The Gift of NAS

Ah, the holidays ...In all honesty, this post is quite overdue. The topic is one that I started digging into before the end of last year (2020), and in a “normal year” I’d have been more with it and shared a post sooner. To be fair, I’m not even sure what a “normal year” is, but I do know this: I’d be extremely hard-pressed to find anyone who felt that 2020 was a normal year …

The Gift?

I need to rewind a little to explain “the gift” and the backstory behind it. Technically speaking, “the gift” in questions wasn’t so much a gift as it was something I received on loan. I do have hopes that I’ll be allowed to keep it … but let me avoid putting the cart ahead of the horse.

The item I’m referring to as a “gift” is a Synology NAS (Network Attached Storage) device. Specifically speaking, it’s a Synology DiskStation DS220+ with a couple of 2TB red drives (rated for NAS conditions) to provide storage. A picture of it up-and-running appears below.

I received the DS220+ during the latter quarter of 2020, and I’ve had it running since roughly Christmastime.

How did I manage to come into possession of this little beauty? Well, that’s a bit of a story …

Brainstorming

Back in October 2020, about a week or two before Halloween, I was checking my email one day and found a new email from a woman named Sarah Lien in my inbox. In that email, Sarah introduced herself and explained that she was with Synology’s Field and Alliance Marketing. She went on to share some information about Synology and the company’s offerings, both hardware and software.

I’m used to receiving emails of this nature semi-regularly, and I use them as an opportunity to learn and sometimes expand my network. This email was slightly different, though, in that Sarah was reaching out to see if we might collaborate together in some way around Synology’s NAS offerings and software written specifically for NAS that could back up and protect Microsoft 365 data.

Normally, these sorts of situations and arrangements don’t work out all that well for me. Like everyone else, I’ve got a million things I’m working on at any given time. As a result, I usually can’t commit to most arrangements like the one Sarah was suggesting – as interesting as I think some of those cooperative efforts might turn out to ultimately be.

Nevertheless, I was intrigued by Sarah’s email and offer. So, I decided to take the plunge and schedule a meeting with her to see where a discussion might lead.

Rocky Beginnings

One thing I learned pretty quickly about Sarah: she’s a very friendly and incredibly understanding person. One would have to be to remain so good-natured when some putz (me) completely stands you up for a scheduled call. Definitely not the first impression I wanted to make …

I’m happy to say that the second time was a charm: I managed to actually show up on-time (still embarrassed) and Sarah and I, along with her coworker Patrick, had a really good conversation.

Synology has been in the NAS business for quite some time. I’d been familiar with the company by name, but I didn’t have any familiarity with their NAS devices.

Long story short: Sarah wanted to change that.

The three of us discussed the variety of software available for the NAS – like Active Backup for Microsoft 365 – as well as some of the capabilities of the NAS devices themselves.

Interestingly enough, the bulk of our conversation didn’t revolve around Microsoft 365 backup as I had expected. What really caused Patrick and me to geek-out was a conversation about Plex and the Synology app that turned a NAS into a Plex Server.

The Plex Flex

The Plex LogoNot familiar with Plex? Have you been living under a rock for the last half-decade?

Plex is an ever-evolving media server, and it has been around for quite some time. I bought my Plex Lifetime Pass (not required for use, but affords some nice benefits) back in September of 2013 for $75. The system was more of a promise at that point in time than a usable, reliable media platform. A lifetime pass goes for $120 these days, and the platform is highly capable and evolved.

Plex gives me a system to host and serve my media (movies, music, miscellaneous videos, etc.), and it makes it ridiculously easy to both consume and share that media with friends. Nearly every smart device has a Plex client built-in or available as a free download these days. Heck, if you’ve got a browser, you can watch media on Plex:

I’m a pretty strong advocate for Plex, and I share my media with many of my friends (including a lot of folks in the M365 community). I even organized a Facebook group around Plex to update folks on new additions to my library, host relevant conversations, share server invites, and more.

An Opportunity To Play

I’ve had my Plex Server up-and-running for years, so the idea of a NAS doing the same thing wasn’t something that was going to change my world. But I did like the idea of being able to play with a NAS to put it through the paces. Plex just became the icing on the cake.

After a couple of additional exchanges and discussions, I got lucky (note: one of the few times in my life): Sarah offered to ship me the DS220+ seen at the top of this post for me to play with and put through the paces! I’m sure it comes as no surprise to hear me say that I eagerly accepted Sarah’s generous offer.

