Computers and Internet

Synology DS1812+ Review and Comparison to Windows Server 2012

I had been hearing a lot about Synology NAS devices and wanted to evaluate one. I got the DS1812+, the 8-bay version.

I currently have Windows Server 2012 Essentials running as my home server and quite happy with it. However, it’s always good to check out alternatives. In this review I will also compare Synology DS1812+ to Windows Server 2012 Essentials based storage server solution.

I will categorize my observations in following areas:

  • Initial Setup and Operations simplicity
  • Handling basic failure scenarios
  • Performance (very high level and non-scientific)
  • Ecosystem (Apps, plug-ins)
  • Capabilities / cost

Initial Setup Experience

I will say that the initial setup experience is quite good with some corner case exceptions. I had a pool of some 25 disks in my disposal to try various things – 11 of that I tried failed despite being on supported list – I later discovered that they were SATA-locked. Synology could not mark these as such, rather, tried to install but resulted in various hangs and restarts. As I said, it’s a corner case but worth noting. So anyway… I started with using a 500GB older SATA drive.

Note: If you’re getting your Synology NAS with disks preloaded, or if you’re buying disks that are known to work well and are of recent models, you will significantly reduce risks. Be aware of this while purchasing and setting up your system. Synology NAS is quite picky about disks it works with.

After I loaded the latest Synology Assistant (their desktop application that scans and finds these NAS devices on the network), I scanned and found the NAS – it looks something like below image. (keep reading after)

Default name for the NAS comes up as “DiskStation” (where you see “S” above is after I renamed it). Status column shows different values. Initially it comes up as “Not Installed”.

You see, the NAS OS (called DSM) does not get pre-loaded in some internal disk/memory. You have to install it onto the disks you will add to the system. This concept was news to me, but quickly discovered after reviewing documentation and skimming through forum posts.

So I inserted just one disk, that old 500GB SATA drive, and used the Synology Assistant to install the DSM on it.

Note: There is a DSM on the installation DVD that ships with DS1812+, however, I downloaded the latest from Synology.com web site. One thing to be careful about is that DSMs are NOT downgrade-able. Even though the DSM gets loaded onto the disks you will provide, each DSM also comes with its own firmware upgrade, and thus underlying system BIOS is revved forward without support for downgrade. I therefore strongly suggest that you read forums on possible issues with the “greatest” version you plan to load.

Installation went smoothly as the NAS was happy with it. Here’s what I discovered afterwards:

  • If you want 2-disk redundancy on system volume, you have to start with 4 disks. That is, you cannot add disks later to reach this level of redundancy.
  • First disk you use becomes the scale unit due to the SHR (Synology Hybrid Raid). Read more on this here but net of it is visible on this diagram, courtesy of that same Wiki page. If you’re mixing varying size disks and if they are not multiples of each other, I strongly recommend reading up in detail to figure out which disk(s) you should start with in order to maximize the available storage based on your intended high availability scheme.


     

  • What is not immediately visible here is that on the Wiki page, they conveniently chose disks that are multiples of each other. For example, 500GB, 1TB and 2TB. The situation with the mix of 500 and 750 is not clear yet. They haven’t addressed this in their FAQ either.
  • You cannot replace larger drive with smaller one. In the case of Windows Storage Spaces of Windows Server 2012, you can do this. While in a normal circumstance you may think this is not much important; however, when migrating to a different system, you might want gradual transfer of data and sometimes you need those big source disks in the target before all the operation is complete. Seems like migration options out of DS1812+ is somewhat limited – for now.
  • After a number of forum posts, I have learnt from the fine people on Synology forums the following. You really need to understand these rules well:
    • DSM is the OS of Synology NAS and is required for it to boot.
    • DSM gets loaded to a hidden volume that Storage Manager will NOT show to you.
    • DSM gets mirrored to *every* disk that you “initialize”. You might initialize by creating a disk group, or by using the volume create wizard. Whichever is the method doesn’t matter; soon as you have those disks in Initialized or Normal state, they will receive a mirror replica of the DSM instance. You can monitor this from the telnet prompt using “Cat /prod/mdstat” command.
    • For example, if you have 8-bays like me, and if you added 6 disks to the system and initialized them, *any* of those disks can boot the NAS. This mirroring of the DSM is really useful and I like it from recoverability perspective.

