Years ago, somebody asked me about my most important piece of tech and was surprised when I said it was my Synology DS410 NAS server and not the smartphone I was holding.
That was true then. And it’s even more so now.
Additionally, with the benefits of hindsight and real-world usage, I’m also more confident that nobody beats Synology when it comes to NAS servers.
Indeed, I used to have servers of different vendors — WD, QNAP, Netgear, Lacie, Asus, TerraMaster, to name a few. Now I only keep about a dozen from Synology in my fleet.
If you’re wondering what I’m talking about, this post is for you. And even if you already know about network-attached storage, chances are you’ll learn a thing or two.
I’ll explain in this post, in layman’s terms, NAS in general, and the steps to get a Synology server up and running.
Dong’s note: I originally published this piece on Mar 14, 2018, and did a major update on Aug 2, 2021, to include additional, up-to-date, and relevant information, including that of the latest DSM 7. This is not a sponsored post.
What’s a NAS server?
NAS is not a name — it would be a terrible one — but an acronym for network-attached storage.
A NAS server is similar to an external drive, but it connects to a router (or a switch) via its network port. And that makes a world of difference.
NAS server vs. external drive
An external drive connects directly to a computer, likely via a USB or Thunderbolt port — it’s a direct-attached storage (DAS) device.
For this reason, a DAS device, like those on this list of top portable drives, works only with one host at a time. Also, it generally just adds additional storage space and not much else.
(Sure, you can attach an external drive to certain routers via a USB port and make the information it stores available to the rest of the network. But that’s just a way to turn your router into a pseudo-NAS server.)
On the other hand, a NAS server is available to the entire network and can deliver much more.
Just like a real server, a NAS server can provide many services, such as serving content to streamers, hosting personal cloud storage or a backup destination, working as a mail server, running virtual machines, and a lot more — all at the same time. The possibility is endless.
(OK. Take “endless” with a grain of salt. Different applications require different amounts of resources, and a server, NAS or not, can do only so much at a given time.)
And as for storage, NAS servers can house multiple internal drives to host lots of storage space with redundancy. Among other things, this is the key to the survival of your data.
So to understand a NAS server well, we first need to know RAID. (Already in the know? You can jump to the Synology Hybrid RAID section.)
Redundancy, via the use of RAID, explained
In data storage, redundancy is the use of extra disks (or drives) that are not strictly necessary to provide the storage space but to prepare for when a disk fails unexpectedly.
You then have the option to fix that without losing any data or even having to put your system offline.
You get redundancy by using a RAID or a redundant array of independent disks. Different types of RAID deliver different levels of performance and resiliency — the tolerance against drive failures –. Still, they all depend on how much storage space you’re willing to put aside for it.
Standard (classic/conventional) RAID setups
As the name suggests, you can lump many disks together into a single storage entity with RAID.
Depending on the number of disks in use, you have the following popular standard RAID setups — there are more, but you don’t have to worry about them.
RAID 0 is the only non-redundancy RAID.
Also known as disk-striping, RAID 0 combines two (or more) disks into a single volume.
This volume has the storage space of all involved disks’ combined capacity. For example, if you use two 2TB drives in RAID 0, you’ll get a 4TB volume.
RAID 0 delivers fast performance by writing one copy of data to multiple disks — each disk only needs to hold a portion of the data — and therefore cutting down the amount of writing each disk has to do.
In return, RAID 0 has no data protection. If one of the drives fails, the RAID is dead — you’ll lose data on all disks with no chance of recovery it in full.
Also known as disk-mirroring, RAID 1 is the opposite of RAID 0. It combines two drives into a single volume with the capacity of just one.
Again, if you use two 2TB drives in RAID 1, you’ll still get a 2TB capacity. For this reason, your data survive if one of the two disks fails.
In return, RAID 1’s performance is slow since it has to write two copies of data to two physical disks — that’s double the amount of writing.
This RAID setup requires three or more drives. It uses one of them as redundancy, so it has the capacity of all involved drives minus one.
For example, if you use three 2TB drives, you’ll get 4TB protected storage space; five will return 8TB, and so on.
RAID 5 delivers capacity, redundancy, and performance, but it favors speed over resiliency. In a RAID 5 setup, your data is safe when one of the involved drives fails.
This RAID setup is similar to RAID 5, but it requires four or more drives and cares more about redundancy by setting aside two drives for data protection. That said, in a RAID 6, your data survives even if two drives fail at the same time.
