Synology DS916+

We review this mid-range 4-Bay NAS from Synology, which features integrated Docker and Plex support.



  1. Ian
    The Synology DS916+ is a mid-range NAS, aimed at small businesses or home users requiring more power than most consumer grade units. The quad core 64-bit Intel Pentium N3710 and options of 2/8GB RAM suggest that this is more than a traditional file server NAS. This choice of CPU allows for AES-NI encryption acceleration (an otherwise CPU intensive task), along with the power to transcode video if you’re using this as a media server (H.264 and H.265 acceleration). There are 4 drive bays which support 3.5/2.5” drives (both HDD and SSD), resulting in a max. storage capacity of 40TB.

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    Synology DS916+

    In recent firmware updates, Synology has introduced the ability to use BTRFS – a very resilient file system which has some benefits over EXT4, which is normally used on Linux based NAS units. This should give some protection against bit-rot, which may be of concern to critical business cases. These incremental firmware and filesystem improvements should continue for several years, as Synology have 6-year-old NAS units that have been updated to receive some of these recent benefits.

    It’s important to mention this point about firmware, as one of the major reasons to buy an off-the-shelf NAS is to take advantage of the specially created software. Once you have bought in to the eco-system, you should expect to receive updates for a reasonable period afterward. The hardware itself isn’t particularly expensive, but creating a stable and dedicated OS is a time consuming and expensive process. Of all the NAS units we have reviewed over the years, Synology have the most user-friendly interface – this is called DiskStation Manager (DSM). It isn’t as featureful as QTS from rival QNAP, but it is much more user-friendly to perform common tasks.

    We purchased the 8GB version of the NAS, which came at a minimal premium at the time of purchasing. Considering the features of this NAS, it is well worth investing in the additional RAM – especially if you are likely to run Docker containers.

    Specifications

    • Intel Pentium N3710 CPU (1.6Ghz with up to 2.56Ghz burst – 64-bit quad-core)
    • 2GB or 8GB RAM
    • Hardware Acceleration: AES-NI, H.264, H.265, MPEG-2, VC-1
    • 4 Drive Bays
    • 2.5/3.5” HDD and SSD Compatible
    • 2 x 1GbE LAN Port (link aggregation and failover supported)
    • 3 x USB 3.0 Ports, 1 x eSATA Port
    • Weight: 2kg
    • Dimensions: 165 mm x 203 mm x 233.2 mm

    Included Items

    Synology provide the bare-bones to get the NAS up and running – a power cable, PSU, HDD screws and a couple of network cables. You’ll need to source the hard drives from elsewhere before you can use the NAS. You’ll also get a quick-start guide, which directs you to the browser based installation process.

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    Included Items

    Installation and Setup

    Once you’re ready to set up the NAS, you’ll need to install the drives before powering the unit on. To do this, you’ll need to remove the front cover of the NAS, which is held in place by four rubber grommets. It seems like a strange way to mount a NAS cover, but it appears to be effective. The removable drive trays are located behind this and can be removed by pulling down a small lever. To test the unit, we used 4 x 3TB WD Red HDDs – one of the most popular NAS drives available.

    Even mounting the drives in the removable trays is a tool-less procedure, as there are rails which click either side of the drive tray to hold a 3.5” drive in place. If you happen to use smaller 2.5” drives, you will need to use screws to mount it.

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    DS916+ Drive Bays

    The drive mounting feels a little flimsy compared to other NAS units, however we haven’t noticed any vibration noise or rattling, which is the important thing. Once the cover is back on, you won’t need to remove the drives very often.

    When the drives are fully clicked back in to place, you can then connect the NAS to power and a LAN connection, then access the device by visiting a URL provided in the quick start guide.

    You’ll first be prompted to install DSM on the new drives, after which there are a few simple steps to follow an initial setup wizard. This configures a few important settings to get your NAS online (such as file services required).

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    DSM Installation

    Once the wizard is complete, you’ll then be presented with the DSM home screen – the main interface from which you can access services on your new NAS.

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    DSM Web Interface

    If you’ve opted to buy a DS916+, it’s likely that you’re interested in using some of the advanced features, so you’ll want to spend some time in the “Control Panel” to further tweak the system to your liking. This is where you can change security settings and set up file share directories.

    It is important to get the disk configuration correct from the beginning, as it is harder to change once you have started to fill the drives. The “Storage Manager” application is where most of these operations are performed. Generally speaking, you should use SHR (Synology Hybrid RAID) if you are looking for increased disk fault tolerance – as it’s well supported and the most flexible of the RAID options.

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    DSM Storage Manager

    Features

    The “Package Centre” is where a lot of the interesting stuff hides away. To use Docker containers, run Plex Media Server, or other interesting applications, you’ll need to install them via the web interface. It’s very simple to install official and 3rd party packages, you can just click “install” underneath the package name and the app will download and install in the background. Once complete, an icon will appear on the DSM desktop.

    We installed Docker and Plex Media Server, which will likely be two of the most popular applications. Plex Media Server can scan your network shares for media files, then stream these (with or without transcoding) to many different media devices. For example, most consoles, tablets, phones and TV sticks can run the Plex app – from which you can stream anything that the Plex Media Server can see.

    We’ve extensively tested Plex Media Server on the NAS over the past few months, and it works well if you don’t require heavy transcoding loads. The CPU in this NAS reasonably powerful, but nowhere near the levels required for high end transcoding workloads (like the QNAP 873 we recently reviewed). We had no problems directly streaming media files to our NVIDIA Shield and Windows Plex app, without the need for intensive transcoding. Transcoding up to 720p worked well, but some 1080P high bit-rate streams were too much of a challenge. This may change if hardware acceleration is enabled within Plex, but this is still in development.