First trouble

After I am done with the 500GB simple test, I wanted to rebuild. So I shutdown the system, pulled the disk out, inserted a 750GB disk and wanted to do the same.

Well… I couldn’t. Despite me trying the same thing I successfully completed few hours earlier, no matter how many times I tried the installation with, it proceeded to below screen and got stuck.

So I thought about the disk compatibility. I had a bunch of 750GB SATA drives. I checked Synology web site and they appear in the compatibility list. But still did not work as expected.

Still, I proceeded to insert a 1TB drive and repeated the install. This time it worked. I later discovered that the 750GB disk I used was SATA-locked. Synology is unable to properly detect this and refuse installation gracefully. It just hangs.

This links us back to the point I made earlier. After realizing how sensitive it is to disk models, I went through the whole stack of disks I had lying around. Some 11 of them failed to be initialized. Here’s a quick way that I have found to determine if Synology will like the disk or not:

  • Insert the disk
  • Create a single-disk disk group on it
  • Choose not to do disk-check (select “No”)
  • Operation should complete within few minutes. If not, Synology didn’t like the disk. Remove it and move on.

First test: Pull a disk from a 3-disk System Volume

Of course I needed to ensure system can boot when any of the disks were to go bad. So on a running system with 3 disks, while everything showing normal, I pulled the disk from bay #1. Here’s how system reacted:

  • It immediately started to BEEP once a second or so. Which is nice. These beeps and notifications are very configurable through Control Panel
  • Storage manager UI correctly updated the status as degraded, as below:

Now the question is, can it still boot? So I initiated a graceful reboot as below:

At this point I’m not expecting it to fail to boot. However, it took very long time. Something in the range of 10-12 minutes before the system can boot. For a headless device, this idle wait time without any indication of progress is really stressful.

So it passed the test, but what happens when we re-insert the disk back into the system. Below is the HDD management view after I re-inserted the same 1TB disk into bay 1. Interestingly DS1812 does not want to reuse or try to reinstate that disk. It treats the disk as if it’s new/foreign (I get this from “Not initialized).

This behavior is different from Windows Server, in that, Windows would realize it was a temporary disconnect and would automatically repair the volume since that disk belongs to this volume. In DS1812 case, there is no automatic repair if the disk was the same. We will get to this automatic repair situation with Hot Spares later – so I’m not giving it bad scores just yet. I’m just noting it behaves differently than Windows Server parity protected volume.

Now that we understand the remove/reinsert behavior, I’m going to bring this system volume to healthy state. Well… Remember that “unit of scale” remark I made earlier? It’ll come to play here now.

If you noticed, I have bunch of unused 750GB drives in the bays 4-8 inclusive. If you also notice I used the 1TB disk in bay 1. Question is, what happened to the delta between 1TB and 750GB when DS1812 first built that 3-disk system volume?

My bet is that it got unused. So DS1812 reduced the 3-disk volume to its lower common denominator. Perhaps if the 1TB disk was 1.5TB, there wouldn’t have been any wasted space – or maybe not with only 3 physicals. Let’s check this out.

Remember their documented rule that says you cannot replace larger disks with smaller ones? Let’s read the status message carefully:

698GB. Well… the disk that I removed was 1TB in size. Why it’s asking for lower disk? Because it probably never used the delta between the 750 and 1TB. It saw all 3 disks (1TB, 750GB, 750GB) and determined that the largest chunk it can store across all 3 is 750GB, and used only that much.

At this point I’m going to repair the volume with one of the 750GB disks, specifically, the one in bay 4 and see what happens:

Then the repair begins… Repair is a lengthy process (as it is on other systems too). For example, in 3 minutes it reached %0.38 per below. Looks like it will take around 10-12 hours for this process to finish.

Operations and Simplicity

I find the GUI interface of the DSM intuitive and sufficient for performing most operations. It seems polished enough – that I have not run into any cosmetic or functional problems. It leverages web browser quite nicely and mimics full on desktop UI pretty well.

