Synology DS920+ Final Impressions

Photo of the Synology DS920+ next to a Dell Wyse thin client, WiFi access point, modem, and 28 port gigabit switch.

After almost two years of having used a Synology DS920+ as my NAS and light home server for a few services, I thought it would be good to take a look back at how it had treated me these past two years.

Those who may have read my first impressions post might already have some idea where this is going, but to put the spoiler out of the way: I have replaced the Synology NAS with a NAS I have built myself, and very happily sold the DS920+. Read on if you're interested in some of the details that have ultimately led me to change course.

Synology DS920+ First Impressions
Get ready to wait a lot…

What was I looking for?

The list of ;what I was looking for when I opted to try out Synology's offering is still accurate. In short, it all boiled down to a desire to have something that "just works." For my day to day work I already spend enough time debugging and problem solving, the last thing I was looking for was yet another device I'd have to fiddle with to keep running as it should.

This is, in essence, exactly what Synology is offering. Their products rarely have specs worth writing home about, especially at their asking prices. But their offer is a cohesive package that gets out of your way, it just works. Or, in theory at least.

Minor issues everywhere

From the get-go I was running into small nuisances or straight-up problems with the Synology box. Some of these would just sort of solve themselves over time, like having the device be barely usable while it spends the first month plus indexing images and videos, with its status indicator not really offering any insight into how much longer it might take or what it really is doing.

Some of the other issues I ran into resulted in some blog posts that attempted to find ways to fix limitations Synology had kept in place. While neck-deep trying to almost reverse engineer proprietary Synology APIs to try to figure out how a way to get photos that exist to actually show up in Synology's UI, I was wondering why I had to do any of this. I went the more expensive Synology route precisely to avoid having to deal with such things, after all, yet here I was.

Other problems still were ones I never really was able to solve. For example, over the two years I've had the Synology NAS suddenly disappear from my network for no reason. It was still running, and never reported any issues, it just suddenly.. disappeared. Usually It'd also just as suddenly show up again 10-20 minutes later. What caused this or how this could be solved, I have no idea.

One thing I do know for sure; I've never had this with any other network attached device or computer, and this would be the perfect example of something I didn't want to deal with and let me to go the Synology route in the first place.

Synology's proprietary layers get in the way

One of the key asks I had was that I'd be able to run Docker containers with easy. In Synology's defense, this was almost exactly what their solution offers. I did have to fiddle with permissions to be able to more easily work with it through the command line interface, but that was a small hurdle. At least it came with docker-compose too, which is what I prefer to use for most containers I run.

I never ended up making full use of Synology's virtual machine functionality as the hardware quite simply was too limiting. Hardware aside, while they make use of qemu and related behind the scenes, they've opted to add a proprietary layer on top of that that prevents you from configuring any settings that aren't also exposed through their UI. This prevented me from from being able to conveniently run a certain virtual machine, even though the device was actually capable of running it.

And herein lies one of the fundamental challenges you'll run into when working with Synology hard- and software; If your needs go even the slightest bit outside what Synology considered acceptable, you're immediately running into arbitrary and artificial limitations. It either is "not possible" according to Synology, locked behind their more expensive products instead of whatever model you have picked, or simply something their proprietary layers get in the way of.

Hardware compatibility

Speaking of artificial limitations; Synology maintains a list of compatible hard drives. This is done under the guise of ensuring compatibility and system stability. Realistically speaking, this is of course also to encourage businesses to purchase Synology's own, more expensive offerings rather than the usually cheaper alternatives that, so long as you purchase the right tool for the job, would work just as well.

Another limitiation that is artificially enforced by Synology on models like the DS920 is the ability to use either one or both of its NVMe SSD slots for storage. Having solid state storage for things like Docker containers or VMs is actually quite useful and arguably better than having these on traditional hard drives.

For almost the entire time I had the Synology NAS, I did set up storage on NVMe drives. I even upgraded from DSM 6.x to 7.x with this in place, and not once did having this set up cause any issues. I was able to have my Docker containers run off of solid state storage, keeping all those small reads and writes away from the hard drives.

Power consumption

One of the key selling points of something like the DS920+ is its low power consumption. The exact power consumption of course depends on what software you run on the device and with how many drives. But generally speaking, the benefit of having such underpowered hardware is that it doesn't really consume much, even at full tilt.

Even with the few Docker containers I had on it running off of solid state storage, the hard drives were never able to park, reducing power consumption. Something was always  poking those drives. Attempts to figure out what was causing it and how I could solve it yielded little useful results. I just ended up being able to get them to park once I fully disable most services on the NAS – kind of defeating the purpose of having the thing in the first place.

