How I chose a NAS
A network-attached storage (NAS) device is your own Internet server—your very own “cloud”! I decided to get one for my own reasons. But which, and configured how, exactly? Here’s what I came up with for myself.
After dropping Dropbox, and then ditching Resilio Sync, I decided to get a NAS. To pull this off, it seemed to me I had to answer the following questions:
- Type of server. Should I roll my own personal server using Nextcloud (or OwnCloud; but probably Nextcloud) on Linux, with a regular web server (device/box/CPU), or get a NAS server instead?
- Server software. Assuming the actual box I purchase is a NAS, should I go with the proprietary software installed on the box (of any kind), or install Nextcloud and plan to use those features?
- NAS vendor. There are actually two-closely related questions here. (a) Which brand of NAS box should I purchase if I do decide to use proprietary server software for the NAS? (b) Which proprietary server software do I prefer, regardless of the box? It is the combination of the two questions that would determine which vendor I’d purchase from.
- RAID/drive configuration. This also has two closely-related questions. (a) What RAID configuration should I plan to set up? (b) How many bays should I plan to get? In other words, how many drives will the server have, and how will they function together to serve as automatic backup or redundancy?
- Beefiness. How much machine do I need?
- Drives. Which drives should I put into the NAS bays?
Answering these questions helped me decide which box I would purchase. But because these are some difficult-sounding and (to me) unfamiliar questions, I decided first to get to the nut of the issue. After all, I did already know why I wanted a NAS and what some of my requirements were.
I wanted a NAS (as I said) first and foremost as a replacement for Dropbox. I actually didn’t have very much data in Dropbox; I had more (over 500 GB) on my hard drive, backed up to an external drive. If I felt I more confident about my data storage, backup, and long-term continuation strategies, I might digitize (or pay a kid to) a hell of a lot more of my data. (10 GB per DVD/Blu-Ray at ~200? disks = 2 TB. Could be doable!) So it might be a good idea to err on the side of lots of space.
But the thing that pushed me to a NAS solution, over syncing all my devices directly such as Resilio accomplishes, is the availability of lots of awesome personal cloud software, for things like calendar, contacts, and who knows, maybe even email. (I finally called my current mail hosting provider. They don’t encrypt my mail on their servers. They can quite easily read my mail. I don’t think they do, but I have to trust them. Sucks to have to trust them. But I will probably not try hosting my own email; that’s really hard to get right.) Since Synology has so much decent software (so it appears; check out their packages list and demo), that eventually inclined me toward them. Any NAS should also let you install and run Nextcloud, which is open source and has a boatload of similar free software for your personal home server.
Now, if I was going to put mission-critical things like calendars (which need to be up-to-date!) and shared/collaborative documents on this server, then I should also have a sufficiently beefy and fast machine. (I also upgraded my Internet connection to the fastest home connection.) One of the differences between Synology and QNAS is that the latter is supposed to be stronger on hardware specs but weaker on software functionality (maybe). That was bothersome, because I wanted both to be awesome.
All right then—how did I answer the questions?
Type of server
Question: Should I roll my own personal server using Nextcloud (or OwnCloud; but probably Nextcloud) on Linux, with a regular web server (device/box/CPU), or get a NAS device instead?
This one was easy to dispatch. It looked to me as if, supposing I tried to set up my own server, then running Nextcloud on it wouldn’t be the hard part; running a good old-fashioned server would be. I’d have to make time to learn good old-fashioned server administration, which would be hard even if I ran FreeNAS, an open source operating system for self-built NASes. And even if I wanted to do that (server administration would be a cool skill to have), if I don’t have to learn all that, because NASes solve all these problems for me, then I don’t wanna.
Now, if I were still a poor student or a full time developer/engineer, maybe I’d be rolling my own. But since I can afford to let someone else do all the hard server setup work, I reasoned, I will.
So, I said, forget that noise. It’s a NAS for me, period.
Question: Assuming the actual box I purchase is a NAS, should I go with the proprietary software installed on the box (of any kind), or install Nextcloud and plan to use those features?
