Years ago, somebody asked me about my most important piece of tech and was surprised when I said it was my Synology NAS server -- the DS410, to be specific -- and not the iPhone 5 I was holding.
That was true then. And it's even more so now. In fact, with the benefits of hindsight and real-world usage, I'm also more confident that nobody beats Synology in network-attached storage.
Indeed, I used to have servers from different vendors -- WD, QNAP, Netgear, Lacie, Asus, and TerraMaster, to name a few. Now I only keep about a couple of dozen from Synology in my fleet. Oh, at one point, I actually ditched the iPhone for a completely different reason, but my NAS server has always been there.
I'll explain why I came to that decision and the general idea of how to manage a Synology server. Before continuing, you should check out this primer post that explains what a NAS server entails.
Dong's note: I originally published this piece on March 14, 2018, and did a major update on December 1, 2022, to include additional, up-to-date, and relevant information. Like all content on this website, this post is not sponsored.
Why Synology is the best NAS choice
Most, if not all, NAS servers will suffice for basic network storage needs. Some are also easier to use, and most are more affordable than those from Synology.
But if you want to get the most out of network storage, I'd recommend Synology. And that's true for both home and business users.
For years, Synology Hybrid RAID (SHR) -- a proprietary flexible RAID configuration -- alone has made Synology servers superior to those from other vendors.
But with hard drive capacities getting increasingly high, this flexible RAID, which has no longer been Synology-exclusive, is not as significant as it used to be. Still, for home users, it remains one of many things that make Synology NAS great today.
After years of experience with all different NAS brands, since 2020, I have decided to no longer actively seek to try any NAS server but those from Synology. But I keep an open mind on the matter.
Of all the mesh brands, QNAP is the most similar to Synology, with much better hardware specs at the same price point. However, its NAS operating system, QTS, is bloated and disorganized. Most apps are half-baked and unreliable.
The runner-up is TerraMaster, of which the TNAS OS is leaner (than QTS) but still years behind Synology's DSM in functionality. And its app store is a desert.
With that, let's start with the naming of Synology's servers.
Synology’s NAS naming convention
Synology NAS servers come in different tiers and models.
Dependent on the number of drives they can house, their hardware specs, and 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 to 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 (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 storage capacity of the DS server type.
- 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.
- DVA (Deep learning Video Analytics): A specific type of network video recording server that includes real-time facial recognition, enhanced tracking, and greater security by categorizing and then identifying personnel.
- VS (Visual Station): This server is dedicated to the Synology Surveillance Station.
- SA: This series is for scalable enterprise storage solutions and is generally not applicable to home and SMB users.
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 a 2018 model year. (Sometimes, a server is available one year earlier than its intended model year. The DS923+, for example, came out in 2022.)
- The digit (s) preceding the model year show the max number of internal hard drives the server can house, including when used with expansion unit (s). So the DS923+ can host up to nine internal hard drives.
The ending letters/characters in a Synology NAS server’s name
This part shows the tier or the server series:
- XS or XS+ series: These are top-tier, enterprise-class (and expensive) servers that are the best of the best. These servers are designed to deliver maximum performance and include the most extended warranty with the best support. They are suitable mostly for big businesses that require high availability and uncompromising performance.
- Plus (+) series: A high-end server that can do everything a standard server can and much more. It can also host more storage via expansion units. (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 character, 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 additional flavors of standard servers:
- Play series: A standard server with an emphasis on home entertainment. Its hardware prioritizes photos, movies, and music over other functions. A Play server is always capable of 4K transcoding.
- Slim series: A standard compact desktop server that uses 2.5-inch drives.
- J series: This is a lower tier than a standard server with decent hardware. It's generally weak in performance and features.
- SE series: 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.
Since late 2020, it seems Synology has slowly phased out the Play and SE series.
With that, here's an example of how to interpret a server's name: the DS1522+ is a 2022 desktop server that can house up to 15 drives and belongs to the Plus series. The server houses five drives and can host two 5-bay expansion units.