That said, Synology comes a bit short on monitoring toolset. I know it’s a Linux box and that a ton of performance metrics and details can be accessed if you know how. But I’m looking at simple, out of the box, in-your-face interface that it offers. On the left is Synology, on the right is Windows Server. I like Windows Server better from this perspective personally.


Reliability Notes

Remember that I’m running DSM 4.2 build 3211. Strangely system appears to be rebooting about every 40 minutes. I created a support ticket to see if there is a known issue. See below and observe the pattern in timeline. There has been no power outage during this period.

After several days, on my own, I have played with removing disks. I left the system with just 2 disks for example – reboots stopped. Then started to add one disk at a time. I realized that some of those 750GB disks were causing the system to reboot.

I later discovered that the disks in question were SATA-locked on another system, but definitively removing those disks completely solved the reboot problem. Something you may want to watch for. I recommend Synology to gracefully handle SATA-locked disks. Can you imagine your fully functional NAS with empty bays starting to reboot every 40 minutes after you insert another blank disk? Not a good experience.

Performance

Disclaimer: I will say that performance comparisons here are extremely rough and I would not reach to any conclusion. Read these as my casual lab notes and nothing more. If I have a chance to do more controlled tests with same disks and similar memory cache, I will come back and update. Until then, here my current notes:

From performance point of view, I want to state that the DS1812+ I have only has 1GB of memory as that’s what it gets shipped with.

Irrespective of the underlying disk configuration (be that SHR over 4 disks, RAID1 of 2 disks), it could sustain about 63-65MB/sec in both read and write performance over the network for files over 1.5GB in size. This number is slightly below the theoretical limit of the gigabit Ethernet network.

Sitting on the same network, from the same client PC (Windows 8), I could transmit 110MB/sec for both reads and writes to a Windows Server 2012 Essentials RAID1 volume. Windows Server however, had 8GB of cache memory, although for reads it shouldn’t have mattered. I know however, that Windows 8 and Windows Server 2012 leverages a number of better-together SMB features that increase throughput. I also want to note that gigabit Ethernet network shouldn’t be able to deliver more than 85-90MB/sec. How come Windows 8 is reporting 110MB is unknown to me. That said, same measurement was done against the Synology file transfer and so I think it’s relatively accurate between the two.

From a very high level, Synology delivers reasonable performance but not winning against Windows Server 2012 for a single Windows 8 client using single large file transfers.

Ecosystem

Synology Diskstation comes with a Package Center (Application / plug-in store) that allows you to load various add-ons. This interface is very user friendly and I have had no trouble adding some basic functionality to the NAS. These included:

  • Video hosting/streaming
  • Audio hosting/streaming
  • Photo hosting/streaming

Package Center also includes solutions around VPN client and VPN server, neither of which I had a chance to evaluate. Here’s how it looks as you browse it within DSM:

Photo/Audio/Video solutions work reasonably well. Synology indexes them at the NAS side, and serves its client (I used their Windows Phone 8 apps for each – named as DS Photo, DS Video etc) quite fast, by providing thumbnails of photos rather quickly.

I was able to stream direct copy VCD movies, MP4 files (transcoded to iPad resolutions) onto my Windows Phone 8 using DS Photo, DS Video, DS Audio. Playback was quite satisfactory over home Wi-Fi, I have not tried from cellular network yet. Here’s how Windows Phone 8 apps named as. App level screenshots are available on the web if you look for them.

 

Various Tests

So I took some notes while playing with things. Might find these useful.

Can I reboot the NAS while expanding a volume? Answer is “not gracefully”. Details below:

Starting point: Add a disk and launch expansion process. It goes like this:

Attempt to restart and get below message. Compare this to Windows Server parity or mirror build/expansion process – you are free to perform graceful reboots. System will resume/restart upon reboot completion depending on the scenario.

I haven’t tested “forced reboot” scenario by yanking the power cable or anything.

How long does it take to expand a disk group?

This is probably the worst behavior of Synology Diskstation. It’s very slow. Adding a 300GB disk to the disk group took 5 hours – see below:

How do app updates work?

