4-Bay NAS from Synology: Three Models Reviewed

At this time Synology offers three models of 4-bay network attached storage units designed in traditional format and targeted for different market segments. They are DS413j, DS413 and DS412+. We are going to introduce all three of them to you in our today’s review.

by Hugh Barros
01/26/2013 | 01:38 AM

As of the beginning of 2013 Synology offers three models of 4-disk network attached storage devices for different market segments. The DS413j is meant for home and SOHO users with its ARM platform, lack of hot-swapping, and only two USB 2.0 ports for peripherals. Next goes the DS413 for workgroups which runs on a dual-core PPC processor, permits to replace HDDs without shutting down, and offers eSATA and USB 3.0 interfaces. The senior model DS412+ is based on the Intel Atom platform and, having the same case as the previous model, offers two Ethernet ports with teaming capability. Besides these, we can also note the DS411 slim, designed for 2.5-inch drives and released a couple of years ago.

 

All of Synology products share the same DSM firmware, their firmware differences being only determined by their hardware peculiarities. Besides the ports mentioned above, these 4-disk NASes vary in processing performance, which affects such factors as the number of web cameras, VPN connections, backup jobs, cloud service users, etc, supported concurrently. You can go to the company’s official website and find the details in a handy comparative table there.

Package and Accessories

Every device is shipped in Synology’s traditional cardboard packaging painted white for the junior model and blue for the others. The box design is unified, so there is a sticker to identify the particular model and learn some other information about it (specifications, accessories, key features).

The accessories are almost identical in every case. Besides the NAS, the box contains an external power adapter with cord, one or two Ethernet cables, mounting screws for HDDs, a CD with software and documentation, and a quick installation guide. The power adapter has a connector appropriate for the particular region and there are a couple of spare screws in the box.

Interestingly, each model uses an external power adapter. On one hand, this helps reduce the noise and improve the thermal conditions inside the case, but on the other hand, it is less convenient in terms of placement and connection. Notwithstanding different CPUs, the power adapters are all rated for 12 volts and 100 watts. It is the HDDs that are the main power consumer in each NAS, and the power adapter is chosen with some reserve for allow for any fluctuations in the CPU’s power requirements.

Exterior Design and Hardware Configuration

Synology DS413j

This design was first unveiled back in 2006 when Synology released its CubeStation CS-406. The cooling system is the only change since then. It now includes two fans instead of one. The DS413j doesn’t support HDD hot-swapping.

The front panel is made of white glossy plastic. A power button with an integrated indicator is centered on a gray insert in its top half. Above it, there are six more LEDs, indicating system, network and HDD status. Half of the vent holes here do not have any dust filters, so you’ll have to clean the NAS often if you install it in a dusty room. The bottom part of the case is made of plastic while the top and most of the rear panel are silver-painted metal.

There are grids of two 80mm fans in the rear panel. The NAS’s connectors are all at the bottom of it: a power connector, two USB 2.0 ports and one Gigabit Ethernet port. A hidden reset button can also be found here. The NAS measures 17x23x18.5 centimeters and stands on four rubber feet.

To install your HDDs, you unfasten the four screws that secure the rear panel, flip it down and take off the top panel. The HDDs are first secured in plastic frames and then are put into the NAS. The frames are compatible with 3.5-inch as well as 2.5-inch drives.

A backplane is used for connection which is more reliable than the flexible cables employed in early modifications of this case design. The design is quite practical overall except that you have to fasten too many screws. Fortunately, you don’t have to do that often.

Synology’s junior 4-disk NAS is based on the ARM platform but its configuration isn’t weak even by today’s standards. The Marvell 88F6282 processor is clocked at 1.6 GHz. The system memory is represented by 512 megabytes of DDR3 SDRAM. The OS is installed on the HDDs, so the integrated 8MB flash memory chip only stores a bootloader and a firmware installation module. The SoC processor only containing two SATA ports, the DS413j features an additional 4-port Marvell 88SX7042 controller. The Gigabit Ethernet controller is integrated into the CPU, so there is only an auxiliary Marvell 88E1318 chip on the PCB. A GL850G hub is used to increase the number of USB ports.

