As digital media becomes mainstream, the ability to access this data from anywhere is becoming more critical and is something that users are constantly demanding. While there are many companies that offer cloud-based storage, the solution requires a constant connection to the Internet and streaming music and photos from the Internet to your personal PC can be a slow proposition. Even worse, nobody wants to be without their data if their ISP suffers an outage.
Because of this, more and more people have either home servers (such as Microsoft's Windows Home Server product), or simple network-attached storage (NAS) devices as the central hub in their home. This gives households the ability to stream photos and music to laptops, tablets, and gaming devices at speeds that are much faster than their ISP connection.
One of these NAS-based solutions is the Synology DiskStation DS411. The device bills itself as an, “affordable and full-featured network attached storage solution, specifically designed for small business and workgroup users who need to share and protect data cost-effectively, while increasing productivity with comprehensive office applications.” Although the DS411 does offer great storage capabilities, its range of features is actually much greater, including a built-in web server, MySQL database, IP camera control station, music streaming, backup service, and more.
When taking the server out of the box, you realize how small the device is. Its dimensions, in millimeters, are 184(H) x 168(W) x 230(D), which translates in inches to roughly 7 x 6.5 x 9. What this means is that the box can be tucked away in the corner and completely out of sight. It has two fans in the back that are extremely quiet and the only time you hear the device is when it's first powering up or when the drives are spinning up after inactivity. During our review, the DS411 was sitting only two feet from our desk and we never heard it.
The back of the NAS server is very unassuming, having only a specialized power connector, a single Ethernet port, two USB ports, and an eSATA port. The front of the box has a power light (blue), a status light (green is good), a light that blinks with LAN activity, and a light that represents each of the up to four hard drives that the device supports. The device is headless and in fact has no video output at all. While some may be turned off by this, it's a common trend in the “server as an appliance” space and there are several Windows Home Server offerings that operate the same way.
After plugging in the power and connecting the device to the network (note: DHCP required for the initial install), you have to install software from the included CD onto your workstation. The tool, called the Synology Assistant, is a program that scans your network and finds all Synology devices that you have. The only other real feature of this tool is the ability to “Connect” to your device, which simply launches a browser and plugs in the IP address and port number of the DS411.
The Synology Assistant
After logging into the subsequent webpage, you’re presented with a desktop with four icons – File Browser, Control Panel, DSM Help, and Quick Start. There’s a search bar in the upper right hand corner, and a down arrow in the upper right hand corner. This down arrow contains some of the advanced, but lesser used features like the initial setup of volumes, performance data, and the ability to install packages. The File Browser is used to view the file system that have been created and copy data to/from your PC. The Quick Start and Help contain useful information to learn about the DS411. The heart of the interface is the Control Panel, as this is where you not only setup user access and configure shared folders, but you also are able to manage what services you want your Synology DS411 to run.
The Synology DS411 Control Panel
The first thing you’ll want to do is to create one or more volumes to share on your network. From the Storage Manager tool, click the “create” button and follow an easy to use wizard. The process asks you to select the disks to use in the volume, what type of data protection you want (RAID-1, RAID-5, etc), and whether you want to check the drives for bad blocks. The process can take quite awhile (hours for a four disk, RAID-5 configuration if you check for bad blocks), but it's a one-time process.
Screenshot of the the desktop and setting up a new volume
Once the volume is created, you create folders to be shared on your network. You can make whatever folders you want, but for most people the first step will probably be to go to the “Media Server” option in the control panel and turn on DLNA/UPnP to allow streaming of music, videos, and photos across your network. Doing this will automatically create three volumes for you: music, photo, and video. After creating the volume and copying some MP3s into the music folder I was immediately able to listen to the tunes on both the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3. The Media Server even has a handy option to automatically transcode FLAC/APE, AAC, OGG, and AIFF files if your receiving host can’t play them natively. Along the same lines, the DS411 also gives users the ability to play music from the server via iTunes.