Review: Synology NAS – A Turbo-Charged Way to Store Sound Libraries

Synology NAS Angle

Gathering sound effects is addictive. Recordists always have an ear open wherever they travel to capture more audio. It’s the same for sound editors. Tempting libraries are released every month. The result?

The need for storage space explodes. I wrote about one storage solution a few years ago: Drobo hard drive arrays. And while the Drobo worked well for some time, I stumbled across a better solution: the Synology family of NAS storage boxes.

What is NAS? Why is Synology better for field recordists and editors? I’ll explain all of this, and share my experience using the NAS in today’s post.

Drobo and NAS Storage

The Drobo is a compelling concept. It’s a slick enclosure that holds internal hard drives. Why bother with this when you could purchase external hard drives more cheaply?

Well, the Drobo is a drive array. It uses internal hard drives together. Perhaps you have a 1 TB, 500 GB, and a 250 GB drive in your closet. You simply slide them into the Drobo, and they combine together to work as one big drive via USB/SATA/Firewire. Want more space? Add more internal drives. A drive burns out within the Drobo? It’s no problem. The Drobo stores a backup of all information. Simply swap out the dead drive for a new one, and you’re fine. And there’s no downtime while you do this.

The Drobo is a handy way to grow your storage space incrementally. And, since internal drives are far cheaper than external ones, you can wait for deals then upgrade your storage cheaply.

There was a problem, however. The Drobo’s fan was incredibly noisy, about as loud as a kitchen fan. It would cycle at random times. Drobo support assured me this was normal, and the Drobo was at work during these times. However, for a sound editor, the amount of noise was a problem.

I tolerated the Drobo, wishing for something better. Then I stumbled across a New York Times column mentioning Synology NAS servers. I researched them, and was instantly hooked.

Synology NAS

Synology NAS Upper

What is the Synology NAS?

On one level, it is similar to the Drobo. It is an enclosure that allows you to slide in a mix of internal drives, which in turn work together as a combined volume. You can start with a few small drives, add one, then another, then upgrade to bigger drives.

However, that’s where the similarity ends. The Synology is not simply an enclosure, or box, that holds drives together. Instead, it is a NAS.

What is NAS? NAS stands for Networked-Attached Storage. What does this mean? Well, in simple terms, it is a “computer appliance” built solely to store files. It is a drive array that is connected to your computer via a network, not USB or Firewire. In most cases this is via an ethernet port. You’ll typically plug the NAS into your router to connect it to a network, or the Internet. This is the first cool aspect about the NAS: it can be accessed from any computer with an Internet connection.

Another difference is that the Synology NAS has a processor and RAM. It is actually a small computer. It runs Synology’s DSM operating system. You can ask the NAS to perform a huge variety of tasks. In some ways it operates as a Web server. More on this in a moment.

The point is that a NAS is not only expandable, flexible storage. It allows worldwide access to the files on it, and can perform tasks itself. This offers some cool options for editors, field recordists, and sound librarians.

Hardware

Synology offers a wide variety of NAS boxes. They differ in processor power, and the amount of internal drives they hold. They all support Windows, Mac, and Linux.

I chose the 413j. It stores four hard drives. The drives must be screwed into sleds before inserting. The Drobo adds drives far more simply; you just slide them in.

The unit itself is well-built. And, like most of the Synology line, it makes less than 20 dB of noise. It barely whispers. I’ve used it for about a month now, and I never notice it.

My Synology has two USB ports. These ports aren’t used to attach directly to your computer. That’s done through the ethernet cable and your network instead. Those USB ports are used to add accessories, such as Bluetooth adapters, video cameras, and so on. More about this shortly.

Storage

Another cool thing about the NAS is the way it stores files. A standard external hard drive has limited space. If you fill up a 500 GB external hard drive, you must buy another to add more files. A NAS uses RAID technology to combine all hard drives inside into one large pool of storage. Synology offers many RAID formats, as well as its own flexible “Synology Hybrid Raid” format.

Conventional drives store a single copy of a file. The NAS RAID system “mirrors” data instead. It creates an additional copy of all data. To do this, it must sacrifice storage space. So, if you use two x 2 TB drives in it, you’ll only be able to access half of that space, 2 TB. The other 2 TB are used for backup. Why is this done?

Hard drives burn out. In the event that one drive dies, a copy is saved on the “mirror,” and can be accessed immediately. The NAS’s RAID format reduces space in return for peace of mind.

Setting Up the Synology NAS

One drawback with the Synology series is the lack of documentation. You can find answers online via their forum, or wiki. Some of the information is a bit out of date. Because of this, you’ll need moderate experience to get your NAS up and running. This is in contrast to Drobo family, which is easily set up, even by novices.

After connecting to the NAS, DSM will update software, and begin formatting the drives. Be forewarned that it takes days to prep the drives. I added four 2 TB drives. It took about three days to format and verify them.

Software

Synology DSM 4.2 Desktop

The power of the Synology family is their DSM software. This is the operating system for the NAS (updated regularly Synology). How can you use this software if the NAS has no screen, keyboard input, and doesn’t connect to your PC?

