A few months ago, on one of the more nerdy episodes of Shawn Today episodes, I was discussing local backup solutions, my need for a better backup hard drive, and some of the research I was doing on Network Attached Storage drives (NAS) since that’s the direction I was leaning.
All the data in my house consists of:
- Files I’m using right now
- Files my wife is using right now
- Files we want to keep, but don’t use often (if ever)
- Media (photos, music, movies)
- Backups of all of the above
The files we’re using now live on our computers, obviously. The rest should be kept on another drive. I, however, had the rest kept on 5 different drives. Ugh. There were two old USB drives with different folders of archived data; two USB drives that I used for my nightly super duper clones; and a Time Capsule that was used for our Time Machine backups, except it bit the dust about a year ago, I hadn’t set anything up to replace it until recently.
I wanted to consolidate all of that stuff into one backup and storage kit that had more functionality beyond being just an external drive and could be expanded if I needed it to. Plus, I wanted to have redundancy with all this stuff — to know that all my old files and all our media and everything else wasn’t just being stored, but was also being backed up here at home and to an off-site service.
And so, now you know why I was leaning towards a NAS, and not just a bigger USB drive.
Well, at first I was thinking of getting a refurbished Mac mini and a basic thunderbolt RAID to attach to it. I knew I’d be able to use it as a media server, a backup destination, and that I’d be able to log in remotely from my iOS devices or my Mac. And, I knew that I could put backup software on the Mac that would do local clones of the RAID and offsite backups of it as well. But I wasn’t ready to spend $1,500 for that setup.
After doing more research it was clear that what I wanted was the Synology DS213j. It would be capable of handling everything I wanted from a Mac mini + RAID setup, but it was much more affordable ($200 plus the price of two drives ($125/ea.).
The Synology DS213j has a gigabit ethernet port and two USB ports. I have it plugged directly into my Google Fiber modem. Which means not only does the Synology have it’s own Gigabit connection to the World Wide Web, I have a gigabit connection to the Synology from within my home. But that’s just the start.
It’s that operating system that separates a Synology from your basic NAS or RAID. With DSM 5 (the software that runs on the Synology), you can install apps and services onto that let you do some pretty clever things with all the files you’re storing on there. And that’s a big part of what makes a Synology more than just a fancy external hard drive. It’s literally a file server. And, it get’s better: there is a whole suite of iOS apps as well. But more on that in a bit.
Setting up the Synology
A site member who was listening to my aforementioned Shawn Today episode had recently purchased a Synology DiskStation but was no longer using it. He emailed me and offered to send it at no charge. I, of course, gratefully accepted his generous gift.
That was 3 months ago. I’ve since been using the Synology quite a bit and it’s time I shared some of the cool things it can do and give a look at how I am using it in real life.
For starters, I put 2 of the 3 TB Western Digital Red drives in there. Between all our media and all our archived files, we only have about 700GB of unique data to store. And so a 3TB disc is plenty and the WD Reds are one of the drives that BackBlaze recommends.
Here’s a quick rundown of how I’m using my Synology:
- Consolidated 2 old USB hard drives I had that were storing random, archived files (like design projects I did back in 2006).
Created a Time Machine partition for me and one for my wife’s MacBook Air.
Created a partition for cloning my MacBook Air with a browsable folder structure.
Offloaded my entire music library and photo library, freeing up some much needed disk space on my MacBook Air. If I want to listen to music in iTunes I can see the Synology as a shared library. Also, I simply moved the photos in my Lightroom library to the Synology’s Data drive, and I can see all the images from past years right there within Lightroom still.
But that is all pretty standard stuff for a NAS or RAID. Here’s what I’m utilizing from the department of Things the Synology Does That Are Cool:
Synology’s automatic backups of itself
For local backup: I plugged in a Lacie USB drive to the back of the Synology and set it up to do nightly local backups of the Synology itself. This is fantastic. As any nerd will tell you, a RAID is not a backup — even though you’ve got 2 or more drives in the enclosure (helping ensure that if one of the drives dies, you don’t lose your data), if the enclosure itself were to suffer catastrophic failure (power surge, bug, freak accident of nature, whatever) then it’s possible that all the drives in the RAID could lose their data. So, really, you want to have a local backup of your RAID.