If you indeed use four drives, RAID 6 is somewhat like RAID 1 mentioned above or RAID 10 below.
This one is a standard nested RAID setup, a combination of RAID 1 and RAID 0.
RAID 10 It requires four drives and delivers both performance and data protection. RAID 10 has 100% data safety against one drive failure and a 50% chance against the case when two drives fail simultaneously.
When a drive in a redundancy RAID fails, the RAID is now “degraded.” The storage device will give you a notification via indicator lights or beeps. When this happens, you need to replace the failed drive for the RAID to rebuild itself.
The rebuild process can take a long time — hours or even days — depending on the amount of data the RAID stores. But during this time, you can still use the server, just at (slightly) slower overall performance.
A RAID rebuild can be stressful for the rest of the disks in the array. For this reason, it’s a good idea to reduce the loads on your server during this time.
Standard RAID requirements and drawbacks
All standard RAID setups require drives of the same capacity. You can mix drives of different sizes, but all will deliver the same amount of storage as the lowest-capacity one.
For example, if you use a 1TB, a 2TB, and a 3TB drives together, all of them will be regarded as 1TB drives — you have access to a total of just 3TB of raw storage space, and not 6TB.
In other words, when combing drives of mixed capacities, you’ll waste the surplus storage spaces on the higher-capacity drives.
Also, in a standard RAID, there’s no way to scale up the storage space. If you want to increase the RAID’s capacity, you’ll have to follow these steps:
- Back up the RAID’s data to another device.
- Rebuild the RAID from scratch with higher capacities drives.
- Restore the data from the backup.
The whole process is quite time-consuming and requires the server to be taken out of service.
These shortcomings of standard RAIDs are where Synology comes into play.
Synology Hybrid RAID
Besides supporting all classic RAIDs, Synology NAS servers also uniquely feature a proprietary RAID setup called Synology Hybrid RAID (SHR).
SHR is an automated storage management system that, at its core, is similar to standard RAIDs.
For example, when you use two drives, SHR works like RAID 1; with three or more, SHR is now identical to RAID 5. You always have a volume that’s resilient against a single drive failure.
However, SHR has one significant difference: It supports drives of different capacities efficiently. As a result:
- You won’t waste storage space when mixing drives of various storage sizes.
- You can conveniently scale up a server’s storage space without having to rebuild the RAID from scratch, by replacing the RAID with larger drives, one by one.
By default, SHR always uses one drive for redundancy. However, if you have four drives or more, you can choose to use SHR-2, which reserves two drives for redundancy, similar to RAID 6.
By the way, you can start with SHR and upgrade to SHR-2 later, but you can’t do the opposite.
I’ve used SHR for years and love it. It delivers excellent performance — slower than standard RAIDs but by a tiny margin — and is very resilient in data safety.
For example, SHR (not SHR-2) can survive when more than one drive fails simultaneously. That’s almost always the case if you haven’t filled the RAID with more data than the surviving disc(s) can hold.
Why Synology is the best NAS choice?
SHR alone makes Synology servers superior to those from other vendors. But this flexible RAID setup is just one of many things that make Synology NAS great.
Sure, Synology is not the only NAS vendor on the market, and I’ve had the opportunity to work with servers from virtually all other vendors.
For basic network storage needs, most, if not all, NAS servers will deliver. Some are also easier to use, and most are certainly more affordable than those from Synology.
But if you want to get the most out of network storage, definitely pick a Synology. This goes for both home and business users. Let’s start with the naming of its servers.
Synology’s NAS naming convention
Synology NAS servers come in different tiers and models.
Based on the number of drives they can house, the hardware specs, and the release year. You’ll see names like DS1621+, RS1619xs, FS1018, and so on. It’s a good idea to know what those names mean.
There are three parts in the names, the leading letters, the numbers, and the ending letter(s)/characters. Here’s the breakdown of how to interpret them, for home and business models:
The leading letters in a Synology NAS server’s name
This part has two or three letters that show the types of the server:
- DS stands for DiskStation: A desktop design with drives installed vertically. This type is a popular design for general consumers.
- DX (DiskStation Expansion): This name is for expansion units that extend the capacities of supported DS server type above.
- RS (RackStation): A rackmount design server with drives placed horizontally.
- RX (RackStation Expansion): This one is another expansion unit, but for an RS server.