Sarah got my address information, confirmed a few things, and a week or so later I was informed that the NAS was on its way to me. Not long after that, I found this box on my front doorstep.

The Package

Finally Setting It Up

The box arrived … and then it sat for a while.

The holidays were approaching, and I was preoccupied with holiday prep and seasonal events. I had at least let Sarah know that the NAS made it to me without issue, but I had to admit in a subsequent conversation that I hadn’t yet “made time” to start playing around with it.

Sarah was very understanding and didn’t pressure me for feedback, input, or anything. In fact, her being so nice about the whole thing really started to make me feel guilty.

Guilt can be a powerful motivator, and so I finally made the time to unbox the NAS, set it up, and play around with it a little.

Here are a series of shots I took as I was unpacking the DS220+ and getting it setup.

It was very easy to get up-and-running … which is a good thing, because the instructions in the package were literally just the small little foldout shown in the slides above. I’d say the Synology folks did an excellent job simplifying what had the potential to be a confusing process for those who might not be technical powerhouses.

And eventually … power-on!

Holy Smokes!

Once I got the DS220+ running, I started paying a little more attention to all the ports, capabilities in the interface, etc. And to tell you the truth, I was simply floored.

First off, the DS220+ is a surprisingly capable NAS – much more than I originally envisioned or expected. I’ve had NAS devices before, but my experience – like those NAS devices – is severely dated. I had an old Buffalo Linkstation which I never really took a liking to. I also had a couple of Linksys Network Storage Link devices. They worked “well enough,” but the state of the art has advanced quite a bit in the last 15+ years.

Here are the basics of the DS220+:

  • Intel Celeron J4025 2-core 2GHz CPU
  • 2GB DDR4 RAM
  • Two USB 3.0 ports
  • Two gigabit RJ-45 ports
  • Two 3.5″ drive bays with RAID-1 (mirroring) support

It’s worth noting that the 2GB of RAM that is soldered into the device can be expanded to 6GB with the addition of a 4GB SODIMM. Also, the two RJ-45 ports support Link Aggregation.

I’m planning to expand the RAM ASAP (already ordered a chip from Amazon), and given that I’ve got 10Gbps optical networking in my house, and the switch next to me is pretty darned advanced (and seems to support every standard under the sun), I’m looking forward to seeing if I can “goose things” a bit with the Link Aggregation capability.

What I’m sharing here just scratches the surface of what the device is capable of. Seriously – check out the datasheet to see what I’m talking about!

But Wait - There's More!

I realize I’m probably giving off something of a fanboy vibe right now, and I’m really kind of okay with that … because I haven’t even really talked about the applications yet.

Once powered-on, the basic interface for the NAS is a browser-based pseudo desktop that appears as follows:

This interface is immediately available following setup and startup of the NAS, and it provides all manner of monitoring, logging, and performance tracking within the NAS itself. The interface can also be customized a fair bit to fit preferences and/or needs.

The cornerstone of any NAS is its ability to handle files, and the DS220+ is capable with files on so many levels. Opening the NAS Control Panel and checking-out related services in the Info Center, we see file basics like NFS and SMB … and so much more.

The above screen is dense; there is a lot of information shown and communicated. And each of the tabs and nodes in the Control Panel is similarly dense with information. Hardware geeks and numbers freaks have plenty to keep themselves busy with when examining a DS220+.

But the applications are what truly have me jazzed about the DS220+. I briefly mentioned the Office 365 backup app and the Plex Server app earlier. But those are only two from an extensive list:

Many of these apps aren’t lightweight fare by any stretch. In addition to the two I already mentioned having an interest in, I really want to put the following apps through the paces:

  • Audio Station. An audio-specific media server that can be linked with Amazon Alexa (important in our house). I don’t see myself using this long term, but I want to try it out.
  • Glacier Backup. Provides the NAS with an interface into Amazon Glacier storage – something I’ve found interesting for ages but never had an easy way to play with or test.
  • Docker. Yes, a full-on Docker container host server! If something isn’t available as a NAS app, chances are it can be found as a Docker container. I’m actually going to see how well the NAS might do as a Minecraft Server. The VM my kids and I (and Anders Rask) play on has some I/O issues. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could move it into a lighter-weight but better performing NAS/Docker environment.

