Drobo DAS vs. Synology NAS

In Gear by Brent Huntley

Storage has to be the most annoying part of photography to nearly all photographers.  There is nothing fun about it, it takes no creativity, is tedious and expensive.  Notwithstanding, having a good storage system is absolutely essential.  In the days before digital, people did not store prints or negatives in a box outside, hoping it wouldn't rain too much or that bugs wouldn't get in and ruin the prints.  However, too many photographers take risks of like magnitude with their digital files.  There are so many choices available, even cheap ones, that there is no excuse for skimping on storage.

I have followed the 3-2-1 method for a number of years.  I maintain that it is the best method of securing adequate backup of all your digital files.  If you aren't familiar with this system or want additional information on storage workflow, you need to check out the article from Jeff Harmon.  In short, the 3-2-1 method requires that you have 3 copies of your files, 2 of which are on-site, and 1 of which is off site.

The Ultimate Backup Workflow for Photographers

I am guessing my process was similar to many out there in that I kept one copy on my computer's hard drive, one copy on an external hard drive at my house and one copy on a separate external hard drive at my office.  This worked great for a number of years until I outgrew both my external hard drives.  At that point, I had four options to solve my problem.

First, I could go through and delete a bunch of images.  I actually started with this method, but quickly found it too tedious and inefficient to justify the small amount of time it would have provided before my drives were full again.  So, I quickly scrapped that option.

Second, I could invest in bigger or additional hard drives.  This didn't appeal to me because I do not want to end up with  multiple hard drives at both locations as it would get confusing and burdensome.  I also did not want to just upgrade to a bigger drive just to face the same problem in another couple of years.  As such, I did not consider this option.

Third, I could purchase a direct-attached storage, commonly called DAS.  This option was very appealing to me as the actual hard drives are relatively inexpensive, can easily be swapped out and offer huge amounts of storage.

Fourth, I could purchase a network-attached storage, commonly called NAS.  This option was also very appealing to me because it uses the same hard drives as the DAS, but can be hooked up to your wireless network so you do not have to hook your computer up to the system.

As you can tell, my choice came down to the battle between DAS and NAS.  Both are great options and have many similar features, but also have distinctive differences that are very appealing.  I decided to put both systems to the test by using the popular Drobo 5C DAS and Synology DS416 NAS for a number of months.  I have to say I have loved using both systems and their differences are significant enough, I am strongly leaning towards implementing both systems permanently as I am struggling to give up on either one.

DROBO 5C DAS

Chances are you have heard of Drobo if you have been following the Improve Photography podcast for long as it has been the subject of more than one discussion among the hosts.  In really simple terms, the Drobo is a storage or disk array (basically a large box) that holds multiple hard drives–internal drives like you find in your computer rather than external hard drives.  As a DAS, the Drobo 5C must be directly attached to your computer using a USB-C connector (compatible with USB 3.0 or USB 2.0).  If you have a thunderbolt hook up, there are separate options for that as well.

The Drobo 5C can support up to 5 3.5″ SATA II/III hard disk drives.

The set up on the Drobo 5C was very easy when following the step-by-step guide.  The whole set up took about a half hour to complete, but was simple and intuitive.  If you are a Mac user, the Drobo has dedicated Time Machine support as well, but I was unable to test this as I use Windows.

To test out the speed, I transferred 616 GB of photographs at one time.  The entire transfer took about three hours.  Considering that is how long my old hard drive took for about 100 GB, I was pretty excited with the speed of the Drobo 5C.  When regularly transferring files, the speed is fast enough to not be a concern at all.  The speed of this system also makes it possible to actually edit images in Lightroom and Photoshop directly from the Drobo rather than your internal hard drive.

The Drobo 5C offers an internal error alert and redundancy technologies. Drobo's BeyondRAID technology ensures you will not lose anything.  You have to be using more than one internal drive to take advantage of this system.  The downside to this is you reduce your storage capabilities in half when you use the redundancy option.  That means 4 drives that are each 3 tb drives will only yield you 6 tb of actual storage space.  In essence, it is like creating 2 backup drives in one system.  Beyond these protections, the Drobo 5C also has protection from power loss.

If you care about size, the Drobo 5C comes in at 8.5 pounds (3.9 kg) without any hard drives.  It is 5.9 inches wide, 7.3 inches high and 10.3 inches deep.  Obviously, you are not going to be carrying this around with you, but it is not so big as to make it a burden to move when needed.

Advantages

  • Easy to set up
  • Ability to edit images directly from hard drive
  • Speed of transfer
  • Compatible with Time Machine

Disadvantages

  • Requires physical connection
  • Can only be accessed by one computer at a time
  • No added features

Who should get the Drobo 5C?

This system is going to be great for most photographers.  I think it is ideal for anyone who is limited to one computer, especially if that one computer is a desktop computer where being connected to the Drobo is not an inconvenience.  This is a necessity for anyone who wants to be able to edit their images directly from storage.  It is also going to be a good option for someone that wants to maintain the simplicity of what you are used to from a normal external hard drive.

At the time of this article, the Drobo 5C was available on Amazon for $329 (Spoiler, the Synology DS416 is nearly identical in price so that won't make the decision easier for you).

