Review: Synology DS1813+ — The Perfect NAS for Photographers?

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Storage has never been something foreign to photographers. In the days of film, storage might meant a catalogue of negatives wrangled into binders, and boxes full of prints. In the digital age, storage comes with less of an investment in shelf space and more into one's wallet.

At a certain level, any serious photographer is going to find themselves in need of a digital storage solution that goes beyond single-drive volumes. For some this may mean multiple plain drives and for others more robust alternatives like RAID systems with built-in redundancy. Add in networking capabilities for access anywhere one has an internet connection, and one's data and images can be leveraged even more efficiently.

The Synology DS1813+ is Synology's newest 8-bay NAS enclosure that allows for a massive 32TB of total storage. When used in a RAID 5 setup, this translates into a still huge 28TB of storage — enough to satisfy nearly any single photographer's growing digital archive.

For any photographer seeking a professional solution for storage, the Synology DS1813+ offers the promise of extensive expandability, great connectivity, and a base storage capacity ready for almost all but the most glutinous data workflows. However, all these features do come at a cost over less featured RAID drives, so the real question is, is this Synology NAS worth it? 

My Path to NAS

For years, I've personally used two of the Mercury Pro Qx2 by Other World Computing (OWC), which feature four drive bays. These RAID enclosures feature eSATA and Firewire 800 connectivity (the newer models also host USB 3.0). I bought my pair of Qx2 in 2009, and for the last four years I used them as my primary and backup data solutions, mirroring the two drives with weekly backups.

Enter the Synology

When my data needs eventually did max out my old RAID system, I was in the market for something new. OWC's most current Qx2 units feature all the same reliability that I've come to expect, but I was interested in a larger capacity than their 4-bay setup allowed. Simply dropping in new 4TB drives to replace the old 2TB drives of my old setup didn't seem like a viable system that would truly give me the large amount of headroom I wanted in my storage system.

The natural solution for me was a NAS (network attached storage) system, which do offer more flexibility in the number of drives. Synology is one brand whose products consistently rank highly in all the reviews I'd read, and their lineup seemed almost perfect for my needs.

If anything, Synology's products seemed a little daunting in their capabilities, above and beyond what I would ever need as a photographer. Frankly, I just need to store my images safely and securely, and with minimum (read: zero) hassle.

My Setup

After some deliberation, here's the setup that I went with:

I opted to basically max out my unit as much as possible, going with WD 4TB drives over smaller 3TB drives and kicking up the RAM as an inexpensive upgrade. I also opted for the DS1813+ over the smaller DS1513+ which features five HD bays, as the overall difference in price between the two is only 15%.

Where to Buy

I purchased my Synology diskstation and the loose WD 4TB RED drives from Amazon.com. B&H Photo Video in NYC also carries everything you need to be rolling in terabytes as well, and both of these retailers offers excellent service.

Design

The DS1813+ carries over Synology's angular, no-nonsense design aesthetic used through their DiskStation series.

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The unit features a minimum of LEDs or unnecessary accents, and overall the understated design looks at home in any pro setup.

Build Quality & Construction

Compared to units like the OWC Mercury Elite Qx2, with it's all-metal build, the DS1813+ may seem somewhat insubstantial.

While quite plastic, the build quality of the DS1813+ is nonetheless good and without issue. Even the drive bay sleds are plastic, but once drives are installed in the unit and locked in, there's no creak or slop in the setup.

Choosing Harddrives for Synology NAS

I decided to buy my Synolgy DS1813+ bare with no drives, instead purchasing drives separately and installing them myself. I decided to go with eight of the Western Digital 4TB RED harddrives, which are designed for 24/7 operation in NAS and RAID units.

Assembly

Installation of the drives was really an incredibly easy process — the drives literally snap into place in the bay sleds and slot in.

I also opted to install an additional 2GB of RAM for a system total of the 4GB maximum — not because I expected to really tax my system, but simply because the additional stick of RAM was a relatively cheap $25 on Amazon.com. Given the total expense of the unit and drives, the extra RAM seemed like a no-brainer.

Setup

Setting up the Synology DS1813+ does take some time, and taking full advantage of all of its features can take some patience, particularly if you're not incredibly familiar with networked devices. First, the drive must be initialized before it can even be accessed. With 32Tb of drives spinning inside of it, my DS1813+ took a little over a full day to initialize the drives.

In addition, Synology doesn't ship its DiskStations with hard manuals, so I had to refer to Synology's online help documentation in setting up the various features of the NAS (which are considerable). This NAS isn't plug and play in any sense of the phrase — simply getting the unit to show up on the network involves setup, and all additional features like remote access, filesharing, and so forth need to be enabled individually.

Still, setup was still easy and can be accomplished in an hour or two to get the unit fully up and running.

Operation & Noise

Once the unit is setup, operation is extremely simple and entirely hassle-free. At the time of this review, my diskstation has been running flawlessly for the last 40 days without so much as a hiccup. Noise levels are extremely low as well, and the fan operates at a constant and very quiet level.

Connectivity

The DS1813+ features the following ports:

  • 2x USB 3.0 Port
  • 4x USB 2.0 port
  • 2x eSATA
  • 4x Gigabit Ethernet RJ-45 Port

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Over the previous Synology DS1812+, the DS1813+ features upgraded internals and the addition of two gigabit ethernet ports for a total of four.

What, No Thunderbolt?

The one negative to the connectivity of the DS1813+ — and all of Synology's current offerings — is the lack of Thunderbold ports for Mac connectivity. While the inclusion of Thunderbolt would be ideal, in practice it's not missed. Other bottlenecks like the lack of Thunderbolt card readers, slower drive speeds, etc make USB 3.0 more than adequate for normal use.

