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

    Samba 4.5 (at least) supports multichannel SMB.

    In terms of performance, the last performance boost Samba doesn't have that Windows SMB has is RDMA, and that's being worked on.
    Reply
  • ZeDestructor - Monday, November 21, 2016 - link

    Samba 4.5+ provides non-experimental multichannel SMB Reply
  • OreoCookie - Monday, November 14, 2016 - link

    It's about convenience and security, not about upfront cost for the device. Paying for my Synology will probably give me ~5 years of OS and package updates, and several nice services that just work by ticking a checkbox. I'm managing Linux and FreeBSD boxes at work, among other things, and I don't want to do that with my home NAS. Reply
  • Beany2013 - Wednesday, November 30, 2016 - link

    ....and that is exactly why I have a Syno. I've got two dozen Linux servers I look after at work all day (and out of hours). I don't want to be fucking about with SMB config files at home. I just want to listen to music, watch videos and run the odd VM off an iSCSI LUN without all the tedious messing about. Reply
  • jabber - Tuesday, November 15, 2016 - link

    And once you've finished messing around with all of that it will have cost you $1000 in just time and effort. Then it fails a month later and you have to start again. Hence why I buy off the shelf NAS units for small business customers. 99% of them just want a place for file sharing and backups. Reply
  • beginner99 - Tuesday, November 15, 2016 - link

    I disagree. You will then also need a Windows license and almost certainly a SATA/RAID controller card. Plus if the harware is old it might not support transcoding or encryption. You can get a 4-bay NAS that has all of this for less than $300.

    You don't only bay for the hardware. You also pay for the software which makes it easy to setup and use and for the compact enclosure. Any desktop/tower with 4 bays is way, way bigger than these NAS units.

    I say this because I'm looking into buying one. right Now I just use my main PC as "NAS" (shared folders).
    Reply
  • NeatOman - Tuesday, November 15, 2016 - link

    FYI, you can ussually pick up a "off lease refurbished" PC for $60-$100 with 90 day warranty from Microcenter. ~3GHz dual core and 4GB of ram etc.

    I've always known Windows soft RAID is kind of a joke, and i remember giving it a try many years ago just to see the BAD drive being took as the "good" drive and drop the accrual good drive causing as many problems as you can think. Which brings me to what I've been testing, a RAID10 setup with old 2.5" 500GB drives that are known bad drives using Windows 8/10 ReFS. I'm very surprised, VERY. I Copy a 7zip file (100GB) a few times every few weeks and test it. I've replaced two drives in the 4 drive setup in the 6 months i've been running it.

    The RAID10 is used for 24/7 torrenting on my main rig with no ECC, so there is consistent read/writes going to it.
    Reply
  • SnowleopardPC - Saturday, November 26, 2016 - link

    IDK, Sometimes you can find a $100 special on CL..... I recently purchased 3 Dell PowerEdge 2650 rack servers with 16gb ram each and 2TB in 15k SAS drives from a business that was upgrading and selling off their old servers. While they are not the latest and greatest, They work great with the PERC hardware raid controllers in them. Need more space, drives keep getting cheaper every day....... Just don't ask me about the electric bill running 3 rack servers in the house.., :-) Reply
  • SnowleopardPC - Saturday, November 26, 2016 - link

    Oh..... and I paid $75 for all 3. That was a deal. Reply
  • darwinosx - Monday, April 03, 2017 - link

    If you read this article you would be aware of the many advantages of a NAS over a PC. Reply

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