Using a Synology NAS to Escape the Cloud

Originally published at: Using a Synology NAS to Escape the Cloud - TidBITS

In an effort to create a centralized but local place to store all his data, Josh Centers bought a Synology DS 920+. So far, the investment has been worth it for him, but it may be more expense and trouble than it’s worth for you.

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My needs being much simpler, I have two, two-bay NAS RAID devices, installed over the past year to replace a pair of aging WD NAS drives. Cost being a huge factor, I installed a QNAP TS-230 with a pair of 2TB SSDs, which I use for everyday storage I need constant access to. For long-term photo storage (locally, I also have a SmugMug site), I chose a Synology DS220j with two WD Red 8TB drives. The units these replaced were 1TB and 2TB, respectively, so I still have plenty of space for my needs. Because I shop aggressively for sales prices and deals, and bought the bays and drives separately, I kept the cost affordable and spread it over time (with promotional interest-free payments to boot).

Josh is right about the simplicity of setting up Synology – it’s a breeze. QNAP was a little more complex, but the one question I had was quickly answered in their online help resources. (Note here, I originally tried a Terramaster, and hated it – very persnickety. That one became the QNAP.)

PS: If you didn’t see it already, QNAP has an advisory out to disable AFP due to a major security issue. I only use SMB and have AFP turned off on both devices.

Nice article Josh - thanks!

I, too, have a Synology NAS (DS418play) and have, mostly, been pretty happy with it. I’m also grateful for you sharing your remote access experiences and may dig in to setting such up for password management synching, as you mentioned in your previous article on such

Echoing your comments about Apple sometimes dropping the server connection, I experienced such with earlier versions of DSM when Time Machine failed to back up there, and then, to boot, wouldn’t recognize it’s previous sparse bundle and, thus, had to start over. That seems to have cleared up and I haven’t had that issue since DSM 7, methinks. (I also have another Time Machine backup on an external HDD USB connected to my iMac)

I did have one particularly pernicious situation wherein thousands of files were subjected to "name mangling’ immediately after a DSM update. (e.g. file names were changed to six(?) alpha/numeric characters + extension when the original names included certain ‘offensive’ characters

Synology Tech Support advised the following:
“I would recommend avoiding special characters in file/folder names from here on. This includes / ? < > \ : * | " or any character you can type with the Option key. The widely accepted best practice for naming files/folders is to only use a-Z, A-Z, 0-9, dots, dashes, and underscores. You would also want to make sure that none of the folders have trailing space at the end of their names.”

  • the pike character “|” was notoriously at fault, among others

Gratefully, I had a backup prior to the update I saved and used to help restore / fix file names so ‘mangled’ - what a pain that was…

As an aside, among my various ‘finders’ I used for locating errant file names/characters, I want to give a plug for the Find Any File app which was able to find some things that other apps (e.g., Spotlight, Finder, EasyFind) didn’t - like the ‘trailing space at the end of their names’

Thanks again for you article

I am glad you noted that about the illegal characters. Most mac users that never worked in or with Windows shares, would encounter such an issue. I’ve been frustrated at the constant reminder to users not to make mac file names into sentences like “student-changes/*fiscal Year 2020/[save for later]” and get a response, “but its fine on my mac”… Not if you intend to put on a Share (likely Windows servers).
The “|” is a pipe in shell use, btw.

And a Thank you Josh for this! since I am really pushing someone to move their TM to a NAS (Synology) and also file sharing. Can it be on the same Syn? Does the container design allow for a container for TM and then another as a share volume? Things to learn…

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Thanks for the pipe vs. pike note - I recollect it being pipe but Synology Tech Support folks kept referring to it as pike…

On Synology NAS you have a lot of latitude to create volumes and folders for different purposes, with different characteristics, eg., permissions, size limits, “speed limits”, among others

I’m a big Synology fan…DS920+ NAS, RT2600ac router, three MR2200ac mesh routers. Quite pleased with all and easy to configure.

I’m waiting for the new RT6600ax router to be released (they’ve missed the 1Q22 target) to see if it looks like a worthwhile upgrade.

B&H ( is a good place to start price shopping. I’ve been buying from them since the late 70s.