Synology servers and storage limits
You might have heard that Synology servers support a limited storage size. Well, that's true for all servers -- none can handle unlimited storage space.
In the case of Synology, it's pretty simple. There are three volume size limits, 16TB, 108TB, and 200TB.
Specifically, a server running a 32-bit CPU, including most standard and low-tier servers, has a volume limit of 16TB.
Servers with a 64-bit CPU -- that's most Plus (+) servers and those released in the past five years -- can handle 108TB per volume, and most XS and higher-end servers can control 200TB per volume.
Some servers can do larger than 200TB volume size. These are enterprise-class machines with at least 64GB of RAM and run DSM 7.0.1 or later.
It's important to note that a server can have multiple volumes, so you can always use two or more to double or triple their storage space. Using multiple volumes can be a good practice since it gives you more options for backup and replication.
The drawer below will give you a list of servers and their supported volume sizes.
Extra: Synology servers and their volume size limits
The list below is based on the information from Synology.
Last updated: Late 2022.
- 16TB volume limit:
- 19-series: DS419slim
- 18-series: DS218j, NVR1218
- 17-series: RS217
- 16-series: RS816, DS416, DS416slim, DS416j, DS216, DS216play, DS216j, DS216se, DS116, NVR216
- 15-series: RS815, DS415play, DS215+, DS215j, DS115, DS115j
- 14-series: RS814, RS214, DS414, DS414slim, DS414j, DS214+, DS214, DS214play, DS214se, DS114
- 13-series: DS413, DS413j, DS213+, DS213, DS213j, DS213air
- 12-series: RS812, RS212, DS212+, DS212, DS212j, DS112+, DS112, DS112j
- 11-series: RS411, DS411, DS411slim, DS411j, DS211+, DS211, DS211j, DS111
- 10-series: DS410, DS410j, DS210+, DS210j, DS110+, DS110j
- 108TB volume limit:
- 23-series: DS923+
- 22-series: RS822RP+, RS822+, RS422+, DS2422+, DS1522+, DVA1622
- 21-series: RS2821RP+, RS2421RP+, RS2421+, RS1221RP+, RS1221+, DS1821+, DS1621+, DVA3221
- 20-series: RS820RP+, RS820+, DS1520+, DS920+, DS720+, DS620slim, DS420+, DS420j, DS220+, DS220j, DS120j
- 19-series: RS1219+, RS819, DS2419+II, DS2419+, DS1819+, DS1019+, DS119j, DVA3219
- 18-series: RS2818RP+, RS2418RP+, RS2418+, RS818RP+, RS818+, DS1618+, DS918+, DS718+, DS418, DS418play, DS418j, DS218+, DS218, DS218play, DS118
- 17-series: DS1817+, DS1817, DS1517+, DS1517
- 16-series: RS2416RP+, RS2416+, DS916+, DS716+II, DS716+, DS416play, DS216+II, DS216+
- 15-series: RS815RP+, RS815+, DS2415+, DS2015xs, DS1815+, DS1515+, DS1515, DS715, DS415+
- 14-series: RS2414RP+, RS2414+, RS814RP+, RS814+
- 13-series: DS2413+, DS1813+, DS1513+, DS713+
- 12-series: RS3412RPxs, RS3412xs, RS2212RP+, RS2212+, RS812RP+, RS812+, DS3612xs, DS1812+, DS1512+, DS712+, DS412+
- 11-series: RS3411RPxs, RS3411xs, RS2211RP+, RS2211+, DS3611xs, DS2411+, DS1511+, DS411+II, DS411+
- 10-series: RS810RP+, RS810+, DS1010+, DS710+
- 200TB volume limit
- FS-series: FS6400, FS3600, FS3400, FS3017, FS2500, FS2017, FS1018
- SA-series: SA3600, SA3400, SA3200D
- 22-series: DS3622xs+
- 21-series: RS4021xs+, RS3621xs+, RS3621RPxs, DS1621xs+
- 19-series: RS1619xs+
- 18-series: RS3618xs, DS3018xs
- 17-series: RS18017xs+, RS4017xs+, RS3617RPxs, RS3617xs+, RS3617xs, DS3617xsII, DS3617xs
- 16-series: RS18016xs+
- 15-series: RC18015xs+, DS3615xs
- 14-series: RS3614RPxs, RS3614xs+, RS3614xs
- 13-series: RS10613xs+, RS3413xs+
- Over 200TB volume limit (Servers must support Btrfs Peta Volume with a minimum of 64GB of RAM and run DSM 7.0.1)
- FS-series: FS6400, FS3600, FS3400, FS2017
- SA-series: SA3600, SA3400
- 21-series: RS4021xs+, RS3621xs+, RS3621RPxs
- 19-series: RS1619xs+
- 18-series: RS3618xs
- 17-series: RS18017xs+, RS4017xs+, RS3617xs+, RS3617RPxs
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.
