Why NAS are overrated and the better alternative
The central network storage units are extremely popular – but basically just a crutch. NAS stands for Network Attached Storage and really just means network accessible storage. Today most NAS are rather "Network Attached Servers" with web server, media server and so on. Sounds useful, is so – and yet: this can be done better!
Before the sermon of the personal Settlement is about to get out of hand: Actually, this only a prelude to the NAS-it-yourself article – so if you are already convinced that a normal server beats any purchased NAS, just skip it ..
First of all, let’s take a look at what a NAS really is, apart from all the abbreviations and marketing statements: In the traditional sense, it’s a Hard disk with network instead of USB cable. In the more modern sense simply and simply a computer! Such a slightly better QNAP or Synology NAS even has an HDMI output, so you could actually use it as a normal desktop computer.
And of course there is a big But: A NAS like this doesn’t run Windows or a regular Linux distribution, but rather a NAS own operating system. And it usually doesn’t run a regular desktop despite HDMI output, instead there’s a Web interface. All these systems are also based on Linux, but "thanks" to their own package management and other peculiarities, they usually do not run the regular Linux programs. And you also don’t have all the freedom of a "real" operating system, but are largely dependent on the manufacturer’s ideas. QNAP kicks an app out of the store? Well, bad luck ..
The QNAP app store: well-stocked for a NAS, a joke for an Ubuntu.
NAS are in some ways a bit like Apple computer or game consoles: Hardware, software and operating system are (more or less) tightly linked to each other, so that everything just works smoothly from the user’s point of view … But when I look at how many problem-solving articles Boris and Christian write here at macOS, the concept doesn’t seem to really work But even if it does, then at the latest it’s over when own needs and ideas what and how a computer works. You can work with a Mac or a NAS as long as you stick to the manufacturer’s ideas. I for my part have my own ideas and prefer to use systems that are tailored to me. We don’t want to forget who is dog and who is master, do we??! (Of course there are hacks and tinkering ways, but that’s not the point of it.)
But to go back to the Crutches to come: If you can’t walk well, you’ll be happy about the crutch – even if it’s exhausting and you’re slow on the move. And if you don’t want to deal with computers, you’ll also be happy about a NAS that (theoretically …) just works – even if it’s intransparent and not very flexible. But if you want to run, you don’t want a crutch. And if you want self-determined computing, you don’t want a crutch system. And if crutches sounds too much like illness and incapability to you: You could also make the comparison to Training wheels pull – at the beginning super, later a block on the leg. Exactly, training wheels fit even better.
Again a look up: A NAS is either, conventionally, a simple network storage or, modernly, a server for typical tasks in the (W)LAN.
If it is now a simple Memory is: Any Raspberry Pi, any other single-board computer, any worn-out laptop can do that – with very little effort.
If it is a more complex Server is: Why then not take a "real" server?? With a normal Linux and not a do-it-yourself-at-the-manufacturer’s-delivery operating system. And above all completely open source!
If you already know how to use Linux, it’s quite easy anyway and you will have such a server ready in two or three hours with a little search. And for those who had nothing to do with Linux before: You also have to learn the NAS systems! A moderately customizable system with predefined/suggested tools and workflows may be quicker and easier to learn, but you won’t get the hang of it just like that.
In addition, one should not underestimate how annoying it is to search for solutions apart from the manufacturer’s ideas, if one has to implement one’s own ideas at some point (the above mentioned tinkering ways).
So far, it’s mainly been about the user experience and software – but even with Hardware normal mini computers score as an alternative. Usually you get more performance, can explicitly do without active cooling (= noise source), have more ports, graphics outputs already on much much cheaper devices and all that in smaller cases (because NAS cases are also HDD cases).
NAS are still designed for HDDs designed. Sure, they also run with SSDs (even if the small disks are sometimes a bit fiddly to use), but the form factor is designed for the big old memories, as well as cooling, power supply and so on. A Raspi with two SSDs via USB cable is smaller and more economical than a typical, simple NAS – and at the same time silent as a mouse.
QNAP 251+ – actually a good device, but bigger, louder, slower than a Cubi server.
How does it look now concretely? The above mentioned Raspberry Pi unfortunately leads you a little bit from the frying pan into the fire: As an ARM computer it is still not as flexible as a "normal" computer, i.e. one with x86 architecture for standard Linux or Windows. More here.
If you want to build your own solution, then you better do it right! For example, I opted for an MSI Cubi N 8GL: x86 Intel Pentium quad-core processor at 1.1 GHz and completely silent, plus 4 gigabytes of RAM, 4 USB ports, HDMI, LAN/WLAN, internal 64 Gb SSD, (unfortunately) Windows 10 and a somewhat superfluous VGA socket. Cost point today at writing: 229 euros. Today while reading:
Price: 291,00 €
For example, QNAP offers the TS-231P3-2G for two HDDs and currently 291 Euros: ARM quad-core processor with 1.7 GHz, 2 gigabytes of RAM and three USB ports. The processor could be a bit faster, unfortunately there are no benchmarks for it.
Price: 275,92 €
As you can see, the Cubi does more for less and consumes much less power – QNAP specifies 8.46 watts for sleep mode, while I measured 3.5 watts for the Cubi. Under full load, the Cubie reaches 6.7 watts, with more drives maybe around 8 watts. QNAP quotes 15.6 watts for "typical" operation.
