Monday, April 26, 2010

Wherein I review my new Synology DS410

Important Disclaimer! I actually didn't pay for this NAS. Yes, that's right, free stuff! But not how you think - I won it in a random drawing run by Synology on Twitter. Those of you who think this might color things; sorry, nope, I was going to be buying a DS410 anyways. So there were no strings attached with winning it, no promised reviews, I just happened to have a lucky day when they drew the winner. I was planning to tear into it and blog as soon as I bought it anyway.

So with that out of the way, let's dive in, shall we? Starting with the basics, here's a link to the product page for the Synology DS410 NAS. It's got 4 SATA hot swap bays that accept 2.5" or 3.5" disks, a single GigE connection, two USB ports, and an eSATA port for expansion. Protocols include CIFS, AFP, NFS, FTP, and more. It fits into a very small space - just over 7" high, about 9" deep, and around 6.25" wide. If you said "dang, that's tiny," then you're absolutely spot in. Finding space for the DS410 will not be a problem. What makes this little box all the more impressive is the eSATA port. Run out of disks on your DS410? Just attach an RX4 or DX510 expansion unit. (Or potentially any expander compatible with a Silicon Image 3531 PCIe1x SATA controller.) If you're looking for a totally thorough review of every single featurette on it, sorry, this is a practical review. Which means basically I put it through it's paces doing what I need and what most folks will demand of it.

My DS410 came in a retail box, which some folks would call boring, and which I call "very tasteful." A Synology branded cardboard box with a bright green sticker on the side declaring the NAS model as a DS410, with a brief but excellent list of the contents, supported applications, and the hardware inside. Of course, the DS410 by default comes with no disks, and mine was default. So I made a quick trip to for disks from the Synology compatibility list.(Linked because their compatibility list is the best out there.)
Everything you need to get rolling is in the box; the Quick Start CD, a quick start guide in a bunch of languages I don't speak (and English, which was a bit hard to find on it,) a standard power cable, the large power brick, all the screws you'll ever need, and a high quality Ethernet cable. When I say high quality, I do mean high quality Cat5e - one of the better made cables I've seen in a while. I'm not entirely happy about the large external brick, but it's needed to keep the chassis size so tiny. It's not an unattractive brick, and it doesn't get overly hot, so I have to admit I'd rather have it than a bigger chassis.
This part is super important. I opted for 3 x Samsung HD154UI 1.5 Terabyte 5400RPM SATA disks. Seriously folks; I bought only three slow 5400RPM disks. When I get to the performance part, you'll understand why this part is so important.

Diving into the gory technical details, since installation lets you do that, it's pretty obvious what makes the DS410 one of my favorites and what gives it it's phenomenal performance. We start with a Freescale MPC8533 processor, which isn't too unusual but a touch surprising. (Marvell's 88F5281 SOCs tend to be more popular for some reason.) But that's where the average ends. Making the network a strong performer is the Intel i82574L Gigabit Ethernet controller, one of my favorite parts in the whole world - corners weren't cut here. Part of the reason I love the i82574L is because it does internal TCP Checksum Offload and any MTU from 1000 through Jumbo with VLAN. (For my purposes right now, it's best to keep the MTU at 1500/1536.) Internal SATA is provided by a Marvell 88SX7042 PCIe4x controller, giving us a 1:1 PCIe lane to disk ratio excluding expansion. Expansion disks via eSATA get their own lane worth 250MB/s to themselves. The overall fit and finish of the motherboard and interior is well above average, which may be why you're all but encouraged to take off the main case when you go to install disks. Every component shows very deliberate care in selection and placement.

So how about installing the DS410 after taking it apart? Well, we've covered my 3x 1.5TB 5400RPM disks. Installing them was so easy, anyone could do it. Remove the slip-locked trays (just pull), place the drive on it, line up four screw holes, install the included screws, and slide the drive in. Locking is accomplished by raised areas on the bridges which fit perfectly into the metal cage, making locking surprisingly solid. You can't remove disks by accident. Getting access to the disks is ridiculously easy - four thumb screws on the back panel. Smart design decision that needs pointed out - the security lock slot goes through the interior metal framing, so it also locks access to the disks. The power connector from the brick is a tab-locking 4 pin affair, with a power cable lock included in the screws to ensure you don't accidentally yank it out. The fit of the power connector was so nice that I'd be more worried about breaking the motherboard before pulling out the power. Speaking of power, consumption is impressively low as well, along with fan noise. Temperatures were well within acceptable ranges, and the two 60mm Sunon fans (Sunon being one of my favorite manufacturers, I'll add) produce only the slightest fan whine. It's quiet enough that most folks will probably never hear them.