Part of the reason for ordering the memory expansion was that I expect the various server apps and advanced capabilities to work the NAS pretty hard. My understanding is the that the Celeron chip the DS220+ employs is fairly capable, but tripling the memory to 6GB is doing what I can to help it along.

(Partial) Conclusion

I could go on and on about all the cool things I seem to keep finding in the DS220+ … and I might in future posts. I’d really like to be a little more directed and deliberate about future NAS posts, though. Although I believe many of you can understand and perhaps share in my excitement, this post doesn’t do much to help anyone or answer specific questions.

I suspect I’ll have at least another post or two summarizing some of the experiments (e.g., with the Minecraft Docker container) I indicated I’d like to conduct. I will also be seriously evaluating the Microsoft 365 Backup Application and its operation, as I think that is a topic many of you would be interested in reading my summary and assessment of.

Stay tuned in the coming weeks/months. I plan to cover other topics besides the NAS, but I also want to maximize my time and experience with my “gift of NAS.”

References and Resources

My Foray Into Office Feng Shui

Sometimes reorganizing a space, like a home office, generates greater benefits than just a more organized space.

Just to level-set at the start: this is not a technical post, and I’m talking about my personal office – not Microsoft Office. Now, with those disclaimers out of the way …

What Exactly Am I Writing About?

When we moved into our current home six or seven years ago, one thing I felt I needed was a proper office. In our old house, I worked out of our unfinished basement, and I’ll be honest: it was depressing. Despite my attempts to “liven up the place” with things like Christmas lights, the only natural light I received while working was provided by three small glass block windows.

And when I say the basement was “unfinished,” I really mean it. Through sheer dumb luck, the table I worked at was also the location of some sort of recessed drain access in the cement floor. I managed to get my office chair wheels stuck in that recess about half a dozen times a day. My chair would nearly tip over whenever that happened.

I think the image I’m painting is bleak enough. I’ll spare you from additional details, like when our sewer line collapsed and the resulting back-up invaded my “workplace.”

I Needed A Proper Office

Hopefully that point is obvious.

The criteria I had when we were looking for a new house six or seven years ago was an office that (a) was at ground level (or higher), and (b) had a proper window. Nothing too excessive, and easily met by my current office.

Below are some images of how my office was set up when we first moved in. Many people say it kind of looks like a college dorm room with the Christmas lighting – a point I can’t argue against.

This configuration worked well enough for a while, but over time I grew more and more dissatisfied with it for the following reasons:

  1. I didn’t make particularly good use of the space I had … and over time, piles grew on every exposed surface.
  2. I used the filing cabinet (it came with the house), but I hated the filing cabinet and the way it jutted out into the room.
  3. My wife regularly registered grievances with the one-off, mismatched furniture. And she hated all the cords everywhere. And the fact that my lighting choices were circa 1995.

Why Did I Do It That Way In The First Place?

If you’re asking that question, it’s a good one. The reason, quite simply, was time. The week that we moved into our home was also the week my wife went in for breast cancer surgery. After the surgery came chemotherapy and then radiation treatments. If you’ve never been with someone going through cancer treatment, then I’ll give you the short version: it knocks them on their ass.

Brendan and Sabrina: Easter 2012

Our children were only about five at the time, and they were still in daycare on the west side of Cincinnati – a good 30-40 minutes away. So, with my wife out of commission, I’d have to run them to daycare in the morning, come back, and then do the reverse in the evening. Between taking care of the family and trying to find time to work, reorganizing my office was the last thing I had on my mind.

But redoing my office was a topic that kept coming up again and again. And so at the start of 2019, with encouragement from my wife, I decided it was finally time to do something.

Office 2.0: The Plan

About the only aspect of my office that I really liked and wanted to keep was the Ikea furniture that I purchased and put together just before we moved in (a desk and a corner table).

Step one of “my plan” was to start getting rid of a lot of old books and associated materials. Technology consulting is a brutal field to be in from the perspective of trying to stay up-to-date on changes and new trends. Most of the books on my shelves weren’t just old, they were ancient.

For example, as much as I loved Practical Standards for Microsoft Visual Basic, it was published about 20 years ago. The things I learned from reading it are still applicable today in slightly modified form (lots of good information/guidance on code readability, documentation, etc), but extended support on VB6 ended in 2008 – over ten years ago.

