synology

NAS Upgrading Fun

I’m documenting this, just in case there’s someone out there for whom it’s useful.

I had two NAS drives, both made by Synology. I have a DS210j that I bought back in 2010. It had a pair of 2TB drives in it with a mirror RAID array, and perhaps the most important thing stored on it is my offline music library. The drive was about 75% full. The RAID setup means that if one drive fails, the data should be safe on the other. I can then replace the failed drive and get back to parity.

The other drive is a DS214se bought in 2014. This had a pair of 3TB drives also in a mirrored RAID array. This was over 90% full. It’s home to a lot of my archived video projects as well as much of my substantial Lightroom photo library (essentially, everything I’m not currently working on).

Diskstation Manager (DSM) is Synology’s software that runs on these NAS drives, and it was not happy that I have less than 10%. In any event, it was clear that I needed to expand my storage in the near future. So I’d been keeping my eye out for cheap large format hard drives. I reckoned that 8TB is probably the sweet-spot at the moment in terms of value per TB. But there’s a very odd thing in the hard disk market.

If you go to somewhere like Amazon, and look for a WD Red 8TB drive or Seagate Ironwolf 8TB (both versions of their drives designed to run in NAS drives), the drives will cost you around £218-240. Now those prices can fluctuate, but north of £200 is common.

However, having spent some time in the Reddit Datahoarder group, there are plenty of folk on there who will tell you that the drives that come in some WD MyBook or WD Elements external drives are actually pretty good for using in NAS drives. Indeed at one time, they were actually Red drives. These days, they’re not strictly the same drives as you can buy on their own, but they’ll still pretty good.

More importantly, the price of these things can drop very low indeed. If you use a service like CamelCamelCamel to keep an eye out, you can stay ahead of the game. Last week, the price dropped to as low as £129 for an 8TB WD MyBook. I didn’t get onto it in time, and the price jumped back up to over £150. But then it came back down to £139, where at time of writing it still is. So I jumped in and bought two.

When they arrive, they’re of course designed for use as external drives. They come with smart plastic cases and power adaptors. Fortunately, there are YouTube videos that show you how to open these cases non destructively, a process called “shucking.”

This video worked well for me – the design in the video still being the current WD design. You just need a spudger or knife, and something to keep the tabs open. In the video, he uses guitar picks. I used a few business cards.

Then it’s just a question of sliding the case apart and unscrewing the drive from the plastic container.

Obviously you could use brute force, but that runs the risk of damaging the drive. Furthermore, if you keep the drive cases intact, you can re-purpose your old NAS drives as external hard drives. I put my two 3TB drives back into the cases as 3TB external hard drives are useful to have around. However, at time of writing, I’ve yet to work out how to format them away from Synology’s Hybrid RAID format.

Now you have your two new 8TB hard drives out. So it was a question of replacing the drives in my newer DS214se. Now I did wonder whether it was worth upgrading my NAS at the same time. As I mentioned above, my NAS is now getting on for 5 years’ old. There’s only 256mb of RAM in it, and it’s not powerful enough to do anything fancy like host 4K video and then transcode it. But in fact, that’s not a problem. I do keep some videos on my NAS for Plex (the in-home streaming platform), but I use an Nvidia Shield TV to run Plex server (i.e. run the main software) rather than run it on the NAS drive itself – something that many more powerful NAS drives can do. Instead, I just point the Nvidia Shield TV towards the video library stored on one of my NAS drives.

Similarly, I’m not doing anything like hosting a website on NAS (again – something that’s completely do-able). But I asked the question. The equivalent Synology NAS today to my DS214se is probably the DS218j. This is another £150 and in actual fact, isn’t that much more powerful than my older one. I’ll probably upgrade at some point, but not today.

Instead, I needed to replace the 2 x 3TB drives in the existing DS214se with my 2 x 8TB drives. This is relatively straightforward – but it just takes a while.

The process is basically:

  • switch off your NAS (actually – it quietly shuts itself down properly)
  • open it up (give it a good clean while it’s there – I had lots of dust in mine)
  • take out one of the 3TB drives, and replace it with an 8TB one
  • close it all up and switch on

Once it boots up, it start beeping at you. It’s noticed that one of the drives has “degraded.” It hasn’t really of course – you’ve just taken one away. Nonetheless, your next step is to “repair” it.