Initial setup of the DS410 is very straightforward and easy. It can be done on Windows, OS X and Linux or FreeBSD. I only tested Windows. Lesson one; your DS410 does not self load firmware onto disks! So the first step of initial setup is to use the Synology DS Assistant to locate your DS410. Network defaults for first time use are DHCP. Then you load the firmware - either from CD or the latest DSM 2.3 firmware from the web - onto the disks. Steps are pretty much initialize the disks (different from creating a volume,) configure the network, set the administrator password, set the initial time, aaaaand you're off and running. For my DS410, the whole process took about 15 minutes including the reboots. I elected to load the firmware from CD (currently shipping 2.2) so I could test out upgrading the firmware to current (2.3.) Important note here, DS Assistant doesn't need to be installed to your system - it runs off the CD. Brilliant move on Synology's part there, definitely.

Once you've finished with DS Assistant's initial setup, you actually don't need DS Assistant any more. You can elect to keep it around if you want, but I didn't. It's a bit limited in what it can and can't do - you can't really manage the DS from it, and the monitoring functions are duplicated in the web interface.
I'll spare everyone screenshot spam, the excellent Synology Live Demo will give you a better feel for the UI than I can. My take on the web interface? Excellent. Why? Because it just worked in every browser I tested it with (Firefox, IE and Chrome.) It was self explanatory. It was short and to the point. Organization is excellent; I didn't spend any time hunting for functions or settings at any point. I was able to configure it to enable NFS, sync time to my NTP server, disable unused services, and turn on DLNA functions without once needing to refer to the manual. And everything just worked. Which brings us to upgrading the firmware - it's remarkably painless, but I didn't have a volume configured prior to doing so, which probably contributed. I did it through the web interface, and it took about 5 minutes - most of that time spent rebooting. Gripe number one; the Synology DS410 is very slow to boot. It can take as long as 5 minutes to come online with no volumes or shares and a minimum of services enabled. But this is pretty minor - once it's on, you leave it running. Well, I do - you might want to use scheduled power on and off. Yep, the DS410 can do that. I just don't use it; it's connected to 24x7 operating servers.
The only real extra feature I've used is the Synology Download Station software, which is a BitTorrent and eMule client on the NAS itself. I performed testing using FreeBSD 7.3-RELEASE and 8.0-RELEASE torrents which are well seeded. I was not displeased; usage of the DownloadStation is simple and straightforward, download speeds had no trouble reaching the limits of my Internet connection, and with 6 torrents downloading the overall performance of the DS410 was virtually unaffected. That's downright impressive - most others I've seen tend to slow down significantly under that sort of load.

Volume creation forces you to use the wizard, which surprisingly, I don't mind. The wizard gives you sufficient control - select your disks, select "Standard" which is Synology Hybrid Raid (compare to BeyondRAID, RAID-X2, etc.) or "Custom" which offers 0, 1, 5, 6, 10 depending on your disk count. I did my performance testing using Synology Hybrid Raid and RAID5, since I have three slow disks installed. This is where I ran into my first real gripe about the DS410 - it only does iSCSI block mode with dedicated disks. That means if you want to use Windows 7's iSCSI to connect, you have to dedicate specific disks to it. Since I can use NFS instead, I didn't test iSCSI or performance with iSCSI. I didn't even test if there was a way to do iSCSI for a RAID volume.
Volume creation is surprisingly fast if you don't select scanning for bad blocks. The Synology Hybrid RAID volume took 15 minutes to create, and the RAID5 volume took 25 minutes to create. Since I'd already had to do surface tests on the disks (thanks a lot, shipping department,) a surface scan was redundant. I recommend you do it if you aren't going to be deleting and recreating the volume six plus times. It will add not minutes, but hours to your volume builds but exact times will vary by disk sizes always.

