Synology Diskstation DS108J – Jack of all trades

Wanting something to replace my large, noisy, energy guzzling Windows 2003 Server PC in the loft, and to free up my Mac Mini from a life of server servitude, my attention inevitably turned to the Synology Diskstation DS108J, given that it supports AFP, and the Synology website specifically talks about Mac compatibility rather than just adding it as a footnote as some manufacturers do.

Eco-friendly packaging

Eco-friendly packaging

This single-bay device is essentially an external disk enclosure with NAS built-in. You pop in your own hard disk (this model takes a single SATA disk, but there are IDE models and multi-bay models too) then work through some fairly quick and intuitive configuration screens and you’re done – the disk appears on your network. The range of things the Diskstation can do is almost mind boggling for a NAS device, plus there are a few features where you think “I’m really glad they thought of that”. Unfortunately it seems there’s a fly in the ointment, and a fairly large hairy one at that called AFP. But let’s start at the beginning…

For the casual home user, the DS108J looks like the ideal model with a price tag of around

What's in the box?

What's in the box?

£95+VAT. I ordered one from Novatech together with a Samsung SpinPoint 1Tb SATA drive (HD103UJ), which according to the Synology compatibility list is OK and doesn’t have any hibernation issues in this setup.  I’ve also used this same model of hard drive in various PCs and it’s always performed well. Assembling the device is simplicity itself, just slide the two halves of the enclosure apart, fit the drive then put it back together, a real no-brainer that took all of two minutes. Plug in the power and ethernet cables and you’re good to go. The manual is (supplied on disk) is good with one or two minor exceptions, and given the intuitive Diskstation Manager 2.0 software which presents a beautifully designed Ajax interface via your browser, all you really need to know is what address your Diskstation is at. There’s also a wizard to help with the initial setup so it’s incredibly easy to get this thing online. Build quality is nice and solid, although the unit has a slightly 70’s design look about it if you ask me – perhaps if they got the Apple designers to give this the once over?

Easy as (SATA) pie.

Easy as (SATA) pie!

Once I’d set up the basics, the first job was to copy around 380Gb of data on to the device as my first ‘backup’. Doing a drag & drop file copy using PathFinder, I could see that with an estimated transfer rate of just 6MB/sec over 100MB ethernet, this was going to be a slow process. Thoughtfully Synology has equipped the DS108J with three USB ports and an ‘instant USB copy’ button. All that’s needed is to connect a USB drive and press the button and the entire contents of the USB drive will be copied to the Diskstation under a (pre-configured) folder of your choice. The only gotcha is that the USB drive must be formatted using FAT for the Diskstation to recognize it for this operation. As luck would have it, I had my data on just such a drive so I plugged it in and off it went.

Copying 380Gb of data from my Freecom 500Gb USB hard drive using the wired connection took a few minutes short of a staggering 24 hours (yes, twenty four hours), which I wasn’t expecting. Armed with this I set about running some speed tests. I use Super Flexible File Synchronizer to run daily, weekly and monthly backups to various locations. One particular backup is an incremental backup of a local folder on the Mac Pro containg around 50,900 files totalling 239Gb. The software scans the target directory and then presents a list of what has changed and needs backing up, so I decided to test this step using identical sets of files on the local and target drives, and here are my results:

  1. Lacie d2Quadra 1Tb FireWire 800 – 1m 09.1s
  2. Mac Mini 1.83GHz, 2Gb attached Freecom 500Gb USB drive, AFP share via 100Mb ethernet – 2m 27.1s
  3. D-Link DNS-323 NAS, SMB share via 100Mb ethernet – 5m 10.4s
  4. Synology Diskstation DS108J & Samsung SpinPoint 1Tb, AFP share via 100Mb ethernet – 23m 29.7s!!
  5. Synology Diskstation DS108J & Samsung SpinPoint 1Tb, SMB share via 100Mb ethernet – 6m 11.8s

The closest comparison is obviously between my trusty old D-Link DNS-323 NAS box and the Diskstation from which you can see that the Synology took well over four times as long when using AFP, but only slightly longer when using SMB. Currently I’m puzzled as to why this is other than it being down to the Linux implementation of AFP, which I know from my attempts to get it working under OpenSUSE can be pretty painful. I should mention that I was running these tests with all the extra features of the DS108J like media sharing, photo sharing, FTP, etc., switched off. Switching these features on may slow the performance of the Diskstation, but hopefully not by an appreciale amount. My next task will be to investigate whether or not there is any way to improve on these figures? To be fair the Synology website does show it’s own performance figures and rates the DS108J as 2 out of 5 ‘blobs’ compared with the DS107+ which sports a faster processor and more memory but costs another £65+VAT. The figures here suggest that uploads to the DS108J take almost twice as long as for the DS107+, while for downloads the DS108J achieves around 65% of what the DS107+ can manage.

Bursting with features!

Bursting with features!

There is so much more I could write about the DS018J given it’s huge range of features, but there are plenty of reviews out there, plus the Synology website covers these features pretty well. Just look at the left-hand side of the screenshot to see what sort of things this gadget will do. One thing I did notice in the manual about printer sharing (you can connect a printer to one of the DS108J’s USB ports and access it over the network), is that this will only work for Macs when using PostScript. It’s not a feature I plan on trying given that my Canon ip4000 is already attached directly to the Mac and if I need to share it, I’ll probably do so via the Mac. Also I found that when directly connecting a USB drive to use the one-button disk copy function, it would only work using the port on the front of the unit next to the button itself, which isn’t mentioned in the manual.