In essence, “repairing” it is just a matter of backing up all the data from the remaining 3TB onto the new 8TB drive.

This takes some time. 8+ hours in my case.

So I went to bed.

The next morning, there once the final couple of percent in the process had completed (you can monitor it all within DSM), it was time to switch out the other drive.

Another 8+ hours later, I was out. But the device sends an email when anything major happens. So I got the email and knew that all was fine.

At this point the system also notices that it has 8TB on each drive, so it ups the overall size available, and I was only using 35% or so of my space.

But I wasn’t quite finished. My older DS210j has been annoying me of late. While it’s not full, the discs rattle constantly – it’s noisy. Remember, you need these drives on at all times if you want to access the data, and in general, I tend to leave them on. Indeed, I can remotely access files on them if I need to.

For me, the next step was going to be copying all the data across from one NAS to the other.

The key thing with this process is not to do it via your PC (or Mac). Certainly, I have both NAS drives attached to my PC and I could do the whole thing in File Explorer in Windows 10. But that’s not smart. Instead, there’s a built in app called FileStation.

You just need to make sure that from your destination NAS (the DS214se in my case), you’ve mounted a remote drive to a folder on it. Once you’ve done that, you can then copy (or move) the files from one drive to another.

My older device actually has two Volumes on it – effectively two separate drives, although the second volume is tiny. I chose to do this one step at a time. Copying the first volume across resulted in FileStation telling me it would take 17 hours or so. A little more than making a cup of tea. And this is only an unfilled 2TB drive. But it’s a one time thing. While the estimate was initially 17 hours, the process actually took more than 24 hours. I had to leave it copying files for two consecutive nights.

Fortunately, I didn’t need the second volume – system files for a Plex server I was no longer using. So finally, I was able to retire the older NAS drive. I’m left with one NAS, and I still have about 46% of space left.

A final note is to say that I sync my Lightroom library to Amazon Photos – mainly because it’s an inexpensive bolt-on for Amazon Prime members, giving unlimited storage for photo files (including RAW photo formats). What it doesn’t include free is video.

I used to use Amazon Drive to back up both NAS drives completely, when Amazon Drive allowed unlimited storage. But that’s gone. I have to pay a modest extra fee for all the sidecar data that Lightroom stores. Non destructive editing requires a lot of these files. But it’s not too bad.

My ideal would be to securely backup all my files offsite. This is very do-able, and there’s an app within DSM precisely for that. However the costs begin to mount up. For 4.5-5TB of storage, you’re looking at £/€300-350 a year. Getting the data back might increase those costs. Amazon, for example, has Amazon Glacier. I assume that it’s stored on a tape format. The idea with Glacier is that you don’t need to get the data particularly regularly – just know that it’s there. That’s as well, because recovering the data is actually quite expensive.

In my instance, this is really about securing photos, music and video – with a few documents thrown in. If my flat where to burn down, or someone steal my NAS drive, then I’d know I could recover everything. But doing that in a cost-effective manner is tricky.

One solution is finding a friend with a big internet pipe who’s willing to let you put a second NAS drive in their place. You could then keep the two in sync. You could obviously “host” a NAS drive for your friend in your house at the same time.

A previous “off-site backup” solution I’ve used in the past is to simply buy another external hard drive (perhaps one of those 8TB WD MyBooks!), back the NAS up to that, and then keep that drive securely in your workplace. If you then brought it home once a week/fortnight/month, you could update the backup and return it to work the next day. You’d never be more than a week/fortnight/month behind if the worst happened. Indeed, you could buy two drives and shuttle them back and forth – keeping one at home and one at work at all times. But that may be over-kill.

I realise that this isn’t the most exciting thing to write about. And when I talk to people, I realise that relatively few people really look after their data. If you don’t have all that much, you can perhaps rely on cloud storage services. Google Drive, Dropbox and iCloud all give you a bit of free space, and will charge you for more. OneDrive can be good value if you want Microsoft Office. But many of these max out at 1TB in space. Even Google, who used to be quite generous with Google Drive space, giving it away with Android phones or Chromebooks, seems to be more inclined to charge these days.

Your parents’ or grandparents’ photo albums may seem quaint, but those albums will be much safer than a lot of photos that are only stored safely while users hang on to their social media accounts…

Installing Plex Media Server

Note: Just to be clear – I’ve installed Plex on a DS210j and not a DS214se.

