Friday, January 14, 2011


Since 2004, I've maintained a home theater PC that has become the nexus of my entertainment. I built it out of an Asus Pundit, onto which I installed Linux and then MythTV. I hooked it into my receiver, and (depending on where I was living at the time) either plugged the ethernet into my router, or used a simple USB wireless adapter to connect through the wireless. I even hooked up a simple homebrewed serial port IR receiver so I could navigate it with my remote control. (That's one of the few things in life that I'm anal about: I hate using multiple remotes, so I'll go to great lengths to get all my equipment happy with a single control.)

It worked really well. I had simple SAMBA shared folders set up, with different folders for video and music. I could drag over whatever files I wanted (ripped DVDs, TV shows, cool clips, etc.), and they would pop up for me to watch on my TV and stereo. I could run the music player in shuffle mode and get good music out of my stereo system while I puttered around.

Eventually, though, technology caught up to me. The box is old enough that the hard drive was IDE and not SATA. The processor did just fine for serving up standard def video, and handled every codec that I threw at it, but I knew that it wouldn't be able to handle high-def video. (I only just upgraded to an HDTV about two weeks ago, so this wasn't a big deal for a long time.) And, since the on-board video was limited to just composite and S-video, I wouldn't be able to properly watch HD programs anyways.

So, it was time for a change. But, the more I thought about it, the less sure I was that the answer would be another HTPC. I picked up a PS3 a few years ago, primarily for gaming, but had been impressed at the media capabilities it had; without any special configuration on my part, it automatically supported streaming videos and music from my Windows desktop computer. And, of course, the PS3 has great connectors, and is already hooked up to my A/V equipment, so it seemed redundant to get another PC just to handle that.

I decided that what I really wanted was a place where I could dump all my data files - primarily music and video, but also random stuff that I wanted access to. I didn't want to tie things to a desktop or a laptop that I would need to keep on and awake while watching stuff; I just wanted a hard drive connected to the network. In other words, I wanted a NAS.

NAS, or Network Attached Storage, is about the most bare-bone'd computer you can get. They support sophisticated storage schemes that offer high availability and redundancy of data, which helps protect against data loss. Other than that, the goal is to run as lightly, cheaply, and efficiently as possible. I wanted something that I could feel good about leaving on 24/7, quietly protecting my files.

I canvassed some of my more tech-savvy friends, checked out review sites, and eventually settled on the company Synology. They're a fairly small player in the NAS market, which is dominated by familiar names like Netgear and D-Link along with some specialized players like Buffalo Technologies. However, Synology has amassed a terrific reputation, both from the high-end reviewers and from their very dedicated users.

Synology has a pretty wide line of products, but they also make it pretty easy to pinpoint just what fits your needs. At first I'd been considering a 2-bay solution, which is extremely low-power but would offer support for twice as many hard drives as my old HTPC. The more I read, though, the more enamored I became of a 4-bay solution, which would allow me to set up a RAID5 configuration. I'm really bad about backing up my data, and anything that provides some protection against catastrophe could only help me. Plus, it would give a lot more flexibility when the time came to upgrade my storage.

I decided that I would start small, with the minimum 3 drives required for RAID5. 2TB drives have recently fallen in price, and have worked out the initial glitches from their first appearance. 6TB of raw space would give me 4TB of redundant storage, which is more than enough to hold everything on my old (600GB) media PC, as well as the files that had been spilling over to my desktop as the HTPC reached its capacity. If I start switching over to 720p video, I expect that I'll start consuming space at a faster clip; even then, though, I have many terabytes to fill, and can painlessly go up to 6TB of redundant space by simply plugging in an extra drive.

I opted to go with some Samsung 2TB drives that are extremely well-reviewed on Newegg; they periodically have very nice sales, so I checked back every couple of days until they fell to an acceptable level. (I'd also set up an email price alert, but I have mixed experiences with these working on Newegg.) The drives were 5400RPM, and I briefly wondered whether I'd be better off opting for faster 7200RPM drives, but the reviews were high enough that I stuck with it. After I ordered them, I learned that this was actually most likely a better choice, as 5400RPM drives are currently preffered for NAS boxes. They draw less power, generate less heat, and are considered more reliable in general. Furthermore, while the speed boost of 7200RPM might be noticeable on a desktop computer, for the NAS you tend to be limited by the speed of your network, and so it didn't seem likely that the extra hard drive speed would be discernable to me anyways.

As for the box itself, while I was in my research phase Synology came out with the DS411j, which updates their older DS410j and is a sibling to their new DS411+. Each Synology product is intelligently named so that you can tell at a glance what it offers:
  • DS is short for "DiskStation", their product name.
  • The next digit shows how many hard drive bays the product has. Options include 1, 2, 4, 7, 10, and now 15. 1-4 are intended for home; 4-10 for small business; and 10-15 for enterprise.
  • The next two digits are the release year. Current ones include 09, 10, and 11.
  • Finally, a model that ends in a "+" is a higher-end model with a faster processor, more memory, etc. A "j" is a "junior" device that's cheaper, at the price of a bit less capability. Models without a final character are middle-of-the-road with a standard configuration.