It’s simple. You access the NAS via a Web browser. Simply open Chrome, Firefox, or Safari and log onto your NAS’s private URL address. Your browser window will display the NAS’s desktop. It looks just like the graphic interface you’d see on Windows 7, complete with folders, control panels, and system status. You can resize windows, drag and drop files, all within a Web browser.

Why would you want to access a hard drive array’s desktop? There are two powerful reasons.

1. Sharing

One of the greatest strengths of the NAS is that you can store your collection on it and access it worldwide. This means you will always have access to your collection in whatever facility you work. You can portion off a number of sounds into a folder, then share just that folder with a client. There’s also an option to share a single file while protecting all others.

I love this idea. I travel while recording quite a bit. This means I can access, modify, and share my library even if I’m in Peru.

Since the NAS is on a network, does that mean your library can be hijacked by anyone?

No. The DSM software allows granular access control. You can set up users and groups to access some folders, but not others. You can set bandwidth and transfer limits, or limit access to times of day, and control the number simultaneous connections. It also has a strong firewall, allows IP blocking, and two-step verification.

2. Apps

The DSM software also allows you to install and run software, known as “packages.” They’re similar to how apps are installed on mobile phones. They’re authored by Synology, installed with a single click, and are free. They’re attractive and dead-simple to use.

There are dozens of cool apps. I’ll share a few here.

  • DSM Time BackupBackup. Reserve part of your storage as a Mac OS X Time Machine volume. Synology offers dozens of cool apps, which works time same way. An amazing feature is currently in beta: Amazon Glacier backup. I wrote about Arq and Glacier earlier. The Synology Glacier package backs up chosen folders from the NAS seamlessly to Amazon’s inexpensive cloud service.
  • Surveillance Station. Connect an IP video camera to the NAS to create an instant surveillance system, complete with remote monitoring through iOS apps. It includes remove view, video recording, and alerts via mobile – prefect if I want to keep an eye on my studio while field recording on the road.
  • VPN server. VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) allow you to surf the Web privately. A VPN creates an encrypted connection between your device (desktop, laptop, iPhone) and any website it visits. This means data can’t be poached, or leaked. Usually these services cost. A Synology NAS creates one for you. This means you can surf freely in cyber cafes, or bank online without worry while travelling.
  • DSM Video StationPlay your media. Copy all your music, movies, and photos on the NAS. Use Audio Station, Video Station, and Photo Station to access your media via a browser, on a compatible TV in your home, or anywhere in the world. This means you can listen to and watch terabytes of media without needing to copy it to your laptop. It’s merely streamed over the internet.

    I love this. This means I can travel worldwide and access my entire music and video collection from Bangkok without packing extra hard drives. Synology also has free iOS apps that allow you to browse and stream your media from your NAS directly to your iPhone or iPad.

  • FTP Server. Create, host, and monitor your own FTP servers. Create an FTP directory for each client.
  • Antivirus.
  • Download Station. Find and download torrents directly on your NAS.

It’s important to note that you don’t need to be logged in constantly to use these apps. Simply start any task, then log out. The NAS will run the app on its own.

Advanced Apps

There are other more complex packages available, too:

  • Run your own mail server.
  • Create your own website on the NAS.
  • Create your own cloud sharing system. It works exactly like DropBox, but of course, it’s run on your NAS.
  • Create and host WordPress, Joomla, Magento and other sites directly on the NAS.
  • Receive notifications by email, SMS, mobile, MSN, or Skype when events happen on your NAS (heavy traffic, downloads completing, errors).
  • There are many more.

Bonus features

  • Filled up the slots in your NAS? No room for more hard drives? Plug an external hard drive into one of the two USB ports for instant access to more space.
  • Attach a USB printer to allow all the devices on your network to print documents.
  • Use free iOS apps allow access to the files, apps, and see the health of your NAS while on the road.

Is It For You?

I am a huge fan of the Synology series. The hardware is solid. The device is quiet. But it is the software that impresses me the most. It works flawlessly, and is simple to use. I’ve yet to find a bug.

I’ve even tried using the NAS while out of town and had no problems at all. Streaming movies was a bit laggy, but that’s likely due to the mediocre connection I was using at the time. Accessing the NAS, modifying files, and changing settings was effortless and problem-free.

Is a NAS, or a Synology NAS for you?

Pros

  • Massive, pooled storage.
  • Data redundancy.
  • Quiet operation.
  • Backup to the cloud.
  • DSM software with apps.
  • Free iOS apps allow access to device and data. Play media on your mobile device.

Cons

  • Cost. It’s expensive.
  • Long spin-up time after drives sleep.
  • Poor documentation.
  • Requires intermediate experience.

There are far cheaper options if you just need storage space. A simple hard drive dock paired with an internal drive is reliable and inexpensive.

However, worldwide access to my sound library and media files was been something I had been wanting for a long time. And when at home? The NAS fits my needs perfectly for a large pool of quiet, reliable storage.

Other Options

Check out the Pegasus RAID storage system from Promise for a similar way to store sound files.

Here’s a link to the Drobo family too.

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