The market for network-attached storage units has expanded significantly over the last few years. The rapid growth in public cloud storage (Dropbox, OneDrive, Google Drive and the like) has tempered the expansion a bit amongst consumers who are not very tech-savvy. However, the benefits provided by a NAS in the local network are undeniable, particularly when complemented with public cloud services. Enterprise users obviously need NAS units with different performance and feature requirements. Our previous NAS reviews have focused more on the performance aspect. With feature set and ease of use becoming important across all market segments, we believe that a qualitative evaluation of the different commercial NAS operating systems is needed to educate consumers on the options available.

Introduction

Commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) NAS operating systems are popular across a wide range of market segments - business and enterprise users (including those with dedicated IT staff) prefer to have plug-and-play storage units that don't need much babysitting, while the average consumer often wants a media-centric unit without the hassle of re-purposing an old PC or building a file server from scratch. This regularly-updated piece will take a look at the features and usability of the currently popular COTS NAS operating systems.

The following NAS vendors / operating systems are currently covered in this article:

  1. Asustor [ ADM 2.6.5R9N1 ]
  2. Netgear [ ReadyNAS OS 6.6.0 ]
  3. QNAP [ QTS 4.2.2 ]
  4. Synology [ DSM 6.0.2-8451 Update 3 ]
  5. Western Digital [ My Cloud OS 2.21.19 ]
  6. ZyXEL [ FW v5.20(AATB.0) ]

Different vendors cater to different market segments - both in terms of hardware and software features. For example, Asustor, Netgear, QNAP and Synology have units ranging from 2-bay desktop models targeting the average home consumer to 12-bay rackmounts targeting SMBs and SMEs. Western Digital has only desktop units- 1- and 2-bay models targeting entry level users, and multiple 2- and 4-bay models targeting experts, professionals and business users. ZyXEL, on the other hand, focuses on only one market segment - the average home consumer. Every vendor other than ZyXEL in the list above carries both ARM- and x86-based solutions. ZyXEL has only ARM-based solutions in their lineup. The choice between ARM and x86 has to be made by the end-user depending on the requirements (number of users, transcoding support etc.). This piece is not meant to provide inputs on the hardware choice, though we will briefly touch upon how the OS features might vary based on the platform. The hardware currently used to test out the various OS features are tabulated at the end of this section.

Security has turned out to be a very important concern for equipment connected to the network, particularly those exposed to the Internet. Therefore, frequent updates are needed even in the NAS firmwares to handle vulnerabilities that get exposed from time to time. The release date of the latest firmware is also a measure of the commitment of the NAS vendor to their consumers.

Most COTS NAS operating systems are based on Linux, and utilize software RAID (mdadm) with the stable ext4 file system. Recently, btrfs has also become popular in this space. ZFS, due to its resource-hungry nature, has been restricted to units targeting enterprise users. DIY consumers can also get a taste of it using open-source BSD-based operating systems such as FreeNAS.

The following table provides the essential information discussed above in a easy to compare manner.

NAS Operating Systems Evaluation - Comparison Details
Vendor
     
Firmware Version ADM 2.6.5R9N1 ReadyNAS OS 6.6.0
Firmware Release Date October 3, 2016 September 29, 2016
     
OS Kernel Linux 4.1.0 Linux 4.1.30
File System ext4 btrfs (Customized)
     
Evaluated Hardware 10-bay AS6210T 4-bay ReadyNAS RN214

This piece focuses on the core user-facing aspects of COTS NAS systems. These include the setup process and the quality of the user interface. Storage management and configurable services are the next topic. An overview of user management is followed by discussion of the networking features available in each OS.

Most NAS operating systems have feature parity in terms of core features. However, as we shall see at the end of this piece, there is a difference in ease of use which make some vendors stand out of the crowd. These vendors also try to differentiate with value-added services such as media servers, surveillance (IP camera) support, cloud features and other such features. They will be covered in detail in a follow-on article.

Setup Process and User Interface
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  • ZeDestructor - Monday, November 21, 2016 - link

    Ubuntu shipped ZFS + Linux in April 2016. There was no lawsuit, although the FSF was more than happy to bitch about it.

