Storage. For almost everyone that owns technology, storage is the very fabric of life. It doesn’t matter how entrenched in tech you are – storage need eventually raises its ugly head. When it does, we scramble for a “storage solution” which is commonly equated to “more”; more GBs, more TBs (maybe even PBs for some). Some people are more worried about the format of storage; do I need a bigger old school hard drive or should I go for faster SSD solutions? Unfortunately, the “solution” part of “storage solution” is rarely looked at from an ever-growing need point of view; how do I access my storage?
Ah, yes. “The Cloud”. This decade’s biggest buzz phrase and an explosive industry all on its own. There are so many solutions it can make one dizzy and each one promises SOMETHING that “the others don’t have”; be it more storage, automatic syncing across devices – you name it. Unfortunately, they all have shortcomings – ensuring that none of them provide exactly what everyone needs.
Why the DS212j?
Frankly, I was fed up. I knew what I needed; a lot of space, no restrictions, accessibility from every single device and PC (local and internet) and the ability to easily share with family and friends. This particular combination of needs simply doesn’t exist with a commercial service like Google Drive, Box or Dropbox. Drive makes it a pain to access your drive contents without syncing. Box wants to cap the size of your files. Dropbox just doesn’t have sharing flexibility. None of them provide adequate storage space for a heavy demand user like me and most of the mobile apps proved completely archaic.
The list goes on and on.
Yes, what I needed was a self-hosted solution. I need to be able to have complete control over my storage solution; that would solve size and restriction issues – but what about accessibility methodologies? I need access from home and work PCs, phone, tablet – and it needs to be accessible using the apps and products I already own; not some custom, proprietary means provided by the storage solution provider.
You are starting to see my dilemma, right? I want the best of every storage solution – with all the strengths and none of the weaknesses. So many have promised; but few delivered. Until now.
The Synology Diskstation DS212j (or DS212j from now on) is a “network attached solution” or NAS. Essentially, it is a self-contained hard drive enclosure that exposes the storage via the local area network – or even the internet if properly configured.
The NAS is not a new thing by any means. While originally considered a business-related device, the ever-growing need for expansive storage in the home and small business has made network-accessible, large space storage solutions a real market.
Like any other good multi-bay NAS, DS212j offers redundancy and peace of mind. Hard drive failure is guaranteed; it’s only a matter of WHEN – and what you’ll lose when it happens. A NAS with multiple drives can offer data redundancy (or backup) between the two drives; meaning if one fails, the stored data is safely contained on the other drive. For a business, redundancy is a must. For home users whose lives are immortalized only in digital format – redundancy is a growing need and concern. You can also throw caution into the wind and “pool” the DS212j’s two drive bays into one large volume; allowing you to take a couple of smaller drives you may have retired in favor of larger ones and make them into something bigger.
As you would hope, the NAS is accessible across your local network to all your computers. In the past (and unfortunately, even still often today), NAS solutions required CUSTOM software to be installed on all the machines that were to access it. The DS212j offers standard network sharing methods (CIFS, etc.) to allow access from pretty much any device capable of accessing a network share.
If this was all the DS212j had to offer, it would make a handsome, big storage solution for home or office. But this is just the tip of the iceberg.
My digital life has shifted. Just a couple of years ago, I would say I was an 80% PC user and 20% mobile user. Now? The numbers have flipped. I spend 80% of my time on my phone or tablet, while grudgingly getting off the couch to use my PC when I run across something I just can’t pull off on my Nexus 10 slate. I need access to my storage solution from my mobile devices; not just local – but while I’m on the road on 4G or McDonald’s free wifi. This is where most NAS solutions miserably drop the ball; forcing ugly, half-baked apps to access your remote data – or even restricting it to certain media types. Most of the time, you’re required to set up some sort of proxy system on a PC that is connected to the NAS – and access your files that way.
The DS212j offers solutions for your mobile/remote needs – and we’ll go into more detail later.
Finally, for those of you with UPnP type devices for accessing digital media across the network (media players, TV set top boxes, video game consoles, etc.) the DS212j has your back – offering a configurable solution for streaming content to those devices on your local area network.
The DS212j comes as a smaller-than-expected, attractive white box with easy access to internal drive bays. The construction is well-above average and putting your drives inside is a breeze. Truly, even the techno-challenged could get the hardware set up. The drives plug directly into the frame of the bay – so there is no awkward cable connecting.
Unlike many NAS solutions, you don’t have to have “matching drives”; you can throw in a 1TB drive plus a 500GB drive; or a couple of TB drives – or even a 3TB + 250GB drive combination will work. There are some interesting restrictions to this that we’ll cover later, but it’s nice to know you can mix and match.
The unit is powered by a custom power supply and features a couple of USB ports on the back (more on this in a bit). The front panel has a series of lights to give you status and activity indications and the unit has some built in cooling to keep the drives happy.
I had to use the Synology set up disk to find and do initial configuration of the DS212j. This was fairly straight forward, but they attempt to direct you to a different solution first which might confuse and frustrate some users.