The idea of a NAS is so alluring but the reality is not so great. I tried using a WD NAS for Time Machine backups and that fails. (It also doesn’t work with CCC.). I still use it, but only as a file server for my photographs that is reachable by all my Macs, iPhones, and iPad. I too gave up on “Cloud” backup - too slow and expensive. What I do now it put anything I want to save into iCloud, then back it up from my iMac Pro which has a RAID backup drive. (The RAID is then also copied to off-line drives stored in a safe.). If a centralized network resource is needed, then I think the best solution is assigning a Mac to this role - that appears to work reliably. But is is more expensive, though costs can be reduced by using older hardware or buying Apple “refurb” hardware. A lot of these issues were discussed at length in an earlier TidBits article about NAS backups. Josh knows what he is doing, but getting it to work is pretty complicated.

I discovered another use for my Synology NAS late last year. I realized that most of what we watched on TV was on local channels or through streaming. What made me hesitate about cutting the cord was the loss of DVR functionality, but I didn’t want to keep paying $70 a month for just that. While looking into perhaps getting a TiVo, I discovered Channels DVR Server which can turn the Synology into a DVR when paired with a tuner like the HDHomerun. The Channels client software runs on the Apple TV and on iOS. I’ve been very satisfied with this setup.

Oh, interesting! Looking at the two sites, I’m not seeing where the schedule of what will air on broadcast channels comes from. Is there a subscription for the HDHomerun to get the schedule? Or a subscription for Channels to get them? I assume this is information you still need to pay someone for and that it’s worth paying something for.

Yeah, you just create a separate share for the Time Machine backup and that will be available from Network in Finder.

It’s part of Channels, I believe. There’s the Channels for HDHomerun app which is free (I think) and doesn’t require a subscription, but there’s no way to record. The app Channels: Whole Home DVR requires a subscription which costs $8 per month or $80 a year.

It also looks like the HDHomerun app (from Silicon Dust) can also record, but the app hasn’t gotten good reviews on the App Store. I think Plex can also use the HDHomerun tuner, but I didn’t really look into that option.

When Apple started tearing the features from Server we decided to look at a NAS as an alternative. We purchased a maximum RAM, 9 TB (effective) Synology DS1517+ (4 bay Raid 5 with hot spare). I was very lax in my testing as I only used benchmarks as an indication of its suitability. It benchmarked quite well compared to the OS X Server - not quite as good, but not far off. Based on this we purchased a second device and set them up as a high availability cluster.

The problems started almost immediately. As a publishing company our stock and trade is InDesign and Photoshop and both performed terribly from the NAS. Now I know Adobe don’t recommend using any of their products directly from shares but I don’t know any company who doesn’t.

Opening an InDesign file from the Synology was just woeful - slow to open and constantly pausing and hesitating in use. Saving was slow. I was getting complaints within the first 15 minutes of switching some files over. We’ve NEVER had these issues running from OS X Server. We tried both AFP and SMB with no difference. We tried tweaking the SMB as there are some known issues but none of it solved the problem. It didn’t take long before I realised I’d made an expensive mistake and the Synology simply wasn’t going to work. I restructured our servers so the Synology became nothing more than a large archive and all our working files were put back onto OS X Server. To say I was disappointed was an understatement.

The other major issue is searching. You can use the Synology File Station or Universal Search but as they’re run from the browser interface they don’t give the option of simply double clicking a file to open it - you need to download it to your local machine then open it from there. Forget using the Mac OS to search - spotlight and the Command-F find are nothing short of terrible and even the excellent Find Any File lists the drives as “Slow”. Searching any sort of significant archive requires a short interstate holiday before it returns a result.

Of course it’s not all bad. Once you get your head around disk, volumes and pools the setup is straightforward. The Synology interface is easy to understand and the process of adding packages is simple. They’re also very reliable. The hot spares and high availability works exactly as they should. We’ve had a complete device go down with power issues and it was totally transparent to users - the passive device switched in and everyone kept working.

TL:DR - I wouldn’t use a Synology as an active file server. It is fine for a large archive and if that’s your plan make sure you plan your file structure to make locating files easy (don’t rely on search). I’ve found the packages solid and useful - we use the Mail Server as our mail archive server and I personally have use the Photo Station for sharing photos. I have no experience using Plex etc as it’s a work server.

Whilst on Synology, I like the interface enough that I was pushed towards the RT2600ac router and I’m a big fan. We purchased one for work and I liked it so much I bought another one for home - excellent product, easy to manage and comfortably handles my 1000Mb net connection.

