Tired of plugging in USB HDDs for backup and data storage and looking for improving quality of life, I thought about getting a network attached storage (NAS). It became clear very quickly that I wanted NAS from one of the few big manufacturers like Synology or Qnap because I wanted this to work well and get it up and running fast without issues. Basically I wanted to pay a bit more for a solution that should work better rather than just go DIY. My goal for the NAS is to have a place for the backups from the computers, a place for the files that don’t need a backup and enjoy some bonus features like using the photo catalloging apps that these provide.
What I got
Because I did not need fancy stuff, the battle was fought between entry- to mid- level models with 2 disk bays. I skipped the ARM based entry ones because they do not feature RAM upgrades and there is more limited software availability.
I encrypt my external drives which contain personal data. This is easy and cheap and does not affect disk performance. So a key feature I wanted from the NAS is to have all the data encrypted on the disk, such that if it gets stolen the data cannot be accessed. This unfortunatelly rulled out the Synology DS220+, which would have otherwise been my no. 1 choice.
So I grabbed a QNAP TS-251D-4G, filled it with a shucked 8TB drive and a 128GB SSD and fired it up. Tadaaaaaa:
Why it is bad
I used it for a while, played with the software and found things easy to setup, just what I wanted. But beyond using it, it immediatelly becamse obvious that the thing is annoying and not good to have at home.
It is noisy
First, the HDDs make noise, that is expected. But, I had used the HDD in its original external enclosure and could tell that it got much louder when moved to the NAS. That is because inside its original housing it has some rubber dampeners, as you can see in the picture below. But there is no dampning in the NAS and the box itself works as an amplifier, making it noisier.
Second thing, the fan runs all the time. And even at the lowest setting I can hear it no matter where i placed it in my home office. The fan runs all the time and at 1008 rpm, even at idle because it needs to cool the processor which has a rather small heatsink.
Third, i found that the NAS was very often starting the disks, even if no work was externally required. It turns out that they store the operating system on the disks themselves so they need to access the disks often, even if the user does not need this. This is after I stopped the automated antivirus and other processes from running.
Fourth, even if the user accesses data from a drive in the NAS, all the drives are spun up, causing noise. So you cannot put a SSD and a HDD inside and expect that as long as you access the SSD only the NAS will not spin the HDDs.
Has high energy consumption
With a HDD and a SSD inside, at idle the QNAP TS-251D draws about 7W from the power grid. About 10W with the HDD spinning and more if the data is accessed. That 7W is rather concerning for a device that is doing nothing except wait for me to send or receive some data just 1-2 hours per day. As a comparison, my network attached printer drops to below 1.2W in standby, while being connected to the network and waiting for me to send a print job.
With current electricity prices reaching even 1 eur / kWh, this machine would cost over 60 euros per year in standby, and maybe another 10 eur for the electricity during 1-2 hours per day of usage. Add the machine cost, HDD cost and you realize you probably need to equip it with more than 2x4TB of disks before it becomes cheaper than cloud storage. Comparing cloud with local only purely on data storage, of course.
With these in mind, I sent the NAS back. A bit of searching has shown pretty much all other NASes in this category suffer from the same issues, so this is not particular to this model.
Going DIY was not what I wanted, but was aiming for the off the shelf solution. I was prepared to pay the cost of a NAS, but it seems no NAS wants to be silent enough not to be a nuisance.
I was not in the mood to replace my NUC6 home automation server, but with the SSD showing signs of slowdown I would feed 2 birds with one carrot, and upgrade it and add NAS functionality. Then drink the stuff in the small bottle and go down the rabbit hole of LUKS. Since smart home automation and storage do not need much processing power and I was favoring lower energy consumption, I went for a NUC11ATKPE.
The NUC11ATKPE is based on a quad core Pentium processor, which can reach up to 3.3GHz and has a TDP of 15W only. I equipped it with 16GB of RAM and a 1 TB SSD and I am running Ubuntu 22. This configuration is comparable in price with the QNAP TS-251D which comes with lower RAM and CPU specs and no storage. But remember that for the NAS you also pay for the software it comes with, which the NUC does not have.
NUC as NAS – what’s it like?
The NUC is connected to one 8TB WD Elements external hard drive, which is CMR. The other drive is not connected and used only from time. And no, the HDDs don’t sit there, I just got them there for the picture. Their place is in the back of the shelf. The storage available on the network is made up of storage on the HDD and storage on the SSD.
The HDD is encrypted with LUKS and this is where the sensitive data stays. This means that to make the drive available on the network I first need to remote connect to the NUC and mount the drive by specifying the password. This is OK with me as power outages are rare and so are restarts. The storage on the SSD is used for other things and not encrypted.
The noise of the NUC is much better. There are comprehensive fan configurations in BIOS and the fan can be tuned to be running at a rather low speed which is inaudible, as long as the CPU temperature is not too high. A speed increase after a certain temperature can be configured, so you can still cool the CPU if a high load is needed. Properly configured, the NUC is inaudible at a distance of 80 cm from my ear. With a low load for the smart home stuff of 5-10%, the CPU temperature hovers around 45C, which is good.
Another important aspect of the NUC is that if I access files only on the shared SSD, the HDD is not turned on like in the NAS, which means less noise and energy consumption.
Power consumption is better on the NUC. Without the smart home software, the idle consumption with no monitor and a LAN cable is in the region of 2.6 to 3.5W. With 5-10% CPU loading, attached HDD, and attached radio module, the total power moves to 6-7W. Comparable to the NAS, but peripherals and some CPU load. Power reaches about 22W at 100% CPU load, like when I am importing pictures in Photoprism .
While the commercial NAS does deliver in simplicity and out of the box functionality, it failed badly at comfort and cost. The noise means there is nowhere to place it in my home where I would not be bothered by it. The NUC solution delivers more performance and more flexibility for the same cost, but requires more effort. Still, the effort pales in the face of the discomfort created by the NAS.
To make the NAS a more viable solution i think it needs to:
1 – reduce noise. It should be completely silent at idle, with no running fan and have some dampening for the HDDs to reduce noise during active times.
2 – power consumption at idle needs to be reduced. 7W at idle incurs a significant cost.