Synology DS413

This model is implemented in a rather new case which was first introduced in Synology’s previous NAS generation. It is optimized for lower noisiness using rubber pads for HDDs and the front panel. The case measures 20x23.5x16.5 centimeters. Most of its exterior panels are made of black plastic but the rear panel is metallic.

The HDD bays are covered behind a glossy plastic panel but the rest is matte and practical. In the right part of the front panel we can see system and HDD indicators, a USB 2.0 port and a power button with an integrated LED.

HDDs are installed into frames which are compatible with both form-factors. The frames are then secured in the bays by means of plastic locks.

There are vent holes in the front, button and side panels, but we have some doubts whether this ventilation is sufficient, especially for the HDDs.

There are two 90mm fans at the back. The rear panel also offers a power connector, a Gigabit Ethernet port with indicators, an eSATA port, two USB 3.0 connectors and a hidden reset button. The eSATA interface can be used with Synology’s expansion modules to increase the number of supported HDDs (such modules come with a special cable with screw fasteners).

This case design is good and functional, although there is no button for copying data via USB and the front-panel USB port is only version 2.0. These are but minor compromises, though.

Users are not supposed to dismantle the NAS because HDDs are installed from the outside. There are no maintainable parts inside. However, if you want to have a closer look, you can take off the plastic casing to find a metallic chassis underneath. There are three PCBs attached to it: a main PCB, a backplane for HDDs, and an I/O unit with additional ports. They are connected via PCIe slots without flexible cables.

Synology has employed the PPC platform in its current line-up. It used to be installed in top-end NASes a few years ago but was later replaced with Intel's Atom. The Atom-based NAS from Synology will be discussed below.

The hardware platform has been improved since then. The Freescale QorIQ P1022 processor incorporates two e500 cores while its clock rate has remained at 1.067 MHz. The updated version of the chip features DDR3 support, so the DS413 is equipped with 1 gigabyte of DDR3 SDRAM. The flash memory is only used to install and boot up the OS, so its capacity is 8 MB only. The four SATA ports are based on a Marvell 88SX7042 chip. The CPU-integrated USB controller is only version 2.0. Therefore the two USB 3.0 ports are based on a NEC D720200 chip. The network controller works together with a Realtek RTL8211E chip.

Synology DS412+

The DS412+ is a top-end 4-disk NAS from Synology in the desktop form-factor. Released in the spring of 2012, it is based on the x86 platform which is the most popular choice in that product category. As we’ve mentioned above, the DS412+ and the DS413 look identical except for the two Gigabit Ethernet ports.

The DS412+ is configured differently inside, though. It has an Intel Atom D2700 processor clocked at 2.13 GHz. With two cores and HT support, it can process four execution threads simultaneously. The CPU works together with an ICH10R chipset that provides SATA and USB 2.0 ports. The DS412+ is equipped with 1 GB of system memory in a DDR3 SO-DIMM. It can be replaced with a larger-capacity one, but such an upgrade would breach the warranty terms. A pair of Intel 82574L chips are used as network controllers. The external eSATA port is based on an additional SiI3531 chip which seems to have better compatibility with port multiplicators (which are used in Synology’s expansion modules) than Intel’s chipset. A NEC D720200 is added to support USB 3.0. The PCB carries a 128MB flash disk with USB interface. It is used to load some of Synology’s exclusive software since the platform’s BIOS is not utilized for that purpose. The OS is a 64-bit version, by the way. It’s hard to say if this choice is necessary, but you should keep this fact in mind.

Technical Specifications

The following table helps you compare the key specifications of the three NASes from Synology:

So we can see that they differ not only in their processors but in some other specs as well. All of them support SATA 3 Gbit/s although competitor products already offer 6 Gbit/s. This is hardly critical for NAS applications, though.

The senior model is inferior to top-end solutions from other brands because it lacks video outputs and has fewer USB 2.0 and eSATA ports but the latter fact is made up for by the availability of Synology's expansion modules.