So in the two years I had it running, it always consumed around 60Wh. I know it could go down all the way to 11Wh, but as mentioned before, that was only possible by turning the entire thing effectively into a very expensive hard drive dock.

But that's what this is? It's is a NAS, a Network-attached storage device

For me, I tend to judge products relative to their price. By that I mean if something was particularly affordable, I can accept some minor woes more easily, as it's overall still a great deal.

The Synologoy DS920+ is positioned in a way that it cannot deliver what it (over-)promises. As a direct-attached storage device (DAS) that cannot do anything beyond storing and serving data over the network, this would be a fine offering at maybe $200-250.

As a NAS and at at almost $700, however, it's an underpowered device that cannot reasonably do all that it advertises it can. Whatever you run on this that you might depend on could in the blink of an eye become unresponsive if a random photo index triggered.

Photo of the Synology DS920+ standing alongside a Dell Wyse "Thin client", along with several other network components like a switch, modem, and wireless access point.

Reducing its responsibilities

Starting to feel somewhat desperate, I tried to reduce its responsibilities as much as I could. I had an older Dell Wyse thin client that I originally got for a different project that didn't pan out. So I installed Fedora Server on it, and migrated every single Docker container over to it. The new mini server, dubbed Wyseguy, mounted up necessary volumes from the Synology using NFS mounts.

I even disabled additional Synology features photo indexing and whatnot, replacing these with solutions like Photoprism that also ran on the tiny, ultra low powered Wyseguy.

This meant the Synology was basically reduced to mostly running as a DAS, with the exception of Jellyfin that I kept running on the Synology. Mind you, my home was 100% 1080p at the time, and Jellyfin never transcoded any content. It was always just straight passing everything through, so the overhead of running Jellyfin was very small.

It's kind of ridiculous to have spent $700 on a glorified hard drive dock.

It's kind of ridiculous to have spent $700 on a glorified hard drive dock, but at this point I was desperate to try to find a way to just have the damn thing work without causing me so many headaches.

This actually ended up working alright for a while. Granted, this added an extra 11Wh of power consumption in my network closet. But if it worked and would allow me to stop thinking about this all, so be it.

But it also further exemplified the issue; this tiny, fanless, old, ~6-9Wh thin client runs these few docker containers better than the Synology did, without breaking a sweat. No sudden slowdowns. No sudden crashes. No device suddenly disappearing off of the network for no discernable reason.

And this was with its stock 4GB RAM (!) even. I did end up upgrading this just to give it a bit more breathing room.

Photo of the Dell Wyse thin client and two new-in-box RAM sticks laying in front of it, ready to be upgraded.

When it rains..

And then the Synology's power supply kicked the bucket.

Granted, this could happen to any device. And again, on its own, this really wouldn't be a huge deal. But the bucket was already near-flowing over at best. With its power supply giving up the ghost now, after all that I had already gone through with this thing, made the one realization I've been reluctant to fully accept unavoidable; I cannot trust the Synology NAS.

I cannot trust the Synology NAS.

Ultimately, the problem wasn't (just) Synology or the DS920+ specifically. It was the expectations I had for it, how it failed to live up to what it advertised as being capable of. And how it was accompanied by all these other (minor) nuisances and issues.

My requirements, while easily matching with what Synology claims the DS920+ can do, were too much for their under-powered hardware and dumbed-down and proprietary software layers. I simply wasn't the right target audience for this product.

I simply wasn't the right target audience for this product.

I, too, know enough about computers and hardware to know that their asking price was way too high judged purely on a hardware level. The price could also not be justified by its reliability, as it has been anything but reliable for me these past two years.

It simply was a mistake, and it was time for me to just accept that and finally do something about it.

I did quickly purchase a new power supply just so I could get access to my data again. Along with that I started making plans for what would ultimately replace the Synology.

Synology was a reasonable choice for me to consider two years ago, but I know now that it's just not able to do what it advertises.

Photo of the Synology DS920+ standing on the floor along with its manual and power supply.

I don't want this conclusion to read as a strong recommendation against buying Synology hardware. I am sure their offerings have a target audience. I'd just want to suggest that you are absolutely certain you are in that target audience before biting the bullet. If you're not, you might end up like me and spend more time and effort on it than a custom built NAS would have.

I finished this write-up a few months after I had already sold the Synology. I'd like to follow this post up with what I ended up going with as my replacement for the Synology, in case this can be helpful to some of you out there.

I can already tell you that these past few months of using my custom built NAS have been so much more enjoyable than dealing with the Synology ever was. I should've done this two and a half years ago. Hindsight.