For off-site backup: I set up an automatic off-site backup to Google Drive. It can also back up to Amazon Glacier, Dropbox, and other services, but I went with Google Drive because I have 1TB of free space thanks to Google Fiber. My Synology only backs up the files that are specific to it, (meaning it doesn’t send the Time Machine partitions there).
Synology on iOS
Synology also makes a whole suite of 8 different iOS apps that are for basic things like accessing the files and media on your DiskStation to nerdy things like monitoring your DiskStation or viewing your network security cameras.
(From left to right: DS file, DS photo+, and DS audio. The apps are universal and work on iPad, too.)
- DS file: this gives you complete access to the entire file structure of your Synology. You can log in over the local network, or, if you have QuickConnect set up, you can access your Synology from anywhere in the world.
DS audio lets you stream (and download) all the audio files on your Synology. And, unlike the photo package, when you set up the Audio package, it auto-detects the MP3s on the Synology and is ready to go immediately.
DS photo+ lets you browse all the images on your Synology, as well as enable instant upload from your iPhone and iPad’s camera rolls. It’s basically your own Photo Stream replacement service, except that it’s not super easy to automatically upload photos in-to (that I know of).
Another small gripe I have with the photo app is that, for whatever reason, after installing the Photo bundle on the Synology itself, you then have to manually import or move your photos out of the file structure of the Synology and into the Photo app (which exists as its own partition on the Synology). Once added to the Photos partition, the Synology has to convert those images (which I’m not even sure what it’s doing to confer them, and it takes a very long time). It’d be nice if it would just let me tell it where all my photos are and then it automagically does the rest.
However, since the photos and photo albums exist simply as a hierarchy of folders, you can add photos through the Finder directly via the mounted Synology. I haven’t gotten this far yet, but I see some great options for automating the photo importing and structuring process using some Hazel rules. I should be able to automatically get my iOS photo stream images in there as well. We’ll see.
To get the iOS apps to work, you also need to install the corresponding packages (a.k.a. apps) onto the Synology itself. With the photo viewer, for example, it’s a separate web app that houses all the photos from your Synology. You start by manually uploading photos to the album and then once they are there, you can browse them from your Mac, the Web, or iOS devices. And anyone with the login info to that photo album can view the photos (so good news for families).
Read / Write Speeds
For the first two months I was connecting to the Synology over my 2.4Ghz Wi-Fi (because I’m an idiot), and the connection was pathetic at best: 2-3 MB/s read and write.
A few weeks ago I dropped a Gigabit port by my desk and ran CAT 6 from my router (which is in a different area of the house) to the port. I then got a Thunderbolt Ethernet port (that came with this awesome Belkin Thunderbolt Dock) for my MacBook Air so I could take full advantage of Google Fiber’s gigabit internet.
The advantage of the Gigabit drop is that I’m now also getting significantly better read/write speeds to the Synology (obviously). I can now read/write to the DiskStation at 85 MB/s and 45 MB/s respectively. Which is pretty great.
If I’m on my 5Ghz Wi-Fi connection I can read/write at 24 MB/s and 15MB/s respectively.
Since the Synology is attached directly to my modem, it has its own connection to the Internet. But all NAS drives connect direct to the modem (usually). The Synology is cool because, since it has its own operating system, it doesn’t require a dedicated Mac in order for the files to be accessible from my home or from anywhere else in the world. While it’s not quite as powerful as a Headless Mac mini plus NAS setup would be, it is about $1,000 less expensive. And if you’re just wanting to dip your toe in the water with this stuff, from where I’m sitting, a Synology DiskStation is a great place to start.
So, in short, I’ve got a gigabit connected local hard drive that is smart enough to back itself automatically. And it also serves as my own personal media center, photo backup solution, and it just so happens to have a suite of iOS apps so I can access all the files and media from any of my computers or devices from anywhere in the world.