This is going to be a bit dry, but it may or may not help others.

I now have a couple of Synology NAS drives. I first bought a DS210j about two or three years ago when I started to get a bit more concerned about how well backed up my data is. In particular I was worried about music, video and mostly photos.

Since getting my first NAS, I was pretty happy. There are 2 x 2TB drives in a RAID array to give me redundancy. I also instigated a regular “offsite backup” another simple Seagate external drive which I kept at work in my desk draw, regularly bringing home to ensure that the NAS was backed up in another location (sadly a former colleague once had his hard drive stolen in a house break-in even though the value of the hard drive was probably quite low).

But even being fairly ruthless over what photos I keep, my NAS was getting dangerously close, so earlier this week I decided to invest in an additional Synology DS214se. It’s the cheapest drive they make, but I don’t need it to do a great deal. Mostly it’s going to be storing photos. I installed a couple of WD Red 3TB drives, again in a RAID array, and I was away.

The first thing I wanted to do was spread the load. That means moving photos to the new drive and leaving everything else on the old one (I say “everything” but clearly I have a whole pile of other hard drives in cases and loose. But the important stuff is on the NAS drives). But the photos alone that I wanted to move came to 1.1TB.

The first thing to realise is that it’s not wise to do a move of this size via a PC. Something will break. I’ve just rarely had a good experience of a large file move in Windows. So I used the Synology Filestation app and set up a copy direct.

All you need to know is that it took about 48 hours – so not fast. But it did the job first time with no errors. In Lightroom – my photo software of choice – I just re-pointed the top level directory to the new drive location and all was fine.

The other thing I wanted to do was install Plex. For various reasons, I’ve always shied away of using some kind of media centre software. I did once play with Microsoft Home Media Center on a cheap PC, but it was all a mess, and I went no further.

But I liked the idea of installing some software on a NAS drive – removing the need to leave a PC on. And I knew that there was a Synology app for Plex.

My first disappointment was to learn that it’s not supported on the “cheap” DS214se. Seemingly it’s because the specs of the processor on-board aren’t high enough. But it actually seems more powerful than my older DS210j. However, it actually suited me to use the older drive anyway.

The next problem was by far the biggest. I just couldn’t get Plex running. I repeatedly tried the official version via Synology. But in spite of installing, it just repeatedly gave the error message: “Failed to run the package service.”

I went through dozens of both Plex and Synology forums searching for a solution. I removed and reinstalled. I rebooted the NAS. I deleted other apps (that I wasn’t using) that might have been a problem. But nothing. I installed a direct Plex build. I used SSH to connect directly to the NAS and look to see if there was a problem there. Still no joy.

In the end I finally stumbled across the problem. For whatever reason, the Plex installer was not creating a “Plex” Shared Folder. Simply manually creating a new folder – “Plex” without quotes – did it. And it ran perfectly.

The reason I chose Plex is because there are plenty of apps for it on devices I own. The first one I actually got working properly was on my Sky Now box. This is a device that Sky were selling for £10. A complete bargain for iPlayer alone. It’s basically a rebadged Roku box. But Sky has limited the number of apps you can install – clearly they want you to use their Sky Now service. In truth Sky Now is unnecessary for me because I subscribe to Sky anyway, and have access to those sports and film services.

Anyway, if you switch on Developer Mode, you can install Plex via a PC.

Then I installed the Samsung Smart TV app, and that worked pretty seamlessly too. Just for fun, I also installed the Android app, and that happily works with my Chromecast. Lots of ways then to use the service.

The only thing I had to watch was that Plex took a bit of a while to sort itself out when I added programming to it. And sometimes the Samsung app can take a while to find graphics and metadata.

However playing back a variety of files hasn’t been a problem, and it’s certainly easier than my old method which involved lots of USB sticks. In particular, I’ve suffered no transcoding issues with any of my devices regardless of file resolution. I suspect that Plex does push my DS210j quite a bit, but it will certainly suffice.

(Incidentally, what got me thinking about this was a friend in the US who has bought an Amazon Fire TV which he’s got Plex on. The device – not yet on sale in the UK – is quite smart, although were it not for the fact that Amazon Prime Instant Video isn’t on UK Roku boxes, I’d say they’d serve you fine.)