Synology RackStation

My lab is dotted with Synology NAS devices providing a wide array of services, from disk-based backup to general file sharing to shared storage for small virtualization build-outs. In all the years I’ve had these boxes spinning, they’ve never once let me down. In fact, I have a four-year-old Synology DS409 that is still performing perfectly. It hasn’t lost a disk yet.

When reviewing storage devices, that’s always the hardest part — trying to gauge the longevity of a product without having a year or so to test. Since I’ve been running these units for many years now, I can attest to their durability. Synology has produced some exemplary small-business and consumer-grade NAS devices.

But I’ve always been a bit disappointed with Synology’s higher-end offerings. They run the same capable OS as their smaller counterparts, but none have quite achieved my vision of the sweet spot for midrange production storage. That vision includes at least eight spindles (preferably 10), redundant power, higher-end CPU and RAM resources, all bundled in a nice rack-mount case. Synology has come close with devices like the RS810+, but that had only four internal spindles with an optional four-spindle expansion unit cabled off on a single eSATA connection — close, but not quite all the way there.

Synology RackStation: Swiss Army storage server

Synology has finally hit that sweet spot with the RackStation RS3411RPxs. This is a 2U rack-mount storage array that offers 10 spindles, multiple 1GbE and even 10GbE network interfaces, redundant power, and a dual-core 3.1GHz Intel Core i3 CPU with 2GB of DDR3 RAM. That’s some serious power for a $4,999 storage array.

The unit is sleek, trim, and easily racked and cabled. It pulls a DHCP address by default and is managed via a Web UI. It supports 3TB disks, so you can squeeze 30TB raw into that 2U space and use RAID 5, 6, or 10 to increase either reliability or performance. You can configure hot spares to jump into action should a disk fail. There’s also a Synology Assistant app that runs on Windows or Mac that can locate a unit on the local subnet and perform rudimentary configuration steps.

The Web UI, which runs on the newest version of Synology’s DSM (DiskStation Manager), is laid out differently from prior versions of the interface. The new GUI is one of the only things I don’t like about this device. The previous layout provided a hierarchical tree view on the left and focus frames on the right — a staple in the computing world. The new version has a desktoplike look and feel, with positionable windows within the browser interface and a single drop menu at the upper left. Open windows have their own icons in the menu bar, and you can even drag and drop icons to the desktop itself for quick access.

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All this is very well done, and the presentation is impeccable. But this isn’t a desktop computer, it’s a storage device. I find myself poking around in various windows to find what I want, when I’d much prefer having all the options presented in a single tree. Don’t get me wrong — it’s a functional interface. But it seems to get in its own way.

The RS3411RPxs offers the same set of services and options as most other Synology devices, including the basics of SMB, NFS, and AFP file sharing. It also provides iSCSI, HTTP, and FTP file access, along with built-in network backup tools to synchronize files and shares to another Synology device or even to a generic rsync host. It can bind to an existing Active Directory domain, or function with stand-alone authentication managed from the DSM UI.

Then there’s the plethora of other services, including iTunes sharing, photo collection organization, BitTorrent protocol support, surveillance storage target, and even mail services. The device can function as a network firewall and router. Further, you can fire up PHP, MySQL, and Apache and use the RS3411RPxs as a LAMP application server should you so desire. But at this level, it’s unlikely you’re going to use the RS3411RPxs as a router, a firewall, or even an application server. It’s designed to be used as storage, and it does that job quite well.

Synology RackStation: Virtualization tests at 10GbE

I tested the RS3411RPxs with a variety of operating systems running at 1GbE and 10GbE speeds. I performed a significant number of tests using VMware vSphere 5 to gauge the virtualization performance as well. In all tests, the RS3411RPxs performed very well for its price point, pushing over 700MBps streaming reads from a RAID10 array, and over 600MBps streaming writes. In the virtualization tests, the benefits of the 10GbE interface were clear. Migrating a 16GB VM from an NFS share to an iSCSI LUN on the same device took 62 seconds over 1GbE, but only 14 seconds over 10GbE. Suffice it to say, you won’t be disappointed with the virtualization performance of the RS3411RPxs unless you’re pitting it against $25,000 solutions.

There are enterprise-level features that the RS3411RPxs is missing, like the VMware storage offloading APIs that make a huge difference in storage performance for large virtualization infrastructures. But again, we’re talking about a device that costs $4,999 (without disk). Trade-offs are to be expected.

Shops with smaller virtualization deployments will find that the RS3411RPxs has the right blend of redundancy and performance to kick their VMs up a notch without breaking the budget. Others will find that using the RS3411RPxs as a backup target, application server, or general file server provides peace of mind.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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