Gizmodo Australia Reader Review: Synology DiskStation DS215j Home NAS

You could say that Heath James’ technology life is complex. He’s the manager of an IT-centric team within a large organisation and has 14 years project experience. At home, he and his wife have a teenage daughter and two younger children shared on a part-time basis. Heath is also one of two winners in our recent Synology NAS competition and, with the help of his family, took the device through its paces over the Christmas break. This is his in-depth review.

While my family rarely watch TV or movies, we do consume a lot of digital media. We have a couple of internet-enabled TVs in the house and a dedicated home office. There are Apple Macs, PCs, iPods, iPhones, Android tablets and an Apple TV. We have any number of kids’ friends dropping in during the week who automatically connect to our Wi-Fi and access our network shares.

All our devices need to be able to access a central data repository in as seamless and high availability environment as possible. Knowing my family, they have incredibly high expectations when it comes to convenience and reliability of the storage solutions we use: if a system proves to be unreliable they will abandon a solution. Perhaps they’re too fickle, but I do know we’re constantly underwhelmed by the performance of general IT.

We mostly use wired Gigabit Ethernet between the fixed-location devices in the house as well as dual-band 802.11ac/n for the mobile devices. Low-latency and zero-jitter high bandwidth throughout is important to us not only for enjoyable TV/movie screening -- but also when we sit down to display photos for friends/relatives or watch University lecture live streams (my wife and I both recently made the decision to study for our MBAs).

While this is our first NAS we’ve acquired for home use I have used quite a number through my professional life; up until now we’ve approached the solution at home by having a number of self-powered USB 2.0 drives attached to a mac mini serving files and acting as a time machine/crash plan backup destination. Unfortunately that’s simply not scalable, is too noisy and has far too large a physical footprint in our home office.

Ideally, the Synology DS215j will give us a single point to store and access the family’s files together with an integrated backup and recovery platform. It’ll allow us to easily upload new files and version control documents and reports we’re working on.

We have at most ½ TB of data that we need to be actively backed up whose loss would be catastrophic (and grounds for instant divorce!). We also have 3-5TB of data which losing it, while inconvenient, would be recoverable in slow-time. We reason that it’s extremely unlikely that both the NAS device and the client devices will fail at the same time; we have regular off-site backups to guard against events like power spikes and theft.

These requirements led me, through discussions with my work colleagues, to propose the following partitioning for the proposed NAS:

Photos/Docs Movies/Music Backups
Physical Disk 1 / Physical Disk 2 1TB RAID 1/SHR 5TB RAID 0/equiv 2TB RAID0/equiv

Perfect for first-time NAS (Network Attached Storage) users, the Synology DiskStation DS215j has two hard drive bays supporting your own 3.5-inch or 2.5-inch hard drives -- up to 12TB total storage.
Slot in your hard drives, connect the DS215j to your network (via Ethernet, superfast USB 3.0 or optional wireless dongle) and you’re set.
Enjoy your content across your computers, DLNA devices, TVs and mobile devices. With support for TV streaming across Samsung TVs, Apple TV, and Google Chromecast, the DS215j also makes it effortless to stream digital content to your widescreen TV.
You can even sync files between Google Drive and Dropbox -- plus use Synology's mobile apps to access your multimedia collection and work files on the go. As a backup device, the DS215j also supports Windows Backup and Apple Time Machine.  

And as mentioned, the DS215j can also serve as your home surveillance hub. Simply connect multiple IP cameras to the home network, pair them with DS215j, and then easily view live surveillance feeds, record videos, or enjoy other advanced features like motion detection or push notifications.

As you can see, there’s 1TB allocated from both drives to provide redundancy for my important files, and then the rest of the drives are treated as a RAID0 or JBOD for raw storage capacity.

That was the plan.