When I first wrote the above questions, I was laboring under the false assumption that I would have to choose between the Nextcloud suite of server applications and whatever Synology or QNAP offered. But this is false. You can run both on the same NAS!
There are a number of guides online to installing Nextcloud on Synology and on QNAP. So if I want the functionality that Nextcloud offers, because Synology, QNAP, or any other NAS doesn’t cut the mustard, then I can always do that.
My biggest misgiving, to be honest, is that companies like Synology and QNAP don’t always seem to have the user’s privacy foremost in mind, but they’re better than most. (I found this discussion of the issue useful.) Certain apps and support might require that the vendor will have some access to your data. But this is the price you pay for not using free software; as far as I know, the only way to absolutely guarantee the privacy of your information is if you enjoy total ownership over your hardware and software. But in this case, it involves developing skills (server administration) that I just don’t have time for these days. So I’ll just have to be careful and conscientious in what information I give to the vendor, what I install, what privacy issues it has, etc.
Besides, I figured, I could always install and run NextCloud on the device, and that’s open source. So maybe was OK.
As this was a question I didn’t have to answer yet, I decided to kick it down the road.
Question: There are actually two-closely related questions here. (a) Which brand of NAS box should I purchase if I do decide to use proprietary server software for the NAS? (b) Which proprietary server software do I prefer, regardless of the box? It is the combination of the two questions that would determine which vendor I’d purchase from.
This was the first question that I couldn’t quickly gloss over. Given that I knew I’d be buying a NAS, it followed that I’d be buying a machine that is already set up with its own operating system and, in the cases I’m most interested in, support for the suite of cloud apps I’m after (actually pure Linux NAS systems are available, but strangely expensive).
I had a few desiderata here:
- Must have strong privacy and security policies and practices. The biggest reason to get a NAS, for me, is to avoid the privacy and security issues associated with hosting my data in a shared public cloud like Dropbox. So the operating system had better not phone home, the way Windows and Mac do, and the software should generally have strong privacy practices. Strong plus if data encryption features and two-factor authentication are built in and automatic or easy to implement.
- Must be fast and powerful enough for daily use. I’m not sure how powerful it has to be, and it certainly depends on my Internet connection. But the bottom line is that syncing should not take forever, I shouldn’t have to constantly wait for things like calendar entries to update, chat apps shouldn’t be laggy, photos should upload and download reasonably fast so my family and I can use the server, etc.
- Software in the ecosystem must be feature-rich and easy-to-use. Assuming it makes sense to make generalizations about the software ecosystem of a vendor, the software should be advanced and “ready for prime time,” or as much as possible. For example, the syncing software should enable me to restore old versions that were mistakenly deleted. I should be able to share files with fine-grained permissions. The office collaboration apps (Google Docs/Sheets replacement) should offer real-time updating without significant edit conflicts. Updating the system should be automatic, i.e., as easy as it is to update Ubuntu (more or less automatic, if that’s what I want, as it happens to be).
- Prefer good reputation and reviews. Specs count for a lot, but so do reviews and reputation.
There are, essentially, two top NAS vendors that everybody talks about: Synology and QNAP. There are other vendors, to be sure, including (not a complete list) Asustor, TerraMaster, Netgear, and WD. But Synology and QNAP seem to be the gold standard, and since I had no desire to spend many hours or days looking over the differences between all the others, I initially narrowed down my choice to these two.
In my travels around the Internet, I found that Synology is marketed and thought of as being a home solution for the average reasonably technical user—or perhaps just for anybody who values UX highly, regardless of skill level. (I don’t really know.) It apparently has an emphasis on simplicity and usability—the demo linked above gives great evidence of that—but sometimes (so I read) at the expense of configurability or choice. Synology puts more money into software than hardware, according to one prolific NAS reviewer; for the same money, a Synology box has more usable software but less satisfying hardware stats and overall speed than QNAP.
QNAP is sometimes portrayed as being more of a solution for more technical users, for whatever that’s worth. While both ecosystems are based on Linux (and therefore presumably very configurable at some level), QNAP is again reputedly more configurable and speedier. It also has more apps available—but the apps are also sometimes a bit dodgier, or so I read. All of that sounds like Linux to me, frankly; but QNAP is actually more often compared to Windows and Android. Whatever, such comparisons are surely of limited value.