One last thing I forgot, Synologys are subject to the same critical AFP security issue as the QNAPs. You need to update to DSM 7.1 to patch.

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I’ve been using Plex and an HDHomerun tuner for several years for recording OTA, and I’m quite happy with it. You can rent Plex by the month, by the year, or purchase it (for I think around $130 or so?). Company (Silicon Dust?) making the tuner also offers a model which not only records OTA signals, but streaming signals–I have not tried that. As Josh mention in his article, Plex contains the necessary software to transcode the recordings, for many of the common servers. Plex and my other hardware (not an NAS) handle the 10TB+ files quite well, and are superior to the abominable “TV” and “Music” “apps” in my opinion. I keep the Apple “apps” around only because that’s the only way to play DRM copy protected TV shows, movies and music I purchased from the iTunes store.

I had been using a Synology (ds215j) for quite a few years. Replaced the initial drives with bigger ones a couple of years ago.
Then early this year things failed hard, to the point where the Synology wouldn’t even properly start up anymore. I was eventually able to use a PC, and ubuntu usb stick and instructions on the synology website to mount one drive and recover my data. Big plus for them for having those recovery instructions available.

However, this time around I decided to rebuild my NAS services manually, using a couple of external drives and a Raspberry Pi. Right now I’m more comfortable building and managing my own server rather than trusting my data to an off-the-shelf solution.
This kind of thing is of course contingent on being comfortable with setting up and running your own linux server, so it’s definitely not for everyone.

Is there any advantage to a Synology over a Mac Mini M1 with a drive bay attached? That’s what I have. All the macs in the house get backed up to it via TM, Arq over SFTP and CCC. We use it as a Plex server as well. Our ancient wired Scansnap is attached to it and a series of hazel rules / applescripts launch Fine Reader OCR on its contents.

The real advantage is simplicity of package setup. If you need a web server, mail server, FTP server, Plex, Photo Sharing, Wordpress etc they’re all one click installs on a Synology whereas you need to download them all and go through the process of installing on your MacMini.

Having said that, I have a MacMini at home with multiple RAID drives attached which we use as our home server. I have another which is my web server.

I went another way: renting a server in a datacenter. This suits me better for a few reasons.

  1. It has 1Gbps upstream bandwidth where my home connection only has 50Mbps.

  2. No noisy, heat-generating, space-consuming hardware in my (small) house.

  3. More processing power for transcoding video and the like.

  4. Hardware upgrades just involve migrating to a new server. Broken hardware is fixed by the datacenter.

The server has a 4-core, 8-thread Xeon processor and 4x2TB HDs in RAID5, but I’m in the process of migrating to a 4x10TB machine.

The downsides of this way are that, because the server is remote and runs Linux, you have to solve and diagnose any problems remotely. And it’s probably more expensive: for the $1,000 outlay of the OP, I’d get about 30 months of server rental with half the OP’s usable space. Then again, the OP will have electricity and maintenance costs that are included in the price of my server.

Nice article. I also had similar experiences. I started with QNAP and at that time it was less friendly to mac and bit clumsy, so I switched to Synology and everything was working better. If you use comparison Mac/win — synology would be mac and QNAP windows.
I was using time machine for backups, but every few months it went unstable and I had to do whole backup again. So I decided to use ARQ which runs nicely and I do every few hours backups to NAS and sometimes to Deep Glacier, so I have also off site backup version.

I use L2TP/IPSec on iPhone, but I vaguely remember that there were some problems when I was setting it up.
Right now my settings on server:
Authentication: MS-CHAP v2
MTU: 1400
Preshare key
Enable SHA2-256: disable

As for SMB problems with large number of files in directory, I think that it’s MacOS problem, because in work I connect to win shares from my mac, it’s very slow, but when I connect from windows machine to same share, it’s very quick.

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@jcenters, thank you for sharing your experiences.

Behind me in my “gear closet” a Netgear ReadyNAS Duo is still sitting on a shelf, where it has been for way too long after a poorly-behaved Mac application hosed both hard drives. I’ve been wanting to move on from that sad experience.

I’m thinking this would a useful complement to the ASUS Zen WiFi router, because some services on the NAS are also offered on the Zen router, allowing perhaps some “mix and match”.

I’d really like to be less dependent on cloud services, and appreciate the nudge this article represents.