Drobo vs. Synology: Choosing the Best NAS

| Dave Hamilton's Blog

I believe that, at some point, each home will truly benefit from having a Network Attached Storage device (NAS, for short). Most of us just love to accumulate stuff, and that holds true for our digital lives, too. Having one dump zone for these things attached to the home network can make life much easier, allowing access to all that data from all our computers, smartphones, tablets, and ... glasses? Well, someday.

With that, one of the most common questions I'm asked is, "which NAS should I choose?" Often — likely because of brand awareness — that comes in the form of, "which is better, Drobo or Synology?"

The answer isn't entirely cut-and-dry. Or, rather, the answer is very much cut-and-dry once you understand what each one does and costs. Drobo and Synology represent the two different pillars in the multi-drive NAS world and, because of that, are worth comparing.

Fault Tolerance

For this article I'm limiting the discussion to just those NAS units that are fault-tolerant – that is, they can suffer a failed drive without losing any of your precious data. There are certainly network-capable storage devices that are not fault tolerant but I don't recommend heading down this path. Save your money for a little bit longer and then buy into a multi-drive-capable, fault-tolerant solution when you're able.

Smart NAS vs ... Standard NAS

To help decide which NAS is right for you it's first important to understand what your options are. I like to generally lump NAS devices into one of two categories: Smart and Standard (I certainly wouldn't use, "dumb," here because they all do some very smart things).

A "standard" NAS unit does just what most people expect: it sits on your network, accessible by every local computer, allowing multiple computers to simultaneously access all the data stored within. Hopefully that list of "computers" also includes smartphones and tablets, though that's not always the case.

It's in this category that I put devices like the Drobo 5N (US$569) and the LaCie 5big NAS Pro ($499) – I'll list all prices as empty, you choose the drives. Primarily these devices serve up files and nothing more, though each do one or two extra functions (more on that later). 

Let's compare that to what I've dubbed the "smart" NAS category. This includes devices like the Synology DS1512+ ($799), or the QNAP TS569-Pro ($915). There are also comparable 4-bay units from those vendors for about $125 less each. Still, a significant price jump between these two classes of NAS is obvious. You could buy a Drobo 5N and put three 2TB drives in it for about the price of the empty QNAP unit.

Something to note is that QNAP is the only NAS vendor I've mentioned here who doesn't offer a configuration that allows different-sized drives to be used simultaneously, and is the sole reason I refrain from recommending them. Drobo, Synology, and LaCie all offer this excellent functionality. Bear that in mind when choosing, as it is extremely handy to be able to fill your NAS with different-sized drives as you expand over the years.

Why So Expensive? Are They Really That Smart?

The major difference between the "standard" and "smart" NAS classes I've described is apps. Yes, you read that right: NAS devices really are just purpose-built computers that sit on your network managing (and sharing) the data they contain. But they are computers and, as such, can often do more than just serve files. A few examples of what you can accomplish with NAS apps:

  • Run your own personal cloud (and say goodbye to letting Dropbox have your data!)
  • Share your music as a standalone iTunes server
  • Stream your music, videos, and pictures to your computers and smartphones – even when you're not at home!
  • Run a PLEX Media server
  • Backup your NAS data to a cloud service like CrashPlan or Amazon's Glacier
  • Run a MineCraft server
  • Run a BitTorrent download server (yes, there are some legal uses for this!)
  • ...and much more.

Right now the only companies making NAS devices with any significant number of available apps are Synology and QNAP. The hardware from Drobo and LaCie is not all that different, however, and those devices could run apps, too. Just yesterday, in fact, Drobo announced the availability of a PLEX Media Server app for the Drobo 5N. (They also announced a possible merger with Connected Data which would bring personal cloud technology – and the company's founder – back in-house.)

Right now PLEX is one of only two apps that's available on Drobo's 5N (and we must temper our optimism here by remembering that the original DroboApps for the Drobo FS was largely ignored and left to dwindle on its own). LaCie, too, offers a unique integration with the company's Wuala service allowing integrated, hybrid cloud sharing right there in their 5big NAS Pro.

The prevalance of available apps is the important distinction here, and if you compare NAS devices without factoring this in you've not really compared them at all. it's a bit like comparing a car with a flying car. Yes, they can both drive on land, but one can also fly. If you don't know how to fly and don't want to learn, your choice is made. But if you do want to fly, your choice is made there, too. The good news is that installing and using apps on these devices is way easier than learning to fly (though the latter's not so hard, either).

Before you rush out and buy your first (or next) NAS device, consider what you want to do with it. Because maybe it's worth a couple hundred bucks extra to know you can really make that thing fly.

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15 Comments Leave Your Own

Andhaka

With a 90 euro D-Link NAS I do the same exact things you just listed. Ok, it’s a 2-bay NAS, but 4TB of space is overkill for any consumer, family oriented use. wink

I also have a Time machine mode and all the bells and whistles of various RAID configurations. wink

Cheers

Andrew Dolph

Good stuff!

I also think that it’s worth considering NON-network attached storage + a Mac Mini (thereby making a super-smart NAS in a way) it’s not that much more money and adds a lot of capability.

Thoughts?