On this limited basis, being on the techier side who likes configurability, I was initially inclined toward QNAP. But on second and third thoughts, I heard a lot of breathless praise for Synology and the quality of its apps, including from some very technical people. And after all, I really care about software quality. Synology advocates say that its software “just works”—hugely important. A random person on Reddit replied to me saying, “From personal experience I run both Synology and QNAP devices and have done for several years. Synology has more robust software, generally more stable and less security flaws. QNAP provides faster hardware for the same money.”
Reddit commenters seem to be fairly evenly divided between the brands, and machines from both brands are similarly rated 4 to 4.5 stars on Amazon.
I decided in the end to go with Synology. Usability is key. But I’d probably be about as happy with QNAP.
Question: This also has two closely-related questions. (a) What RAID configuration should I plan to set up? (b) How many bays should I plan to get? In other words, how many drives will the server have, and how will they function together to serve as automatic backup or redundancy?
A few different technical observers have said that one should err on the side of many bays, and that two is a definite non-starter. Why? Because two bays won’t give you enough space unless you use a no-RAID setup, and part of the beauty of a NAS is that it has RAID support built in. (RAID, in case you didn’t know, is an acronym for “Redundant Array of Independent Disks,” and it is the practice of mirroring, and otherwise intelligently managing, data across several disks. It isn’t the same as backup, but it can save you from losing data, so it can be a useful part of an overall backup plan.)
On the other hand, I don’t have that much data, to be honest. Since Synology is expandable, I didn’t go crazy and get a hell of a lot more space than I need—just a lot more than I need. For my personal, family, and modest business needs, I decided to get a five-bay device (it would have been four bays, but a five-bay device had double the RAM) and put three 2 TB drives in it. According to Synology’s RAID calculator, this gives me something less than 4 TB of usable space, which is a lot for me. If I really wanted to rip all my movies, I’d have more than enough room. I can always add more drives and increase the size of the drives, too.
As far as which RAID configuration to use, since I’ve decided to go with Synology, I didn’t even need to think about which kind to use: I just went with the cool “Synology Hybrid Raid” (SHR) setup. I don’t understand it very well myself, except that it’s supposed to be better than traditional RAID configurations for most uses.
Question: How much machine do I need?
When I sat down to figure out “how much machine I need,” assuming I was going to get a Synology with four (or five) bays, I asked the Synology subreddit for help and the respondents generally said to just go ahead and get the beefiest four-bay machine. It was well within my price range and good value for the money, a couple people said. I asked a related question on r/HomeServer, where the DIY geeks tried but failed to make me feel guilty for not building my own server. (I did learn that I should choose my forums more carefully, though; and that, indeed, I might want to build my own server eventually, or have my son do it for me.)
A higher-end machine seemed necessary if I wanted to support (a) several simultaneous connections, (b) non-laggy real-time collaborative editing, (c) video streaming (seems like a good idea if the device is capable of it), (d) several apps/server processes running simultaneously.
So I decided to get the option with the most powerful processor (quad core Intel) and most RAM without actually voiding the warranty, and that ended up being this one.
Almost done! Last question: Which drives should I put into the NAS bays?
I have absolutely nothing intelligent to say on this one. I’ll just share my conclusions. There are two main brands and models touted for NAS devices: Seagate IronWolf and Western Digital Red. Mostly because someone at Micro Center recommended them, I went with the SeaGate IronWolf. You can also choose the slower or faster versions; I got the faster-rated “Pro” version because disk access speed might actually improve the speed of response from my NAS when I’m out and about.
