Network servers have their place but can be expensive to deploy and hard to manage. Moreover, in the small business servers tend to be vastly overpowered and under-used, spending much of their time doing not very much at all. There is, however, an alternative, in the guise of the Network Attached Storage, or NAS, appliance. These, much simpler devices, support the same core file and print sharing as a full Windows or Linux server and, in some cases, a lot more besides, but for a lot less money and far less work.
What is it and who is it for?
NAS appliances are available from several vendors, including Buffalo Technology, Netgear, Overland and Qnap. Synology, by comparison, is a relative newcomer, although that hasn’t stopped it taking a significant market share with its DiskStation products, spanning everyone from the home user to the medium sized business.
Like other members of the DiskStation family the recently introduced DS411slim is designed to replace a general purpose server, the target market here being the home office and small business network. Unlike other DiskStations, however, the DS411slim takes 2.5-inch rather than standard 3.5-inch disks, giving it an incredibly small footprint. Typically, designed to be used in battery-powered laptops, the smaller disks also make the appliance very quiet and energy efficient.
Maximum capacity is an impressive 4TB, with room for four SATA drives inside the smart black case, mounted in plastic carriers that slide in at the rear. These can be configured as a redundant array using either Synology’s own Hybrid RAID technology (SHR), which enables disks of different sizes to be mixed together, or as a conventional RAID 1, 5 or 6 array.
Network attachment is via a Gigabit Ethernet interface with USB and eSata ports also provided which can be employed to both add extra storage and take backups using external storage drives. File sharing is supported on mixed Windows, Apple Mac and Linux networks, added to which it’s possible to configure the Synology box as an iSCSI target and share the storage over a Storage Area Network (SAN).
The processor is a relatively modest 1.6GHz Marvell Kirkwood with 256MB of DDR3 memory, however, it can still run the same Linux-based DiskStation Manager (DSM) software as other Synology appliances. In fact it supports the latest multi-tasking DSM 3.1 implementation, providing support for both file sharing and a whole collection of optional applications to handle everything from network backup to email and web server hosting.
Pricing & setup
Available online and through specialist resellers, the DS411slim sells for around £190 (ex. VAT), for which you get the bare appliance and the DSM software. Disks aren’t included, but just about any 2.5-inch SATA disk can be employed and it’s possible to mix different makes, capacities and spin speeds together. That said, it’s arguably better to start with a new, matched, set of drives.
Disk prices vary, but we found Western Digital Scorpios (1TB, 5,200rpm, 8MB cache) available for a shade under £90 (ex. VAT), giving an overall price for a fully-populated 4TB DS411slim of about £550 (ex. VAT). That’s a lot cheaper than a comparable industry standard server, added to which, unlike a Windows server, there’s no need for client access licences. Instead the DS411slim can be shared by as many clients as physically able to connect to the appliance.
Installation is a lot quicker too, taking around half an hour with DSM software delivered on CD-ROM, complete with a utility (Synology Assistant) to discover the appliance on the network then copy the OS from the CD and install it remotely. That done, you simply connect to the appliance from a browser, logon to the management interface and you’re away.
Does it do it well?
Naturally, a certain amount of up-front management work is needed to get the appliance configured, but this is kept to a minimum and is easy enough, even for those lacking technical skills. The new DSM software also helps here with a familiar desktop interface, more like Windows than a conventional menu system with proper multi-tasking support and fast switching between applications.
Using this it was easy to create user accounts, organise accounts into groups and set storage quotas, with Windows-like ACL support making it easy to control access to shared folders and files. Adding disks and creating volumes proved equally straightforward, as did managing the RAID setup on the appliance. Active Directory integration is there if needed and, as well as local file sharing, a wizard to configure remote access using a built-in FTP server and a web-based file browser.
Other useful features include the ability to take backups to an external hard drive, another DiskStation, or compatible rsync server with backup to the cloud using the Amazon S3 service yet another option. PC users can also back up their data to the Synology appliance using the Synology Data Replicator software provided, while Mac users benefit from native Time Machine support.
A basic SMTP mail server is also included, along with applications to download files from the Internet out of hours and stream music and video to clients over the network. There’s even a built-in Web server, complete with PHP and MySQL database support, plus a surveillance application to control and record from IP cameras.
Where does it disappoint?
Synology isn’t the first NAS vendor to offer a 2.5-inch product—Buffalo beat it to that accolade a couple of years ago and there are others. Neither is the DS411slim the first 2.5-inch DiskStation from Synology—the company previously offering the DS409slim, which was underpowered and limited in capacity.
With a faster processor and support for the latest DSM software the DS411slim is a big step forward, but still not perfect. For example, although it supports RAID, you have to power down the appliance in order to change disks, which isn’t always convenient. Additionally, the 2.5-inch disks aren’t as fast as some 3.5-inch drives, limiting the performance the appliance is able to deliver. We also found the backup application lacking in functionality, plus additional licenses are required to manage more than one camera when using the video surveillance application.
Would we recommend it?
Although limited by disk specification, the DS411slim is still quicker than a lot of the competition, even those capable of taking faster 3.5-inch disks. Moreover, in terms of functionality the diminutive Synology appliance is every bit as capable as other DiskStations and more than a match for similar storage appliances from other vendors. Factor in the add-on applications and what you have is a lot more than just another NAS box, making the DS411slim a good solution for the small business looking to move up from peer-to-peer networking without the cost or complexity of a more traditional server.