NAS shoot-out: Synology DiskStation DS1511+

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The Synology hardware is solid and fast, but the software and cloud services lag leading competitors

I bought my first Synology NAS in 2006 -- the CS-406. The box was small, quiet, and better than the PC I was using as a do-it-myself file server. Speed was good and the product was well-designed. Much has changed in Synology products over the past six years, some for the good and some for the bad. The hardware is still solid and performance is still great, but I'm not sure I would recommend this NAS to a nontechnical business user. Other products in this class make setup and ongoing backup much easier.

Unlike some NAS manufacturers, Synology clearly breaks out the different models into different market segments, from workgroup and home use to large business. The DiskStation DS1511+ is one of seven models in the Small and Medium Business segment. Surprising as it may seem, the model numbers do mean something: The last two digits refer to the year of release, while the first two digits refer to the number of drive bays (the "+" means performance). Fifteen drive bays? The DS1511+ unit itself has only five drive slots. Where do the other ten drives come from?

Well, if you buy two of Synology's DX510 expansion chassis (each of which holds five drives) and connect them to the DS1511+, you now have fifteen drives. Synology marketing says this makes the DS1511+ the "most scalable in its class." I don't disagree with this claim, but I have always found this type of expansion silly. I'd rather buy a second NAS box than two additional chassis, which are as big as the NAS itself and cost about $500 each.

Synology sent the DS1511+ with five 2TB drives (Seagate Constellation ES). On the Synology website, you'll find a full compatibility list of drives (including SSDs) supported in this and other models. At this point, the DS1511+ supports Hitachi and Seagate 3TB drives if you want the biggest hard drive on the market.

Synology DiskStation DS1511+: Hardware considerations
Synology has always made very nice hardware, and this NAS is no different. I'm not a fan of the glossy black finish around the front (fingerprint magnet), but the case is solid and well-constructed. There is no door on the front of the unit, so you have easy access to the hot-swappable drives bays. The hard drive trays have a lockable switch to prevent accidental removal, but it provides no protection against theft. The front of the case hosts the power button and LED status lights. Each tray has its own status light for the hard drive in that bay. There is no LED screen.

The back is also simple: two eSATA ports, four USB 2.0 ports, two Gigabit Ethernet ports, and a VGA connection that Synology covers up (in other words, don't use it). Because many of the other NAS units in this class have USB 3.0, I'm surprised that Synology hasn't included it in this model. The unit is quiet, and the Seagate hard drives helped with that.

Synology DiskStation DS1511+: Software and administration
I've used Synology's NAS products for several years now, and I've seen Synology make many improvements. Unfortunately, the new Web interface is not an improvement. While very attractive and slick, the management GUI in the Synology 3.x software is more difficult to navigate than some of the competition -- and even Synology's previous interface. It's been said that the software is no longer just a Web page but a Web-based OS, and that may be true. At the same time, it is also more Windows-like, which may please some users, but I am not a fan. I do not find it intuitive at all.

Business users will want to use the Synology Assistant (Windows, Mac, Linux) for initial setup. While Netgear, QNAP, and Iomega make a number of things easier (such as configuring backups), Synology does do a much better job of holding your hand than Thecus. For example, the Synology Assistant will talk to your network router and configure the port-forwarding necessary for the services you're running. 

Administration aside, the Synology OS has lots of bells and whistles. The Synology Hybrid RAID (SHR) allows you to make intelligent disk volumes with mixed or matched drives. Personally, I'd stick with matching drives (I'm a purist), but SHR provides lots of flexibility. Several times during my testing, I reformatted the DiskStation's drives into different RAID configurations to compare performance. Typically this would take about an hour. But when Synology released version 3.2 of the OS, that hour wait time fell to just 10 minutes. I don't know what Synology did, but I appreciate it.

Synology follows the "everything but the kitchen sink" model, and the company is always adding new features. Synology's iOS and Android applications are the best of the breed. The iOS apps even natively support the iPad, which I love. If you are someone who thinks mobile support is important, you should seriously consider the Synology box.

But unlike the leading competitors, Synology does not offer Web-based services that simplify replication or make it easier for remote users to access and share files on the NAS. If Synology is serious about succeeding with small to medium-size business customers, it really needs to step up its game in this area. What Synology has works fine (I tested everything except backing up to Amazon S3 and had no issues), but QNAP, Netgear, and Iomega do a much better job of meeting the business customer's needs.

Synology DiskStation DS1511+: Performance
Synology never disappoints in this category. The DiskStation was never the frontrunner in any of my performance tests, but it was always very close. Synology has many years of experience at squeezing good performance out of its hardware, and it shows. I'd love to see Synology bump things up a little more to keep up with the QNAP and Thecus boxes. However, other than in benchmarking, I do not think most people will see the difference.

For the results of my performance tests, see the mainbar, "NAS shoot-out: 5 storage servers battle for business." For the reviews of the competing products, follow these links: Iomega StorCenter px6-300d | Netgear ReadyNAS Pro 6 | QNAP TS-659 Pro II Turbo NAS | Thecus N5200XXX.

Synology DiskStation DS1511+

Drives tested5 x Seagate Constellation ES (model ST32000644NS). Specs: 2TB, 7,200 rpm, 64MB cache, SATA 3.0Gbps interface
Pricing10TB, $1,849.99 (as tested); Diskless, $849.99

This article, "NAS shoot-out: Synology DiskStation DS1511+," originally appeared at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in storage at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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