- FS (FlashStation): A desktop performance-oriented design built especially for 2.5-inch solid-state drives.
- NVR (Network Video Recorder): A server designed mostly to work as a video recorder.
- VS (Visual Station): This server is one dedicated to the Synology Surveillance Station.
The number part in a Synology NAS server’s name
This part includes three or four digits to indicate:
- The last two numbers indicate the release year. For example, 18 means the server is the 2018 model year. (Sometimes, a server is available one year earlier than its intended model year. The DS620slim, for example, came out in 2019.)
- The number (s) preceded the model year is the max amount of internal drives the server can house, including when used with expansion unit (s).
The ending letters/characters in a Synology NAS server’s name
This part shows the series a server:
- XS: A top-tier, expensive server that’s the best of the best. This server is designed to deliver maximum performance and includes the most extended warranty with the best support. It’s suitable mostly for businesses that require high availability and uncompromising performance.
- Plus (+): A high-end server that can do everything a standard server can and much more. (Note that not all plus servers can do 4K transcoding, which depends on the processor.)
- (Nothing): This is a standard server. If a server’s name doesn’t end with a letter or charactor, it’s a server that’s better than J but lower than Plus. It might or might not have 4K transcoding capability. There are two addtional flavor of standard server:
- Play: A standard server with emphasis on home entertainment. Its hardware prioritizes photos, movies, and music over other functions. A Play server is always capable of 4K transcoding.
- Slim: A standard compact desktop server that uses 2.5-inch drives.
- J: This is a lower-tier than a standard server with decent hardware. It’s generally weak in performance and features.
- SE: An entry-level server with the lowest hardware specs. It’s affordable but suitable only for basic needs. It’s designed to handle a single task at a time.
Here’s an example: the DS1621+ is a 2021 desktop server that can house up to 16 drives and belongs to the Plus series. The server itself houses only six drives, but it can host two 5-bay expansion units.
Synology NAS server: State-of-the-art operating system
All Synology NAS servers run a Linux-based operating system, called DiskStation Manager (DSM), of which the latest 7th revision came out in July 2021.
For this reason, no matter which model you get, you’ll have the same core experience. DSM is where the power of Synology NAS servers lies. It’s by far the most advanced and robust NAS OS.
You access this OS via its web interface — the way you do a router –, but DSM behaves like any other desktop OS within the web page.
It has a start button, a desktop, a taskbar, and a control panel. When working with it, you can open and rearrange multiple windows, log in, log out as different users, etc., all with transitional effects.
In all, working with a Synology NAS server is similar to doing a real Windows or Mac computer. DMS is robust and has excellent context-based help and description. If you’re tech-savvy, you can figure things out quite quickly.
What’s most important is that DSM is consistent throughout the entire Synology ecosystem. As a result, when you know one Synology server, for the most part, you know them all. Again, it’s just like any Windows or Mac OS.
Synology DSM’s useful core settings and features
Like all OSes, DSM has essential functions, such as user management, network settings, security, shared folders, Time Machine backup support, and many others.
It also has the following, which makes Synology servers so powerful right out of the box:
Advanced storage and user management, with 2-Factor Authentication login
Supporting all standard RAID and SHR, a Synology server delivers all the storage setup you’d want, from the most basic to the most advanced levels.
You can also set up storage quotas for each shared folder and conveniently manage permission down to an individual sub-folder.
Starting with DSM 7, all Synology NAS server comes with the option of 2-Factor Authentication login which you can enforce on individual accounts or a user group.
Once turned on, users can use the phone or an app as a verification key for added security. They can also choose to trust certain devices, making subsequent logins less of a hassle.
Active Directory integration
This powerful business feature allows the NAS server to be part of a network with a Windows Server. Once integrated, you can manage NAS’s resources based on the settings of the domain server.
QuickConnect, VPN, DHCP, Dynamic DNS, DNS and so on
QuickConnect is an easy and quick way to use your server remotely.
All you need to do is register a unique name. After that, you can access your NAS from anywhere, using quickconnect.to/UniqueName as the address.
Starting with DSM 7, these features include a free SSL certificate, making remote management a much better experience.
If you don’t want to have an account with Synology, you can skip QuickConnect and use Dynamic DNS. You can also set up the NAS as a VPN, DNS, and DHCP server.
Many Synology NAS applications have their own mobile versions.
That, plus the QuickConnect feature, means you can use your smartphone or tablet to access your server from anywhere.
