Lab gear spotlight: Synology DS509+ NAS

This cheap but very useful NAS does not disappoint

Every once in a while, I get some gear in the lab that is put into service in some capacity and just works, generally for quite a long time. The most recent example is the Synology DS509+ NAS that I've been using for a few months.

I have an older Synology unit, a CS407, that's been running the same four SATA drives for years, providing flawless service the whole time. The CS407 is a non-hot-swap high-end consumer NAS that currently provides a variety of storage services in the lab, including SMB, NFS, and Web file services, as well as secondary DNS for some lab segments. It can do all that because it's basically an embedded Linux system with a gigabit NIC. I can SSH into it, assume root, install packages manually, and configure it pretty much like any other Linux box. However, it runs cooler, houses more storage, and uses less power than a regular server. I've been very happy with it.

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The Synology DS509+ builds on that, offering a simply fantastic Web-based interface, as well as NFS, SMB, Web, FTP, and other services. It also has five hot-swap disks and an optional extension unit that can add another five hot-swap drives linked through an eSATA connection.

As with the CS407, it's an open architecture, even going so far as to have a Web-based package installation facility. It's a PPC chip, not ARM like the CS407, and I've had no problem installing binaries built for Debian PPC or "official" packages from Synology and the various contributors that package up utilities for these systems. There's also a whole Synology Community for discussion and third-party custom package distribution and a wiki.

But these aren't just NAS systems -- the DS509+ can also serve to iTunes, connect an external USB disk for scheduled backups, act as an rsync source or destination (including scheduled rsync backups to another device, Synology or not), provide a simple and fully configurable BitTorrent client, and even drive USB speakers. In fact, the only functions that I find lacking in the DS509+ is Time Machine support for backing up Macs via the network and iSCSI support. These are functions that some competing products like the NetGear ReadyNAS do offer, but if you don't need them, Synology's interface more than makes up for it. I've asked Synology when these capabilities might be added, and it appears that they're on the road map, hopefully available by August of 2009. Of course, my brand-new Apple Airport Express with simultaneous dual-band support apparently can't properly function as a Time Machine destination either, even though it's supposed to, but that's a story for another time.

As far as the hardware, the DS509+ runs five internal drives via software RAID, with hot-swap capabilities, and leverages the expansion unit as a single entity -- that is, while you can combine the two arrays into a single volume, they're handled as unique RAID sets. Filled with 2TB drives, these two small boxes can take 20TB raw and use the dual gigabit NICs -- separately or bonded -- to connect all that storage to the network. Not bad at all for a device that starts at $899. And expanding the storage can be done on the fly with no data loss.

Performance is very good, but not in the realm of high-end NAS devices. Across a five-disk RAID5 array, I can pull roughly 53MBps sequential reads and 35MBps sequential writes across NFS using random file sizes. That's very respectable for the price. SMB performance is slightly slower. Also, speaking of SMB, the DS509+ can attach to an Active Directory domain for authentication and share security.

All told, I continue to be impressed with Synology's hardware and its commitment to open source and providing an open platform. One of my major problems with smaller NAS systems is that you're generally locked into their (sometimes) terrible Web management interface, and there's absolutely no option to color outside the lines if needed. The Synology boxes are not that way -- they manage to make easy things easy, and hard things possible, which is the holy grail of just about everything in IT.

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