Recently, I recycled a decade-old Mac Mini. It was my first personal Mac, after owning and building my own PCs for years. It was cheap but somewhat underpowered, and eventually it got too slow to use as an everyday computer; first I relegated the box to file serving duties, and then when that got too unwieldy the Mac Mini was parked under the TV as overqualified streaming box. The myriad of roles and surprisingly lengthy lifespan, though, speaks to the quality and versatility of Mac hardware a generation ago.
Over the years, laptops have replaced desktops1 and streaming boxes have been superseded by the excellent Chromecast streaming stick, but that centralized file server use case stuck with me. Since modern computing involves combinations of multiple devices—usually smartphones and personal computers, sometimes tablets and work computers as well—syncing data across those devices has become critical in tying it all together. Dropbox figured out that importance early on, but OS-level integrations from each OS vendor—Apple iCloud, Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive—have elevated the feature to the mainstream consciousness. If nothing else, photos is the killer app for persistent cloud storage.
Cloud storage, though, doesn’t work as well for bigger files and in particular lengthier videos, both due to the cost of that storage and the bandwidth required to upload and download them over an external network. Network attached storage (NAS) devices address this niche: they can either be thought of as an always-available remote drive from any other device in the house, or a sizable chunk of cloud storage that happens to be only accessible locally. Most old computers, like my ancient Mac Mini, can be repurposed as simple file servers precisely to serve this role. But I’ve always been interested in how a dedicated NAS would work, and once the Mac Mini started running out of storage space I did some research and eventually ended up trying out an entry-level Synology NAS for personal use.
Synology boxes are essentially specialized PCs, built with standard components where the main point of differentiation between their products is the quality of CPU and RAM, and how many hard drives the box can support. They have built their own operating system, the DiskStation Manager, with packages (i.e., apps and services) that enables most of the functionality. From download managers to media servers to cloud storage clients2, the available packages end up replicating a bunch of common services run by a traditional server with a more user-friendly interface. It is a bit concerning that much of this functionality relies on their engineers wrapping popular open (and some closed) source packages into their own proprietary stack, but at least the company has been around for almost 20 years.
Granted, a tiny form-factor PC can replicate the same hardware for possibly cheaper and would provide more flexibility and perhaps even more longevity, running standard Windows or Linux packages and apps. Synology and NAS boxes, though, are easy to start and effortless to maintain: the OS keeps itself up-to-date and ensures periodic disk health checks are prioritized, the hardware is built for storage and even supports their own RAID format variant that’s easy to get up-and-running, and Synology also maintains its own mobile apps as analogs to the more fully-featured desktop/web apps.
All that being said, local file management is ultimately trending downwards. The aforementioned cloud services are only getting better, and for everything else streaming subscriptions—both music and video—have stepped up in convenience and selection to make hauling around and maintaining personal collections mostly unnecessary3. Perhaps on some level, it comes down to the simple satisfaction of keeping my own data, on my own storage, accessible only from within my network.