Out Of The Box

The Synology DS215j has an impressive build quality, despite the outer case being made of plastic. Once the rigid plastic shell is removed the internal quality becomes evident. Disks are mounted cleanly and solidly; there are rubberised shock absorbers inside the disk caddy to reduce vibrations and noise. Clever half-threaded screws are provided to ensure you can’t over-tighten the drives in their caddies. Disk installation took approximately 2 minutes.

I installed a pair of new WD Red NAS 5TB drives.

The unit powered up and sat on the desk, humming quietly, waiting to be configured. As is so common with electronic equipment in recent times there is no “user manual” included with the device, simply a pictorially-centric single sheet of paper showing the quick installation and setup.

User manuals are all available -- and easy to find -- from Synology’s web site. I connected the NAS into the home’s fixed Gigabit Ethernet cable network. The user manual suggests two ways of finding the NAS from your host’s browser, via a name and post number (diskstation:8000) or via The first wouldn’t work due to a combination of using multiple routers and no home DNS server. Using the second method the NAS was found immediately and the setup began.

Getting Started

Setup promised to be a breeze. The interface presents easy to understand instructions leading you to set up your system in -- I guess -- the most common way people use a NAS. DiskStation Manager/DSM 5.1, Synology’s Storage Manager application is excellent. The application is really well designed with a friendly user interface leading to a most pleasant UX; the interface really does give the feeling you’ve Remote Desktop’ed into another computer. Possibly the best recommendation I can give for this software is that it is intuitive.

We’ll get to the disk configuration in a second, but I decided to set up some other things first. Before you do anything else, make sure you update the NAS’s DSM software to the latest release. Go to the Control Panel and choose Update & Restore. This will, unsurprisingly, require a reboot after installation, so make sure you do this before you start configuring the system so you’re not interrupted.

First I set up the multiple users on the NAS so that we could all start to add data. As you add new users the NAS will happily email them to let them know they exist with instructions on how to log in and change their default password (if required). It’s also a good idea at this stage to consider whether you want to enable your users to have a Unix-like home directory; I think this is a good idea, as I don’t really fancy sifting through all my kids’ data to find mine.

When you set up users in the NAS you also have the option of restricting them to particular shares and also imposing upon them speed limits with which they can access the NAS from various sources. While I couldn’t imagine using this functionality in the home or even small business setting, it might be useful for some applications.

I then decided to bite the bullet and configure the disks how I wanted. With a NAS that only has two bays, I reasoned it must be possible to strike a balance between data reliability and maximising the available space.

Not really.

As I’d installed two 5TB drives (with a very reasonable 4.5TB usable storage space per drive) I was hoping to get the option of how I’d like to configure the drives. Here were the options, boiled down to the simple cases:

• 1. One single RAIDed volume with 4.5TB available space, data replication across whole 4.5TB; • 2. One single non-RAIDed JBOD volume with 9TB available space, no data replication; • 3. A hybrid which matched the desired configuration for our requirements, above.

I have deliberately not enumerated the case where you treat each drive separately, as you may as well not bother with the NAS enclosure for that.

Unfortunately the software sets up the NAS according to what it expects to be the most common case: both drives are RAIDed together in a single Disk Group with a single Volume to give reliable, replicated data storage. If you’re a beginner user, with only a single goal -- that of data reliability -- in mind, this is an excellent default. By default the single 4.5TB volume was partitioned with the Synology Hybrid RAID (SHR) format, providing 1-disk fault tolerance. A number of default shares were created, namely video, photo and home. There was no way of growing or shrinking the volume to add my desired partitions to achieve the arrangement, above, so I had to manually delete the partitions and start again. Lucky I hadn’t copied any data to the device!

Through a long process of trial and error, in which I made, configured, broke and deleted several Disk Groups (collections of physical drives) and Volumes (partitions on single Disk Group drives), I discovered that it simply isn’t possible to achieve the partitioning scheme that I wanted.