    On top of that, LLNL and various other have been using ZFS on Linux for years now, with no issues. So calm your tit's, it'll be fine.
    Reply
  • tuxRoller - Friday, November 25, 2016 - link

    Canonical is based in what country?
    What's that country's history of corporate litigation?
    Besides, Canonical isn't exactly overflowing with assets.
    Reply
  • Solandri - Tuesday, November 15, 2016 - link

    If you're going to roll your own, some type of microserver is the way to go. An old desktop off Craigslist isn't going to have ECC memory, and will burn enough Wattage that it'll cost about $50-$100 more per year to keep it powered on 24/7. I stopped counting the number of people I've had to talk out of turning their old desktop into a file server. Most did not realize that the extra electricity they'd pay for would exceed the cost of a dedicated low-power NAS/file server in a few years. Reply
  • DominionSeraph - Wednesday, November 16, 2016 - link

    Anything Intel from Lynnfield on sips power. Pulling a DL380 G5 off ebay wouldn't be a good idea, but you can get Sandy i3's and i5's for nothing. Reply
  • BedfordTim - Monday, November 14, 2016 - link

    The big advantage of your approach is when something goes wrong. You can have another HP/Dell micro server on site the next day. Likewise the Dell equivalent. If a NAS goes wrong you will be without your data for days or weeks. Reply
  • Beany2013 - Wednesday, November 30, 2016 - link

    Eh, kinda sorta.

    If you have a consumer NAS, and it just *dies* (IE PSU pops or similar 'fatal' error - yeah, i know, you can get replacement PSUs but bear with me here) most of them will allow you to buy another chassis of the same model, and just move the disks.

    Or, if you used a bit of common sense, you can take the backup that you made - you did make a backup, yeah? - and just restore it to a new unit.

    It's not *quite* as efficient as having a Microserver etc with NBD warranty, but if you are moderately cash rich (IE have a credit card you can drop a grand on without fussing too much) then it's entirely possible to do.

    The other big, big bonus of these platforms is that if you're a small company that lacks serious IT chops, these devices give you stupid;y good featuresets with fairly straightforward setup.

    Got a used quad CPU server and want to set up a test environment? You can have iSCSI set up on one of these units in minutes. Try that with a straight debian box, or even something like TrueNAS; your average IT generalist or hobbyist will be, er, a bit longer than that.

    So it's horses for courses. I use a few Synos to run my companies backup strategy as they're plenty reliable enough, they fail over to each other nicely, and they're easy enough to use that if I get knocked down by a bus, using them doesn't require solid Linux/Windows server knowledge.

    that said, my DS214 at home is getting a bit long in the tooth, and a large chassis, modest server-oriented mobo and a used Xeon and some ECC RAM is a tempting idea; I could then use the Syno as a backup target....
    Reply
  • bsd228 - Tuesday, November 15, 2016 - link

    I have 3 microservers (36, 40, 54) and one Qnap (451). The price on all of these, upgraded to 8 or 16gb memory, second intel NIC added - not very far apart. (Got the Qnap on a sale for 330 for the base box). With the MSs, I can run solaris and ECC and get ZFS, but need to run VMs (Virtualbox) to have Linux sessions that have all of the useful media sharing stuff like plex, mediatomb, mt-daapd, etc. It also has a 5th sata connection (intended for optical) with the hacked bios, so I could add an SSD for L2ARC and/or ZIL. It's more work than it was worth for me to do this within the native Solaris parent, though I do like having current zfs.

    The QNAP is smaller, quieter, takes less space, and will even allow the VM if I want it. I have a hard time recommending the DIY route for the 4 bay unit.

    But if you want to go to the 8 drive class, the typical pricing for qnap or synology makes you look at a nice Fractal Design case and an i3 or Xeon proc. The pain point, if you wanted Oracle Solaris, was support for the GPU, the NIC, the chipset. I stuck with AMD chips a long time because Sandy Bridge support came slowly. This included freeNAS at the time.
    Reply
  • Ananke - Tuesday, November 15, 2016 - link

    There are $200-250 brand new Lenovo, HP or Dell microservers, deals on Newegg every other day. Another $80-100 retail price of Win 10, which can be legally obtained for less btw, gives you Storage Pools.

    The biggest advantage of Win Storage Pools is the easy migration - if your system fails, you simply pull the HDD stack and plug in a new system - no down time, no data loss, zero effort.
    Besides, am not even adding all the network connection advantage that Win environment gives you, and the fully functional GUI OS taht can be used for anything else, besides serving data.
    Reply
  • doggface - Tuesday, November 15, 2016 - link

    1. I assume for storage pools you need pro. Which is $200.
    2. FreeNas and the like are free.
    3. Why waste compute and Ram resources on a gui?
    4. Windows is possibly the worst route for a Nas.
    Reply
  • mervincm - Wednesday, November 16, 2016 - link

    multichannel SMB3 is another huge advantage none of other offer options have. Everyone talks chaneel bonding, thinking it will give you multi gigabit path between a system and the server. only windows given you that today (unless you are willing to run experimental features in samba) Reply

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