Home network storage is just… NASty

Sorry, I couldn’t resist the headline. But it’s true; figuring-out and using some sort of home network accessible storage — a NAS — is, well, nasty. And upgrading my NAS solution from a Western Digital MyCloud to a Synology solution made me realize just how nasty my old solution actually was.

The need to have a NAS in tech-heavy homes like mine just keeps getting stronger. I don’t know many tech-savvy types who don’t have tons of digital photos, tons of music, tons of files (documents and such), and tons of other digital detritus they need or want to keep around. And for most of us, losing all or portions of those collections can be painful.

I learned that lesson early-on, after losing hundreds of irreplaceable digital photos from the family’s first DSLR, representing the only documentation of memories of trips, family moments, people and pets now departed, and much more — little of which was backed-up, and none of which can be replaced. Right then, and right there, I made it a high priority to:

  • Have all of that located in a central respository.
  • Have that central respository backed-up separately.

The first solution was an early NAS unit from Western Digital (a MyBook Duo) that had a pair of large drives, defaulted to a RAID configuration. I manually kept an additional copy of key file collections on various computer hard drives in the house. It solved the problem, but it was slow. Slow to boot-up. Slow to access. Slow to respond. Slow to copy stuff over the network. Just sllloooowwwww.

And we started running out of space.

And I wanted a backup that wasn’t located on a computer hard drive.

So, about three years ago, I bought a pair of large-ish Western Digital MyCloud drives. Why I did this in light of my poor experience with the previous unit, I don’t know. I assumed that newer technology would be faster I guess. And I liked that the units would self-mirror (or at least one could back itself up to the other one). Life would be good.

Except it wasn’t.

The “new” MyCloud drives were actually just as slow (perhaps slower) than the old MyBook Duo. And getting the master to copy its contents to the slave and keep it updated proved to be one of the most painful, error-prone activities you might be able to imagine. It sucked. The software sucked. And the overall speed of everything, just like the MyBook Duo, sucked.

Conclusion: Western Digital is simply not a software company, and they should stop trying to be one. Build hard drives. That you seem to be able to do. Everything else? Just. Give. Up.

I suffered through the crap performance of these drives for three years. I suffered through failure after failure after failure of the master drive to back itself up to the slave drive, all of which were due to some bizarre file-name-related issue; first it was (very) long file names, then it was the existence of hidden (and hence invisible) files from macOS (OS X) named “Icon\r” the \r representing a carriage-return. (Yes, a file name with an embedded friggin’ carriage-return!)* Each time, fixing it involved logging into the MyCloud drives with terminal (not easy, or particularly documented), trying to read log files that showed what made the copy process cough and stop, and then trying to find and fix the problem.

Last month, after backing-up a huge amount of Mac data from a computer I was about to repurpose, and causing a copy failure due to the Icon\r files, I’d had enough. I wasn’t going to spend hours tracking-down hidden, badly-named files in an attempt to appease the stupid MyCloud drives. Enough. Was. Enough.

The fact that I never managed to put in-place a decent computer backup solution, and repeated Time Machine errors using the AirPort-based solution I cobbled together, was the other straw that broke the camel’s back.

One of the few review sites I actually trust is the New York Times’ Wirecutter. They at least take some semi-Consumer-Reports-style swing at actually buying and testing things, then reporting on their results. And their top pick was a unit from Synology, a company I’d never heard of. I ended-up buying a Synology DS418play, a four-bay, home-suitable NAS.

These things come as empty chassis, so I populated the guts with a pair of 6 TB Seagate Iron Wolf drives for general network storage, and a pair of 10 TB Seagate Iron Wolf drives specifically devoted to Apple Time Machine backups. (I wasn’t in the mood to give Western Digital any more of my hard-earned cash.) While it took some time to copy everything over, and there were a couple of hiccups along the way, once everything was copied and indexed (which, in total, spanned nearly five calendar days), I have to say this: Why on Earth did I wait so long to make this change?

