Published on March 28th, 2012 | by Greg0
Synology DS212: Simplest, Fastest RAID NAS Yet
If the headline was confusing, don't worry. By the end of this article, we promise that the acronyms will make sense, and you'll have learned perhaps more about data storage than you ever wanted to. First, a brief introduction: your computer uses a hard drive to store everything- pictures, music, movies- and hard drives all eventually die. That's why we (and everyone else) encourage regular data backup procedures. Of course, you can do this with a portable hard drive- we've seen and tested a lot of them- but it's often easiest to have a central server of sorts, called a NAS. NAS stands for network attached storage, and is basically a fancy name for a more sophisticated external hard drive that you connect through your router instead of directly via USB or Firewire. The advantages are many. It's basically a small computer, with capabilities like multimedia serving and background downloading, that you can leave running 24 hours a day and not worry much about power consumption or noise. And multiple people can use it at the same time.
We've also seen our fair share of similar devices. QNAP makes some solid models that we've reviewed in the past, and Drobo offers a sophisticated (and expensive) series that is the only type that allows for the use of different drive sizes. Most people, though, want a good out-of-the-box experience, a backup and storage system that is immediately ready to go- and that is precisely what Synology offers with their DS212. Aimed at small business users, it's also great for more sophisticated home users. Technical details follow, but don't worry if they don't make sense.
The model we tried offers 256MB of RAM and a 1.6GHz processor, enough for our purposes. But you can save some money with the 212j or spend a bit more on the 212+, which tweak the RAM and processor speed as well as the additional ports. The interface and functionality, though, are consistent and in every case you're getting a two-bay system with gigabit ethernet and a maximum capacity of 8GB (two 4TB drives). Ours was outfitted with 2TB in total, with two 1GB drives pre-installed and setup in a default RAID 1 configuration. And the 212 offers two USB 3.0 ports on the rear, a USB 2.0 front port, and even a handy SD card slot which is perfect for photographers.
What does this all mean? Well, think of it this way: most backup systems offer a feature called RAID, which is redundancy that protects against a drive failure or problem. You can set this up on your home system as well, though it does take some work and doesn't play well with all drives, operating systems, and setups. It's easier, though, when you're just trying to keep data protected. Essentially, every file you copy is automatically mirrored across both drives. This comes at a price- you only can access half of your actual capacity, since half of the space is reserved. But drives are cheap now, and it's almost always better to pay a bit more and never have to worry about data loss. Except in the case of fire or flood damage to the unit itself (or theft of course), the chances of both drives failing at the same time are incredibly small.
All of this covers the basics of RAID systems, but the advantages of a NAS might not be clear yet. Let's say that you have an iTunes library that you want to share, and you like to use BitTorrent to download files. Even more, you wish you could access those files when you're away, on the road or at the office. You could setup a desktop server to handle this- but most desktops are big, fairly loud, and consume a lot of power- it's overkill. The alternative is to get a device like the DS212, which allow easy configuration of various apps. The Drobo app system was horribly complex for several tasks and hasn't really improved, and QNAP's was pretty painless though a bit difficult for novies. Synology has clearly worked hard on the user interface, and we were impressed- it's functional, pretty, and runs through a browser window that looks and feels much like a desktop. You install a single program from the included CD, and though the manual is paltry (a couple of pages), it should be enough for most people to get started and connected. All you need to do is connect power, ethernet, and then follow the steps from the CD- we were up and going within 40 seconds on Win7, and had a shared public folder with full guest access in less than a minute, and a BitTorrent download started about twenty seconds after that.
Most important apps are already installed, though not enabled- enabling is as simple as clicking "enable" for the most part. DDNS support is hidden through "EZCloud" but is remarkably simple, allowing you to easily access your new file server from anywhere in the world. Creating a website, even an SQL server, that lives on the NAS is also a one-click process from the main control panel. Other applications are a bit harder to find- they are found under "Package Center"- and include basics like an iTunes server, surveillance station for use with IP cameras, a photography album for easy sharing, a DLNA/uPNP server for media, and the Download Station. The last one is a custom client to handle torrent, eMule, and other downloads, and was one of the cleaner implementations that we've tried on a NAS. And not installed by default but easy to do from the "Available" tab are things like a DHCP server, a mail server, and VPN.
This is fast becoming one of our wordier posts, but it feels like we're just getting started. Out of the box, our unit indicated that 911 GB was available. Through the web-based interface, we browsed the options. And though we weren't prompted to update the software, we noticed that the option was available and immediately downloaded and upgraded to DSM 4.0, the name for their management tool. It took only a couple of minutes to download the update, and another couple to install it- the process was seamless, helpful, and straightforward. We tried transferring some large files, and managed to transfer 1.3GB in a minute, a fairly impressive rate. Inserting an SD card, we could see the files available on the network publicly. To backup all of the existing files on external storage, all you have to do is press the front hardware button (it works for drives connected to the USB ports as well). The SD slow was a a bit wonky- it felt a bit too flush, and we would've preferred the card remain slightly protuding so that it would be obvious as well as easy to get out. All in all though, it was pretty hard for us to find fault with the Synology DS212. Packaged well and with pretty solid hardware, we ran it for days straight without issue. At $300 without drives or $600 with the 2TB drives ready to go, it's a great deal- the best value on a NAS that we've seen. Not everyone needs network storage, but for those who do, look no further.