There's an App for that

Aside from wired connectivity, one of the features of a NAS is that it's accessible over a network, and this include remotes login as well. I have to say, being able to access my archive of RAW images from any computer with an internet connection is a beautiful thing. So is being able to access and send files from my iPhone.

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For anyone who uses Dropbox or Google Drive, just think of that ease of access, except that instead of a couple gigs of data you have your entire photography archive accessible on any desktop and even your phone. I'll save you from using your imagination: this is awesome.

Future-Proofing

One of more enticing features of the Synology DS1813+ is the ability for expansion in the future. One way Synology allows this is by adding on expansion units such as the  Synology DX513 or Synology DX213, which offer five and two bays, respectively, of additional storage. Slap in some extra drives, plug it in, and it's like your NAS just got a second story floor added.

The other way Synology allows for expansion is by the hot swappable nature of its drives, thanks to Synology Hybrid Raid (SHR) technology. SHR basically takes the standard RAID system and allows for two important changes — the ability to use different capacity drives and the ability to hot swap those drives.

What this means as far as expansion is that one can take out a single drive and replace it with a larger drive to increase storage. This is a feature widely marketed by Drobo using their own proprietary RAID-like system.

With traditional RAID enclosures, once you max our the storage, you're basically stuck buying new drives at the very least if you can migrate the data, or at worst buying a new array enclosure and new drives.

Backup Strategies

Let's be clear: a RAID or NAS system as your primary storage isn't the same thing as having a backup. While RAID and Synology's hybrid RAID systems protect against disk failure, this isn't the same thing as a viable backup. Should multiple drive failures, natural disasters, or acts of God strike down with great vengeance and furious anger, disk redundancy isn't going to save your butt.

With multiple terabytes of data, cloud storage options like BackBlaze or CrashPlan can become unviable, due to the upload times.

Perhaps the ideal situation for backup of a Synology system would be an identical diskstation located offsite. This setup would allow for fast syncing via USB 3.0 on-site, and then allow the backup to be updated at a remote location, eliminating the slow transfer speeds dictated by cloud service providers. The real downside to this setup is simply cost — a completely mirrored setup will cost the end user twice as much as a single setup.

My solution to backup my data takes a less hardware driven approach. I'm going to be backing up my data to plain drives and storing them off site. Plain drives like the WD 4TB RED drives I'm using in the Synology or more standard options like Western Digital's black class HDDs will save in cost over a drive in an enclosure, and connection is easily accomplished with a unit like the Anker Drive Dock with USB 3.0 and eSATA.

While this backup strategy takes some more dedication for regularly updating data, it has a huge savings on hardware and provides the security of a true backup.

Cost Analysis

The one catch with any quality NAS system is going to be price. The Synology DS1813+ runs about $1,000 retail through retailers like B&H Photo Video and Amazon.com, which is comparable to other 8-bay NAS setups.

This cost is certainly more than a non-networked RAID enclosure, and of course more than a pile of plain drives. What the Synology and similar NAS systems do buy is superior connectivity, redundancy, and accessibility.

All in, a loaded DS1813+ with 8x WD 4TB RED drives costs roughly $2,600. For most photographers, that's the price of a pro f/2.8 zoom like the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR II or a DSLR like the Nikon D800. For me, I view the expense of professional storage just like any piece of my camera kit — a necessary tool.

I can't risk my data in a non-redundant storage system, and for me, the accessibility and peace of mind that I get with this Synology unit is well worth the expense for my business.

Conclusion

Overall, my use of the Synology DS1813+ has been flawless and excellent. While I was never truly interested in having a NAS for a long while, I have to admit that in practice, having network attached storage is in fact awesome. As a photographer, the ability to access one's entire archive of RAW files is a freeing and powerful feature.

With eight bays, the DS1813+ offers a truly massive amount of storage capacity for a photographer. I'm currently using a little over 6TB of data of the 28TB effective space. Personally, I'm thrilled with the amount of overhead I have with this Synology server and I'm looking forward to using it for years to come.

The only real “gotcha” with the Synology DS1813+ is the initial software setup of the server, in that it's not as quick to use out of the box as a normal RAID system. However, after setup, the Synology is extremely easy and efficient to use.

What makes this Synology unit a truly appealing to me as a professional photographer is the fact that the DS1813+ is easily expandable, either when installing larger capacity drives or adding a Synology expansion unit. The creation of data, as a digital photographer, is quite literally our practice. Synology has made expansion simple to the point where outgrowing the system seems almost impossible.

For anyone looking for a big upgrade in space, I can wholeheartedly recommend the DS1813+ or any of Synology's small business solutions.

Questions about this setup? Let me know in the comments.

My Camera DSLR and Lenses for Concert Photography

Nikon D850:
I use two Nikon D850 for my live music photography. A true do-it-all DSLR with amazing AF, fast response, and no shortage of resolution.
nikon-24-70mm-f28-lens-squareNikon 24-70mm f/2.8:
For most gigs, the 24-70mm is my go-to lens. Exceptional image quality at wide apertures and super-functional range.
Nikon-70-200-squareNikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR:
A perfect pair to the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8, I can basically shoot any job with the midrange and this lens. Superb image quality.
nikon-14-24mm-f28-lens-squareNikon 14-24mm f/2.8:
Ultra-wide perspective, ridiculously sharp even wide open at f/2.8. I love using this lens up-close and personal, where it excels.
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