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So you want a NAS?

December 12, 2014

The following is from some experiences I have had recently that I thought people would find interesting and useful.  This concerns a stand-alone box with disks in it as a purpose-built device that is supposed to be a “turnkey” NAS system.  I am not going to get into all the wonderful things you can do with Linux building your own NAS or NAS+other stuff machine.

The primary advantage of buying a box that someone else put together as a NAS is that you put disk drives in it (or even have it come with disks), plug it in and start moving files around.  It doesn’t take a lot of valuable time setting things up and it will integrate pretty nicely into most environments.  Also, based on my experience, unless you really want to do something extremely custom, you aren’t going to be locked in or limited in capabilities on your NAS device by buying a commercially produced one.

Another couple of advantages for a commercial NAS is size and power.  Yes, you can build up your own NAS in a variety of enclosures but you are unlikely to find any that are as small as the commercial NAS devices, most of which are simply a box for drives.  As far as power is concerned, the processor for these NAS devices is usually as small as they can get away with – with some exceptions – and have the provision to power down the drives when they are not in use, or not expected to be in use.  This probably is a small part of an office budget but can be an important difference at home.  Also, when the device is powered down it will be even quieter.

Early on, I purchased a small external drive case with a network connection.  This isn’t the sort of NAS device I am focusing on.  While this might meet your needs, it is a single drive with no redundancy – not very safe.  It was cheap (under $100) and it is still in use today, but not the point of this article.

My experience so far has been with two very good devices, one from Thecus and one from Synology.  These are both purpose-built NAS devices and are intended to be very flexible.  Both have Linux-based software with web applications for interfacing with the device and controlling it.  The Thecus has five drive bays, the new Synology has only four but things have changed over the years.  I also have a Synology box at home as well and this helped a lot with the decision to acquire another.

The specific devices I am talking about here are a Thecus N5200BR PRO and a Synology DS415+.  At home I have a Synology DS213j with two 3TB drives in a RAID 1 configuration.  The Thecus is being replaced by the DS415+ specifically because of some software issues.

When the Thecus was purchased it seemed like a pretty good choice at the time.  It had quite a bit of flexibility and would interface with a Windows AD environment for authorization.  It was configured with five 1.5TB drives in RAID 5 and has remained that way ever since.  The problem with Thecus is one of development philosophy.  They continue to offer new devices with (probably) enhanced capabilities but the Linux software on the box I purchased has been left as an orphan – no updates since 2009.  I certainly understand that not every company can build devices and continue to update the software – but the comparison with Synology is a valuable one.

The Synology box I purchased for home has had a steady stream of updated software since its’ acquisition in 2013 and from the list of devices that the software updates apply to it seems reasonable to expect continuing software support for years to come.  Clearly, Synology isn’t in the business of orphaning their hardware as Thecus is.  This is extremely important if you are planning on a turnkey NAS device with a great deal of flexibility.  Alternatively, if all you need is storage space on the network with no other capabilities, then almost any NAS device may do the job for you.

Obviously, I am a lot more impressed with the software support from Synology.  While I can understand the point of both companies is to produce and sell new hardware, these devices are expensive enough that you aren’t going to be replacing them quickly or simply to pick up a new nice-to-have software feature.

Now to balance this out I have to say that Synology isn’t perfect.  While I am very impressed with their continuing support for older hardware and am confident that their hardware will continue to be supported for a long time, their software technical support leaves something to be desired.  If you are having a problem a number of people have noted (and I agree with) that the function of the software technical support seems to be to explain to the customer how they did something wrong or have the wrong expectations.  There does not appear to be any other sort of support going on – if they find a bug and fix it, great.  If a customer finds a bug, well, you are doing something wrong and they will try to explain it to you.  This isn’t a perfect support experience by a long shot.

Finally, in conclusion, I want to say that the new box is configured as RAID 10 with four 6TB drives.  Why not RAID 5 or 6?  The problem is with a 6TB drive the recovery time is so long that even with a hot spare there are too many chances of losing the entire array should a failure occur.  With RAID 10 we get (perhaps) a bit better performance and the ability to survive any single drive failure and some two drive failures.

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