No matter which NAS server 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.
Working with a Synology NAS server is similar to working with a Windows or Mac computer. DSM is robust and has excellent context-based help and description. If you're tech-savvy, you can figure things out quite quickly.
Most importantly, 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 applicable 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 RAIDs 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 servers have the option of a 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 trust specific devices, making subsequent logins more convenient.
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 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 streaming, surveillance apps, photo sharing, downloading, etc. You can use the 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 and over the Internet via VPN or QuickConnect.
Link Aggregation, PCIe add-on options
For servers with two or more network ports, you can combine two ports into a single 2Gbps connection to boost the server's throughput speed.
Specific servers also have a PCIe add-on slot to host a 10Gbps network adapter or SSD cache.
That's 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 the most powerful feature of a Synology server. It opens up the hardware to endless possibilities.
Synology NAS server: Well-thought-out, practical applications
My servers play an essential role in my daily life and outdo my mobile phone in importance 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 simultaneously.
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 the server app from the Package Center. After that, download and install the Synology Drive Client desktop app on your computer. There's also the DS cloud mobile app for your phone/tablet.
You can sync or backup data across multiple (hundreds of) devices in real time. The way it works, the NAS server will retain a copy of the data and sync that with the clients. You can even use "On-demand Sync" on a client to save storage space.
This function works within the local network or over the Internet (via QuickConnect or a Dynamic DNS connection). 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.
By 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 on 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 handy if you need 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 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. Double-click on it when you find something, and the download will start.
What's 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 advanced 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 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 alteration, 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-and-play. That's also the case with a Synology server. If you're a tech enthusiast, 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 onto the drive 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 former 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. By the way, make sure you use one of its built-in LAN ports for this part. An add-on 10Gbps card -- as mentioned above -- only works after a server's OS has been installed.
- On a connected computer, download, install, and run the Synology Assistant software. The application will detect the server from your network. (Alternatively, in an Internet-connected network, you can open a browser and go to finds.synology.com to find the new server.)
- Pick 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. That is handy 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.
Synology NAS servers: The shortcomings
Like all things, Synology NAS servers are not perfect. Before getting a Synology, you should remember some possibly unpleasant items below.
Comparatively high cost, Gigabit by default, expensive upgrades
Synology servers tend to be more costly than their counterparts of similar hardware specs.
Take the F2 223 vs DS220+ -- the two latest dual-bay servers from TerraMaster and Synology -- for example. The former has a faster CPU, more RAM, and two 2.5GbE Multi-Gig ports, which help deliver significantly faster raw throughput speed than the latter. Yet, it costs just about half the price (≈ $150 vs ≈ $300.)
Another thorny issue with Synology is that its servers use Gigabit ports by default -- there's no built-in Multi-Gig port. For years, the only way to get Multi-Gig out of one is combining two ports (when available) into a 2Gbps Link Aggregation connection.