Examples are content streamings, surveillance apps, photos sharing, download, and so on. By itself, you can use DS File mobile app to access shared folders and move data between the server and the mobile device.
Share Folder sync
Sync shared folders in real-time with another Rsync-compatible server — all Synology servers support this — to have another live copy of your data.
Shared Folder Sync works locally as well as over the Internet via VPN or QuickConnect.
Link Aggregation, PCIe add-on options
For servers that have two or more network ports, you can combine two ports into a single 2Gbps connection to boost the server’s throughput speed.
Certain servers also come with a PCIe add-on slot to host a 10Gbps network adapter or SSD cache.
An app store where you can install more applications that add features and functionalities to the server.
Synology offers some 100 and counting free, high-quality apps, and you can also manually install apps from third-party developers.
The Package Center is by far the most powerful feature of a Synology server. It opens up the hardware to endless possibilities.
Synology NAS server: Well-thought-out, useful applications
The reason my servers play such an essential role in my daily life is because of their apps.
As mentioned above, there are more than 100 official apps. I haven’t had the need (or time) to try them all, but those I’ve used are incredibly useful.
The following are a handful of popular apps, any one of which alone is enough to justify the cost of a server. Again, you can run most, if not all, of these apps and more, at the same time.
Including a server package and client apps, Synology Drive turns the NAS into a personal cloud server, like Dropbox, but much better.
To use it, you need to install and install the server app from the Package Center. After that, download and install Synology Drive on your computer. There’s also the DS cloud mobile app for your phone/tablet.
With that, you can sync or backup data across multiple (hundreds of) devices in real-time.
This function works within the local network or via the Internet. There’s no storage limit other than that of the server itself.
You can turn on this feature for all the user accounts on the server, and each account will have its own private sync/backup space. It’s just like having multiple unlimited Dropbox accounts for free.
Imagine always having your data backed up and synced in real-time, no matter where you are, without you having to do anything (other than the initial setup). Once you’ve had that, it’s hard to turn back.
When adding supported IP cameras, you can turn your Synology server into a powerful surveillance system via the Surveillance Station app.
Once set up, you can use a browser to keep tabs on your home in real-time or view recorded video based on motion detection. You can also do that via the DS Cam mobile app. For more, check out my full review of the Surveillance Station.
This app is one of the many streaming features of a Synology NAS. It automatically organizes movies and TV shows and casts them to the DS Video app, which is available on many platforms, including iOS, Android, Roku, Xbox, Fire Stick, etc.
Again, you can stream content when you’re in the local network or out and about using QuickConnect. Alternatively, Synology NAS also supports Plex and other streaming platforms.
Keep in mind that, by default, Video Station doesn’t support DTS sound, but you can quickly fix that with a third-party app on the front end, such as VLC.
Download Station is the best way to download anything from any source. Download Station will come in very handy if you need to get a large file that takes a long time to download, such as an ISO file of a Linux distro.
You can run many downloads simultaneously and can queue an unlimited amount of downloads. And you can also set the max download speed to ensure the server doesn’t hog all the Internet bandwidth and many other settings options.
There’s also a search function that will look among BitTorrent sources for what you want. When you find something, double-click on it, and the download will start.
What’s really cool is that you can manage your download remotely via the DS Get mobile app.
Virtual Machine Management
Synology’s VMM is one of the most powerful NAS add-on features.
Available in many servers released in the past ten years, it allows the NAS server to house multiple virtual machines on the inside.
In other words, you can run within the NAS server multiple virtual “computers,” including Windows, Linux, and Virtual DSM, allowing you to operate a whole system in a sandbox for all kinds of advanced applications.
This feature also means you can have an advanced network setup without getting additional hardware. In fact, with the Active Directory integration mentioned above, you can have a Windows Server-based advance network without a separate server.
Snapshot and Replication: The ultimate ransomware protection
Available in all server that supports the new Btrfs file system — most Synology server released in the past decade do — the Snapshot Replication is an excellent add-on security feature.
The Replication portion works somewhat like the folder sync mentioned above and requires additional volume (or storage devices.) It can be a bit redundant.
On the other hand, the Snapshot portion is a must-use. It’s essentially a shadow copy feature that automatically saves a version of the server’s data, by shared folder, on a schedule.
In the case of unwanted data altercation, such as after a ransomware attack, you can restore the data to the previous version, either the entire shared folder or by selecting individual files.