Each of these NASes features an efficient and quiet cooling system. The HDDs were no hotter than 40 to 43°C during our tests. Placed on a desk, such a NAS won't be audible among the hum of daytime noises.

Assembly and Installation

Synology NASes used to require that you install their DSM firmware using the Synology Assistant utility. So, you had to have a compatible OS to run that utility, which wasn’t always convenient. Nowadays, each NAS has a web-server for initial setting-up. If you have a standard network configuration with a router and DHCP server, you only need a web browser (even a mobile browser on a tablet PC) to start your NAS up. The NAS can download the latest firmware version automatically. Synology Assistant is still useful, though. It allows you to change the device’s network settings, monitor its resources, connect network disks and printers, and upload photographs and videos. The utility is available in versions for Windows, Mac OS and Linux, which covers most of computers out there.

The system partition is created on each installed HDD, so you can easily replace the latter afterwards without losing your system settings. Additionally installed software modules are bound to particular disk partitions, though.

The NAS is set up via a standard web-interface which looks like the desktop of a modern OS with multiple resizable windows, icons (i.e. links), background images, integrated help system and even widgets. The interface is available in several languages and can be accessed via HTTPS, which is useful for remote access.

There is only one administrator account but ordinary users can also use this interface to access extra services permitted for them.

Functionality

Synology NASes offer their users broad functionality that goes beyond just data storage. The firmware gets more and more functional with each update. Updates even cover products released some three years ago, so the manufacturer should be praised for such continued support. There are few companies on the dynamic IT market that offer it.

We’ve had a lot of reviews with descriptions of DSM capabilities and services, so we won't go into details now, especially as beta version 4.2 is ready available and brings about something new. You can visit the manufacturer's website to check out the demo version of the interface, for example.

Synology NASes offer flexible RAID options. Your RAID building opportunities are only limited by the number of the installed HHDs. Migration and expansion are supported without data loss. There is also a simplified setup mode SHR (Synology Hybrid RAID) for inexperienced users. Block- and file-level iSCSI support is available. The VMware VAAI compatibility and Windows Server 2012 Hyper-V certification may be useful for business scenarios but are not available in every NAS model.

The NASes are connected to a network via Gigabit Ethernet with support for Jumbo Frames and WoL. On the software side, they support IPv6 and VLAN and have integrated PPPoE, DDNS, PPTP and OpenVPN clients. A wireless USB adapter can optionally be used to connect the NASes to a Wi-Fi network or create an access point. Automatic router configuring for accessing the NAS's services remotely is available. For enhanced security you can enable an integrated firewall and a system that protects against password guessing.

The NAS can provide access to its data via every popular protocol: SMB/CIFS, AFP, NFS, FTP, WebDAV. Access rights are managed using user accounts and groups, a Windows domain or a LDAP server.

The monitoring features include resource monitoring, multiple status pages in the interface, several event logs, email/Skype/SMS/Windows Live Messenger notifications for the administrator or notifications for mobile devices via the DS finder utility.

The basic firmware offers a handy browser-based file manager. It allows to manage files on the NAS as well as on the local PC (Java is required) and LAN servers. You can work with archives, mount ISO images, and share files using short links.

The NAS can copy data from its shared folders to other folders, external devices, rsync servers or to the Amazon cloud service. You can create iSCSI LUN copies in the same way. Folders can be synchronized with a remote system (the maximum number of concurrent backup jobs depends on the NAS’s processing power).

Additional software modules can be installed to enhance the NAS's functionality. The easiest way to access them is the Package Center online catalogue. It contains over a dozen modules from Synology and over 30 utilities from third-party developers. Software modules can also be installed from a downloaded file or from a different folder.

Thanks to the extra software, the NAS can be used as a media server, file download system, mail server, and video surveillance system, for hosting websites, IP telephony and many other tasks. The three 4-disk NASes we’re discussing today differ somewhat in what software modules they support. Particularly, the junior model can work with digital TV tuners. Plex Media Server is not available on the PPC platform. HASP, Java and Tomcat are only supported on the Intel Atom.

A software module may have a dedicated web-interface that can only be accessed by specific users. An update system is available for extra modules: the administrator is notified about a new version so that he can install it while keeping the module's local data.

