With its dual-core processor, up to 8GB of RAM and four Gigabit Ethernet ports, the new DiskStation DS3611xs from Synology is a lot more server-like than your average storage appliance. It can even be expanded and equipped with 10GbE to deliver ultra-fast iSCSI access to up to 100TB of storage, putting it firmly into the mid-range as far as storage appliances go. And yet it's remarkably easy to manage and a lot more affordable than others in the sector.
The DS3611xs is housed in a robust all-metal chassis that houses a compact motherboard with its Intel Core i3 processor. The motherboard is tucked away, making maintenance far from easy should you want to expand the 2GB of RAM that's fitted as standard.
The storage is a lot more accessible, with 12 hot-swap drive bays sitting front and centre. Access to the bays is now protected by a key lock (a long-overdue enhancement), with metal carriers to take SATA disks that, as with other Synology appliances, can be more or less any make or capacity up to 3TB in either 3.5in. or 2.5in. format.
This arrangement delivers a maximum capacity of 36TB, although that can be increased by adding one or two DX1211 expansion units (£750 ex. VAT each). These attach via 12GB/sec InfiniBand ports at the rear, adding a further 12 drives each to the mix.
You can expand the DiskStation DS3611xs with the 12-bay DX1211, via an InfiniBand port
External disks can also be attached via a set of four USB connectors at the rear. However, these are USB 2.0 only and are more for backup than capacity expansion. The USB ports can also be used to share printers.
Although it's possible to mix and match drives using the built-in Synology Hybrid RAID (SHR) technology, life is a lot easier if you stick to just one specification — preferably fairly high-end. Of course that will add to the cost, but it needn't be that expensive. For our tests, for example, Synology sent us a full set of a dozen 500GB Samsung SpinPoint drives, which we found available online at a remarkable £25 (ex. VAT) each. So our 6TB of storage added just £300 (ex. VAT) to the overall price.
On the downside, there's no support for SAS and still no ability to exploit the latest 6Gbps SATA III disks.
Network attachment is handled by a set of four Gigabit Ethernet interfaces; there's also a PCI Express expansion slot that can be used to add four more or a couple of 10Gbps ports. An Intel X520 adapter is required to get 10GbE, but these are available for twisted-pair or fibre cabling at around £450 (ex. VAT).
With that amount of bandwidth to play with, Synology claims a throughput of over 1,000MB/sec. However, achieving that kind of performance isn't as straightforward as it might seem.
We started out by testing using a single Gigabit port, using the open-source Iometer tool to generate a typical workload from a Windows 2008 R2 server. With this setup we recorded an average throughput of 112MB/sec to a 12-disk RAID 5 array connected via iSCSI.
Configuring additional network ports made no difference, as each was assigned its own IP address. So one way to take advantage of the extra bandwidth would be to share the appliance across multiple networks, each attached to a different port.
Another solution is to use 802.3ad link aggregation to, effectively, join interfaces together to create a single logical pipe. Unfortunately, the switch to which the appliance is attached must also support 802.3ad for this to work, which effectively means a mid-range smart switch or more expensive managed product.
To see an effect on our server we also had to setup an adapter team, ultimately getting just over 200MB/sec throughput when we tested using dual gigabit interfaces at both ends.
Like other Synology appliances, the DS3611xs runs a Linux-derived OS with a graphical management interface known as DSM (Disk Station Manager). This is easy to get to grips with, and we had no problems configuring NAS file sharing on our mixed Windows and Linux network. However, setting up the appliance for iSCSI and choosing the best redundancy setup wasn't quite as straightforward; there are lots of options to choose from and we had to try several combinations before we got what we wanted.
Fortunately the DS3611xs made light work of configuring the various arrays we tried, taking a lot less time to initialise the disks than most budget appliances.
Another plus is a host of bundled applications that can be configured to run on the DSM operating system. Some, like the integrated iTunes server, are aimed more at home users than businesses, but there's an Apache web server complete with PHP and MySQL database support, plus an SMTP email server. Active Directory integration also comes as standard, along with a firewall and other security options. For companies with IP cameras, a video surveillance tool is available to centrally record and manage footage.
Although it's reasonably quiet in operation, the DS3611xs could still be intrusive in an open-plan environment. It's also limited to a single power supply so, for those requiring a more reliable solution, a rack-mount implementation — the RS3411xs — is available with redundant power as an option.
Both have performance to spare, and properly configured these new Synology appliances are a force to be reckoned with in the storage arena.