Setting up a Home NAS

Network storage doesn't have to be hard

Published on Tuesday, July 5, 2011

There was a time when I was more than happy to sit inside on a warm summer weekend with some spare computer hardware and a healthy amount of nerdy ambition.  Those days were filled with triumph, frustration and more than a little swearing as a finger would be neatly splayed open by the sharp metal edge of a computer case.

Then one day I woke up and realized I had a lot of computers.  By “a lot”, I mean more than even a developer really needs.  Enough that it was noticeable on my electric bill, my home office sounded like an airport and was perpetually 10 degrees warmer than any other room in my house. Anyone who has this many machines knows the sense of loss when power goes out long enough for the UPS's to die and all your little fans blow their last breath. The silence is deafening.

Shortly thereafter I decided I needed a home network that wasn't a part time job to maintain and set out to simplify things.  First thing to go?  The mail server; replaced by Google Apps and my own domain.  Next were the web and database servers; replaced by virtualization powered by VMWare Workstation.  Now I’m down to a single computer and with the exception of the file server, my beloved Alienware M15x happily performs the duties of my old hardware, albeit in a much different way.

Don’t Die on Me!

Several months go by.  Actually more like 18 months, and I start to get paranoid about my lack of data redundancy. At this point I’m like most people; all my stuff is on the single hard-drive in my laptop and a second eSATA drive that I leave permanently connected.  With the disturbing drive failure rates I’ve seen both personally and professionally, I felt it was time to prevent the suffering that would come from catastrophic drive loss and set up a more survivable data storage system.

Enter the NAS or “Network Attached Storage” Device and a real backup strategy for all of my data.

Pick your Poison

I spent a lot of time looking at the many storage options available to me.  After a lot of research I considered the following:

While I eventually decided to go with the Synology DS1515+, let me be fair;  Each of the options I considered would have met my needs.  Like anything though, the devil is in the details and while I’d love to provide a full run down of each device and its pros/cons, and who it might be good for, I’m just not that ambitious.  Instead, it’s more valuable to give a review of the Synology DS1515+ and the features that made me choose it over the others.

Capacity and Redundancy

Going into this project I had pretty substantial home storage requirements.  I wanted to be able to store my critical data, backups of both my and my wife's laptop, virtual machines as well as ISO’s of my MSDN subscription.  Capacity planning (IMHO), even for home use is critical because of the investment in hardware.  Underestimate and you’ll have a system that won’t hold all your data or won’t grow with you.  Over estimate and you’re wasting money.  Personally I’d rather spend more money up front and have greater future capacity, so I decided to err on the side of more storage than less.  With photography as a new hobby, I think this is a wise decision.

The DS1515+ in this regard is awesome.  Most of the systems I looked at will take 5 disks (6 for the Netgear) and support all the major RAID options that you’d need.  Where the Synology device shines however is in it’s ability to expand by adding up to 2 more disk enclosures via the eSATA ports on the back of the device.  Considering this configuration could support up to 45TB of total disk (which I will never use, but is cool nonetheless) I’ve got options should I run out of space.

Photography and HD video eats disk space… fast.

User Interface

I am lazy when it comes to running machines at home.  Gone are the days of farting around with hardware, figuring out how I want to set Linux or Window up and all those things I used to really get a kick out of. Now I’m much more prone to explore photography than the inner workings of infinite menus. So it’s no surprise that the easier a device is to use, the more I’m willing to embrace it. I’m not dumb; I’ll find the tricksy button setting thing and flip the switch.  I just don’t want to have to dig for it.

So unlike my D-Link DIR-655 Router which has one of the better web based administration tools I’ve seen on a consumer grade router, the Synology device is intuitive to use.  Not to say that the router is hard, it’s just that there are at least 3 or 4 places that I can go to change different wireless settings, most of them two or three obscure clicks into a menu system that I can never remember how to get to the two times a year I log into the thing.  Again, I’m lazy that way.

The Synology DSM (Disk Station Manager) is more like an operating system and less like a web site.  When you log into the device with your browser, you essentially have the look and feel of a Linux’y GUI operating system in your browser.  It’s easy to find what you want, you can drag and layer windows, and all those nice things that make using a modern graphical operating system easy to use. They put a lot of thought into how their system works, and it shows.

For more detailed information, check out some of the features and screenshots on the Synology site.

Backing Up

I've got four or five virtual machines, my host workstation, and my wife's workstation and I don't want to spend hours on end making sure things are crazy backed up. The backup strategy that I'm using is pretty straight forward, and works well with a home NAS.

  1. Virtual machines are copied from my workstation to the NAS device on a nightly basis using SyncBackSE
  2. My host workstation is backed up to a shared backup folder on the NAS using Acronis True Image
  3. My wife's workstation is backed up to a shared backup folder on the NAS using Acronis True Image

To back up the NAS there are two processes that I run

  1. Every few hours the DSM built-in backup software backs up the NAS contents to a direct-attached external USB drive
  2. Once per week I create an off-site backup that I keep at work by using SyncBackSE to copy the contents of the NAS to a compressed and TrueCrypt encrypted external USB drive attached to my workstation

In an ideal world I'd just run TrueCrypt on the Synology and encrypt everything written to the USB drives. This would allow me to have only a single step for creating a backup that I can use with two drives for off-site backups. I know it's possible to compile TrueCrypt for the Sonology, but I have yet to get it to work properly; IMO it's one hell of a convoluted process.

Summing it Up

I've had the Synology DS1515+ for some time now and it's one of the best improvements I've made to my home network. I am sure the other solutions I looked at are fine and good, but I am very happy with my choice of the Synology device.