I ended up getting rid of most of the books I’d bought and inherited over the years. Any that other authors and friends had signed were spared (couldn’t let those go!), as were copies of books that John Ferringer and I co-authored. Other than those that met the narrow range of criteria, any books that were clearly out-of-date were expunged.

With the books gone, I was able to start removing the ugly bookshelves. In truth, it wasn’t a seamless process by any stretch. I had to stage a lot of my office content in the entryway and living room just so I had room to maneuver and manipulate the office space.

Rebuilding from the Ashes

No fires were set; I’m speaking metaphorically when I say “ashes.”

With the old bookshelves gone, I was able to put in new ones that did a much better job utilizing my limited office space. And I was also able to address one of my wife’s standing grievances; i.e., that nothing (or very little) in my office matched.

I again decided to look for bookshelves on Ikea’s site (since my computer desk and corner table were of Ikea design), and I landed on the Brimnes Bookcase. By my rough math, I could get four of them in the office, they were available in black, and I thought they’d work equally well for both books and storage.

When my wife and I got to the Ikea store in West Chester, though, Ikea only had two of the four bookcases in stock that I had come to pick up (despite me doing an inventory check before coming up and successfully purchasing four for pickup). So the remaining two bookshelves were delivered about a week after I got the first two, and I got to work on the two bookcases I had once we got home:

Below is a comparison of the front of my office both with and without the new Brimnes bookcases. I could have used a little more clearance on the sides of the bookcases nearest the office doors, but things went in pretty well.

Let There Be Light!

There were two more things I was hoping to achieve with my office reorg. One of them was being able to finally have some clear desk space, because I always had junk galore on every surface. I didn’t want to keep things that way indefinitely, but I simply had no place to put everything with the old office.

Once I had a place for everything in my office (and quite a bit of extra space, actually), then I should be able to adhere to a “clean desk policy” – or as close as I could get to it – with a little discipline. And I’m happy to report that I’ve largely been able to do that.

The other thing I wanted to do was “grow up” a little bit – at least with my lighting. I am in my mid-to-late 40’s, so I figured it was high time I upped my lighting game.

The immediate problem was that I really still loved multicolor lighting! With some hunting, I managed to find something that nailed my needs straightaway in a very adult/grown-up fashion: Philips Hue Lighting.

Hue Lighting is incredibly flexible. I opted for the bulbs and system that supports changing colors, and it’s wonderful. Let me be clear about an important fact, though: Hue is NOT cheap. It seemed that the cheapest way to buy a bunch of bulbs was to buy a few starter kits, so I have a couple of extra lighting bridges (to tie the lighting into the home wifi) I’m not currently using. If my existing Hue bridge ever goes south, I have a couple of backups.

Since Hue ties into Alexa, I control everything from the Amazon Echo devices we have in nearly every room. And the Hue App for smartphones makes editing lighting configurations easy – and comes with some defaults that produce nice results regardless of the number of Hue bulbs you might have active in the room.

The Results

Below are some office shots with all the bookshelves in place and nearly everything the way I wanted it. Even though I’ve got my lights turned on, these were taken during the day.

To see the true effects of the Hue colored lights, I had to take some night shots:

The last three shots in the series immediately above are of the same office corner; the only real difference is the Hue lighting preset I activated in the system before taking the shots.

Conclusions

In addition to now having an office that fits me better, I discovered a thing or two I really wasn’t expecting as I undertook the overhauling and process:

  1. For me, a cluttered office contributes strongly to my feeling of being unorganized. When I started clearing my desk off and putting things away more regularly, I felt much more “with it.” The effect was almost tangible in a way I never would have expected.
  2. Having room to actually put things away is important to maintaining control over your office environment. Heck, I would argue that addage is true in most rooms and environment. The saying “out of sight, out of mind” holds its weight for me.

Now that I’ve had my office squared away for a few months, I’ve begun the process of organizing the unfinished part of the basement which acts as my server room and hardware workshop. That area needs organization probably worse than my office ever did … but I’ll save that for another time and another post.

References and Resources

  1. Book: Practical Standards for Microsoft Visual Basic
  2. Microsoft: Search Product Lifecycle
  3. LinkedIn: John Ferringer
  4. Ikea: Brimnes Bookcase
  5. Product: Philips Hue Lighting
  6. Amazon: Philips Hue Starter Kit