In all, the combo of the 2-step verification for login and Snapshot means you can rely on your Synology server to keep your data safe against malicious changes.
Synology NAS server: Easy hardware setup
All Synology servers released in the past few years share a similar design. Most of them are tool-free, while others only require a standard screwdriver. They come with front-facing drive bays, and you can easily replace/install drives.
As for software, NAS servers are generally not for novice users who want something plug-n-play. That’s also the case with a Synology. That said, if you’re a tech enthusiast, though, you’ll have no problem figuring one out.
Steps to set up any Synology server
It’s straightforward to set up any Synology NAS box. Here are the common detailed steps.
- Mount the internal drives on to the drives trays and insert them into the server. Generally, each tray can house either a 3.5-inch (desktop) or a 2.5-inch (laptop) drive. The later won’t require an adapter, not even screws in newer servers. Synology servers work with all standard SATA drives on the market, including the Seagate IronWolf 110 SSD, or the WD RED SA500. However, it’s a good idea that you use NAS-specific drives.
- Connect the server to your router or switch using a network cable and turn it on.
- On a connected computer, download, install, and run the Synology Assistant software. The application will detect the server from your network.
- Double click on the detected server and follow the wizard to install the DiskStation Manager (DSM) operating system directly from Synology’s website and finish with the initial setup process.
- Log in to the web user interface and customize your server the way you want.
Extra: Step to migrate to a new or different Synology NAS server
Another cool thing about using Synology NAS servers is that you can quickly migrate from one server to another without losing data or system settings. This applies when you need to replace your server due to hardware issues or upgrade to a newer one.
And this process works as a downgrade, too. The only requirement is that the destination server has the same or more drive bays than your existing unit.
And here’s how to do it: physically remove the internal drives from the old server and install them into the new server, preferably in the same order. That’s it!
After that, the first time you turn the new server on, you’ll be prompted to upgrade the OS, like in step #4 above, to the latest version of DSM built for the model. Afterward, all data and most settings of the old server will be present in the new one.
There you have it! Now you know why my Synology NAS has been essential for my daily life and why I wouldn’t go with any other brand.
So, no issues? Really?
I can’t find anything purely negative about Synology NAS. In fact, of all servers I’ve used over the years, I had issues with just one, the DS1515+, which died after almost four years of non-stop operation.
However, that turned out to be the fault of Intel’s chip and not Synology. By the way, Synology promptly replaced mine for free, even though it had already been out of warranty.
But just like everything else, these servers are not perfect. Here are a couple of things you should keep in mind before getting a Synology.
- The cost: Synology servers tend to be more expensive than counterparts if you compare the hardware specs. The TerraMaster F2 210, for example, has about the same hardware specs as the DS218+ but costs less than half.
- Expensive RAM upgrade: Synology servers require Synology-approved RAM, which is expensive, costing many times more than RAM other vendors. Some models, such as the DS419slim, come with little RAM and have no option for upgrades.
- Only two IP cameras allowed out of the box: The Surveillance Station is one of my favorite apps, but each home/SMB Synology server can host just two cameras out of the box. If you want to use more cameras, you’ll have to buy additional licenses at some $60 a pop.
- Limited support for USB add-on devices: Starting with DSM 7, Synology servers sheds a vast collection of USB dongles. Generally you can only use a server’s USB ports for storage-related purposes.
So, in the end, the most annoying thing about Synology NAS is the cost. But in this case, you pay for what you get.
Which NAS model should I get?
I’ve worked on most Synology home, and SMB servers, starting with the first servers released more than a decade ago. Since then, I’ve owned more than a dozen, with the latest being the DS1621+.
My very first personal server, the DS410, released in 2010, as the name suggests, still works, by the way.
But no matter what Synology NAS you get, you’ll experience most, if not all, of what I previewed above. And rest assured that your server will last. Here’s proof: Synology’s latest NAS OS, the DSM 7.0, supports servers as old as the 2013 model year.
That said, if you want something simple, get a dual-bay server like the DS220+. If you want more storage space, get a five-bay DS1019+ or even the six-bay DS1621+ server. And if you need something compact, the DS620slim is worth considering.
But most importantly, trust me on the significance of a NAS server. Get one from any vendor that fits your budget. At the very least, you’ll have a proper backup solution. And if the server allows for remote access, it’s always better to own your cloud than using one of a third party.