PC File Server vs. NAS

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Overview
This article will discuss the options available to an IT Admin to replace their existing PC File Server with a Synology DiskStation, a modern PC File Server, or a DIY project.

Synopsis
Recently, a friend of mine asked for some advice with one his clients, a small lawyer’s office with thirty employees that was looking to replace their existing PC File Server. The existing server is a DIY AMD 800MHz computer with 512MB RAM, and two 500GB HDDs in RAID-1 handled through a PCI SATA Controller. The initial complaint from his client was that the computer is too slow to continue to serve the needs of his growing law firm. Subsequent criticisms of the server included how difficult it was to grow storage capacity and that business was previously interrupted due to an unnoticed RAID failure. This office had never heard of NAS – but after consideration, it was decided that using a Synology DiskStation would be the best way to proceed. The DiskStation meets the firm’s needs for scalable file storage and reliability. This article will discuss how the firm arrived at this conclusion, and the concerns that were brought up when replacing their existing PC File Server with a DiskStation.

PC File Server vs. NAS – Hardware Concerns
A few concerns were brought up in the discussion with using a traditional DIY PC File Server. These included the time required to assemble the hardware and dealing with frustration when it comes to checking clearances of mere millimeters when installing a 5-bay Hot-swap cage in a 3×5.25” of a tower. While off-the-shelf computer parts may be affordable, as a consultant or an SMB IT Admin, using off-the-shelf parts to build a replacement server will cost the greatest resource of all: time.

Time is often wasted when dealing with hardware integration issues. From my recent experience building an optimized high performance computer, it was frustrating to debug a motherboard issue with SATA 6Gbps drives, only to find out that the SATA Controller required a firmware update. On the same computer, another issue was that I had to head out to the local recycling center and acquire a PS/2 Keyboard and Mouse. The computer I was building required a BIOS update for the USB Controller, which is hard to conduct if I can’t use a USB Keyboard/mouse to instruct the computer to run the update. All of these interruptions when building a computer will cost time, both for the consultant and for the business. IT consultants will fall behind schedule to help as many clients as possible, while the business adds billable hours to their costs, which are frivolously wasted on non-productive work.

The hardware integration time can be mitigated by using a pre-fabricated computer. However, it may not be as affordable. Another concern is that using a traditional PC File Server (whether DIY or pre-fab) is that it’s still a large PC solely for a simple act of file sharing. Because it’s based on general components, it consumes more energy and physical space than an embedded appliance.

PC File Server vs. NAS – Software Concerns
While we were talking about integrating hardware, the topic of integrating software was also heavily discussed. For a DIY Server, the firm would need to spend at least $1000 for a Windows Server License, plus the cost of licensing fees for each Client Access License. In addition, the firm wanted to minimize on-site billable hours for my friend to deal with day-to-day duties of storage administration.

Synergy between Hardware and Software, the Synology DiskStation NAS
The ideal server would be integrated so well it would align to the old adage, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” A general purpose PC File Server is not, by definition, an integrated device. As the components were not designed as server hardware, there will undoubtedly be hardware and software compatibility issues among the pieces. Instead of spending time in different interfaces to create just one user, Synology DiskStation Manager provides a simple, unified interface to conduct all storage administration tasks.

The DiskStation’s hardware and software is designed to function as one. Because of this heavy integration, integrated hardware offers a smaller footprint, consumes less energy, and generates less noise. The integrated software makes Synology DSM a lightweight and powerful OS, giving small businesses or small offices a wealth of powerful features.

PC File Server Replacement, the DiskStation NAS
Ultimately, the firm chose the DiskStation DS1511+ to address the needs of the office. These included

  • Higher Performance
  • Smaller footprint
  • Affordable solution
  • Lower learning curve to learn how to manage the storage system
  • Simple scalability
  • Notifications of errors, including disk drive failure
  • Time-saving Operating System

The biggest benefit the firm realized was the amount of time saved using the DSM, given that it was relatively easy to deploy. My friend took less than 15 minutes to unpack the DiskStation, install 5x1TB hard drives and get the DSM to start building a SHR Volume. After letting it build overnight and conducting the consistency check, he moved it to the firm’s office where he joined the DiskStation to their ADS Domain. After Domain integration, he proceeded to conduct migration of existing data on the retiring server, including migrating the ACLs to the DiskStation. All of these tasks are done from one unified interface, making for a quick and easy deployment. Considering the lack of effort required, both my friend and the firm are pleased with the DiskStation’s performance. Easy to setup, easy to deploy thus far, and requires very little “human-input” to get the DiskStation started hosting data.

Email notifications are built-in to the DSM, helping admins minimize downtime.

DiskStation NAS Provides Simplicity
A few weeks after deployment of the DS1511+ in the firm’s office, their employees couldn’t be happier. A simple change to their map drive scripts and they’ve noticed a serious difference. Suddenly, no one was yelling or grumbling their frustration due to an aging server responding to multiple file requests. Massive legal documents, accounting spreadsheets, database files, and images were all accessible without a hitch.

In a few years, the office plans to upgrade to 2TB drives when their 5x1TB drives are filled to capacity. With the convenience of front-loading drives, SHR for volume expansion, upgrading storage in the future will be a simple process. With notifications enabled, my friend and the law firm can rest easy as any disk error will be noted by the DSM and will send out alerts if needed.

The DiskStation is an elegant device for a more civilized age of computer data storage – something that truly meets the needs of what businesses need. As both hardware and software are designed to work together, the office can rest easy knowing that their data storage nightmares are over.

Have you switched from a PC File Server to a NAS? Share your experience below!