Drobo vs. Synology: Choosing the Best NAS

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.