It was at this point that I contacted the Synology engineers to seek a solution. To their credit, even though this was the period between Christmas and New Years, a representative addressed my queries, asked excellent clarifying questions, and when I got too technical, referred me to a senior engineer.

Unfortunately it turns out that what I wanted to achieve simply isn’t possible with a two-bay NAS, and nor is it possible, despite the DSM User’s Guide saying so, to increase the RAID level of a volume once it has been created.

After receiving the last update from the Synology engineers I reconfigured the drives according to the default configuration: a single SHR-formatted partition of 4.5TB. I used shared folder quotas to implement a pseudo-partition to impose some disk limits for the device backups.

If you’re willing to accept those limitations then this device will be an absolute winner.

Using It

Transfer Speeds

Transfer speeds to the NAS were quite acceptable. Please note that all transfers were conducted from a local Macbook air on the same network connected via a Gigabit Ethernet switch or a dual-band 802.11ac router connected to the same network. The remainder of the network was quiescent. Transfer speeds are those observed when copying real data to populate the NAS and are observed via the Mac’s system preferences panes, not high-precision testing software; I wanted to give a realistic representation of my experiences, not some idealised environment. NAS drives were mounted using Apple’s Filing Protocol (AFP) and Microsoft’s Server Message Block (SMB) Protocol. I also tried to test scenarios that would be realistic as users set up and used the NAS in a day-to-day environment.

Setting the Macbook Air’s ethernet to 1000Mbps saw bursts of up to 70MBps (560Mbps) for local files; transferring files from an attached USB2.0 device saw 25-33MBps (200-264Mbps) which is not too bad for USB2.0. Restricting the Macbook Air’s Ethernet to 100Mbps saw bursts of up to 11MBps (88Mbps) for local files. While the data transfer rates aren’t stellar they are representative of how a real home network with consumer grade equipment might behave.

Photo Station, Video Station, Audio Station

The DS215j allows extra applications, in the form of packages, to be downloaded and installed. Not only are there about 60 applications available from the official Synology site, there are extra packages available from third-party developers, too. For those using the NAS in a production environment there are Subversion and GIT servers, Tomcat web servers and also podcast generators, to name a few. For those with far too much time on their hands, there is even a Minecraft server available for download!

Photo Station, Video Station and Audio Station work in conjunction with the iOS and Android applications to enable access to photos, videos and music to the hand-held device.

At my place, both the adults and teenagers experimented with this service. The interfaces are robust and there was no noticeable jitter or latency while streaming. I suspect Apple might notice a dip in profits as a certain teenager stops buying iTunes gift cards to download music that we already have on the NAS!

Through experience I also learned that if you reconfigure the drives (see above) then you will most likely have to re-create the shares to store photographs and videos, and they must be named photo and video; otherwise the Photo/Video/Audio Station won’t see them and import your media.

Media Server

The family has been using a Media Server for a while now, in the form of Serviio, off a Mac mini. The Synology Media Server has exactly the same functionality as you’d expect from a decent media server, together with transcoding capabilities and the option to stream certain types of audio directly through to Apple TVs. There are a number of different interface options to the Media Server from your TV set, depending on how you typically navigate your media library; we use a simple interface, usually searching via a well-known folder structure. We have completely migrated our TV/Movie/Photo media onto the Synology; both TVs access the media without jitter or latency which is critical to our enjoyment.

Unlike Photo/Video/Audio Station, the Media Server allows you to specify which folder contains the media to be shared. One of the downsides to the Media Server when compared with Serviio is that the Media Server expected to have cover art for the movie alongside the media; Serviio is happy to download it from the Web for you.

Stream To TV

We tested this with both a Samsung TV and Apple TV; and while it works seamlessly we do intend to stick with a single method -- DNLA --for accessing all our movies/TV/music/photos from the TVs and portable devices. One of the family’s guiding philosophies is to keep things simple wherever possible.

Data Backup

Our home is predominantly an Apple household so the emphasis was on establishing a reliable backup solution for the Apple Mac computers, with a secondary focus on the Windows machines.