DSM Package center shows updates that are due when you go there. It’s similar to your mobile device app update process. You see the update, apply it. I can predict some apps breaking due to updates; so it’s probably not a good idea to apply some 10 updates broadly just because they are available. Complex apps like VPN server etc might be fragile to changes of this sort. I would recommend caution in applying updates to something that works for your needs.

One of the things I found is that each app is loaded to a volume available on the system at that time. Not much user interactivity is available during installation. Some apps allow these volumes to be changed, and they gracefully move their data with it. Some apps however, allow for this change but then cannot accommodate an update gracefully. Do ensure you know what volume(s) your apps use, and ensure app is healthy post-update. I have had to remove/reinstall/reconfigure the Video sharing app due to this storage volume adjustments for example.

Capabilities / Cost

Now that we’ve done a bit of overview, let’s take a scenario based approach to compare to Windows Server 2012 Essentials

Capability

Synology DS1812+ with DCM 4.2 3211

Windows Server 2012 Essentials

Notes

Client backup feature built in?

No. Requires separate software. Bare-metal recovery requires separately licensed 3rd party.

Bare-metal backup and restore features are included.

This is a big gap on Synology front. It sure acts as a standard file share for Windows 8 File History or Windows 7 Full System Image backup. But Synology does not offer any bare-metal backup solution as far as I can tell.

Ability to shrink a volume for the purpose of creating another

No

Yes

DCM doesn’t offer a way to shrink volumes. So if you started with a big volume and want to change your partitioning, you will have to migrate the data away, cause data loss and re-import. Windows Server however, accommodates this change natively.

Ability to reduce disk count on volumes without data loss

No

Yes

DCM doesn’t currently support removing a disk even if the underlying volume has sufficient space to accommodate this change. Windows Server has no problem shrinking volumes and removing disks.

Resiliency of the OS/system/boot volume

N-way, automatic.

Admin-defined, manual and varies based on hardware implementation.

DCM replicates itself to every initialized disk so that *any* of the disks can boot the NAS and retain configuration information.

 

Windows Server allows for mirroring of the system volume in the OS, but recovery is manual. Admin must manually select the 2nd mirror plex to boot from, or, hardware level RAID must be leveraged which increases complexity and brings its own troubles when underlying hardware fails.

Media Sharing

1st party apps allow for user friendly sharing of photos, music and videos.

Built-in media sharing feature exists, however, performance and mobile device support lacks quality and availability.

 

Time it takes to add a disk

Hours or days

Minutes

While Synology allows “hot” expansion of disk groups and volumes, it does so very slowly. Keep in mind, I’m not talking about “repair a parity volume”. This is simply adding a disk. Takes few seconds on Windows Server, maybe a minute or so for very large additions. Synology is really slow on this operation.

Variable size disk support

Yes with some flexibility limitations.

Yes with some flexibility limitations.

Both of these solutions offer variable disk support but does so in their own way. On Synology, you can add varying size disks but if disks are not multiples of each other, you are guaranteed to waste some space. Windows Server Storage Spaces is not that different. It can also corner you into wasting some space for varying size disks. Windows Server is much faster in handling disk add operations and can also scale down, giving more flexibility. For that reason I mark Windows Server as winner on this one.

Incremental mirror/parity resync

No

Yes

This one is strange. If you temporarily lose a disk that is member to a parity/raid group, Synology will want you to completely rebuild as if the disk is new when you re-insert it. Remember how long it takes to rebuild on Synology. Windows Server however, will park the volume in degraded mode and will attempt incremental repair without full resync, which is much quicker.

Cost estimates

 

This is rough comparison – variety of options out there. Check eBay for pre-configured NAS options

DS1812+ 16TB $2150.98

Buffalo TeraStation 5600 WSS 18TB: $1772.00

Terastation has 6 bays .vs. DS1812+ has 8 bays but there isn’t exact configuration out there to compare. Still wanted to give an example.

 

Conclusion

Lacking native/no-cost support for bare-metal client backups, Synology has a major drawback. Synology DSM offers simple configuration options but lacks enterprise features like deduplication that Windows Server 2012 offers. For example, I couldn’t replace my Windows Server Essentials 2012 based solution at home with it.