The setup is mostly to install the latest Diskstation OS (we’ll cover this below) and do some basic stuff. The real configuration challenge comes later – and might drop this product outside the range of super non-techies.
The Diskstation OS
Once you’re done with the basic, disc-based setup of the DS212j – everything else is done using the unit’s built-in, web-based operating system called Diskstation. This OS is what really separates this unit from other NAS solutions and takes it from a “good” product to a “great” one.
Using only a web browser, you’ll access a friendly Windows-like environment which gives you full control over your DS212j. The interface is simple and pleasant – and things are pretty much where you would expect them to be. The OS really changes this unit from a NAS to (more or less) another dedicated-to-storage-needs server PC – one disconnected from a monitor, peripherals and the required desk space of a server.
Configuring the Drives
From within the OS, you’ll start off by setting your drives up in volumes. This is a bit tricky unless you know what you want up front. Instead of using traditional RAID types you might be familiar with, Synology has designed their own RAID system. If you don’t choose right the first time, you may be inconvenienced later. You’ll need to decide if you want the safety of redundancy or the convenience of “pooled” drives where you have one giant two-disk solution.
Unfortunately, if you go with redundancy, you get the amount of space of the smallest drive and the rest of the bigger drive is lost! For example, let’s say you put a 2TB and a 500GB drive into the DS212j and choose to go with the redundancy. You will get a volume with 500GB of space – and that’s it. The other 1.5TB of space cannot be created into a second, non-redundant volume; making it completely wasted. I wanted to pool the drives and selected incorrectly. It wasn’t until I filled the full 500GB up that I realized I would have to change the configuration and lose all the data on the drives to do it. Sadly, I had already MOVED the data to the DS212j, so I had to move it all back off to change the configuration to pooled drives. The moral of the story? During configuration of the disks, make sure you don’t blindly accept the defaults – because they expect you to want redundancy over pooling.
Being a server in its own right, you’ll need to configure more users to make the system work the way you want. You’ll want to create your own admin-level user (so you aren’t using the admin login) and any users on your network (use their Windows user name and passwords – believe me – this will save you a lot of grief). If you plan to let family and friends have access to the storage, you’ll want to make user accounts for them. You’ll probably want to create some folder shares first so you have something to assign your new, shared users.
This is a pretty straight forward process; allowing you to give strict rights to shares and services that might be installed on the DS212j.
Once you have shares and users configured, you can hit the DS212j from most devices that allow Samba/CIFS/Sharing including Windows and many mobile device file managers like X-Plore on Android. Of course, these only work when your devices are actually attached to your local area network – which doesn’t solve the problem of “remote” access.
While basic NAS file sharing will meet a lot of people’s needs – others will want more features. Additional functionality is added by means of installing Packages – using a very clean, easy to use Package Center from right inside the Diskstation OS.
While Synology offers tons of packages themselves, you can also access OTHER package communities online and get even MORE functionality. Since Synology’s OS is based on Linux, community fans have taken Linux products and repackaged them for use on Diskstation OS. It’s a fantastic system.
The Package Center will help you install features like UPnP Media streaming – and if you’re a small business? There are packages for mail servers, DNS servers, DHCP services and tons more.
You can even install “real world apps” like discussion forums or surveillance software (for use with IP security cameras – they even have an Android app for monitoring them) – developers will enjoy being able to install web servers complete with PHP, PERL and other development tools. Run your own Wiki.
There is a package out there for everyone and installation is usually very straight forward and simple. Couple of clicks, and you have new functionality!
Other Diskstation OS Features
Those of you budding sysadmins out there will find ENDLESS amounts of configuration settings and tweaking possibilities. Setting up tasks/cron jobs, adding Telnet support, setting up VPN access – it’s all available to you; it really is a full service server solution as well. For those that would rather not dig, most of the defaults will serve you well.
You can connect USB devices to the DS212j – including external drives and even network printers. You can even make your DS212j Bluetooth accessible by adding a BT adapter. External drives show up as additional volumes and can be accessed remotely!
As I mentioned earlier, you can set up web based services like a web host, mySQL database – complete with PHP and other languages. There are packages for administration tools and add-ons like CMS apps.
Monitoring your DS212j is a priority in the OS. You’ll always know the system health, your free space and drive conditions, who is connected and how they got there. You’ll get important notifications; even set up full notifications via email or SMS.
If you plan to remotely access your DS212j, you’ll going to need to use some form of Dynamic DNS service to allow you access to your home network (whose IP address is subject to change without notice). No more running your DDNS client on your workstation; DS212j has a built-in app for maintaining that connection. All major DDNS providers are covered including DynDNS (what I use). The boys at Synology thought of everything.
You could probably write a book on the Diskstation OS and all its features. I’ve merely mentioned a handful of them that would interest the common user. Check out Synology’s website for more business level features.
All this is well and good; as long as you’re at home. But what about on the go? How does the DS212j expose itself to you from the outside world?
