amps.
In the end I found a 5v 2.5 amp power supply and created my own monstrosity of a cable. I can never find a barrel plug that fits the Zero jack so I just soldered the power supply to the bottom of the NAS board, then spliced a USB Micro B cable off of it to power the Zero, and also spliced a SATA power connector off of it to power the Mechanical Hard Drive, cutting off the 12v wire since I had no way to deliver power to it. Slightly risky but I really didn’t want to complicate this project by having to use multiple power supplies.
Now that I am setup and running it’s a good time to talk about some of the inherent weakpoints that this configuration has.
- Using Desktop Mechanical Hard Drives – When I think of a NAS I really don’t think of a single drive setup. I think of multiple mechanical hard disk in a raid 1 or 10 configuration. That way you have a large amount of storage, that is also safely backed up in case of a drive failure. But you can’t do that with this product. First off there is only one SATA port and one MSATA port, there is also the 2 USB ports but in my testing I found that they were linked to the SATA ports. So if you use a flash drive or other USB device it will disable one of the SATA ports. But besides not having enough ports you also have the issue of how you are going to power these disks. Desktop Hard Drives need both 12 volts and 5 volts to operate. So now either you need 2+ power supplies to power the OrangePi Zero, Expansion Board, and Hard Drive, or you have to use something like a computer power supply which increases the size of the setup bu a huge amount, not to mention having a 24 pin cable just dangling around somewhere.
- Speed – The second weakpoint and probably more detrimental than the power issue is the throughput that this product is capable of.
Before we have this discussion though we need to differentiate to MegaBytes Per Second and MegaBits Per Second. The terms are used interchangeably when they shouldn’t be and cause quite a bit of confusion.
Basically, A byte consist of 8 bits, always.
When referring to transfer speed, MegaBits Per Second is used, and when referring to storage amount or file size, MegaBytes Per Second is used.
So lets look at the speeds of the different interfaces of the OrangePi Zero
When you connect a drive to the SATA interface, I am assuming this is a SATA II interface, the maximum bandwidth that is supported is 3.0 Gb/s or GigaBits per second. Now to convert this into Bytes we divide the Bits by 8 so 3,000,000,000 Bits Per Second divided by 8 equals 375,000,000 or 375 Mega Bytes Per Second.
So our current maximum throughput is 375 Mega Bytes Per Second.
However, the SATA interface on the expansion board is connected to the OrangePi Zero through a USB 2.0 interface, so it is not a native SATA.
Now the maximum throughput of the USB 2.0 spec is 480 Mega Bits Per Second which is equal to 60 Mega Bytes Per Second.
Quite a difference from native SATA speed, but this actually isn’t the worst part. When this is connected to your network, the OrangePi Zero only has a 100 Mega Bit Per Second fast Ethernet connection, not a Gigabit connection which you would really want for this type of device.
If we do the math that 100 Mega Bit Per Second only means a maximum possible 12.5 Mega Bytes Per Second transfer speed, and that is the maximum that you will never reach.
This, in my opinion is the main weakpoint of this setup, and almost completely kills the deal for me.
- Durability – This is a hit and miss subject, how will the hardware hold up over time, and running an OS off of a SD Card has inherent problems as well. As far as the SD card is concerned I did try imaging the mechanical hard drive and booting from that, but was unable to. It appears devices connected through the expansion board cannot be used to boot the system and you will be forced to run the OS off of an SD card. However once setup I cannot see many read/writes ever being done to the SD Card so this is probably a non-issue.
All of that being said this product does have some good points to it.
- Size – The size of this unit means that even paired with a laptop hard drive in a good case, you can put this almost anywhere and not have to worry about it taking up a lot of space. I can easily see this resting on top or beside my router, out of sight and out of mind. Much tidier than a full computer case acting as a server.
- Noise – There are no cooling fans needed for this setup, even with a spinning mechanical hard drive this setup was inaudible on my desk next to my desktop.
- Power – I was able to use 1 5v 2.5a power supply to power the OrangePi Zero, the Expansion Board, and a Laptop Mechanical Hard Drive. It was a little less than everything was rated for, but I figured the hard drive only pulled maximum power as it was spinning up so I took that risk. And even with a MSATA SSD and USB Flash drive plugged in as well this setup ran without issue.
- Convenience – Once setup, I had no connection issues with this unit over Ethernet. I never would recommend using a NAS connected by only WiFi, but still attempted to do so for benchmarking purposes to see if it would be faster than the Ethernet connection. However there are a lot of reports of driver or hardware issues with the built in WiFi. When I tried to setup the WiFi connection I crashed the board stopped booting and I was forced to format the SD Card and start from scratch. I may attempt this again at a later date.
Overall I got exactly what I expected as far as network transfer. 10-11 Mega Bytes per second consistently. So depending on your use case if that can fit your needs then this product will suffice.
Out of curiosity I installed a plex server on it and moved my entire media library to it, roughly 300 Giga Bytes of Movies and Television shows that we own. The transfer took roughly 8 hours. Once transferred I tried to see how many concurrent streams I could run from it, and 2 was the basic answer. With 1 stream seeking and even transcoding into a different bitrate was possible, albeit transcoding did take awhile to start and buffer. Without transcoding I could solidly watch 2 separate streams, but it one of those needed transcoding both streams would become unwatchable. 3 streams proved to be too much for the little device, causing all three to rotate buffering as they all attempted to access the disk at once.
It should be noted that these were all using 1080 source files. I did note that some files did work better than others, however did not note what formats worked better.
Although I am disappointed to see this product stuck with a 100 Mega Bit Per Second Ethernet connection. I do see some use cases for it, and will keep it around for experimenting as well as if I ever need to recover information from a MSATA drive. That being said, the price is a huge plus in this, and I would recommend against purchasing a MSATA drive for this product. The price of SSDs is far too high just to dedicate it to such degraded performance. Use an old laptop drive, even 5400 RPM drives easily max out the possible throughput of this product, and are much cheaper per dollar even if you didn’t have one around to just say it was free.