On the OS side, the matter is clear: QNAP’s QTS operating system is "app-based" according to the manufacturer, which probably just means that the operating system can’t do anything and doesn’t make an appearance, except for running apps. Well, that’s the whole point of operating systems: Running application software and running hardware – but of course "app-based" sounds totally awesome … The Cubi runs Ubuntu Server – undoubtedly the better system.
UX, apps and all?
Regarding hardware and operating system, there is no real need to discuss, all NASes stink here compared to regular x86 computers with regular Linux.
From User view it looks like this: You turn on the NAS, go to the web interface and then configure the system via settings apps, the app store and in-house standard software as well as installed apps. And there are at least at QNAP and Synology Dozens of apps: A dozen backup solutions, a dozen servers for websites, mails, databases etc., simple document editing, maybe something for encryption, a few crappy mini-games and of course apps for streaming media. (Logo: Where NAS-OS offer dozens of apps, Ubuntu Server offers thousands …)
And quite honestly: If you consider that everything you use complex backup strategies from ten computers to the NAS, from the NAS to the cloud and from there to a third backup location, want to control everything with your smartphone, manage 20 users of the extended family, create obscure hard disk arrays via RAID or whatever … well, then buy a NAS for heaven’s sake… A normal computer can also do everything, but that is then already expensive to complicated.
QNAP’s approach to HDMI output: a complicated concoction called HybridDesk Station – instead of an ordinary graphics driver ..
RAIDs for example are always mentioned as an argument for NAS: No one needs, especially at home, more. Data redundancy? What is the cloud for? Access speed? SSDs beat HDD raids by far. RAIDs only make life complicated and if something breaks or the configuration is tattered, everything is just a misery anyway … If you know RAIDs inside and out, please, but at least in the private sector it’s more a hobby and nerd-onanie than something essentially important. Better spend more money for bigger SSDs. And hey, RAIDs can also be set up under Ubuntu Server with a graphical web interface
Web interface Cockpit on the Ubuntu server.
In practice, however, hardly anyone does all this at home anyway. In the end, it’s almost always about a few standard tasks: Network storage and media streaming, plus maybe and already much less often a web server. And all this is quickly set up and works on a normal Ubuntu more reliable than the opaque NAS methods.
I can already hear people screaming: "But the interface! Can’t someone think about the interface for once?!" Yes no, it’s’ clear Helen. Admittedly, the web interfaces of QNAP and Synology are pretty, simple and quite powerful. However, you can install a web interface on any other computer, for the variant from the screenshot above is enough apt install cockpit. However, such a GUI is usually only relevant for the configuration, in everyday life, a NAS finally provides its service in the background. And sure, if a normal Ubuntu runs after all and an HDMI output is available – why then an olle web interface? You can also simply use a completely normal desktop and no matter how nice and extensive the web GUIs of the NAS vendors may be, they can’t compete with a real Gnome, KDE, Xfce, Cinnamon, Mate or even LXDE.
Much more relevant: For network shares and media servers you don’t need all that.
NAS or not NAS?
If you need crutches, you might be better off with a NAS – it’s easier to get started, some complex things are more intuitive to use. The price: Higher price, more power consumption, tends to be noisy, less flexibility, acquisition of knowledge that is completely useless apart from this one manufacturer, dependency on the manufacturer, little transparency and because it can’t be said often enough: less flexibility!
However, if you are willing to spend a weekend with the setup and at least initially only need the standards, you will definitely be better off with a real server on real standard hardware.
The actually most important realization should probably strike everyone at the latest when the NAS has an HDMI output and you connect it to the TV or a monitor: It’s easy just one piddly computer – but with a very focused/limited field of application and non-standard hard- and software. Fun fact: Exactly the same applies to the wretched smartphones and tablets!
Thanks to HDMI output actually a normal computer – only more complicated and limited.
I was a satisfied QNAP-NAS-user for a long time, but I was not satisfied with the Noise, the limitations of available apps, the annoying, not greatly influenceable update policy, the unreliability of some apps and settings and finally the theme Security I’m so annoyed that the device is now finally quiet and without power. The only thing I had to swallow was the almost 400 Euro for a 4 terabyte SSD to replace the two 2 terabyte HDDs from the NAS.
Since then: No noise from fans and from unfounded read accesses to the HDDs, no almost daily forced updates including incredibly slow reboots, faster data throughput, media streaming that works reliably (!) (. ) and finally normal software instead of the same apps from the QNAP app store, which is getting worse and worse.
For laymen, a NAS may look like a desktop at first glance Magic Box Blackbox that offers great possibilities – but already at second glance or with a little Linux knowledge it becomes clear: NAS are training wheels that do only one thing better than regular servers, namely to provide beginners and undemanding users with a little to do the work.
Personally, I’ve rarely been as happy with a major IT change as I was when I switched from NAS to Cubi server so quickly. Admittedly, I also needed a reason: The monitoring solution Checkmk needed a server here that runs 24/7 and it can only be installed on x86 architecture, so from ..
So, enough of my personal reckoning with the old NASes. But this ultra-long commentary article should not be the end of the topic: How to build a NAS from a Cubi step by step with the most important functions, you can see here.
More about the NAS. And a little bit of shopping, we still have to earn money