“While people were devouring boxsets, their NAS drives were at work, whirring merrily away”

This doesn’t happen often, but it may be that I owe some people an apology. Back in the summer, I wrote a piece on doing the wrong thing with a great big spinning hard disk. Storage can be a puzzling business and, given a surfeit of time at home courtesy of the lockdown, I tried to do some bad things with the drives I’d been sent. Much to my amazement, the 18TB Seagate Ironwolf drive sat happily in a regular PC drive cage, seen by Windows 10, and threw around files at some nicely elevated speeds. It wasn’t even terribly wasteful in terms of cluster sizes and mixtures of large and small files.

This led me to take a somewhat foolish step with the next pair of disks to arrive. I assumed that everything I had “learned” with the Ironwolf could be applied to all other modern drives. “A pair of Western Digital 12TB drives ought to do just as well as the single 18TB in the next PC to arrive in the recycling basement here,” I told myself.

I knew, in the back of my mind, that “ought to work” and “recycling” are not automatically best bedfellows. We are all used to the idea that leading-edge versions of all your hardware are more likely to get along than a hotchpotch of new and old. But conversely, I hadn’t put the Ironwolf drive in a spanking new PC anyhow – so this plug-and-play approach should work with almost any other modern drive, right?

Er, no. I kept biting my tongue because when doing compatibility testing one always wants to be quite sure of one’s assumptions. Not only did the WD drives fail to work where the Seagate would, but they had several different categories of not working. Sometimes the host machine simply wouldn’t turn on; other times, it was as if the drive wasn’t even plugged in. Other times still, I’d see a drive pop up in Windows Explorer and think “yippee”, only to find that it was 1TB, not 12TB. On several occasions. I went through the heart-in-mouth process with DiskPart to clear the complete drive of all markings or formats, both hanging off the internal SATA chipset and sitting in a fancy external USB connected “drive dock”. No luck.

“One of the exercises I have been doing with clients is a bit of time travel”

Now bear with me as I go off – briefly, I promise – on a tangent. One of the exercises I have been doing with clients is a bit of time travel. We all tend to edit out the long boring months of lockdown or furlough in our estimations: the months may have blurred into one homogenous lump for us, but that doesn’t translate into the lives of our storage hardware. Suddenly, that two-year-old little business NAS box is more like four years old, going on five. So, just how long are those drives meant to last, and how does the replacement process work, if it works at all? Can you even get the parts? Once I mention those issues, suddenly people realise their perception of the passage of time has been messing with them. While they were devouring boxsets or painting the shed, their NAS drives were sitting at work, whirring merrily away.

For quite a lot of these issues, everyone I know, even in the business, turns to the immense library of hard-won knowledge on YouTube. Every engineer in the entire support universe must have made their own how – to videos, covering everything from a Panerai pocket watch to a caterpillar bulldozer. Your NAS is bound to be in there somewhere.

The news isn’t always as good as you might think. Many people mess up the processes that make up swapping out a NAS drive, be that for one of the same size, or a larger capacity, and the sorrowful tones of the how-to squad on YouTube are a good indication of how difficult the process is going to be.

I had one NAS at home that was definitely due the replacement drive ordeal: a Synology DS213. A relatively early model, sporting a Marvell CPU and an unexpandable 512MB of RAM. YouTube’s Greek chorus served up a moaning, bearded refrain on the timescales and disk types suitable for an overhaul of one of these early machines; much moaning about 15-hour mirror volume rebuild times, and the distinctly iffy prospects of that 512MB being big enough for advanced network services or any of Synology’s downloadable add-on apps.

Drive lesson

That wasn’t what I cared about. I wanted the drives out of that machine, after running in my basement for at least five years, plus another five or more in my client’s offices before that. Those with a long memory may remember the NAS I found that had been sold with two drives, but configured to mount only one of those two in the craziest interpretation of “hot spare” I think I’ve ever encountered.

In what I think is an absolute key decision in this process, I went through the various management web pages and configurations and let them all run their updates and log flushes and so forth, before I took the NAS offline and eviscerated it. Synology’s machine update is in a kind of snakes and ladders relationship with Windows 10/11. Sure, the Synology updates are generally smaller and faster to download, but almost all of them trigger the long waits and rebuild processes that made all those YouTubers look so sad and sleep-deprived. You also can’t tell much about what’s inside an update: they’re all assumed to work and then spread themselves across the OS and the various devices and BIOSes available. All you can do is chew on something while the drives are spinning back up, after an update.