Wigs

Nice article Dave. One thing I would add, if I may, in a straight out comparison between the Drobo (in my case an FS) and the Synology (a DS1512+) is that the Drobo is so slllllllooooooooowwwwwww!! After two years with the Drobo FS I just couldn’t take it any more (despite the fact that I deliberately ran it with 7,200 spinning drives). Whenever it was mounted, it took ages to even open a folder so much so that the Drobo became almost unusable. Having had my Synology for about a month now, man is it fast - you wouldn’t even know it’s a NAS, everything opens and is accessible just like the files are sat on the desktop. Add to that over the years I had a couple of occasions when the Drobo mangled my data (luckily I had backups, just in case) and it offers nothing like the versatility of the Synology, and I’d say the Synology really is worth the extra cash. And I have the MGG podcast to thank for making the switch.

Brian Marsh

Wigs, the new Drobo’s are much faster than the FS was.  The newer models similar to the FS, are around 5x faster, with a SSD cache drive one of the 5 drive models hits up to 180 MB/s (instead of around 80-100 MB/s without the SSD cache, I think the Drobo FS was in the 10-30 MB/s range

ibuck

For me, NAS is still too pricey, and not quite there yet. The reliability, ease of use, and features are not yet sufficient for me to abandon my two separate backup drives, even with less capability. Thanks for the info, Dave, but I’ll wait a bit longer until it’s a lot cheaper, easier and safer to fly.

paikinho

I just had an issue with one of my Infrant and a power outage that ended up disabling my unit. It turned out to be just a drive, but it took about a week of testing, long nights to figure out it was only a drive. Normally a drive going down doesn’t take down the NAS and you just replace the faulty drive.  Not in this case.
Let me remind everyone…. RAID is not backup. You better have 2 backups around… one onsite and one offsite or you may be in for some pain.

John Allen, Winner

I don’t have a Drobo, but for Synology units, it seems to be a known issue that neither Spotlight nor Finder can search for files on my connected Synology.

So i can’t search for a file on my Synology.

Dave Hamilton

@John — I search for (and find) files on my Synology all the time, but it’s not based on a pre-built Spotlight index. In general, Spotlight fails with NAS drives, but you can point the Finder at a drive or sub-folder therein, and searches that way work great for me.

partch

Great article. I bought a Synology to replace at Netgear ReadyNAS. Setting it up now.

rlb67

I just checked Amazon for Synology. As expected there are a variety of them. As expected they have a range of models ranging from about $200 (2 bay) to $10K (10 bay). The DS411slim (4 bay) at $300 looked good. Is it not smart? What are the important differences between the models?

Also, WD has a “red” drive that is supposed to be optimized for NAS. It’s list price is less than a “green” of the same capacity ($200 vs $250) but the selling price is about $20 more ($150) any comment on which would be better?

Dave Hamilton

@rib67: if you want to run apps on the Synology, you’ll find the most compatibility (i.e. pretty much everything will run) with a dual-core Intel chip inside. The DS413 has a Freescale chip in it (be careful), the DS411slim (and non-slim) have the Marvell Kirkwood CPUs (again, be careful), and the DS412+ has the Intel Atom dualcore (good). You can check these out at the Synology Wiki for What kind of CPU does my Synology NAS have? page.

The green drives have, for me, been problematic (I’ve replaced every one of them due to failure—seagate and WD alike—after about 18 months). Next time I’d go with red drives. There are some discussions out there that the problem with green drives in a NAS isn’t so much that they fail more frequently, it’s that it takes them longer to recover and the NAS gives up on trying. YMMV.

Substance

Thanks for bringing up the issue of NAS drives Dave.  It’s one of those technologies that still doesn’t get a lot of press but - as part of the broader topic of backups and cloud data - should be on every computer user’s radar.  That said, I feel like this article was a little bit more of a jump into the deep end and not the primer on NAS that I need.  For instance I’m still confused about why should I consider investing in NAS vs. running a standalone Mac with attached external drives (preferably a fault-tolerant RAID unit)?  How does running an iTunes server work on a NAS vs. a Mac?  For my personal needs, I’ve been considering buying a used XServe and XServe RAID and running that on my personal network.  How is that significantly different than a NAS unit?

Also, the few people I knew who’ve had anything to do with NAS had or heard of bad experiences with it, similar to @Wigs stories.  But it’s good to hear from you Dave that the newer drives are a lot faster.

Anne Shell

@Andhaka…

Your assumption that a two drive nas is overkill for consumer family use is quite closed minded.  I have about 300 DVD and Bluray movies that i have (YES LEGALLY) backed up as well as 4 desktops that sync each night. I also maintain a build environment for android builds. 

I have about 8.5TB full of the 10.something that i have available.  But congratulations for your assumptions

Chris Moen

By the way don’t forget that Drobo’s have a 16tb logical volume partition limit. So when those new 6tb drives come out and you load a 5-bay drobo up you won’t be able to have it be one contiguous volume of 24tb. Nope. You would have to have 2 partitions to be able to use it fully. We have drobo pros at work that are loaded with 4tb drives and we have to have two 16tb volumes and a 2tb volume to utilize it fully. This infuriates me to no end. The Drobo tech I talked to said this was a NTFS limitation which is completely untrue unless they are somehow running into the 16tb file size limitation (not volume size, file size). Synology has a volume limit of 108tb if what I read on their website is accurate.

Chris Moen

Upon thinking about my previous post I said that 16tb shouldn’t be a limit of a volume size. Some sites I am looking say that is a NTFS limit in the OS and not in the design of NTFS. But all these drobos are hooked up to Windows Server 2012 which I am pretty sure has a 64tb NTFS file system limitation. So my quote of 108tb for volume size on the synology might not matter in the real world (on Windows Server 2012 anyways). Still 16tb is awfully small when you start putting lots of full res video data on it.

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