Synology vs Drobo: Battle of the desktop NAS devices

David Gewirtz compares two leading desktop network attached storage devices, the Drobo 5N and the Synology DS916+. If you're looking for small business network storage, read this.

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Drobo and Synology face off in a battle of the NASes.

I've been using Drobo desktop NAS devices for the better part of eight years. When Synology asked me to look at their offering, I decided to put it through the test.

In my previous article, I described Synology's very impressive Cloud Sync product. In this article, I'll compare the similar Drobo and Synology RAID NAS devices, the Drobo 5N and the Synology DS916+.

Capacity

Both Synology and Drobo offer a wide variety of models with varying number of bays and capacity. I happen to have a five bay Drobo, and a four bay Synology.

In terms of breadth of offerings, measured in capacity, Synology goes from a 2-bay unit all the way up to a 24-bay SAS or SATA SSD unit. Drobo has a narrower set of offerings, with four, eight, and 12-bay models only.

Winner: Synology

Storage architectures

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While Synology offers a wider variety of models (an almost dizzying number, with barely understandable product naming), Drobo offers more than just NAS devices. The company also has a line of direct-attached RAID products (I own three of these), a tiny portable SSD RAID device, and iSCSI SAN storage solutions.

Winner: Drobo

Build quality

I'll admit this is subjective. I haven't performed any detailed tests, but the Drobo has a better fit and finish. It feels more robust. The Synology has basic metal skins, and some thin plastic separating the drives. The Drobo has a more solid casing around its metal skin, with metal separating each drive bay.

Where the fit and finish becomes most apparent, however, is when you remove the cover to the drives. The cover for the Synology is pressure-attached with rubber feet, while the cover for the Drobo uses magnets. Attaching the Drobo cover is satisfying, while the Synology cover is a bit annoying and fiddly.

Winner: Drobo

Visible status indicators

One of Drobo's most outstanding features is how it integrates drive status into the case design. Each drive is represented by a large LED oval. If the oval is green, all is good. If it's red, you have a problem. It's possible to tell if there's a problem drive across the room. When I had drive failures, this visible indicator was the first thing I saw.

Synology's RAID also has LEDs that indicate status. They're much smaller, and certainly not visible from across the room.

Drobo also has an array of smaller LEDs on the bottom of the drive. As capacity fills up, the LEDs light up. So, for example, if the LED bar reaches halfway across the base of the machine, you know at a glance your RAID is half full.

Synology has nothing like this. It's the single biggest feature of the Drobo I miss with the new Synology NAS.

Winner: Drobo

Benchmark performance

I connected both the Drobo 5N and the Synology DS916+ to one switch, and ran the Black Magic Speed Test on both. The Drobo is equipped with 7200RPM drives, and an SSD buffer. The Synology is running slower 5400RPM drives.

drobo-vs-synology-speed.jpg

Synology wins, but not by much.

Even with slower drives, the Synology benchmarked about 10 percent faster than the Drobo. The Synology model I have also supports network bonding. While I tested with only one network port open, it's possible that the Synology might have exceeded its performance testing even more with a bonded port.

Winner: Synology

Management interface

There's no way to put this gently. The difference between the Synology DiskStation Manager (DSM) and the Drobo Dashboard is night and day. The Synology offering is vastly better.

Using the Drobo Dashboard feels like being forced all the way back to Windows 3 after using Windows 10. It's clunky. It's slow. It's far less capable.

Synology's DSM is a browser app (one of the crispest, smoothest examples of an Ajax app you'll ever see). Drobo requires you to install a program on your computer.

Synology's management dashboard gives you vastly more capabilities, as well. Take the most basic task: setting up a share. With the Synology, you can specify encryption, detailed options for permissions, and assign quotas. With the Drobo, you can assign access to users and delete the share. That's it.

file-management.jpg

Here's an example of the two interfaces.

Synology's management interface provides a broad range of other capabilities, including managing the network environment, in-interface file management, detailed management of the storage architecture, and far more.

