The household needs bigger disks. Is it time for a NAS/home server?
February 10, 2017 11:27 AM   Subscribe

For many years, I've used a first-generation Drobo as bulk data storage and backup. It's now given up the ghost, and given its general flakiness over the years, I'm not inclined to go that route again. I did like having redundant disks and expandable storage, though. I need to replace it, but I am completely stymied as to what I should replace it with.

The Drobo plugged into my laptop was kind of a poor man's media server as well as hosting my local nightly backups. So whatever I get, I'd like it to replicate at least those features.

Other household problems: The file-sharing and backup situation between our all-Mac (and one gaming PC) household is not great. Everybody has at least one theoretical backup, but we had a recent data failure that that's got me spooked. If I'm going to bother with a NAS, it would be nice if it could serve as both a backup destination for everybody's laptops as well as a file and media server.

(For purposes of this discussion, assume that everybody has their own individual network backup service, e.g. CrashPlan/BackBlaze.)

I've spent a lot of time looking at the four-bay Home/Small Office machines from QNAP and Synology. They seem pretty close to what I want, but they also seem fussy, and I see complains from people about weak CPUs and insufficient RAM.

Going up a level there's the FreeNAS Mini, which has much more capable hardware and runs a well-regarded OS, but is also more expensive.

Alternatively, maybe I should just get a RAID enclosure and plug it into my computer & run it locally? (I know RAID Is Not A Backup.)

All of the above options each raise the question of how they can be backed up off site, too.

I feel like I'm going crazy here. I can't be the only one having this kind of problem, but none of the products or services I can think of are really solving it.

If it matters: I'm comfortable at the command line and don't mind moderately involved setup procedures, but I'd like whatever I settle on to be as low maintenance as possible.
posted by Sokka shot first to Computers & Internet (14 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Beware any NAS with an Intel C2000 series Atom processor (which is most/all of them). That processor is at the center of a huge fuckup-in-progress that causes them brick after 18 months or so. Info started surfacing back in January during an Intel earnings call (tldr: it's going to be bad for their earnings). Next up was vague warnings from Cisco, who use the C2000 in lots of switches. Then in the last week or so the news is starting to hit NAS forums.

Things to know about the bug:
- it's a silicon failure that kills BIOS access after 18-ish months of use.
- the CPU is a great big soldered BGA, so forget about replacing it.
- There is a fix, but I expect there will buggy hardware in the channel for a while longer.

The Register

Bottom line: It's a bad idea to buy any NAS device in the next couple months.
posted by ryanrs at 11:52 AM on February 10, 2017 [5 favorites]

Dying CPUs aside, I've heard Synologys are nicer than their competitors. Haven't used one myself, though.
posted by ryanrs at 11:55 AM on February 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

"I see complaints from people about weak CPUs and insufficient RAM."

Who cares? I mean, are there actual complaints about performance for workloads that you're going to care about, and are those complaints backed up by numbers?

Depending on how you're using them, a faster CPU and more RAM might just increase the price and power consumption without making your backups go much faster.
posted by bfields at 12:07 PM on February 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

These things run apps nowadays, including things like real-time video transcoding so you can stream your media files. So if that's a thing you might do, the low CPU power makes a difference. For anything besides plex transcoding, it probably won't matter.
posted by ryanrs at 12:13 PM on February 10, 2017

I have a now old Synology (210j iirc) and have been very happy with it. Still automatically updating after many years. They seem to keep adding features. Dumped a load a videos on it and use their video server and clients to cast my chromecast. Back up the contents to the cloud automatically. I've never quite worked out Plex on it, but I suspect it really is under-powered for that, but I'd expect a modern one to be fine with it.
posted by idb at 12:16 PM on February 10, 2017

Yeah, without reference to the Atom issue, I got my parents a Synology last year for Christmas. Sufficiently impressed I'll probably pick up one for use at my place as well.
posted by brennen at 12:16 PM on February 10, 2017

We've had a couple of QNAPs in our office for non-production purposes and they were completely trouble-free for four or five years, though one did decide to die kind of abruptly a few months ago.
posted by briank at 12:20 PM on February 10, 2017

If you want CPU/RAM for transcoding, then what you're looking for is more a media server than a NAS: build or buy a microtower, spec it out, slap FreeNAS on it and hide it where the noise won't bother you. If just you want to sling bits, a Synology will do: my old 211j with its Marvell ARM CPU has coped fine with home-use I/O, and it's still getting regular OS updates.
posted by holgate at 12:24 PM on February 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

I have had a Synology for some time, and I like it. It's a 4-bay 413j; the non-Intel CPU means it won't transcode video on the fly, but I rip into the format I want so I don't much care.

