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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  • darwinosx - Monday, April 03, 2017 - link

    Browser is not the answer in many many cases. Which you know but want to sound clever like you know something others don't. Reply
  • darwinosx - Monday, April 03, 2017 - link

    They are laughing at NAS because they are being silly and egotistical.
    Many of us here can roll our own but why deal with it when a NAS does so many things out of the box. I have enough work to do at work and don't need to do it at home.
    How valuable is your time?
    Reply
  • doggface - Tuesday, November 15, 2016 - link

    Jbrizz has gone more in depth. But essentially the answer is yes. If you wanted to load up your has with all those things. You can. And more. And it uses a better file system. And it is dead easy to recover. And you can have bigger arrays easily.

    Yes. That is why we always harp on about it. FreeNas is awesome.
    Reply
  • jlabelle2 - Wednesday, November 16, 2016 - link

    - If you wanted to load up your has with all those things. You can. And more

    See my answer above and re-read jbrizz answer that prove exactly otherwise.
    So it does less.

    - And it uses a better file system

    Synology are using Btrfs. What other "better file system" are you speaking about exactly?

    - And it is dead easy to recover. And you can have bigger arrays easily

    How "consumer" NAS are more complicated to recover? Those are standard RAID, standard file system. Also, bigger array like bigger than 48 disks and 480To of capacity?!?
    Which normal consumer needs more than nearly half PETABYTE, you tell me.

    - That is why we always harp on about it. FreeNas is awesome.

    Sure, it was is is about it. Those solution are CHEAP. That's all.
    They are more complicated, less capable, less elegant and bigger.
    The fact that it does not do ALL the simple points I mention show how limited they are already from the get go. And I am even not entering in more advanced features.
    Reply
  • doggface - Wednesday, November 16, 2016 - link

    Btrfs < ZFS.

    Many people I know have had qnap/synology Nas's die. The only way they could recover those drives is to buy the exact same hardware again. This was due to their implementations of raid in hardware. The array required the same HW controller to survive. ZFS is on the other hand, hardware agnostic.

    My 5 disk array is in a mini-itx case. Plenty small enough for me. The setup takes about 5-10 mins like cots if you buy the hardware pre-built.
    It is not cheap, it is excellent value. It is also a full fledged home/soho/enterprise system and beyond.

    Every feature you have mentioned is possible from FreeNas. So, it is feature complete. And it is open source So no worries about vendor disinterest in your particular version of hardware. And it is regularly updated, so that is not different either.

    The fact is, if you have the smarts to set up COTS. You can set up freenas.

    Again. It's just better. But each to their own I guess.
    Reply
  • jlabelle2 - Thursday, November 17, 2016 - link

    - Btrfs < ZFS.

    Well reading the comments here on the ressource hog and how it is almost impossible to extend the array, I would say that it is really a matter of opinion than facts. Important is not that but more all capabilities you lose with those DIY NAS.

    - The only way they could recover those drives is to buy the exact same hardware again.

    That is not true. And it has been proven several times, even here in Anandtech article. Beside, people would usually remain with the same brand to keep the same UI and experience, especially when you are using the best products in the market (QNAP and Synology).

    - It is not cheap, it is excellent value. It is also a full fledged home/soho/enterprise system and beyond.

    - Every feature you have mentioned is possible from FreeNas

    No. It is not. Take again my points and you will see it is NOT.

    - So no worries about vendor disinterest in your particular version of hardware

    I have a DS412+. And it is running the latest DSM 6.2 beta version, not yet release, with ALL the features. So I have a 5 year old hardware that is running the next year software without any limitations.
    And you tell me that I will have a better support with FreeNAS than those 6 years I have currently? You did not make for a very compelling argument and should try better.

    - Again. It's just better. But each to their own I guess

    Why are you not able to explain why then? It does not make all the functions that consumer NAS like Synology (or QNAP) offers, it is not really cheaper, what advantages does it have? Can you give some facts?
    Reply
  • aaronb1138 - Friday, November 25, 2016 - link

    One entertaining setup supported with FreeNAS is boot from USB flash drive. I'm using this in my own 15 TB (raw) setup. If the chassis were to die, I could pull the USB stick and 5x 3TB drives and plug them into any other vaguely compatible hardware and have not just my data, but my configuration instantly online. So at the moment it runs in a Dell DCS 6005 (custom D6100) chassis with 48 GB of RAM, I could throw it in a desktop and be back up and running in just the time for taking drives out of sleds. I am running a beta version of FreeNAS at the moment with a minor read cache issue which requires reboot about every 6 months (it fails to free RAM from stale read cache to fresh which slows performance a bit). On the upside, the slightly excessive amount of RAM makes XBMC's metadata read awfully fast. Reply
  • pwr4wrd - Tuesday, November 15, 2016 - link

    I could not agree with you more. These systems are a joke to begin with. When you factor in how much they cost considering crummy hardware they cram in these things, it becomes a total circus act. Reply
  • jabber - Tuesday, November 15, 2016 - link

    FreeNAS is fine for the hobbyist but time is money if you are in business. Buy off the shelf, arrive at the customer, 10 minutes to setup the QNAP and you are back on the road. Reply
  • StormyParis - Monday, November 14, 2016 - link

    You don't seem to adress adding/upgrading disks after the fact, which is something that's rather important.
    I got a Synology because it let me add same-size disks to an existing array after a few weeks/months.
    I'd get something else if I could find something that let me add different-size disks to an array, again, weeks/months after the intitial array setup.
    Reply

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