Winner: Synology (by a landslide)

Network recycle bin

Here at Camp David, we've been using the Drobo as shares for years. One of the things we've come to learn is that if you delete a file from a network share, it's gone. There's no getting it back. There's no recycle bin.

This is how shares normally work over AFS or SMB, so it's not necessarily a failing of the Drobo. However, the Synology implements a network recycle bin, so that if you delete a file from the Synology via a mounted share, the Synology moves it to a recycle bin, where you can recover it later.

That's really nice. The only thing we have to be careful about is not becoming complacent. Since our shares on the Synology have a network recycle bin and our shares on the Drobo do not, we still need to double-check before deleting, because if we do delete a file on the Drobo, it's gone forever.

Winner: Synology

Cloud connectivity

Both Synology and Drobo offer some level of remote access to files and cloud connectivity.

I discussed the Synology offerings in depth in a previous article. The gist of that was that Synology has both backup and sync to popular cloud storage, including Google, AWS, Amazon Cloud Drive, Dropbox, and OneDrive. It's very nice, and works very well.

Drobo does not have access to these services. It has its own cloud access program, but compared to the well-established public clouds, it's just a bare-bones offering.

Winner: Synology

Available apps

Both Synology and Drobo offer their equivalent of an app store. Interestingly enough, both allow you to turn their devices into little mini servers, where you can run Apache web servers, and even serve a WordPress site.

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Managing the apps is a bit easier on the Synology. For example, I enabled the CrashPlan app on the Drobo. Synology doesn't support CrashPlan. Even though CrashPlan runs on the Drobo, it runs in headless mode.

To actually control it, you have to go into config files on a remote computer, make some very fiddly changes, and then you get access to CrashPlan...for a while. As soon as the CrashPlan console updates, it overwrites the custom config data, and you have to fiddle with it again. It's a royal pain.

Both vendors have a good-sized selection of apps, so in that regard, it would be a tie. But because the usability is so much better for the Synology, I have to give the category win to Synology.

Winner: Synology

File access performance

Everything about the Synology's performance is crisp. Granted, I have the model with 8GB of RAM, but still, it's very nice.

One of the frustrations we've become accustomed to dealing with when using our Drobos is the wait for a directory to load after mounting a drive. It can take 15-30 seconds (or more) for a directory to show up after a drive has been mounted. With the Drobo, there's always this little "is it working?" question we tend to think of while waiting for our files to show up.

Not so with the Synology. A share mount takes a second or so, and the directory appears almost immediately. That's very nice.

Winner: Synology

Conclusion

I like the Synology, but I don't have as much experience with it as with the Drobos. I'll tell you this: my Drobos have withstood the test of time. I've used them for eight years and even the very first one I bought is still in service and working. That's a big win.

The Drobos have also withstood drive fails relatively elegantly. Once a red light showed up, I merely popped out the old drive, inserted the new drive, and then worried and obsessed for the 48 or so hours until the new drive was fully integrated. But each time that happened, the new drive integrated automatically, and without hassle.

I haven't had a drive fail yet on the Synology, so I can't really tell how well it will perform a RAID drive swap. Keep that in mind as you read my concluding paragraphs.

The Synology is a little more expensive than the Drobo. A five-bay diskless Drobo is $489 on Amazon, where the 2GB four-bay 2GB DS916+ is $549 and the 8GB is $641. I recommend you splurge on the extra RAM.

I am very impressed with the Synology. It seems to be a much more capable device. Even though I haven't experienced the drive fail/replace cycle with the Synology, there's no doubt that if I needed to add a new RAID NAS device to my network, I'd now choose the Synology over the Drobo.

That doesn't mean I'm rushing to replace my Drobos. They're still workable (and three of them are directly-attached, which is a different beast than a NAS). It's just that the Synology solution raises the bar, reduces annoyance, and seems to be substantially more capable, making it worth the price premium.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

Video: Hybrid cloud storage, first look: Synology DS916+ super-NAS

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