Increasingly, many servers give you the option for a 10GbE Ethernet upgrade. But in this case, the accessories can be pretty expensive. For example, the latest 10GbE E10G22-T1-Mini module, available in the DS1522+ and DS923+, costs some $150 apiece.
Furthermore, generally, Synology servers require Synology-approved hardware -- RAM, network cards, hard drives, SSDs, etc. -- which is also a lot more expensive than generic hardware from other vendors.
On these hardware restrictions, a representative from Synology recently told me:
[...] We continue to want to raise the standard for validating compatibility between drives and our units to ensure consistent and reliable operation for our solutions. We have seen in the past where a third-party drive maker has validated drives and then later updates their firmware without telling us so that their drives are no longer compatible. For something as important as people's data, we want to do what we can to ensure the integrity of their data, and by instituting a validated drive system, we're not only able to better avoid instances like this, but we're also able to do better testing on a shorter list of drives to validate their performance. Each drive model is put through a comprehensive validation test to assure maximum compatibility, reliability, and stability in our NAS.
High camera license cost
As mentioned above, the Surveillance Station is one of the most useful apps, and it works well, especially with the latest version available in DSM 7.1.
However, each Synology server includes just two camera licenses out of the box that can't be moved from one server to another. You'll have to buy additional (and transferable) ones at $60 a pop if you want to use more cameras. For those needing a dozen cams or so, the cost can add up fast.
It'd be more sensible of Synology to include the number of default camera licenses according to the number of drive bays -- a 2-bay server has two, a 4-bay server has four, and so on. But I wouldn't count on it.
Limited USB usage
My take is Synology has decided to exert more control over the hardware, and removing support for third-party USB dongles is part of the effort. In the future, there will likely be new supported dongles that are explicitly approved or manufactured by Synology.
So, in the end, the most annoying thing about Synology NAS is the cost. You get little in terms of hardware for your hard-earned dough. But thanks to the stellar DSM operating system, you still pay for what you get in most cases.
My observation is that over the years, Synology has slowly applied Apple's playbook to the NAS world, including removing generic NAS-specific drives from it's official supported lists -- they still work -- to coerse users into getting its approved alternatives at much higher costs. And that's generally more bad than good.
The transition to AMD CPUs
And there's one more thing. For years, Synology NAS servers (for homes and SMBs) used Intel Atom or Celeron CPUs. Since 2020, the company has slowly transitioned to using AMD chips.
The move means the servers are now much more powerful for general tasks. However, since AMD CPUs don't include a graphics processing unit (GPU), the new servers are less suitable for native video transcoding. And I know a lot of users are crying foul about it.
On this front, here's Synology's official statement:
[...] We are steering away from transcoding on the NAS and do not have any current plans to include GPUs for transcoding purposes in the near future. Part of our reasoning for this is that the server is the least powerful place to do transcoding, and it's ultimately better to do it on streaming devices.
And I agree. In my experience, the new AMD-based servers are much better overall -- they are great for running virtual machines. By the way, if you know what you're doing, they are also excellent for media streaming.
In any case, AMD is the new Synology way for the foreseeable future.
I've worked on most Synology home and SMB servers, starting with the first servers released over a decade ago. Since then, I've owned and managed a few dozen, the latest by the time of this post being the DS1522+. It's safe to say it won't be my last.
And out of that extensive experience, I can't find anything purely negative about Synology NAS. Yes, there are things I wished some servers had, but they are all relatively minor.
Of the many Synology NAS servers I've used, 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 Synology promptly replaced mine for free, even though it had already been out of warranty.
My first personal server, the DS410, released in 2010, as the name suggests, still works. (Stuck with DSM 5, this server is outdated, and I now use it primarily for its sentimental value.)
But no matter what Synology NAS you get, you'll experience most of what I previewed above, if not all. And rest assured that your server will last.
Synology's latest NAS OS, the DSM 7, supports servers as old as the 2013 model year. So, if you get a new server today, you can safely expect it to last a decade. And considering you likely will enjoy it every day, at times even unknowingly, however much you pay today is a fair price.