My new Synology NAS. Great product, NASty accessibility

A chance remark by a friend of mine a few weeks ago saw me embarking on quite a journey. He asked me if I had one of the Synology NAS (network attached storage) devices. When I indicated that not only did I not have one, but I wasn’t familiar with that manufacturer, he launched into quite a soliloquy about how incredible they were, and how having one was like having your own Linux-based server in your house. My friend Gordon knows his tech, so I decided to bring myself up to speed.
Coincidentally, we had this conversation just as the idea of the Mosen Channel was crystallising. I’ve kept a lot of my terrestrial and Internet radio shows over the years, mainly so I can pass them on to subsequent generations of my family. As I was going through the extensive archives, I was reminded about a glaring flaw in my backup strategy. I take backing up very seriously, but one area where my approach fell short was that there was no off-site backup. If my main network drive failed, I have copies of my irreplaceable data in other locations, but all those locations were in my house. Having a backup elsewhere would guard against data loss in the case of some sort of disaster. I’m not so concerned with music I could get again, but it’s the personal mementos, not just radio stuff but home recordings of my kids, that I really care about.
When researching this question, I finally found a few back-up services that would allow you to back up network attached storage to the cloud. Not many do, and quite a few that do charge a premium for the feature. These services varied widely in their accessibility, and I didn’t like having the application running in the background all the time. Some of them impacted quite markedly on system performance. They also demonstrated just how easy it was for the NAS I was using, the Western Digital MyBook Live, to get bogged down. The processor in it is on the old side now, and if a couple of Time Machine backups and another cloud backup package were writing to the drive, it was affecting data access.
The Synology Disk Station products are powered by their own operating system, Disk Station Manager (DSM for short). When I started to research the feature set of DSM, I was delighted to learn that by installing a number of packages, which effectively are apps for the OS, Synology Disk Stations can be backed up to a number of cloud services, including Amazon Glacier. Glacier is an extremely cheap form of mass-storage, designed for occasional retrieval, so it’s ideal for making a cheap backup of last resort.
I was impressed to read glowing reviews of Synology Disk Stations by almost everybody. Many IT people I trust said Synology make the best NAS products on the market, period.
Looking at the wide range of models of Disk Station available, it reminded me a bit of Nokia’s Symbian days. There are quite a few models with subtle differences and models full of numbers and letters. Synology offers a handy feature on their site where you can indicate what features are important to you, and you get a narrowed down list of products based on your specifications.
Having done some reading, I placed my order for my first Synology product last week, and promptly cancelled it. My usual rule of thumb is that after researching a product range and determining what I’ll buy, I make the purchase online, and busy myself reading the user guide and doing whatever research I can until the product arrives.
Right after placing the order, I stumbled upon a very helpful feature on the Synology website. You can actually log in to one of their NAS devices, and experience the user interface for yourself.
To do this, visit http://demo.synology.com:5000. The username is admin, and the password is synology. You’re then working in a real drive, with a few of the functions disabled for security reasons.
After logging in, I was confronted with what I can only nicely call the significant accessibility challenges of the DSM user interface. With a bit of JAWS cursor work and some judicious pressing of Enter on clickable elements, quite a bit can be done. It seems to work far better in Firefox than it does in IE. However, one of the most significant issues is that checkboxes and radio buttons are non-standard, and do not appear to screen readers as the controls they are. In practical terms, what this means is that you might go into a screen where you have the option to enable a feature. The control behaves like a checkbox, but a screen reader will see an unlabelled button. You have no way of knowing if that option is checked or not, so a lot of trial and error is involved. With a patient sighted person’s help, you can get a lot more done by using the JAWS features allowing you to assign names to buttons and elements on the web.

When you access the device from Safari in iOS, you get a stripped down, different interface, and in some ways it’s more friendly for completing some tasks without help, using the VoiceOver screen reader built into iOS. So that’s worth a shot.
So, much as I liked the feature set of the Synology Disk Stations, I cancelled my order to give myself a chance to rethink.
When I googled the matter of the accessibility problems with the OS, I was disappointed to read that Synology had been made well aware of the problems screen reader users are having, but to date have done nothing about them. This didn’t fill me with confidence.
It is very hard to match the performance and feature set of the Synology products, but I was able to try the web UI of a couple of other NAS products. They really weren’t much better. The Twitter exchanges I’ve had on this topic over the last couple of weeks would suggest there is a serious overall problem with access to quality NAS products by screen reader users. For those of us using products like this as I am, at home and for my small business, it’s a bit of an inconvenience and work-arounds of a sort exist. More about those in a moment. But the real concern for me is that for blind people who are perfectly competent network administrators, it can create serious problems when a company they work for deploys these products that are inaccessible. It’s hard enough for blind people to get jobs as it is, without these tough interfaces making it harder.