As always, with DS212j you have a number of possible methods. Synology has its own apps (I looked at the Android stuff; iOS people are on their own) you can download for free that give you access to your file shares. Unlike many other storage solutions, you’re not limited to just accessing media or particular files – you can get to everything. Unfortunately, they don’t make this super easy to set up and use. The app is bare-bones and you’ll have to set up WebDAV (in the Control Panel) AND give access to each user to it. This wasn’t exactly clear. I eventually got it working, but it was a bit of work. There are also dedicated media apps for audio and video playback – as well as a syncing solution (like Dropbox) called Cloud Sync. They all work, but lack some polish. There is also the issue of getting through your router (more in a minute).
I chose to go with FTP access. This is built into the OS and was quick to set up. Using my tablet or phone and a file manager with FTP capabilities like X-Plore, I can access my files from pretty much anywhere – even over 4G – without any special apps. This, of course, doesn’t afford me STREAMING capabilities like the dedicated apps do – but it works for my needs.
No matter HOW you configure the DS212j to remotely access files, there is still the issue of getting traffic from OUTSIDE your network to INSIDE your network. As previously mentioned, you’ll want to get some sort of dynamic DNS host set up so that you don’t have to remember your network’s WAN IP address. For example, you could register “shanesdomain.dyndns.tv” with DynDNS service – then set it up using the DDNS app on the DS212j. When your IP address changes (which does happen), that domain you registered is automatically updated with the change. It works and works well.
The second part of the equation is to get “port forwarding” set up on your router to allow outside traffic to be directed to the DS212j. There is a router configuration tool within the OS that promises to help you do that, but I found it unreliable and frustrating. This process sounds a lot more scary than it really is – and most people can easily find help on Google for their particular router. Essentially, you just need to tell your router what traffic to send to the DS212j. This comes in the way of port numbers. For example, if you want to run FTP services on port 8081, then you need to set it up in the OS that way, then go to your router’s configuration and redirect port 8081 traffic to the DS212j. The more services you set up on the DS212j, the more ports you’re going to need to open/forward on your router.
The Good News is that the Cloud Services package in the OS will provide you with a more immediate, easy to access solution. Pretty much you just need to install the package and install the DS Cloud app on your mobile device. You’ll do a little configuration but it holds your hand. Enter a couple of numbers – and POOF. You’re in. This will work for many people; but power users like me will need to master port forwarding to get the most out of the DS212j remotely.
Power user helpful hint; once you have all your services set up and working LOCALLY, go to the Firewall and Qos app in Control Panel and see what apps are listed there. For each, click EDIT and then hit SELECT under “port”. This will show you what ports that app uses. Take that list to your router’s port forwarding and forward all those ports to the DS212j’s IP address. You’ll be rocking in no time.
No matter what, remote access is going to eat some time in configuration and testing. This may prove too big of a hurdle for the non-techno geek – causing some frustration with the product. Cloud Services offers a pretty easy solution for them overall but might not deliver what may be expected initially. To truly harness the power of the DS212j remotely will require some effort – but it is TOTALLY worth it when it works.
The Dark Side
I like to discuss a product’s short comings in this space of my reviews.
First, while the unit is inexpensive by quality NAS standards ($175 at time of writing) it is important to note that this comes without any hard drives; so you’ll have to supply your own adding easily $100 or more if you don’t have drives laying around the house. There are only two bays – and if you don’t use redundancy, you’ll have to move ALL the content off the drives before you can change one out – either for defect or to put in larger drives.
Second, while super easy to use for the most part (thanks to the brilliant OS) – there are minor hurdles that will frustrate and deter some users from maximizing the usefulness of the product. The biggest hurdle will be remote access and dealing with manual configuration with their router. The product can be very useful to techno-challenged as long as they stay in a local area network environment. For remote, these folks would do well to tap their “family IT guru” to come over and set it up for them initially.
The trick with Synology’s products isn’t about quality hardware, fantastic software or being worried about it not performing.
It is about ensuring you get a good return on investment.
For the power user? The DS212j is real bargain at $175; essentially a server in a box – giving top notch features in an attractive usable environment that cuts the cords of cloud services and unlocks the restrictions that follow them. No matter what they need, the DS212j is there – ready to provide more functionality.
For the techno-challenged, the DS212j might just become a rather over-priced file share that has the benefits of offering redundancy to preserve the integrity of the pictures from the last trip to Disneyland. For these folks, a cheaper and pre-populated simple NAS solution might make more sense. But, just by turning on UPnP media sharing, this box becomes a media delivery system to feed all the TVs in the house, plus you can get UPnP apps for your mobile devices. This requires no remote connectivity or weird configurations.
No matter what type of user you are, the Synology DS212j can offer an elegant solution at a good price. The question will come down to whether or not you (or the family IT guru) can (or will) spend the time to harness the power the product even if you hit a couple of road bumps.
This product comes highly recommended.
If you’re in a business environment, Synology makes more enterprise-friendly versions of this product with more bays that still uses the award-winning software OS. Be sure to check them out!