NAS: A near-perfect experience

Synology DS414 product photo
Synology DS414 product photo – from Synology website

For years I have been thinking about buying a NAS for our home at the K-Team Headquarters. I couldn’t really justify the price tag for such an investment. But as I have experienced many times over: once you take the plunge, you kick yourself for not doing it earlier. Same thing with the NAS 😉

But to justify and rationalize the purchase, I set myself some goals to be fulfilled by the solution. Maybe this can be helpful to you when you start thinking about buying something „professional“, so here goes:

The family setup

  • My wife’s private computer (13″ Macbook)
  • My work computer (15″ Macbook Pro)
  • Our shared living room computer (Mac Mini)
  • Fritz Router
  • Ethernet LAN
  • WiFi
  • several external hard drives, either for backup or for media

As you can see, we are pretty Apple-centric at the Headquarters, so I started looking for solutions that would support that infrastructure. An iTunes Server would be nice and it would also be cool to use the NAS for all Time Machine Backups.

My main goals for the NAS

  • having enough central disk space for the foreseeable future
  • use the disk space with the whole family
  • make backup „bulletproof“ for my wife and our shared machines
  • using Time Machine automatically for all my home machines
  • consolidate the external hard drives that were floating around
  • free up the external hard drives for moving bigger files around
  • taking files back from cloud services and host them myself
  • getting closer to a „real“ backup strategy
  • consolidate media files, family photos, videos, etc.
  • having a solution to support our media center ambitions 😉

The setup I ended up buying is a Synology DS414, a 4-bay NAS with 4 HGST Deskstar NAS hard disks (4 TB each). It was a bit pricey, but once I commit to a solution, I want it to be as hassle-free as possible and all reviews (personal and on the web) recommended either the Synology or the Qnap products. As Synology has recently revamped their product line, I chose their NAS.

Synology NAS Setup with HDD
Synology NAS Setup with HGST HDD

Once you get a 4-bay NAS, it gets even pricier, but I wanted to have a good balance between disk space and failover safety, so with 2-bays, there just wasn’t enough room on the system to support all computers and all our existing files (mainly family pictures and -videos).

So far, I have achieved some of the goals, but I am still on the road for some of the others:

Unified Time Machine Backups

I have set up all machines to use the Synology as their Time Machine volume. I configured users on the NAS for each of the machines so they all have their quotas. It’s important to use quotas because otherwise TIme Machine would fill up the whole NAS volume with hourly backups. I have set a quota of 1 TB for each user.
The Time Machine services on the DSM (that is the operating system of the NAS) manage the backup folders for each machine automatically, so you just have to tell Time Machine on the computer to use the NAS. Synology will set up a new folder for the machine and Time Machine will start backing up to that drive.
My main concern was the 13″ Macbook: Marny was using a pink, 1 TB external hard drive from Western Digital, but she could never find it and so the time between backups was quite long. This is now covered by the WiFi backup and I am quite happy with it.

Having my own private cloud

I have configured Cloud Station to work as a replacement for my Dropbox and Google Drive cloud storage services. I now have the whole NAS available with regards to storage space and I have a better feeling about the fact that the files are not hosted on machines in the US anymore. The speed is a bit slower, as my home connection is now the determining factor. This is not data centre level (yet) 😉 But as files can be sync’d in the background, this is not a big problem for me. I can even use it on my iPhone and share files from it with other people. And it also got built-in versioning so changes and deleting files are the same as on Dropb or Google Drive.

Consolidate external HDD and use them differently

As I now use the Synology for Time Machine Backups, I now have two hard drives with 1 TB and one hard drive with 500 GB free’d up to be used in another fashion. I am also currently copying the files from our 3 TB Seagate media drive to the NAS, so that I can then use it as a backup drive for the Synology itself. I have to check if that suffices or if I need to get a bigger one. We’ll see.
I will definitely peruse the house and find more older hard drives that I can copy to the Synology and then maybe even discard. Don’t be surprised if I offer some of the hard drives for sale 😉

Some bonus tips: Choose the right connection

I made the mistake to do the first ever Time Machine backup from Marnys laptop through WiFi. Bad idea! It took us nearly 3 days to get the complete 420 GB over the air to the NAS. My second „initial backup“ for the Macbook Pro was then done through Ethernet and it turned out that 440 GB would only take one night 😉 It would have been even faster when done through USB, but I wanted to use the network drive option directly.

For transferring files from an external drive (like my 3 TB media drive), the backup experience informed my decision to definitely use the USB option on that one. 2.16 TB would still have taken some days via LAN and I didn’t want to have to have another computer running for the transfer. So I attached the external drive directly to the Synology and initiated the file transfer through the DSM File Manager. This worked superb-ly.

Next steps

Backup strategy

  • use the 3 TB hard drive as a backup hard drive for the Synology NAS
  • think about an off-site backup option. Not sure if I want to use a cloud provider as I just moved away with my files from them. Maybe I can sync another Synology at my mum’s place, although this might be prohibitively expensive.

iTunes

  • find „the“ way to harmonize the iTunes media files between the family. Not the complete library – as we all have different iTunes accounts and sync with different iCloud services.

iPhoto

  • this is the biggest pain-point and therefore I want to think this through thoroughly before I take any decisions. If you have experience how to solve this piece of the puzzle, let me know.

Media center

  • Maybe I can switch out the Mac Mini in the living room for an Apple TV so I can save some energy and make using it a bit more „living-room-esque“. Maybe I use the Plex offering from Synology or maybe there are still different possibilities. Again: if you have ideas, let them be heard!

Conclusion

I hope this piece gave you some insight into some of the factors that might play a role in an NAS setup. I think it is important to define the goals up front so you can make an informed decision and compare the products in a useful way. So if your goals differ, you might pick another product or go down another route in the whole setup. I always like to hear about alternatives.

So far, I am quite happy with the investment and I think that I will find solutions to most of the goals that I have set myself. Make them Euros earn back their value in „peace-of-mind“ 😉