Wish me luck. The NAS and drives should arrive next week, and then I’ll look forward to installing them on my network. I’ll be getting a new router, too. (You should have a fast, secure, and modern router for a NAS, I gather, but I won’t bore you with my ruminations on that.) All of that shouldn’t take long. Rather longer will be the installation of the many and various NAS apps (and corresponding mobile apps) I’ll need, along with the upgrading of my contacts, calendar, and of course my file sync program. The longest part of that process will probably be the actual copying of data from my computer’s drives to the NAS. Hopefully, I won’t have too much trouble converting my data folders, now associated with Resilio Sync (and earlier, with Dropbox) to whatever the Synology app I use on my computers and phone.
Another necessary step will be to do setup a zero-knowledge cloud backup—one that is strictly a backup, with no sync, no file access, no nothing but encrypted data storage. Should be fairly cheap (much cheaper than syncing services like Dropbox).
And another thing: I’ll have to really lock down the NAS, since so much important info will be on it. Fortunately, Synology does have a lot of tools for doing that.
And another: I might want to route all outbound traffic from my NAS through a VPN. That’s possible. (You can also use the NAS itself as a VPN node, but I’m not sure why, if you’ve already got a VPN to use; maybe a reader can tell me.)
What about the fun stuff? Well, in the very near future, I look forward to being able to do all this:
- Delete all Google Docs I own; host my own real time collaborative documents. All of the Google Docs and Sheets I own, I’m moving to the corresponding Synology app on my own server. As far as I’ve been able to ascertain, the functionality is pretty much identical. I can’t necessarily expect my work colleagues to stop using Google Docs, so I won’t be able to rid myself of my Google account completely, but I will be able to get rid of most of my dependency on it. (There’s still YouTube, though. I’m still all in, there.) But the cool part of course is that the documents I edit in real time will live right there on my own machines, in a private network I can open up to whomever I want.
- Delete Google contacts. Completely delete all my contacts from Google, because I’ll have them in a single central copy on my NAS (but with redundant copies on my devices).
- Delete Gmail archive and set up Gmail vacation message. Since that was the main thing I was waiting for before rendering my Gmail account nonfunctional, I’ll then make sure I have a local copy of all my Gmail archive, then delete all my old mails from Google servers. Then, finally, set up a “email me at my new address” on Gmail, something I’ve sort of been putting off until getting completely ready to separate myself from Gmail (not just my ongoing personal mail use, but all data archives, too).
- Move Gcal data to Synology Calendar. I’m still using Gcal because I haven’t had a privacy-respecting cloud solution. Soon, I will. Finally I’ll be telling my colleagues to put my appointments invites on my own calendar on nas.sanger.io or—why not—just send me a mail and I’ll add it myself. We’ve gotten so used to dealing with automatic invites that we’ve forgotten how stupid simple adding an appointment is by hand yourself. Hardly any time at all.
- Stop using Slack for family chatting; start using chatting on our family server. Even if Papa is on the other side of the world, we’ll be able to connect to each other via the same server that’s right at home. My wife won’t worry (as she does) that someone at Slack (or some hacker) is watching over our shoulders, since the whole encrypted chat takes place via our own server.
- Keep my password manager datafiles in sync. I’ve had trouble with this ever since switching to Resilio and trying to use a single datafile shared by all instances. Instead, now I’ll be able to use Synology’s (and Enpass’s) support for the WebDAV standard to keep the datafiles in sync. Yay!
- Share pix with family like Dropbox, listen to streaming music, audiobooks, and podcasts like Pandora, and watch ripped streaming videos from anywhere like Netflix. Seriously, Synology even designed their video player’s UX like Netflix’s. So if I do decide to rip all those DVDs, I’ll be able to watch videos that were formerly on a shelf in my living room while I’m unwinding after a speech far, far away. We can also stream the videos through the NAS straight to the TV, which is also cool. After this, I might not buy any more physical disks; I might just go ahead and buy digital all the way and stream stuff, assuming I don’t have to deal with DRM headaches.
- Maybe set up a Mastodon instance. That would be a great option, previously not available to me (or, not entirely controlled by me), for a new social media experiment I can use with my former Facebook friends.
- Maybe get some security cameras. I wouldn’t have done it before for the simple reason that I don’t want the data online, as it would be. But if I can host the data myself, maybe it’s OK.
Of course, there’s a huge caveat: if it works as advertised. We’ll see!