SYNOLOGY DS416 NAS

As you might expect, the Synology DS416 NAS attaches to your wireless network via your router rather than to your computer.  You could also hook it up to a wired network, but I don't know anyone who still uses a wired network at home.  The driving force behind getting this system was my wife.  We used to have an external hard drive that connected to our wireless router and she loved being able to pull images off it to use as she wanted.

The DS416 can hold 4 internal drives and is compatible with 3.5″ and 2.5″ SATA HDD drives in addition to 2.5″ SATA SSD drives.   The system can support a total of 40 TB or any single 16 TB drive.

Once I researched the Synology system, I became pretty excited as I learned it offers so many features you can't get out of a normal external hard drive.  One of the additional features you get with the Synology NAS is the ability to easily share folders by  sharing links similar to how you would use dropbox.  While this is a cool option, I was hoping it would be easier to share files among computers on the same network.  While I found it easy to access the files from any computer, I could not figure out an easy way to copy them from the storage to a different computer.

Some of the other features you can unlock via apps on the DS416 include a mail management system.  Apps also provide for video management that allows you to stream to certain devices or download to devices for travel (this is huge for us as we often take long plane rides with young children).  There is also a similar app for managing music.  Think of being able to access your entire library of movies and music from your phone to stream on Chromecast or Apple TV wherever you are.  These are the most exciting apps to me, but there are several others that will let you control all kinds of different things.

While I have greatly enjoyed using this system, my high hopes have been grounded a bit as I have learned I lack the patience and knowledge to really take full advantage of this system.  Synology comes with its own operating system called Disk Manager, which is a really nice operating system that has generally received great reviews.

Unfortunately, I hit some snags early on installing Disk Manager and getting it set up.  I was really dismayed to learn there was not a simple step-by-step guide to walk through the whole system.  Instead, I spent hours watching videos and reading different articles trying to make it work and I could not get the shared folder to work for me.  I eventually figured out the Cloud Station App and was able to set up a shared folder with automatic back up.  This app has been amazing as every file in my Photos folder automatically backs up to the Synology.  The big shock to me came when I was 1,000 miles from my home network and loaded some images on my computer.  They immediately started backing up to my Synology over the internet.  I was not expecting it to be able to do that (I should have made the connection that the Cloud Station App was created my own cloud…).  I quickly learned I could access my Synology storage from anywhere I had internet, not just on my network.  That is a total game changer for me.  A while back, I wrote an article on some of my favorite travel photography tools.  This Synology system now tops that list as I can be assured all my images are securely backed up shortly after loading them onto my computer and I no longer have to travel with an external drive or worry about anything getting lost, assuming I am travelling somewhere with internet.

One interesting thing that happened during my testing of the Synology system was I had a drive fail immediately.  I was testing the system with Western Digital 3 TB drives, the same ones Jim Harmer and Jeff Harmon have warned against using as they are prone to failure.  The funny thing was the same drive did not fail when I tested it on the Drobo 5C.  I am not savvy enough to tell you whether it is a good thing the drive failed on the Synology because the detector system was good enough to detect the failure sooner or whether it indicates less capabilities in using accepting the drives.  Maybe somebody out there can enlighten us further?  The only thing I can say is to avoid the Western Digital 3 TB drives as their inclination to fail is well documented.

Given that this system transfers files over an internet connection, the speed is not going to be comparable to a DAS system.  My transfer of 616 GB to the Synology NAS took a few days to completely finish.  This speed is not going to be fast enough to permit you to edit your images directly from storage, but since it automatically backs up files as you load or edit them, the speed is not a burden for the normal backing up process as you will not have to transfer large amounts of files very often.

UPDATE: I did all my testing over Wi-Fi, but Tony Northrup reports he has no problem editing from his Synology NAS over an ethernet connection, keeping the library on his internal hard drive, but all the photographs on his external storage.

The Synology DS416 also features internal error alert and redundancy technologies.  In addition, a redundant cooling system offers additional protection from potential drive failures.  Since the Synology system is its own little computer, it is nice that it is also equipped with additional security measures (think malware, hacking, etc.) that can be customized for the level of protection you want.

The DS416 is similar in size to the Drobo 5C so big enough to not be mobile, but small enough to move when needed without issue.

Advantages

  • Accessible from any location with internet
  • Accessible to multiple users at once
  • Apps provide the ability to do much more than just storage
  • Easy-to-use automatic back up

Disadvantages

  • Set up and operation requires more technical knowledge
  • Slower transfer speeds

Who should get the Synology DS416?

This system is going to be awesome for anyone that has a little more computer skills and can take advantage of all the additional features.  Even without the additional computer skills, this is going to work great for anyone who wants their back up system to be wireless and accessible from anywhere with an internet connection.

At the time of this article, the Synology DS416 was available on Amazon for $338


About the Author

Brent Huntley

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Brent Huntley is a 32 year old partner at a litigation-focused law firm. He is a hobbyist photographer focused primarily on landscape and travel photography. He also writes articles and shares his work at photographyandtravel.com and is active on instragram @brentdhuntley.