As we mentioned above, the web-interface uses rather sophisticated technologies, so it opens on mobile devices in a simplified version, but you can switch to the full-featured version if you want to. However, it is easier to access the NAS from tablets and smartphones via special utilities which are available in Android, iOS and WP stores. Such mobile apps can help you monitor the status of your NAS, receive push notifications, provide access to files and multimedia services, to the video surveillance and file download systems, and use a network printer connected to the NAS via Google Cloud Print and AirPrint.

When accessed from a PC, not only printing but also scanning is supported with network all-in-ones. External HDDs can be plugged into the NAS’s USB port. They may have any of the following file systems: FAT32, NTFS, EXT2, EXT3 and EXT4. External disks are used for backup copying or expanding the available storage space.

The USB interface may also be used for UPSes, digital TV-tuners, sound cards and speaker systems. You can find compatibility information in the tech support section of the manufacturer's website.

Performance

Computing performance is one of the most important parameters of a NAS but it shouldn’t be overemphasized. A modern NAS is a multifunctional device and it’s hard to simulate a real-life usage scenario in a lab. The 4-disk Synology NASes we are going to benchmark today are high-performance products, so we'll carry out additional tests besides single-user mode.

We’ll start out with Intel NASPT. As its templates are outdated already, the HD video scenarios were improved by increasing the size of test files to 8 GB (the total for each subtest). The File Copy to/from NAS templates were removed altogether.

We used Western Digital Red WD20EFRX drives for this test session. The NASes were connected directly to an Intel network adapter installed in an Intel Z77 based PC with an Intel Core i7-3770K and Windows 7 64-bit. We created a RAID (four disks in a JBOD, RAID0, RAID5 or RAID6) and a shared folder on the NAS and enabled Jumbo Frames (9K). The extra services were all turned off.

Working with the JBOD and RAID0 arrays which do not require extra computations, the DS413j delivers a peak speed of 80 and 100 MB/s for reading and writing, respectively. The speed of multithreaded reading doesn’t drop much with the RAID5 whereas the speed of writing lowers to 70 MB/s due to checksum calculations. This effect is even stronger with the RAID6. Well, that's the weakest hardware platform in this review and it's meant for home users in the first place. And home users don't usually run their NASes with RAID 5 or RAID6.

The dual-core DS413 can read and write at up to 120 MB/s unless it is a fault-tolerant array. Like with the previous model, the RAID5 is somewhat slower at reading and 40% slower at writing. The RAID6 is unexpectedly faster than the RAID5 in terms of writing.

We expected the x86 platform to be the best one among the three, but its behavior isn’t consistent. It is odd that the striped array isn’t the fastest one. It may be due to the disk controller and its drivers (the other two NASes have the same SATA chip). The RAID5 and RAID6 are good as they don't slow down much and deliver up to 100-120 MB/s at reading and writing.

The diagrams also allow you to compare the performance of each array type in each NAS.

As you can see, despite the different hardware configurations, the NASes aren’t much different in performance. All of them can use up a Gigabit Ethernet connection. However, a fast CPU is desirable for RAID5 and RAID6. Let’s try to find other types of applications where a fast CPU is called for.

One of them is the processing of photos and videos uploaded to the NAS. Photo Station and Video Station can index media files for a catalogue and also create optimized versions of files for easier viewing. For example, the NAS can make five previews for photographs with a frame width of 120, 320, 640, 800 and 1280 pixels.

There is an integrated transcoder to convert videos into FLV and MP4 formats (320 and 640 pixels wide, respectively) for watching on mobile devices and in web browsers, although this task would be more effectively performed on a PC. It is implemented in the DSAssistant utility which is used to upload photos and videos to the NAS. We checked this out, too, but you should note that there are other target formats on the PC and we selected the two closest ones. This test was carried out using 500 photographs with a resolution of 8 megapixels captured by a mobile phone and one AVI video clip (720x400, MPEG4, about 22 minutes long).