Shared folder creation is straight forward, simple, and easy. There are some annoying limitations to share management that I'd like to go over. First and foremost, it's an all or nothing thing. If you create a share, it's accessible via CIFS, AppleTalk, Bonjour, and NFS. You can control NFS permissions individually on a per-share basis, but all shares export as /volume1/ShareName rather than /ShareName. Which is another minor gripe - I'd like to turn off the volume prefix when there's only one volume. However, NFS permissions are great - you can create individual users on the DS410, and configure root quashing on a per-share basis. So I can map client mounting as root to be user prj on the NAS. I suspect the Windows permissions are better if you use ADS integration (yep, it's got that too!) but I don't have an ADS to test that function with yet.
You can also enforce quotas on the DS410, but it's on a per-user basis and applies to the volume and not the individual shares. So I can't set users up with a quota of 10GB for their documents but no quota for every other share unless I create two different users. Again, ADS integration might cause different behavior, but I can't test. However, I can set application permissions on a per user basis - that applies to FTP, FileStation, Audio Station, Download Station and Surveillance Station. So I can control who has access to various applications without them being all or nothing or even requiring ADS integration or similar. That's a definite plus from a security standpoint. In fact, over all the security features of the DS410 are pretty thorough and well thought out. There's even an SSH interface accessible to users in DSM 2.3. By the way, if you have an Amazon S3 account, the DS410 can back up to that. It can also connect to certain IP enabled UPSes, but I don't have a non-serial UPS currently, so I wasn't able to test that. I do recommend it, because on power failure, the DS410 will shut down cleanly then. All in all, I've got to admit I'm very impressed with the management despite it's limitations.

I'll only cover the included Synology Data Replicator 3 software very briefly, because I don't really use it. I did load it up to test it. If you're expecting high performance backups, this is probably not the software for you - backups were very slow, because of the high file count. However, they worked. Restores? Also worked without fault. Default settings were very reasonable and effective for almost any system. Configuration is vast, and some users might get lost in advanced settings, but file selection is easy to use and very effective. In short, Synology Data Replicator 3 just works. No complaints, no problems - it's probably the best bundled free backup software I've ever tested.

So you're probably looking for detailed performance graphs and picking apart every detail here, knowing me. Sorry folks - this is a practical review. I'm going to talk to you about what a typical user is going to see and like or dislike in this product. Most users are not going to care about the minutae of block sizes and whatnot. This is about how it behaves in typical usage conditions in a typical environment when pushed near it's limits.
My testbed was my workstation (75MB/s write 90MB/s read), an old laptop, a single SATA disk desktop and an ancient piece of junk used to generally just piss things off on the network. The same share was used, and the volume was deleted and recreated between tests.
So without further ado, let's have some real world, real situation performance numbers:

Test 1, copying around 1GB-4GB CD and DVD images less than 5 files at a time.
Synology Hybrid RAID gave me a peak of 75MB/s with an average of 65MB/s read and 40MB/s write to the NAS; I was limited to doing this with the single workstation for the large reads. (It's complicated.) These numbers held fast when I added the laptop to the mix at the same time for writes. RAID5 did a little better, peaking at 105MB/s before evening off at 67MB/s and holding it. Writes were completely unchanged at 40MB/s.
Test 2, one freaking huge DVD image!
For test 2, I created a 14.2GB single file by imaging a Mass Effect 2 DVD to my workstation's RAID1 disks. Then I copied it to and back from the DS410. Yes, 14.2GB in one file. Synology Hybrid RAID wrote the file to NAS at 40MB/s stable, but reads were less impressive - the first 7GB went by at 67MB/s, but then it dropped to 60MB/s and stayed there. RAID5 did a little better at the same 40MB/s write, but exhibited the same issue - the first 7GB went by at 70MB/s, but then it dropped to the same 60MB/s. So there seems to be a problem reading copying extremely large files from the DS410. This might affect backups, presuming your target disk is that fast. Tests were the same when repeated using NFS instead.
Test 3, copying a photo collection to a share!
This collection isn't too impressive. About 1000 files at 2-4MB per file, totaling around 6GB, copying to and from my workstation. This is where the DS410 showed it's first weakness. Synology Hybrid RAID managed a respectable 20-25MB/s of write, but backed it up with a solid 30MB/s read despite the large file count in the share. RAID5 didn't do much better, write performance increased to 24-30MB/s but read performance remained the same at around 30MB/s. So it's likely that the issue was count rather than size. So if you're working with huge numbers of files, the DS410 may not be the best option for you. From my testing, I think it's probably a bad idea if you're routinely copying large file counts around with it.
Test 4, watching videos and playing music. Lots of both all at the same time.
I'm going to be blunt; you're not going to do tests 1 through 3 on a daily basis, more than likely. You're going to copy DVDs to your DS410 and watch them. That's a very important function! So to test this, I created two network shares - one for music and one for video. I copied a bunch of MP3s and several different videos to the DS410, and fired up playback. I had 4 MPEG4 streams and 6 MP3 streams running in both Synology Hybrid RAID and RAID5 without so much as a hiccup. Systems were able to fast forward, rewind and jump with only slightly longer than expected stalls. Oh, and yes, this included NFS mounting which had no effect on performance at all.
Test 5, I put a Windows XP VM on the DS410 via CIFS!
I created a share, loaded a bunch of stuff on other shares, then copied a VMware Player Windows XP virtual machine image to the DS410. I mapped the share containing it as a network drive and fired it up. Well, okay, I defragmented the disk first. Ignoring the stern warnings about NAS offering reduced disk performance, I proceeded to power on the machine and compared overall behavior to local RAID1. In a nutshell? What reduced performance? Running my VM from the DS410 via CIFS didn't offer any significant performance differences; it wasn't noticeably faster, but much more importantly it wasn't any slower than local disk. Which I suppose is a statement that my local disk performance sucks, but remember, this is a RAID5 with 3 5400RPM disks! That it was equal to a local 7200RPM RAID1 is stunning.
Test 6, does it work with my Xbox 360?
A simple yes/no question. The answer is obviously yes - connected with no problems, played music, played video, no problems at all.