If you’re looking to buy a NAS and if the bare-metal client backups is important for you, I think you can go with Windows Storage Server 2012 powered NAS solutions like Buffalo Terastation 5600 WSS. You can’t beat the ease of client backups/restores with anything else that I’m aware of.

If mobile media sharing and application ecosystem is more important for you, Synology is ahead on that. In terms of cost/TB of storage, I found that Synology solutions are more expensive despite they lack significant storage operations capabilities; either directly or lack by way of significant performance penalty (add/expand/shrink/remove).

When you’re in hardware trouble with any of these solutions, drop-in replacements of hardware from each vendor should get you going without data loss. Windows Server offers more standardized file system and those disks can be read on any other Windows PC. I don’t know enough about Synology SHR technology to comment on that but something you might want to check carefully.

In closing, if you’re going to store your digital memories or other important data on these systems, makes sure there is a backup solution that you know works. RAID or parity protected volumes are not a replacement proper backup. Keep your data safe. Hope this post helps a bit as you make your next NAS decision.

Please drop a comment if you find inaccuracies or have any other thoughts/questions. Happy to revise as needed and answer your questions.

19 replies »

  1. Great article, well done. I have been running a Synology DS710+for over 2 years. I’m using two Western Digital Red 3Tb hard drives running 24/7. I’m very pleased with those HDD’s by the way.

    As far as reliability goes, it seems to just work and do its job. On the other hand, I haven’t had a drive fail so I can’t say how difficult to it will be to rebuild when that day comes. The thought of total failure tends to lurk in my mind as won’t be able to simply stock the HDD in a workstation and salvage the data.

    Yes, the apps are nice and make mobility a breeze. However, there are times when I prefer having a Windows server for things like software apps that feed on MSSQL databases.

    The NAS market is growing quickly. Windows Home Server didn’t fare well for Microsoft, possibly because they were too far ahead of the curve. I’d like to see them take another stab at it, only this time having more focus on mobile apps, and simplifying www setup, etc.

    Thanks again for investing your time for this write up. It’s refreshing to see an unbiased review.

    • Synology does do the job well. I guess for the companies, I haven’t had a problem, nor will I stop recommending it (maybe).

      ” I’m very pleased with those HDD’s by the way.” Me to…me too…

      With regard to personal use though, I think now I have every reason in the world to discontinue to pursue a Synology solution, due to price.

  2. Hi there. Thanks for that review.
    One factor that should be included in costs is the licensing. If I understand it correctly, MS 2012 Essentials costs around $500 and will reauire CAL (client Access Licenses) for users to connect. If you want to use MS 2012 as a file server and have 50 users connect the cal costs close to $2000. Thus to run MS 2012 as a file server for 50 users there is an additional licensing cost around $2500.
    What about runing MS 2012 as a mila server? Synology can run a mail server application without any extra license costs for the server or the users connecting. With MS2012 I believe there willb e a server license and CALs for each email user. More costs.

    • Hi Todd, thanks for the comment. Essentials edition has a limit of 25 users, however, it can be in-place upgraded to Standard edition which of course has no such limit so long as you get CALs separately. I’m linking to the licensing and edition comparison datasheet that has some of the answers for you: http://download.microsoft.com/download/F/3/9/F39124F7-0177-463C-8A08-582463F96C9D/Windows_Server_2012_R2_Licensing_Datasheet.pdf

      Also, you asked about email server. On Windows Server Essentials, you can run any Email server software that is compatible with Windows; there are some free ones out there, but of course my favorite is Exchange Server 2013, which as you stated, is not free. I don’t think there is any Exchange Server comparable (i.e. as capable) email solution on Synology that costs less. Correct me if I’m wrong (with links).

      Hope this helps.

  3. Thanks for covering the differences between Synology’s DSM and Microsoft’s offerings in the same space.

    As a professional NAS reviewer [ http://www.anandtech.com/tag/nas ], I have had the chance to evaluate many different embedded Linux-based NAS OSes, and Synology’s is the best of the lot. The RAID rebuild / migration duration that you mention in the piece is an issue on all such NAS appliances.