The DS411+ was several hundred more than the DS411j, and after comparing the specs, I couldn't justify the extra price. My NAS would be serving many devices - a PS3, a Windows PC, and a MacBook - but only one user (me!), so it wouldn't ever be processing more than one thing at a time. Since network bandwidth tends to be the limiting factor for NAS boxes, the extra speed and memory of the DS411+ didn't seem likely to result in a discernable improvement in my user experience. And so, I kept the cash in my wallet, and opted for the "j".

Next up was price. Since the DS411j had just come out, many retailers were sold out by the time I decided to order one. Amazon had a price about $40 cheaper than the next-lowest price I could find online, plus free shipping (for this box, that's usually around $12), and no tax (which, in California, is a very big deal!). The downside: they were sold out, and didn't have an expected date for new shipments. I wasn't in a huge rush - this was early December, and I still didn't have my HDTV, plus I was limping along with the small amount of space left on my HTPC - and so I went ahead and placed my order.

I'm glad that I did, because Amazon raised the price again when the stock came in. Despite some mixed reviews, this seems to be a very popular box, and I can see why - it seems perfect for home users like me. It arrived just in time for our office to be closed before the Christmas holiday. After I returned, I grabbed it and my drives and got to work.

I think this NAS may be the least painful install I've ever had on a computer. Heck, it was simpler than a lot of the electronic stuff I was setting up for my home theater around the same time. You plug the drives into their bays, hook the box into the network, plug in the power cord, turn it on, then run a program off a CD from another computer. You select your disk configuration from a menu; I went for RAID5, but could just as easily have chosen JBOD (Just a Bunch Of Disks, a way of creating an extremely large virtual hard drive out of several smaller drives, but without any data protection) or SHR (Synology Hybrid Raid, Synology's custom RAID-like solution that allows you to mix different disk sizes and get some protection against drive failure) or a few other choices. It set about initializing my disks, which took a while; I'd been forewarned, though, so I started it off before I went to bed, and let it finish up an hour or two after I woke up the next day.

Many people have praised Synology's software, which they call DSM for DiskStation Manager. I will join in those praises. It's a simple, clean, elegant, fast, useful web interface. You log in through your browser from any other computer on your network (it's password-protected, so you don't need to worry about attackers), and then get a virtual desktop view of your box. Most of your work (such as it is) will occur through the Control Panel, which lists all of the optional services for the box and lets you control them.

By way of example, here's how I set up DLNA streaming:
  1. Select "Media Center"
  2. Click the checkbox to enable DLNA streaming
  3. Click OK

That's it!

The Synology automatically created a new Shared Folder labeled "Video". It showed up as a shared drive on my network, so I could open it from my Windows PC. I dragged-and-dropped video files in there. Then, I turned on my PS3. Poof! Every file displayed as something I could play. And I could. And I did. And it was good.

(In contrast, setting up SAMBA shares on my HTPC in 2004 was an hours-long ordeal, and getting the Firefly Media Server working properly took additional hours in more recent years. Here, it took less than a single minute to get set up.)

There's a bunch of stuff offered by the DSM that I'm already taking advantage of.
  • Media sharing, as noted above.
  • Music sharing. This sets up a Music folder and makes it available over Bonjour, so it shows up in all your iTunes clients connected to the network. I don't need to keep music on any of my computers any more, I can just stream it all.
  • Backup Center. I got Time Machine set up and running on my OS X MacBook, and in about five minutes I was doing my first-ever backup. Synology and Apple have both done great jobs on their respective products. The Windows backup program is unfortunately not nearly as good, but hopefully it will improve.
  • You can create random shared folders to hold whatever data you want.
  • You can create users, including both named and anonymous or guest users, and provide particular permissions to each. For example, some users might only be able to use the backup features, while others can do media stuff, and others can access all the shared folders.

There's a bunch of other stuff that I haven't taken advantage of, like a photo sharing program, mobile apps that let you access the box from the Internet, and a surveillance camera system. There are even kinda heavy-duty apps, like a basic web server, a BitTorrent and eMule client, and an FTP server.

I think that the Synology is one of the best examples I've seen yet of fulfilling the mantra "make the easy things easy and the hard things possible." Almost everything that you'd want to do with your box, you can do by opening the Control Panel and clicking a checkbox. However, behind the scenes, this is a Linux box. One of those checkboxes you can select is to enable terminal access over Telnet and/or SSH. Once you're in the box, you can install a toolchain, grab ipkg, and start messing around with third-party software. Of course, you shouldn't do this if you're primarily concerned about the stability of your machine, but still, I think it's awesome of Synology to (even tacitly) support this kind of creative energy from its very enthusiastic user base.

Lately I've been lurking, and periodically posting, on Synology's excellent community forum site. There's a section called "The Underground" where mad geniuses collude to bring awesome software to these actually-pretty-limited-and-yet-surprisingly-capable machines. While Synology doesn't officially sanction any of this, it seems like some of the things that people have been most passionate about modding (like the BitTorrent client) eventually make it into future editions of the DSM. This is, of course, awesome.

Anyways, I just wanted to share. I'm going to keep poking away at this thing, but what I love about the most is how little I need to think about it. It just sits there in my media cabinet, below my TV, quietly glowing, holding all my data and never complaining about anything. I can use more simplicity in my life, and it's a relief to have something that just works as advertised.

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