Out of the box the DS215j provides excellent Apple Time Machine functionality. There are comprehensive instructions available from the Synology web site on how to set up Time Machine; all that’s really necessary is the creation of a Time Machine user account and a Time Machine backups shared folder. We learned through our experience with Time Machine that users need to connect to the server using AFP, not SMB, and also imposing a disk space quota on the backups shared folder will effectively prevent your backups consuming all the available NAS disk space! We now have three separate Macs backing up to the same shared folder on the NAS. Nice!

The equivalent functionality for Windows is provided through the Cloud Station. While I don’t see this as a true backup solution and more of a file synchronisation option, the essentials of a backup are implemented.

The Synology websites and forums often mention CrashPlan working on the Synology NAS; despite anecdotal evidence that this works (on older versions of the Synology NAS), I put in a considerable effort to try to get CrashPlan to install to act as the backup destination for the Windows machines. I was unsuccessful and the Synology engineers were unable to provide me any pointers as to how to create an appropriate installer package for the NAS.

Personal Cloud Sync

This was the one feature of the NAS that I was disappointed with. I enabled Synology’s Cloud Station service for a total of six hours overnight. Before I went to bed I logged into the Cloud Station once from an iPad. In that time Cloud Station managed to replicate over 500GB of data (yes, that’s right). When you initialise Cloud Station, it essentially creates a copy of the whole repository in the Cloud Station data archive. This is of all the files that you’ve enabled the Cloud Station to share. Such behaviour has been well documented in the Synology forums.

Cloud Station also keeps, by default, 32 old versions of shared files, with options to delete older versions after a user-customisable period of time or when a particular space limit is reached. Even if fewer previous versions of files are saved then the whole repository is still stored.

I can see how this might be useful in a Windows environment, however I will be sticking with my own combination of Time Machine and Crashplan backups.

QuickConnect Remote Access

After registering for a MyDS account with Synology, I was able to log into, and manipulate my NAS from outside the home LAN. Despite this prospect being incredibly scary, the few times I tried it, it worked a treat. In order to access your NAS, Synology has created a domain to register your NAS against and hence gain access.

I’m paranoid enough that I won’t be using this functionality outside the home, although keeping it in the back pocket will certainly guard against a certain teenager being able to claim “I left my homework at home” or enable us to access study materials when travelling for work.

Sharing Files in General

There are options to enable AFP, SMB, and FTP, amongst other protocols to connect to all major operating systems. Our experience has been that this is implemented really well; we had no problems at all in connecting to, and interacting with the files on the NAS. Using AFP, in particular, had the benefit of also using the Recycle Bin, allowing deleted files to be recovered, if necessary.

Our experience has shown that one of the most important decisions, which affects the ease with which users will interact with the NAS, is the number of shared folders the administrator decides to create. The purist administrator will want to create a shared folder for each major category of information but every shared folder needs to be independently mounted on the user’s desktop; the practical approach is to nest similar folders within a structure to minimise the number of logically separate folders for new users.

File Station

Synology’s File Station is an excellent tool that enables administration of the files on the NAS from within the logical scope of the DSM. It’s particularly useful when the user or administrator is curating the file structure. Because you’re logged into the machine local to the disks, copying between shared folders or logical volumes is incredibly fast as the files aren’t sent across the network. Each shared folder on the NAS has a URL that can be used to access the folder via the web browser (or even through QuickConnect) or the mobile app.

One of the fundamental decisions that I think has to be made when you’re commissioning the NAS for your environment is the sophistication of the users. As an IT professional I’m used to mounting and unmounting drives when I need them, traversing hard- and symbolic- links and grubbing around in complicated directory hierarchies. In a home or small office business setting, it’s unlikely your users will readily accept having to mount five or ten shared folders to get at the information they require, every time they log in. Knowing my users, if something isn’t convenient to access, they’re just going to avoid using it.

