Load Me Up, Load Me Down

by Dan Sawyer

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.

What It Does

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 Good

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.

Mounting It from Linux

Using the Media Vault from a Linux box on a heterogeneous network is dead easy, so long as you have the relevant Samba packages installed. You'll need SMBFS support and Samba client support if you want to set your Media Vault shares to mount to your filesystem at bootup. In order to pull this off, I had to do a little detective work to discover the share names to plug in to fstab.

I used smbclient -L hpmediavault to grab the following shares list from the Media Vault:

Domain=[HPMEDIAVAULT] OS=[Unix] Server=[Samba 3.0.25b]

        Sharename       Type      Comment
        ---------       ----      -------
        Photos          Disk      Default_Photos
        Music           Disk      Default_Music
        Videos          Disk      Default_Videos
        Backup          Disk      Default_Backup
        Documents       Disk      Default_Documents
        IPC$            IPC       IPC Service (HPMediaVault Server)
Domain=[HPMEDIAVAULT] OS=[Unix] Server=[Samba 3.0.25b]

        Server               Comment
        ---------            -------

        Workgroup            Master
        ---------            -------

Because there isn't a default ubershare, you'll have to add one line to your fstab for each share. So long as you have the proper Samba support installed, from here on out it's very easy. For each share, add a line as follows:

//hpmediavault/sharename /your/mountpoint/here smbfs 
 ↪username=username,password=password,user,defaults 0 0

Note the use of the user-mountable flag—this is important if you expect to be able to write to the share at all. Samba mounts are picky about who mounted the drive, and most systems won't let users write to a mounted smbfs share unless they mounted it themselves.

The Bad

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.

Configuration without Windows

For those of you who, like me, don't keep Vista or XP machines around, setting up the Media Vault is a bit more of an adventure. We simply don't have the option of using the bundled software without borrowing someone else's computer or breaking down and installing XP on machines that we've previously kept sacrosanct from MS Product Activation. This is how you set up all but the most advanced features of the HP Media Vault using SSH and a Web browser.

The first thing you need to do, after plugging the Media Vault in to your network and powering it on, is to find the IP address. As it comes set up to grab a DHCP lease automatically, the easiest way to do this is to log in to your router and find the most recent lease. Once you find the address, pull up that address in your Web browser. The browser screen is a fairly straightforward Webmin panel—it allows you to create users, access levels and directories, and to enable DLNA streaming on a per-directory basis.

In order to enable SSH access, you need to go into the System section, press Edit, and set your admin user name and password. The password you set becomes the root password for the box, and you now can log in via SSH. The user name and password you set also become the login info for the Web admin panel. The System section, by the way, is where you can set the LED brightness level and the hard disk spindown interval. While you're setting up access levels, you'll want to add a user (or a few users) appropriate to your environment in the User screen. Everyone gets access to the basic pre-allocated folders, and each user can create his or her own folders that you can set as private or shared, both through the Web admin panel and through regular permissions management.

The other thing you'll want to do immediately is to allocate the disks on the Disks page. By default, the MV5150 comes with one of the 700GB disks allocated and the other unallocated. You have the choice here to allocate the second disk as a RAID-1 mirror or to allocate it as additional disk space, resulting in 1.4TB of total space. This page is also where you can add external USB disks of the appropriate filesystem types.

Once you plug it in, you can, with a bit of jiggerypokery, find the thing with an SMB browser. It's actually non-obvious in some SMB browsing software (including some versions of Windows), but direct access can be had at smb://hpmediavault. The easy way to deal with this, of course, is to set up your workgroup information in the Network tab of the Web admin panel.

The last thing to do to get the system up and running is to set up the Web server by enabling remote access in the Remote Access tab. Annoyingly, it doesn't seem to work without a domain registration (free for a year, costing money after that), but checking this off allows the folders whose permissions you have set as browsable to be browsed from the Internet through a handy PHP interface. Hacking this thing so it'll serve up your documents without going through the activation process is pretty simple: SSH into the box, create a symlink in the /usr/htdocs folder to the /share/1000/ folder. You then can serve up files at http://myserver'sipaddress/symlink/sharefoldername/filename.

The last tab you'll want to check out is the Backup tab at the far right. This allows you to hook up a USB drive and do a selective backup—direct copy, not compressed—of selected directories. This process will wipe the destination drive, but it's nice to have the easy redundancy option with the processing performed locally on the Media Vault rather than clogging the network by copying between one remote share and another.


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.

Dan Sawyer is the founder of ArtisticWhispers Productions (www.artisticwhispers.com), a small audio/video studio in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has been an enthusiastic advocate for free and open-source software since the late 1990s, when he founded the Blenderwars filmmaking community (www.blenderwars.com). He currently is the host of “The Polyschizmatic Reprobates Hour”, a cultural commentary podcast, and “Sculpting God”, a science-fiction anthology podcast. Author contact information is available at www.jdsawyer.net.

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