We don’t need much commenting here. If you plan to use your NAS for photo and video processing, the ARM platform isn’t a good choice. On the other hand, if you upload new photos in small batches and don’t hurry up to view them, even the junior NAS model can cope well enough. Besides, you can create previews on the PC. As for videos you intend to watch on mobile gadgets, it is best to upload compatible files or transcode them on the PC.

Here’s another additional test that may be interesting for MySQL users. The integrated MySQL server has a Perl-based benchmark in the standard distribution. First we used the phpMyAdmin module to create a database and a user. Then we launched the run-all-tests.pl script from the NAS’s console. The numbers show how much time it took the NASes to execute the script.

The DS413 is twice as fast as the ARM-based model and only half as fast as the Intel Atom platform. Considering that the latter is at the bottom of desktop CPU standings, it’s easy to find the relative position of the other platforms.

Although NASes usually consume less power than desktop PCs, the three products from Synology differ considerably in their power requirements. Unfortunately, our equipment isn’t very accurate at low levels of power consumption, yet we can see the difference between the NASes. Each of them supports two sleep modes: standard and deep. The Work scenario was emulated by running IOMeter with a 64KB template (100% writes, 100% random-address operations) on a block-access iSCSI volume created on a 4-disk RAID5.

The DS413 is the most economical in the deep sleep mode while the sleep and idle modes produce similar results with each NAS. Interestingly, the work mode requires the Intel Atom to consume much more power. The Atom CPU has a rich selection of its own power states, which must be why its power consumption grows so much under load. Comparing the different operating modes for the ARM and PPC platforms, we can estimate how much power is needed by the HDDs. It is about 15 watts in idle mode and 20 watts under load. That’s not much considering that we had four HDDs installed. The WD Red series seems to be optimal for NASes.

Conclusion

Synology NASes are known to be trend-setting products, so the three models we’ve tested today leave a very good impression. They feature reliable case design and efficient cooling system. They are easy to handle even for inexperienced users. The broad functionality of their firmware is indicated by the fact that the electronic version of the user manual is almost 200 pages long and doesn't ever cover all of the available software modules. The firmware is updated regularly and usually covers all products released over the last several years.

The downside is that Synology NASes are quite expensive. Considering that the bulk of their price covers the software, which is the same on each NAS, we cannot expect them to get cheaper in the near future. Limiting the firmware capabilities can certainly increase the cost of testing, optimization and support and can hardly end up producing more affordable solutions. Moreover, NASes designed for four and more disks are considerably more expensive than similarly configured 2-disk products.

We’d recommend dual-disk models for most home applications. It is only if you are sure that 8 TB of storage is not enough for you that you should consider the NASes we’ve discussed today. Besides the external differences (hot swapping and I/O connectors), they have different hardware platforms.

Our testing showed that they are very close in performance in terms of network data access unless you use RAID5/6. If you want fast arrays of the latter types, you may want to consider the senior models. The junior model is also pretty good, though. Today's NASes have become so fast that it is the Gigabit Ethernet connection rather than the hardware platform that becomes the bottleneck.

It is only in specific applications that the CPU architecture and specs affect the performance. The senior NASes can process photos and videos faster, although a desktop PC would still be a better option for such tasks. The MySQL test produced expected results, too.

The energy efficiency factor may affect the choice of the particular model, too. The NASes differ in their power draw, but the difference is negligible in most situations. Anyway, the ARM- and PPC-based models consume less than the x86-based one. This fact may be important for choosing the UPS, although even junior UPSes can run such NASes on their battery for at least an hour.

Here’s a brief summary for each tested product. The DS413j is a good entry-level NAS for home applications. The DS413 is perfect for corporate users who need high performance, HDD hot-swapping and fast I/O interfaces. The DS412+ is the most functionally rich and high-performance x86-based model that can run specialized software and supports high-speed access with fault-tolerant RAIDs.

As you can see, all the three reviewed Synology models are great. These network attached storage devices are practically perfect in all aspects. However, we believe that only one of these three products can be crowned as our absolute favorite and receive our Editor’s Choice title – Synology DS413. This model offers a brilliant combination of broad functionality, high performance and low power consumption. It supports HDD hot-swap, and most importantly comes at a reasonable price.