A while ago, somebody asked me about my most important piece of tech and was surprised when I said it was my Synology NAS server. But that’s true! Despite the not-so-sexy name, that NAS box is my most critical gadget.
If you’re wondering what I’m talking about, this post is for you. And even if you know about network storage, chances are you’ll learn a thing or two. I’ll explain here, in layman’s terms, NAS in general, and the steps to get a server up and running. And you’ll also find out why I picked Synology as my personal NAS choice — this is not a sponsored post.
What’s a NAS server?
NAS is short 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 the Samsung T5 or WD My Passport SSD, works only with one host computer at a time. Also, it generally just adds additional storage space and nothing else.
A NAS server, on the other hand, is available to the entire network at all times, and it 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.
And as for storage, NAS servers can house multiple internal drives to host lots of storage space with redundancy. So to understand a NAS server well, you need to know RAID.
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 put your system offline.
You get redundancy by using RAID, which is an acronym for redundant array of independent disks. Different types of RAIDs have different levels of performance and resiliency, which is the tolerance against drive failures, but they all depend on how much storage you’re willing to sacrifice.
Standard (classic/conventional) RAID setups
As the name suggests, with RAID, you can lump a bunch of disks together into a single storage entity. Depending on the number of disks in use, you have the following popular standard RAID setups.
RAID 0: Also known as disk-striping, RAID 0 is when you combine 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 since it writes one copy of data to multiple disks — each disk only needs to hold a portion of the data. 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. It’s the only non-redundancy RAID.
RAID 1: 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.
RAID 5: 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.
RAID 6: 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.
RAID 10: This one is a standard nested RAID setup, which is a combination of RAID 1 and RAID 0. It requires four drives. RAID 10 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 at the same time.
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 device, just at a slightly slower performance.
Standard RAID requirements and drawbacks
All standard RAID setups require drives of the same capacity. You can mix drives of different sizes, but then all of them will deliver the same amount of storage as the lowest-capacity one.
For example, if you use a 1TB, a 2TB, and a 3TB 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, 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 change 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.
Among other things, the whole process is quite time-consuming. This shortcoming of standard RAID is where Synology comes into play.
Synology Hybrid RAID
Other than 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. When you have four, or more, you have the option of using SHR-2, which is similar to RAID 6.
However, SHR has one significant difference: It supports drives of different capacities. And this means two important things:
- 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.
I’ve used SHR for years and loved it. It delivers excellent performance — almost the same as standard RAID — and is very resilient in terms of data safety.
For example, SHR can often overcome the case when more than one drive fails at the same time. It’s almost always the case if you haven’t filled the RAID with more data than the surviving discs can hold.
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 so great.
It’s important to note that Synology is not the only NAS vendor you should consider. There are many other NAS makers, and I’ve had the opportunity to work with servers from virtually all of them.
For basic network storage needs, most, if not all, NAS servers will deliver. Some are also easier to use and more affordable than those from Synology.
But if you want to get the most out of network storage, definitely pick a Synology.
Synology’s NAS naming convention
Synology NAS servers come in different tier and models, based on the number of drives they can house, the hardware specs, and the release year. You’ll see names like DS1618+, 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:
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. Note that sometimes, a sever is released one year earlier than its 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:
- SE: An entry-level server with the lowest hardware specs. It’s affordable but suitable only for basic needs.
- J: The next level from SE with decent hardware but still quite weak in terms of performance and features.
- Play: A server focused on home entertainment. Its hardware prioritizes photos, movies, and music over other functions. A Play server is always capable of 4K transcoding.
- Plus (+): A high-end server that can do everything a Play server can and more — except for 4K transcoding which not all plus servers can.
- 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.
- Slim: A compact desktop server that uses 2.5-inch drives.
Here’s an example: the DS1618+ is a 2018 desktop server that can house up to 16 drives and belongs to the Plus series. By the way, the server itself houses only six drives, but and it can host two 5-bay expansion units.
Synology NAS server: State-of-the-art operating system
All Synology NAS servers run the company’s Linux-based DiskStatin Manager (DSM) operating system — currently at its 6th revision.
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 within the web page, DSM behaves like any other desktop OS. 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, and 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 text-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, once 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 all the essential functions, such as user management, network settings, security, shared folders, and many others.