Back to those two 12TB WD drives. Because I knew I had about a week in which to experiment, I thought I’d take the least compatible drives in my collection – the big WDs – drop them in the oldest NAS I could find, and just press the power button and see what I got. After all, on the track record thus far, I’d expect to have one of the error states I’d encountered on all the other PCs I’d tried them with.

How do you get back into a Synology after taking out all its drives? First, plug it in to a network switch that ideally also has your management station PC on it too. This is because the Synology management tool likes to scan all the IPs in your local subnet, and that doesn’t always work right if, like me, you have four runs of fibre and now a separate 10GbE switch for storage fiddling, with your DHCP server several hops away in the opposite direction from your NAS device. Just make it simple: bring up the Synology tool and let it hunt for your NAS devices.

“I have spent a long time believing that RAM in servers is an absolute must”

Your newly disked machine will show up as an unknown NAS, because you’ve not even typed a single word into it yet. But the management tool and the startup wizard inside the NAS conspire together, so by the time I had clicked on the unknown NAS and the browser window had opened, not only was it showing me the latest version of DSM (the management suite on Synology NASes, presented in a browser window), but it had found both the big WD drives, decided the best thing to do was to use them as a mirrored RAID, and presented them via Microsoft and Apple LAN service protocols. The NAS was sitting there about six minutes after I switched it on, ready to send and receive files. The system monitor said that memory use was topping out at a steady 33%. Now, 33% of 512MB is 169MB of RAM, presenting (admittedly, empty) a 10TB mirrored array. This is not supposed to happen.

I have spent a long time believing that RAM in servers is an absolute must. My FreeNAS server, which I was trying to use to experiment with VMs, has 48GB of RAM, and I have always put its abilities down to the amount of free working memory it can grab. I’ve even had iSCSI storage servers – way smaller than the humble Synology is showing with the WD drives set up – actually run out of memory in the middle of a working day. That was a painful proof of concept, right there.

But this little box is breaking all my rules. Okay, so if I feed it a really painful file copy to do, with tens of thousands of files in a dump from a CCTV server, all small, then it will slow down painfully and need some time to index and preview all those boring little JPEGs. Conversely, if I start chucking VM images that I have used with VirtualBox, then the really big volume files actually copy faster: I’ve seen 80MB/sec and more, which is just not meant to be possible with this kind of spec.

Soft conversion

So what’s happening here? What could explain the radical difference between my custom and practice, all that mournful advice on YouTube, and what the real world shows us? I think it’s all about the software. Ten years or so ago, Synology’s NAS OS was in the early-days stages of advancement, by comparison with the versions I was grabbing from the support server. What’s remarkable is that Synology is still upgrading and supporting a quirky architecture from a long time ago and giving it device capability and driver support for drives released in 2021. Back when the first set of drives sold with the NAS were becoming due for replacement, the jump was from 1TB disks up to 4TB or maybe 6TB if you had deep pockets. Those disks were also comparatively primitive and probably hadn’t yet been included in Synology’s compatibility lists. So, the YouTube posse all dashed in at the time with their piles of leading-edge products, and came back to report some pretty poor results.

What was needed was for Synology to do several years of R&D in storage operating systems, and for drive makers to similarly push out the limits of what a single drive could store – and what it needs from the storage host controller chips, too. It may seem a trifle unfair to be pointing the finger at the YouTube gurus: they didn’t realise that YouTube would still be presenting their advice eight years later, and I wouldn’t expect them to get lost in a maze of qualified statements about best-before-end dates on their punditry.

It would have saved me a good deal of time, though, if YouTube made it a lot easier to apply date ranges to its video searches. It’s a strange, twilit world at the best of times, and yet it’s the only option for monetising expertise in small, straightforward devices. You can’t expect the drive makers to exhaustively test all the possible combinations of hardware out there these days.

So my apologies are due mostly to Western Digital, for unfairly believing that I had a pair of turkeys in the drive pool, even after a wide-ranging experiment on lots of different middle-aged PCs. What I had entirely failed to do was read the small print, I now confess: the particular models I was using were designed for NAS devices, not for Windows.

I think I’m still okay, on the other hand, with the NAS people: despite the allegations made by the YouTube chorus, there’s plenty of life left in some ancient and poorly understood corners of that sector.

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