Loving the Synology

I held-off on writing this post specifically to avoid a gushing, new-romance kind of post. But now that nearly a month has passed since the migration, I’d like to think that the icky parts are behind me. And yes, there were icky parts. But on balance, I love the Synology DS418play, and here’s why — and why I wish I could love it more:

  • At the end of the day, it’s network storage and backup that I needed — and that I got, in spades. But the Synology platform promises a number of additional functions, including media server capabilities, that have proven to be far less than the marketing spin makes them sound. The DS Photo photo library capabilities just don’t make it any easier to manage my zillion digital photos than the half-baked approach I use today. DS Video just simply doesn’t work properly (it won’t even index most of my content properly). Plex seems to solve that, but then you’re into paying an annual fee to use the full functionality set. And so far, I’ve been completely unable to get their OpenVPN implementation to actually function as advertised. Grade: D 
  • My biggest complaint with the Western Digital MyCloud units (and the MyBook Duo before it) was that they were slower than molasses in the arctic. While the Synology was busy with mass data copies, and indexing content, and, and, and… It still managed to provide its core functions just fine. Once all the background tasks were complete, I’d say the Synology flies. Copying large files around the network to and from the Synology now has the bandwidth of the wire (or wireless) as the obstacle, not the slowness of the NAS. In short, it’s blazingly fast! Grade: A
  • Finding anything on the MyCloud units took more patience than I generally managed to muster. The overall slowness was one issue; not having any way to actually index its own content and provide a search tool was another. If you mount a share on the Synology NAS from the Mac Finder in the recommended manner, Finder’s built-in search is NAS-integrated, allowing search results to appear magically right where I need them. (For Windows users, equivalent functionality is provided as well.) And if you’re accessing the NAS directly, a search tool exists there too. Grade: A
  • Synology provides some iOS apps for getting stuff to and from your NAS, and so far, that’s proven exceptionally useful. One use case is simply uploading photos or videos for direct access and editing from a computer on my network. Another is simply being able to easily save e-mail attachments — or send them — from an iOS device. They work well, and reliably, and do the basic stuff you need to do. Grade: A
  • Local management of the Synology is done via the web, and it offers a lovely, desktop-like user experience that is fast, simple, intuitive, and lightyears ahead of anything I’ve ever seen from Western Digital. Love it. Grade: A 
  • Time Machine support was another key thing I wanted, and I wanted it to just freakin’ work. I’m tired of fighting with these backups from the numerous Macs lying around my house. I had connected high-capacity USB drives to an old AirPort Express, which mostly worked, some of the time. The problem is that for some reason, the drive identity would change, and Time Machine on the Macs would insist upon starting a new backup, and before you knew it, you were out of space. The only solution? Disconnect the drive, connect it to a Mac, and manually manage the sparse bundles (i.e., delete the old ones). It was a pain. With the Synology, create one enormous volume, create Time Machine users for each machine you’ve got, set a quota for each user based on the space you need, and let ‘er rip. I’ve had to adjust some of the quotas with operational experience, but that’s easy and solves the issue. It just works. Grade: A

I could go on, but you get the idea. I dislike the way the promised media stuff works, but I’m not any worse off than I was before I got the Synology; I’m just disappointed. Everything else, including the stuff I truly need, all works amazingly well.

My only regret? I should have gotten a larger unit, or larger drives. The network storage volume is already half full, and I like a larger margin than that. But when the time comes that I fill it, I can swap the drives in and out one at a time with bigger ones, let the RAID rebuild, and then the upgrade is complete — without the need to copy stuff around by hand.

Bottom line? The Wirecutter was right — the Synology is the best NAS for most home users.


* These are peculiar to the Mac. When you add a custom icon to a folder, it creates this stupid, pain-in-the-butt, hidden file with the name that breaks the MyCloud’s operating-environment-insensitive software.