Choosing the right NAS – Synology vs. QNAP

Insights/ September 16, 2020/ General, Techstuff/ 1 comments

NAS (Network Attached Storage) is basically a computer with a few diskdrives to be put somewhere in your house and has become so cheap and easy to use that I personally highly recommend considering to store all your personal data on a personal NAS.

The advantages are

  • All your data stored in one central place instead of USB sticks, external harddrives, notebooks, camera SD cards and local desktop harddrives. Which also allows for an easy backup strategy.
  • Tools to help you sort through your huge amounts of data (like AI based face recognition for your photos and additional apps to create and sort a well-arranged music or movie library to be streamed by other devices in your household)
  • ¬†Shared access for all your family members (with full rights control allowing for read-only access for your kids)
  • Creating your own personal cloud, which allows for remote access to all your data from anywhere on this planet but without having to trust your most personal data to big companies in remote countries with different privacy laws and attitudes than your home country.
  • Easy mirroring or remote backup options to share photos automatically with your family members in other cities onto their NAS or to backup your data onto their NAS or into a cloud storage after wrapping it into a container with strong encryption.

The disadvantages are

  • You need to make yourself familiar with the interface to get what you want from these potent devices
  • depending on your data and performance needs an investment of somewhere between 400 and 1200 bucks

As you will quickly see there are two dominant brands in the NAS market for home and prosumer use: QNAP and Synology.

In a nutshell, Synology is often compared to Apple’s Mac and iPhones (charging a bit more money for slightly worse hardware and less customization, but with a great user experience) whereas QNAP is said to be similar to a Windows PC or Android smartphone experience (better hardware for less money and more customization options, but requiring a deeper understanding and thus costing more time to get to know your way around).

And I would agree with that generalization. But with one reservation:
I am by tradition a PC and Android user and apart from my iPhone 3G and iPhone 4G, which were amazing devices in their time, I never liked the higher prices and limitations imposed by Apple and their preference to ignore open standards.

So naturally you would assume that QNAP would be my preferred NAS brand. But to the contrary, after having dealt with both, I have a very clear preference for Synology and unless you have a very limited or very special use case (the need for an HDMI port to connect to your TV for example) I would strongly advise the average user against buying a QNAP NAS.

And the reasons for that are the following:

  1. QNAP is truly not suited for beginners. I consider myself quite experienced with computers. I was working on my first computers using a soldering iron, I programmed in assembler, I built entire networks and RAID storage units for professional usage in my own company 20 years ago including obtaining our own IP address space managed by our own BGP4 router and I know my way around a shell (be it MS-DOS or Unix).
    Nonetheless despite all that knowlegde, the questions I got asked by my QNAP when setting it up for the first time, caused me to google things like “static volume vs. thick volume vs. thin volume” and even after reading for an hour, I still wasn’t sure, which option to choose for my purposes. (I went with a thick volume, just to compromise between performance loss and flexibility while maintaining the highest chance of being able to correct my choice later, should it turn out to be a mistake). Also the simple creation of shared folders (a standard task to create accessible storage space on a NAS) didn’t come as easy as it did with the Synology. I am not sure how quickly I would have mastered that task without having over 3 years of experience using NAS storage systems.
  2. QNAP does not support the modern filesystem Btrfs. It comes only with the older Linux standard filesystem ext4 and if you’re willing to pay extra you can install the support for the filesystem exFAT, but I am not sure why one would want to use that filesystem on a NAS (unless you want to read directly from a USB stick only available in exFAT). If I want to store data from my Windows machines, I can do so through the regular SMB or other transfer protocols and don’t really care that much about the fileformat used by the NAS to store the data on its harddrives

    Except for the filesystem Btrfs, which – if used by the NAS – offers extra checksum and autorepair functions, giving your data an additional layer of security without any manual intervention from your side needed. Btrfs also offers features like native snapshot and data protection at a fraction of the storage space needed for similar features based on ext4.

    What’s most bizarre about this: Linux offers native Btrfs support for over 12 years now, which has become quite stable about three years ago and the last fringe issue (happening only when choosing the combination of RAID5 with Btrfs and then experiencing a hard drive failure right after an unclean shutdown) has been resolved by Synology’s implementation as well. Some people argue, Btrfs would cause overhead and thus cost you performance. Please be assured that in a standard Gigabit Ethernet (or even a network where most devices are connect by WiFi) the bottleneck will always be the network throughput and whatever overhead is caused by filesystems or added encryption is covered easily by the processing power of your NAS.

    And if a QNAP fan should now argue, why I don’t mention QNAP’s support for ZFS, the answer is simple:
    a) ZFS requires a huge amount of RAM to perform reasonably. We’re talking about 16 GB or better even 32 GB of available memory. Since even most prosumer NASs are limited to 8 GB of RAM, this is simply not a feasible option.
    b) Hence ZFS is only supported on QNAP’s business line devices, which cost a lot more than your standard home user NAS.

