A friend recently sent me a Synology RackStation that was destined for e-waste. Full of drives no smaller than what I feed my existing storage server, no less. A good friend indeed, amiright?
He said it had been upgraded to the 6GB “maximum” — 2GB “onboard” plus a 4GB DDR3 SO-DIMM. I don’t know much about Synology hardware but in the past I’d randomly acquired the knowledge that sometimes the “onboard” RAM is actually a SO-DIMM on the underside of the board.
And sure enough, there it is. Seems an odd design choice given that this RackStation’s motherboard is so much larger than it needs to be… but I guess odd choices are the norm for companies that tie their software and services to seemingly over-priced custom-engineered hardware instead of just selling software and services on their actual value.
So my RackStation now has 16GB RAM. In theory this system should support 32GB RAM but 16GB DDR3 SO-DIMMs carry around a 10X premium over 8GB so I’m not about to find out.
To me the killer Synology feature is Active Backup for Business, which is only available on certain models (+ / x64?). As a total slut for centrally-managed backups and bare-metal restores, I moved to urbackup after Microsoft abandoned the fantastic client PC backup system included with Windows Home Server & Server Essentials. Urbackup is about the only Open Source backup system that does Windows decently, is properly multi-platform and multi-arch, and offers change block tracking and Hyper-V host-based VM backups as commercialized add-ons for reasonable fees (or free via the community edition of their commercialized virtual appliance).
ABB is much better by most measures. It’s prettier. It’ll do agentless VMware and Hyper-V VM backups. It can backup “unsupported” platforms via rsync and SMB. Backup times are fast — none of my daily tasks run over 15 minutes — and with a household full of laptop users that’s critical to keeping them current. I’ve yet to try a bare-metal restore but individual files and whole VMs run about as fast as the storage/network can muster.
I see a few areas where ABB could do better:
- Backup task settings are individual to the device. There are Templates whose settings are applied at the initial creation of a device’s backup task, but after that the task’s settings are independent from the original Template. There’s no mechanism to perform changes in bulk. It is possible to create a new task for multiple devices at once, but that will create individual tasks for each. Backed up data is tied to a particular task and the interface warns that removing a task will remove all the data, so that’s not a path to faking bulk updates.
- From the Portal, the presentation of BitLocker-encrypted volumes within Hyper-V VMs is concerning. BitLocker-encrypted volumes from “PC/Mac” and “Physical Server” backup tasks are visible and browsable through the Portal like any other volume, but from a Hyper-V VM backup the volumes do not show up in the Portal at all. I tested an Instant Restore to Synology’s Virtual Machine Manager — the volume was properly restored and, unexpectedly, VMM provided vTPM functionality so the VM operated normally after initially entering the recovery key.
So this is a case of the Portal interface being misleading and not an actual problem.
- ReFS volumes are not supported. ReFS is over a decade old and still struggles with 3rd-party support. Heck, it’s not clear that Microsoft really wants to support it as a general-purpose filesystem. Which is sad because we’ve got nearly 20 years of ZFS advocates shouting at us that copy-on-write, checksumming filesystems are the greatest thing since the hierarchical filesystem and if you’re not using one you don’t care at all about your data and probably kick your dog.
I mostly use ReFS for Hyper-V datastores so this is an effective way to filter them out from backups of a Hyper-V host as a “Physical Server” without having to manually customize their backup tasks.
- BTRFS volumes are not supported. Which is odd because it requires BTRFS for backup storage. Despite its protests, in my testing it did backup an LVM-based BTRFS system but does not restore LVM to a usable state. BTRFS within a Hyper-V VM was fine.
- Linux Agent is x64-only. If you want to backup ARM/MIPS/RISC-V/32-bit Linux devices, you’ll be doing it old school via rsync or SMB. But at least it’ll be a centrally-managed pull instead of an unmanaged client-initiated push where you’ll need to come up with some other method to notice when your backup jobs have failed (you always have monitoring of your important cronjobs, right?)
- Desktop “PC/Mac” and Windows/Linux “Physical Server” are handled slightly different. A Windows “Physical Server” backup can be restored to VMware/Hyper-V/VMM while a “PC/Mac” backup cannot. A Windows “PC/Mac” device can be changed to a “Physical Server” but not the reverse. And, sorry Linux desktop users, you can only be a “Physical Server.” There’s also a minor scheduling difference, see below.
- Backup scheduling is rigid. Backup tasks are scheduled for specific times and days-of-the-week and will not be made up if missed or interrupted. For PC/Mac backups it is possible to have a backup task triggered when a user logs off, the screen locks, and/or at startup, but for laptop users those may not be sufficient to stay within desired backup intervals.
With all of the backup systems I’ve previously used, I would define backup windows and target intervals and the system would figure out when to actually initiate backups. Missed or interrupted backups would be made up automatically at the next window or availability of the client, depending on the configuration.
A problem for Future Me is that DSM 7.2.x will go out-of-maintenance in mid-2025 and it’s probable that 7.3 will not support this hardware. The current nearest equivalent is the RS2423+ at $1,999.99. That’s a big chunk of change to spend up front for backups over the 7-9 years of expected support. A RS822+, DS1522+, DS923+, DS723+, or even DS423+ might be suitable for Future Me’s primary use case of backing up other systems, I’ll need to see how much storage backups consume after soaking for a year… but it’s hard to get over my preference for software that doesn’t lock me into hardware.