    Plex host official packages for the Synology on their download page, so you may find you can get slightly newer builds by downloading direct from Plex.tv.

    The Docker app is very straight-forward to use, although not as user friendly for beginners as it could be. If you’re familiar with how Docker works, you’ll likely be up and running very quickly – but if this is your first experience, you’ll need to do some reading up first. There are no wizards to quickly get up and running with Docker containers, but the process is simple if you are familiar with the basics.

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    Docker Container Configuration

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    Docker Containers Overview

    Surveillance Station

    The Surveillance Station app was a bit of a surprise package, as it proved to be so much better than our dedicated NVR (the D-Link 322L), that we purchased additional camera licenses and switched over to using it.

    There are two camera licenses provided with the Surveillance Station application, meaning that there is no cost to use the software with up to two IP cameras. If you want to use more cameras (up to 40), you’ll need to purchase additional licenses for them. This licensing system means it’s very cost effective for a small number of cameras (i.e. a small business), but very expensive if you want a huge number of cameras (as there are better suited licensing schemes with dedicated hardware).

    In the latest DSM update, the Surveillance Station application comes with a dedicated Windows / Mac application, which replicates web-based application interface. Sadly, there is no Linux app at the moment, but this may change in future (as Linux is well supported for their other software).

    We’ve had the Surveillance Station client recoding for over two months, without any blip in recording time (as any NVR software should do). However, it was incredibly easy to playback footage or be alerted to motion detection via the SS desktop software. The interface was much more responsive than other software we have used, and it appears that there is constant development underway.

    The only criticism is that the Android Surveillance Station app (DS Cam) is very slow to stream camera images. This appears to be down to the camera configuration we use, but several other users have reported the same problem via the Android store.

    Performance

    Our DS916+ configuration was set up to mirror a typical setup – 4 x 3TB Western Digital Red HDDs in SHR-1 RAID. This was connected to a NETGEAR GS105UK switch (both Ethernet connections, the 2nd of which was set as failover). Our test PC was connected to this switch to benchmark the NAS under typical usage. Two network shares were created on the DS916+ (using the BTRFS file system), one of these shares was encrypted.

    During large file transfer (25GB single file), we achieved 114MB/s read and write speeds from the unencrypted file share. This dropped slightly to 108MB/s read and 102MB/s write from the encrypted share.

    Of course, when transferring large numbers of smaller files, these average transfer rates will drop dramatically. As an example, when backing up directories of old photos (with file sizes of around 1-4MB each), write transfer rates dropped to around 80MB/s on a non-encrypted share.

    The AES-NI hardware acceleration shines when it comes to encrypted transfer speeds, as any low end NAS without this feature will struggle to perform when dealing with encrypted shares. As the performance hit is minimal, we would recommend encrypting shares containing important information – as it will provide a good level of protection if your NAS is ever stolen. Just remember to re-mount the encrypted share after every NAS reboot.

    There are no concerns regarding performance here, primarily due to the reasonably powerful CPU and 8GB Ram. This NAS has plenty of power for a traditional file server, plus a little extra for some of the more advanced applications.

    If you want to gain absolute maximal performance from this NAS, you’ll need to take advantage of port trunking (i.e. bonding the Gigabit Ethernet ports), as well as having the network infrastructure to support it.

    Companion Apps

    Synology have a wide range of PC, Mac, Linux, Android and iOS apps available to interact with their NAS products. We’ve heavily used the Windows based surveillance station client (mentioned previously), but also the “DS File” and “DS Cam” applications on the Google Play store. DS File allows you to connect to the file shares on your NAS from your phone or tablet, essentially acting as a file manager application for your NAS.

    When it comes to PCs, Synology have companion software for Windows/Mac/Linux that integrates with their backup software. It works well for backing up specific folders (i.e. Documents, Photos, etc…), but unsurprisingly it lacks the feature set of dedicated backup software from the likes of Acronis.

    Here’s the a list of the full selection of the companion apps for various operating systems:

    Android Devices:

    https://play.google.com/store/apps/developer?id=Synology Inc.&hl=en_GB

    iOS Devices:

    https://itunes.apple.com/us/developer/synology-inc/id321493109

    PC/Mac/Linux:

    https://www.synology.com/en-uk/support/download/DS916+

    Conclusion

    The DS916+ is a great mid-range NAS choice for small businesses or home users seeking some additional power. This Synology NAS benefits from a reasonably powerful CPU (with AES-NI support), resulting in minimal encryption performance penalty and enhanced feature set (i.e. Docker, Plex). If you’re looking to do a little more with your file server, this is a great starting point for the price.

    The Synology DSM software is the easiest to use out of the major competing NAS management systems, and it receives regular updates, so the NAS should be incrementally improved over time. The Surveillance Station application was a surprise, as it works better than some dedicated NVR devices. The DS916+ would be well suited as a smart-home server, as it could manage CCTV cameras, store media and stream via Plex, run other servers via Docker and function as a backup for any computers in the house.

    We weren’t keen on the method of accessing the drives on this NAS, particularly the lack of lockable drive trays and grommet mounting system of the front cover. That said, we’ve encountered no vibrations or noise from this method, which was one of our primary concerns. The lack of hardware accelerated transcoding in Plex is a downside, although it should appear soon if reports on the Plex forum are correct. If you’re looking to transcode video to several devices at once, you will need to research if this feature has arrived yet.

    There are plenty of cheaper NAS units available, including plenty from Synology, but the DS916+ strikes a good balance between power and performance for mid-range requirements. It’s quiet, cheap to run and is able to provide the power to run several server apps for a home/small business setup.
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