    So there is no reason to not use Btrfs on your NAS and it actually shouldn’t require too much effort from QNAP to integrate Btrfs support into their devices.

  3. QNAP does not support something equivalent to Synology’s SHR RAID. Similar to Btrfs, Linux offers natively an advanced and more flexible RAID regime called mdadm. Synology has – as often – just built a nice and easy to use wrapper around this technology and thus saves you the headache of needing to understand much of the technology behind it. The big advantage of SHR is he flexibility it offers when wanting to update your RAID regime a few years later. To make a long story short: you can easily switch RAID levels anytime when adding more harddrives and also lump together harddrives of different size without losing any of their capacity (in a classic RAID5 for example, the total size of the RAID volume is determined (and thus limited) by the smallest drive in the array and the additional space of the larger drives is wasted).

  4. But it gets even stranger: while the stuff above already displays a strange absence of basic functionality, I would have never expected from a serious player in the NAS market being so negligent regarding the topic backup.
    In a nutshell: you can not backup the apps installed on your QNAP or the data generated by those apps!

    This has two severe consequences:
    a) should you want to backup for example a single application like the QuMagie app to move the connected data (i.e. face recognition database etc.) to another QNAP device of yours, there is not support for that.
    b) should you experience a severe loss of data (i.e. the entire QNAP is stolen or fried by a lightning strike in the vicinity for example), there is simply no way of just buying the same (or similar) QNAP hardware again and restoring your entire setup from any of your backup devices.

    Don’t get me wrong: of course QNAP supports backup schemes in general. But these are limited to two purposes:
    i) using the QNAP device as a backup target for your computers, mobile or other devices
    ii) using the QNAP to backup the data stored on its harddrives to an external harddrive or remote NAS

    But should your QNAP NAS itself implode, you are forced to set up everything from scratch (except for a configuration file that you hopefully thought of saving every once in a while manually). And the hours of labor you have spent in QuMagie to join the faces recognized by the AI into the same person (i.e. pictures of persons wearing sunglasses, hats, diving gear or from their early childhood) are lost. So is the entire content of apps like Notes Station or the tagging work you have performed of your photos in your Photo Station

To be honest it is a complete mystery to me, why a manufacturer aiming to compete with the industry leader in that segment is lacking this basic functionality in their products. Safe storage of data is one of the core tasks a NAS is built and used for.
So ignoring innovations like Btrfs or flexible RAID solutions that are presented as a free gift by the Linux community is already a strange attitude by QNAP’s product management. And if you think, you might not need Btrfs: We are talking about Terabytes of data that are stored and managed. That’s a million Megabytes which by itself is a million bytes. So you only need a statistical probability of 1: 1000.000.000.000 that an error occurs, and you can be statistically sure to catch one. Since the data is saved either on tiny magnetic surfaces on your harddrive or within the cells of an SSD in a manner that is relying on quantum mechanic effects, it can’t hurt to add an extra layer of protection. Especially if it comes at no real cost.
So to sum it up: this case again shows that you can research the heck out of a topic by trying to cut through the marketing blah blah on the manufacturers websites and watching plenty of comparison videos on YouTube. But you won’t stumble over this topic. Only after asking in a forum a specific question like “how can I backup my QuMagie database” will you realize that you simply cannot (of course there will be the occasional weisenheimer telling you to script your own solution. But good luck with rummaging on the details of the QuMagie database and other important files. And setting a script up on a platform that updates its firmware and apps every other week, risking to potentially break to special backup scripts every single time). And if you take a closer look at the forums, you will find plenty of entries of frustrated QNAP owners complaining about this situation for years. Some still sticking to QNAP (for lack of money) and others having moved on to other brands without regret.
And that’s exactly what I want to accomplish with this blog: providing you with the insights one often only makes, when taking the next step from the theoretical to the practical and dealing with a device in all its details.
So you might wonder, why is QNAP still selling their products in large amounts. Well there’s two reasons IMHO:
  1. If you have a very special use case like wanting to attach your NAS to your TV using a HDMI port to use it as a direct media player, there is not much on the market offered by Synology. And a tiny silent device running only on SSDs like the QNAP TBS-453DX definitely has its charm.

    Also if you just intend to use your QNAP device as a plain and simple Network Attached Storage device and do not plan to ever play around with any of the apps (like Photo Station, QuMagie/Moments, Music Station/Audio Station etc.), you will benefit from the better hardware, which usually includes a faster network port (2.5 GB or even 10 GB instead of one or more 1 GB ports Synology usually builds into their devices). And if the system should break down completely, you don’t lose any NAS specific data or personal customization efforts.

  2. The other reason is based in human psychology. You won’t really notice the absence of features like Btrfs or Full System backup and restore options until a bad accident happens. Which fortunately does not happen more often than it does happen. So you could compare buying a QNAP to buying a car without airbags and seat belts. You most likely will get to your destination safe and sound without these items for many years and never know what you’re missing. Only after you have been involved in a bad accident will you regret your choice.

    So since a complete data loss is fortunately a very rare animal, most people remain happy with their choice.

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