I’ll have a look at the other features of this device in due course, but for now it’s a definite thumbs up – if you’re a Mac user looking for a cheap yet flexible NAS device, the the DS108J fits the bill, and gives you plenty of options to play with. Incidentally, with UPnP DMA turned on, the Diskstation appeared on my XBox 360. I haven’t tried out streaming yet, (currently I use Connect360 on the Mac and it works really well), but that’s something else to keep me busy this weekend.

The FreeNAS experiment

Kalyway kernel panic

Kalyway kernel panic

I am still searching for that elusive ‘server’ that’s going to be a little more Apple-friendly than my Windows 2003 Server machine up in the loft. The Kalyway 10.5.2 exercise was interesting but seemed stricken with some fatal flaw. It stopped responding and when I went to investigate, I discovered the machine had suffered a kernel panic. Over the course of the next hour or so, every time I rebooted, the machine had a kernel panic within 5 to 10 minutes. I’m sure that with a bit more patience and effort I could have worked through this, but as a robust system for taking backups to it wasn’t looking good. Time to move on…

Enter FreeNAS.

What could be better? A free, Linux based OS that does nothing but share out disk space and that supports AFP. It’s a 22Mb download – that’s right, just twenty two meg. Burn the iso image to a CD, pop it in the drive and you’re away. I opted to install it on one of the hard disks in my ‘server’ rather than repeatedly boot off the Live CD, and installation took just a couple of minutes.

The server sets itself up with a default address of 192.168.1.250 and configuration is then done by browsing to that address from another machine and using the Web GUI. Everything you need is in a very good Setup and User Guide, and if you follow this you really can’t go wrong. All I had to do was provide a couple of settings, format and mount my 500Gb disk, then enable AFP and share it. This really is a clever piece of work – the Web GUI is pretty intuitive, and the OS itself has a tiny footprint, so you could run it on pretty much anything. My next job is to ‘soak test’ the setup by copying 400Gb or so of data to it and seeing how it performs over the next few days.

My only advice is to think carefully about what file system to use when formatting your data disks. FreeNAS defaults to it’s own ‘UFS’ scheme. That’s no problem in itself, except that should the worst ever happen and you need to transfer your disks to another machine, you might be stuck being able to read the disks unless you can install FreeNAS on the new host. FreeNAS does allow you to use FAT32, EXT2 or even SoftwareRAID, although a bit worryingly there’s a warning on the Disk Format screen that says:

UFS is the NATIVE file format for FreeBSD (the
underlying OS of FreeNAS). Attempting to use other file formats such as
FAT, FAT32, EXT2, EXT3, or NTFS can result in unpredictable results,
file corruption, and loss of data!

Possible file corruption is really something I’d rather avoid if it’s all the same to you.

The pseudoMac is alive….! Kalyway

I’ll try and keep it brief as there’s already a wealth of information out there about Kalyway, but my little experiment has worked as follows:

Hardware

  • Asus A7N8X Deluxe motherboard
  • AMD Athlon XP 4400
  • 2Gb RAM
  • 2 x Maxtor 320Gb IDE drives
  • 1 x Sony CD/DVD RW
  • nVIDIA 6600GT 256Mb PCI video card

Software

  • Kalyway 10.5.2

For the install settings I used the defaults with the following exceptions:

  • Added the Marvell and forcedeth drivers and used the first AMD patch.

My main aim for doing this was to see how another Mac would behave on the network alongside my Mac Pro. Once installed, I set the hybrid Mac up to allow file sharing and remote management and well… it just works! Next job will be to wipe the box and install OpenSUSE 11.1 (when it’s out) with Netatalk so I can create AFP shares. The advantage of this, aside from the murky area of legality with Kalyway, is that I’ll have a server that I can keep patched (I understand patching Kalyway above 10.5.2 is a good way to break it), but unlike my Windows Server I won’t need a suite of security add-ons to keep it safe.

Congratulations to the guys who produced Kalyway for a very clever piece of work.

Windows 2003 Server and my Mac

Windows 2003 Server

Windows 2003 Server

In my loft lurks a PC running Windows 2003 Server which I use for taking backups to. The license cost me enough so I’m determined to make use of it, and to be fair this has been one of my more reliable Windows machines (famous last words).

Backing up from PCs is a doddle, create a share on the server then simply ‘net use’ or map a drive to it and off you go with your chosen software. It would be just as easy on the Mac but for one annoying problem – the connection randomly drops for no apparent reason. I can mount the share quite happily and use it for days, then all of a sudden it’s disappeared and my backup software complains that it can’t access the relevant location. Reconnecting isn’t a problem, I just point the Mac at the server again and off it goes, so authentication isn’t the issue.

I wondered if installing AppleTalk on the server and connecting to shares using AFP rather than SMB might be better, but AFP is ‘crippled’ in Windows 2003 Server and so is of limited use. Sure it presents a nice little picklist of shares to the Mac user, but it doesn’t support long filenames nor does it support automatic reconnection which is what I really need. In fact if your a Mac user with a Windows 2000 or 2003 Server then you’re better off sticking with SMB from what I can see.

So I have three choices really.

  1. I splash out on something like a Mac Mini to replace the server and just hand the drives off it in external USB enclosures. Trouble I’m looking at spending at least £399 ($720) to get one and with the present credit crunch, that will have to wait. Besides, my first Mac Mini was destined to be a media player to replace my ageing PVR.
  2. I explore some way of detecting the disconnect on the Mac and then automatically reconnect. I’m sure I’ve seen a Mac utility that does this, it’s just a case of tracking it down. Or…
  3. I pursue finding a fix on the Windows side, although I don’t hold out much hope.

Incidentally, I got as far as Kalyway installing successfully on my spare PC, but it failed at the first reboot – something about failing to find some plist dependency on the drive I’d just installed to. I may revisit this when I get the chance as it was temptingly close.