It has pretty good built-in software.

I am an IT guy and I appreciate not having to tinker with it, though it is possible for me to log in via SSH and muck about (for enabling some PHP stuff to enable the COPS e-book server, for example).
posted by wenestvedt at 12:44 PM on February 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

I have a Synology NAS (DS214 Play) and it works great. The one reason I bought this specific one was that it had some hardware in it that allows it to transcode video, meaning the NAS can download a movie and then I can directly stream it to my Chromecast.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 2:29 PM on February 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

FWIW, I just use mirrored, direct-attached storage for this. To save bandwidth, you can point the Crashplan apps around the house to the storage and then the (mounted) storage to Crashplan. This does mean that I need a computer on 24/7, though. I picked up a very old Core 2 Quad PC for storage that was like $100. It uses 40 watts of power or about $40-$50 per year, where I live.

It sounds like getting CrashPlan running directly on QNAP and Synology devices is a little hacky, and not in a good way. The app doesn't update, they don't support it and CPU utilization can be an issue.
posted by cnc at 3:18 PM on February 10, 2017

obDisclosure: I'm a moderator over at the FreeNAS Forums and a longtime user.

What you're looking for is hard to do, even harder to do well. There are a lot of small-ish NAS units out, most of which run Linux variants on some sort of embedded system-on-a-chip, or, for the better ones, an actual CPU. As others have noted, this doesn't necessarily get you everything as we've seen with the Atom C27xx issues.

The little NAS boxes are a fairly stable technology. The 2016-era Synology DS416slim units we've acquired here have a nicer software than the 2012-era iomega Storcenter IX2-DL units we had previously been using, but a survey of available options suggests that CPU and memory on the low end NAS units remains fairly tight. The nicer ones have better CPU and will allow you to do more things. Be careful about becoming too dependent on a single device, as it can be tempting for you to take advantage of all the bells and whistles.

I strongly suggest mirrors or RAID5 for anything vaguely important that the NAS does, because while RAID Is Not Backup, RAID can and does save your butt when (not if) a disk fails. It really stinks when your backup can't be easily recovered because there's a disk error on the NAS, and you didn't use RAID.

The small two drive units are usually pretty cheap, especially if you don't expect a lot of features. Using one for storing backups and one for other tasks may actually work out to better performance or lower cost than a single 4-drive unit.

Be aware that throwing a pair of 8TB drives in a two drive NAS unit might seem like a no-brainer, but there are practical limits as to the seek times that a hard drive is capable of. Using large hard drives in a NAS that is doing lots of small file accesses, such as some types of backups, may mean that you don't really get an opportunity to use all the available space.

I find that usually the two and four drive prebuilt NAS units are more economical than small FreeNAS systems, but this all changes as the number of drives increases. NAS prices shoot way up as you move on out past four drives. At that point, or if you have other special performance requirements, FreeNAS has the opportunity to shine if you choose to go that route. The performance can also be substantially better. However, with ZFS, please keep in mind that performance and free space go hand in hand, so if you think you need 6TB of usable space at RAIDZ2 protection, you really ought to look at a minimum of 8-10TB pool space.
posted by jgreco at 4:19 PM on February 10, 2017 [5 favorites]

Highly recommend a Synology, just buy whatever model fits your needs. I've had a DS413j running for years and years with zero problems. The software is the best I've used on consumer product I can think of, and I am definitely the kind of person who likes to SSH in and mess around. I have had drives fail and it has rebuilt all the data perfectly every time. I never have to reboot it or think about it.

I use mine to do everything you need and more: Time Machine backups, media hosting, cloud backup, torrent/newsgroup downloaders and processors, security camera archive, iTunes server, personal web server running a wiki, etc.

IMO it's only worth it to DIY it if you need more than 4 drives, or if you want a lot of CPU to run an application server. unRAID would be the other one to look at along with FreeNAS.
posted by bradbane at 9:18 PM on February 10, 2017

I have an UNRAID server sitting in the basement; it's got 30TB of storage available [a mix of 2- and 3-TB SATA drives], serves as a media server along with whatever else, accepts Time Machine backups from the Macs.

It's not full RAID; with my present single parity drive I can lose only one array drive at any point. But, it's relatively cheap to set up and easy to expand and pretty much hands-off.
posted by chazlarson at 10:16 AM on February 12, 2017

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