For example, when creating a new User account, one of the options presented to the administrator is the ability to enable a Unix-style home directory, which is locked down to that user. This is an excellent idea, however you’ve already got shared directories for photos, videos and music. Now what if they need a shared folder, as well? That’s five individual mountable folders, each of which would be mounted as a separate disk under OS X or a separate drive under Windows.

Using a combination of File Station and the Control Panel applications on DSM we’ve re-factored the top-level shared folder structure on the NAS to only present a minimal number of mount-points to the users. Unix-style file permissions and user groups ensure that only the correct users are able to read/write/administer the directories underneath the top-level mount points.

Camera Testing And Home Surveillance

I tested the DS215j with the $330 Hikvision 720p network camera. Sensitivity of the camera in both visible light and IR was great. Motion-activated recording, while not a novel feature, would be most useful in an after-hours surveillance scenario. We, for instance, now know who to thank for leaving the cat all sorts of yummy goodies when she sits on the front porch! Files are archived appropriately on the NAS and the optional DS Cam mobile app (Android or iOS) is available to remotely monitor the area under surveillance.

One side note: The Hikvision camera I tested uses Power over Ethernet (PoE); not too many consumer-grade switches have this functionality.

Synology Mobile Apps

Synology make a number of apps available to mobile device users. I downloaded and tested each of the apps, and, yes, they work well. They provide remote interfaces to the Photo Station, Video Station, and Audio Station applications that you need to have running on your NAS in order to supply the media library.

The real standout application offered by Synology is DS Photo+ (iOS/Android/Windows Phone/Blackberry). This is a terrific app. The teenager in the house is suddenly able to lay on her bed and upload the hundreds and hundreds of selfies she takes directly to her shared folder on the NAS, and then remove them from her phone, making space for more selfies! Brilliant!

But seriously, aside from selfies the most useful aspect of Photo+ would be in conjunction with the QuickConnect functionality when you’re out on the road taking photos and you want to send them back home. Either to archive or share with family and friends who can use the QuickConnect Guest account to access the shared photographs folder. Perhaps Gizmodo can send me overseas so I can test out this scenario? [Nice try! -Ed]

Should You Buy It?

The Synology DS215j home NAS device is an excellent solution for the home or small-office scenario in which the main administrator isn’t an advanced user. The NAS has a whole bundle of excellent features and add-ons so the most common uses of a NAS -- media storage, cloud access, and the benefit of automatic RAID redundancy -- are taken care of with minimal effort. There are a fairly good number of add-on packages to extend the functionality of the NAS but in my opinion only having a dual 800MHz processor, one does run the risk of overburdening it quite easily.

My main advice would be if you’re trying to do something even remotely advanced in the disk setup I would definitely advise spending the extra money on a Synology four-bay NAS. Ensure you get the disk configuration the way you want and are happy before you create multiple users, as you’ll just have to re-create the shared folders and assign users’ access to the shared folders after every major change.

"The Synology DS215j is an excellent solution for the home or small-office [with] excellent features and add-ons..."

You’ve probably worked out from reading this review that I’m somewhat schizophrenic about my attitude to QuickConnect and the ability to access -- and administer -- the contents of my NAS from anywhere in the world. On one hand it’s incredibly useful and there are more than a couple of situations in which that would be really handy. On the other hand, if I were a hacker, what better place to target than peoples’ NASs, knowing that typically a family’s entire digital life will be stored there.

Will I keep on using the NAS? Definitely. I, and more importantly the family, have now bonded with the device. Will I keep enabled all the features that I tested for this review? No.

How am I going to achieve my desired trade-off between redundant data storage and bulk storage capacity? I’m either going to have to live with 4.5TB capacity but sleep well knowing it’s all RAID-protected, or re-partition the drives to either JBOD/RAID0 and set up an automatic backup for the important data onto an external USB 3.0 disk.