Now the numbers that REALLY matter: what it costs. If you're expecting high end performance out of this NAS after seeing my numbers, you're probably expecting the DS410 to sit in the higher price range, around the Drobo FS or ReadyNAS NVX Pioneer Edition, or from $600 on up.
You'd be dead wrong. The Synology DS410 retails for about $500 without disks. That puts it near the bottom of the price range, but packing performance and features at the top of the range.

So let's talk summary here. What do I think of my Synology DS410? I love it. I was going to buy one anyway, and I got lucky winning a random drawing instead! I'm not going to object to free stuff, but it certainly didn't color this review at all. The DS410 definitely has some drawbacks, but the positives decidedly outweigh them. Looking at it from a cost-benefit standpoint, as I do practically everything I own, I can honestly say the DS410 gave me the best bang for my buck at retail price.

Synology DS410 4 disk NAS - about $500 retail

  • Well thought out design and component selection with great attention to details.
  • Easy to work on, and simple enough that even novice users should be able to do it.
  • Excellent overall performance in RAID5 and Synology Hybrid RAID.
  • Great disk performance, even with 5400RPM SATA. 
  • The only eSATA expandable 4-bay NAS there is. No, seriously. 
  • Well thought out UI, easy for new users to manage and detailed enough for pros like me.
  • Will happily and easily blow the doors off any USB attached disk you own.
  • Software and features usually only found on much higher priced NASes included and supported.
  • NFS configuration and security is well thought out and well implemented.
  • Works with Windows 7, works with my Xbox 360, and likely will work with any DLNA device you own. 
  • Incredibly and impossible large library of supported PHP based applications - WordPress! phpBB! Drupal! Shame I maintain my own web server. I may yet abuse this!
  • Lots of backup software compatibility. It even works with Apple Time Machine, EMC Retrospect and BackupExec. 
  • Included software is not awful junk. In fact, it's downright good software!
  • Huge community of users, many power users, including folks developing more applications for it and modifying Synology NASes in some very interesting ways.
  • Everything I did, I did without asking Support or @Synology any questions other than verifying disk compatibility. And when I did, they got back to me in less than 30 minutes.

  • Seems to have problems if you throw a thousand files at it at a time.
  • Quotas are only per-user, not per-share, so watch out!
  • Windows permissions could be better, but this might be there with ADS integration.
  • NFS users must be managed at the DS410; no NIS/YP integration or ADS integration I could find.
  • Compatibility list isn't always up to date for devices other than drives. 
  • Single Gigabit Ethernet; I think with an expander, it could easily push two. 
  • LEDs are a touch bright; you wouldn't want this in your bedroom while you're trying to sleep.
  • Synology isn't found on the VMware Hardware Compatibility List.
As you can see, there are far more pros than cons overall, and even the cons are pretty minor. For most home users, they'll only need to add one or two users, put them in the default group, and they're ready to roll. For small businesses, well, I'm afraid you'll have to check the Synology Forums for folks with ADS integration experience. I'm still waiting on a fix from VMware for my ESXi box, so I wasn't able to test compatibility there. However, there's an entire forum category for HyperVisors and there's a wealth of good information there. Every indication is that the DS410 will work just fine with almost anything.

So, if you've been sitting on the fence about a NAS for home or your home lab, you can come down now and get yourself a DS410. This little box took everything I threw at it and then some, and kept asking for more. Not only that, but it hits well above its weight class in terms of performance, features, and quality. In other words, the Synology DS410 not only gets my coveted Stamp of Approval(TM) but earns my recommendation for almost every user out there. So go on - now you know you want one!