    I recently built a DIY NAS using the Intel Avoton platform and installed Windows Storage Server on it. Unfortunately, Windows Storage Server (from a DIY perspective) comes across as quite user-unfriendly in my initial experience. I simulated a physical disk pull, formatted it on another PC (Win 8) — should give credit to MS there because the other PC successfully recognized the USB-attached hard drive as being part of a Storage Spaces volume — and attached it back. Got the ‘rebuild’ done (don’t see the In Service yellow warning triangle against the volume anymore) after adding the ‘new’ physical disk into the Storage Pool, Repair Disk for the affected disk and removing the ‘pulled’ drive out of the Physical Disk list, but the Event Logs have nary a mention about the disk pull event or rebuild being processed. In this respect, I find Synology’s implementation of the rebuild process to be much better / user-friendly.

    Also, ReFS has abysmal write performance (which is as per-design, apparently) compared to EXT3 / EXT4 volumes on the embedded Linux OSes. Probably not comparing apples-to-apples here, maybe comparing against ZFS would be better?

    • Ganesh, my sincere apologies.. This was buried under my approval queue for 200+ days — it was not intentional.

      I don’t have convenient access to ZFS at the moment, but if you have a post comparing the two in a similar way, happy to drop a link here.

      • ZFS is an oddball OS with great specs, with little usability. Great for big corps, with lots of money to pour into development of backend products for backup/restoration…for the general user/IT person…ZFS is pointless. Its dedupe requires a LOT of ram (while NTFS does not), it requires ECC ram (while NTFS does not), it is managed by the command line (NTFS is not required to be)…. etc.

        It’s great technology, don’t get me wrong. But, and this is a big BUT. It’s like taking a rocketship to the grocery store. Also, this rocketship is from the 60’s…so good luck learning how to use it. (ZFS is new but I’m referring to usability).

  4. There are other advantages to having a Synology, in particular the Synology personal cloud which is so far one of the best personal solutions I have used (after trying many other), it works especially well in an heterogeneous client setup.

  5. This article opened my eyes. I knew about Storage Spaces, but I never saw the rundown with the total cost and features lined up to make the decision so easy. I like Synology, but after reading this, I will never buy one for my personal use…

  6. Thank you for this post. But it still didn’t help me to decide what will be the replacement of my WHS v1… Windows Server 2012 R2 Essentials or a Synology…. I like the goodies(apps) and ease of interface, but I’m not fund on the file system(redundancy) and lacking good client backup and recovery.
    Nice link I got to see what Synology Hybrid Raid does when adding disks:
    https://www.synology.com/en-us/support/RAID_calculator
    Still not happy in the case when you have 2 1TB disks and add a new 2TB disk. In theory I would expect 2TB redundant(REAL, not Raid-5 with parity)..
    Does Drive Pool/Drive Spaces give you 2TB fully redundant? Like with Drive Extender(in WHS v1)?

    • I can relate to your indecision. Right now I’m giving a Synology good chance to prove itself. I’m taking backups using Duplicati (no typo) – but it won’t do bare metal, plus it will require full backups every now and then; lastly it doesn’t do dedupe. Regarding your question, see my Storage spaces posts but in general yes Windows Server Storage Spaces will offer more granularity in redundant volumes with varying size disks. But your specific question is 1+1+2. You could get 2tb mirror protected volume with Spaces yes.

      • Thank you for the quick reply.
        The last words might be the final factor for me to choose Microsoft Server plus the fact that you can always simply take disk out and hook it to a windows client through usb and all files are just there…
        My experience with a Synology this was not so simple or not possible at all in a 3 disk situation with Synology Hybrid Raid(RAID -5)

      • You are correct that, so long as all disks of the spaces volume are carried together to another host, you can import the volume and read data. Bitlocker or other at-rest encryption options excluded of course. Those require proper keys.

        Recovering Synology data relies more on backups. I’m backing up some folders on my 1815+ to 1812+ that resides elsewhere. That’s my Synology recovery plan for now.

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