It also has the following, which makes Synology servers so powerful right out of the box:
- Package center: An app store where you can install more applications that add features and functionalities to the server. Right now, Synology offers more than 100 and counting free, high-quality apps, and you can also manually install apps from third-party developers.
- QuickConnect: It’s 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 UniqueName.quickconnect.to as the address. By the way, if you don’t want to have an account with Synology, you can skip QuickConnect and use Dynamic DNS.
- Mobile apps: Many Synology NAS applications have mobile versions. That plus the QuickConnect feature means you can use your smartphone or tablet to access your server from anywhere — for example, stream content stored on the server, or monitor your home security via the surveillance app.
- Advanced storage and user management: Support all standard RAID as well as 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 folders and conveniently manage permission down to an individual sub-folder.
- Active Directory integration: This is a powerful business feature that allows the NAS server to be part of a network with a Windows Server domain controller. Once integrated, you can quickly manage NAS’s resources based on the settings of the domain server.
- Share Folder sync: Sync shared folders in real-time with another Rsync-compatible server to have another live copy of your data.
- Link Aggregation: 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.
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, you’ll have no problem figuring one out.
Steps to set up any Synology server
- Mount the internal drives on to the drives trays and insert them into the server. 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.
Alternatively, if you have an existing Synology NAS server and want to upgrade to a new one, remove the hard drives from the old server — must be one with the same or fewer drive bays — and install them on the new server. In this case, you’ll be prompted, in step #4 above, to upgrade the OS to the latest version of DSM built for the new server, and you’re all set. All data and most settings of the old server will remain intact.
Synology NAS server: Well-thought-out, useful applications
The reason my server plays such an essential role in my daily life is because of its 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.
Cloud Station Server
This application turns the NAS into a personal cloud server, like Dropbox, but much better. To use it, you need to install and run the app from the Package Center. After that, download and install either Cloud Station Drive (for data sync), Cloud Station Backup (for data backup) on your computer. There’s also the DS cloud mobile app for your phone/tablet.
The Cloud Station Drive allows you to sync files and folders of your choosing across multiple (hundreds of) devices in real-time. On the other hand, Cloud Station Backup will back up various devices’ data onto the NAS server (with different versions).
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.
If you have IP cameras, you can turn your Synology server into a powerful surveillance system via the Surveillance Station app. This app works with a large number of IP cams on the market. Even if a camera is not on the list, as long as it supports ONVIF, you can configure it to work with the Surveillance Station.
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, and so on.
Again, you can stream content when you’re in the local network or when you’re out and about using QuickConnect. Alternatively, if you want to broadcast content to popular streamers without the need for the DS Video app, you can use the Media Station or Plex apps.
Keep in mind that, by default, Video Station doesn’t support DTS sound, but you can quickly fix that with a third-party app.
Download Station is the best way to download anything from any source. If you need to get a large file that takes a long time to download, such as an ISO file of a Linux distro, Download Station will come in very handy.
You can run many downloads at the same time and can queue an unlimited amount of downloads. And you can also set the max download speed to make sure 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, just double-click on it and the download will start.
Virtual Machine Management
Synology’s VMM is one of the most vNAS add-on features. Available in many servers released in the past five years or so, 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 testing. This feature also means you can have an advanced network setup without having to buy additional hardware.
There you have it! Now you know why my Synology NAS server is essential for my daily life. Keep in mind that what I mentioned here is just part of what my server can do.
So, no issues? Really?
Comparatively, 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 recently 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 was 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 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.
- 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.
So, in the end, the most annoying thing about Synology NAS is the cost. But in this case, you pay for what you get.
What’s NAS model should I get?
I’ve worked on most of the Synology home, and SMB servers, starting with the first servers released more than a decades ago. Since then, I’ve owned quite a few, with the latest being the DS1618+. My first server, the DS410, still works now, by the way.
But it doesn’t 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. For example, servers released in 2011 can still upgrade to the latest DSM (version 6.2 at the time of this post).
That said, if you want something simple, get a dual-bay server like the DS218+; if you want more storage space, get a five-bay DS1019+, or even the six-bay DS1618+ 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.
Dong’s note: I originally published this piece on Mar 14, 2018, and have updated it since to add relevant information.