After realising that I was unlikely to find anything that did what I wanted that would be accessible, I went back and ordered another Synology product, the DS214Play. This is a two-bay NAS, and I put a Western Digital Red 4TB drive in both bays, running Raid for redundancy.
I chose the 214Play because it has a good processor speed, ample RAM, and is designed for multimedia work. I’ll talk more about some of the slick things it can do when I look at the accessibility of the iOS apps, but here’s a comprehensive review of the DS214Play.
When setting up the NAS, I found the only viable option was to enlist the help of one of my kids as a human screen reader. Notwithstanding the inaccessibility, the set-up of the drives, the opening of appropriate ports of your router for external services such as Telnet, SSH, FTP and more, and the installing of various packages to expand the drive’s functionality is an effortless and friendly experience if you can see the screen.
The set-up process also takes you through obtaining a quick connect ID. This makes it easy to connect your DiskStation via the free mobile apps, and is particularly useful if you have a dynamic IP address. For services like FTP, you can obtain a free dynamic DNS from Synology.
You can even use this device to run your own mail server, Drupal, WordPress and much more. I wonder if anyone has managed to get Icecast or Shoutcast working on it?
If you’re not afraid of getting your hands dirty with the command line, you can get a human screen reader to enable Telnet and SSH for you. The drive can then be controlled via the command line interface, which of course may not be the friendliest thing out there but is 100% accessible.
You can also create users and groups by carefully putting together a tab-delimited text file in Notepad, and running it through the importer in DSM. The Synology is a really good FTP server, so if you want to set up an FTP server and add people, the text file is a good way to get that job done.
Most people will want to migrate data from an old NAS or other storage device to their new one, and there are a couple of ways of getting this done. You can mount both the old and new volume on your computer and copy across that way, but a faster way if you have sighted assistance is to use File Station, a feature of DSM. File Station lets you mount an external drive as a volume on the Synology NAS. What this means is that you can then use the web UI to copy all the data from the old volume to the new one. The process all takes place in the background. No computer is involved, and if both devices are hard-wired to the router with good cabling, it goes like a rocket, even while DSM is verifying volumes after the installation of new drives.
Having to depend so much on sighted assistance for a computer task in 2014 does not sit well with me in the slightest. But it was a necessary evil given that I couldn’t find anything accessible to do what I wanted as well as the Synology does. Now that I have it set up the way I want, it really is impressive. It’s very fast, it can do a bunch of intensive tasks without breaking a sweat, and as I write this, it’s happily backing itself up to Amazon Glacier with no discernible impact on anything else I need to do.
Apart from the peace of mind of having my data backed up to the cloud without me having to worry about it, and all the seamless support for various ways of accessing content including a virtual private network, I’m very impressed with the Synology AudioStation iOS app. This is like a super-sized iTunes Match, and indeed I’m now considering not renewing my iTunes Match subscription for another year. One of the problems with iTunes Match is the paltry 25000 tracks you’re allowed to upload to it. This is a fraction of my music collection, and it means I need to maintain two iTunes libraries, one for iTunes Match and a general one. AudioStation gives me access to my entire audio collection, anywhere I have an Internet connection. I’ve now set up the indexing so that not only my music, but also the spoken word content I have such as old time radio and audio described movies is all available through this app.
And this is where a feature of the DS214Play comes in very handy. Quite a bit of the spoken word audio I have is encoded in OGG Vorbis, which the default Music app in iOS doesn’t play. The DS214Play has a transcoder built in. Behind the scenes, without you needing to even worry about the fact that this is going on, the NAS takes an OGG file, re-encodes it on the fly, and sends it to the iPhone in MP3 so it can be played. It will also do this with a raft of other audio and video formats. Genius! So now that it’s set up, I can truly play absolutely anything, anywhere, all from my phone.
When you first install the current version of the AudioStation iOS app, there’s one accessibility issue that can be fixed. When you flick through the list of albums, VoiceOver speaks nothing. This was seriously limiting my use of the app, until I discovered that the problem can be fixed by going into the app’s Settings, and changing the view to “List”. Voila, albums now speak.
Some of the buttons are labelled in a bit of a verbose way, but there’s nothing that prevents use of this remarkable app. This gives you all the benefits of the iOS experience, but frees you from the walled garden of Apple’s limited format support and small iTunes Match size.
The NAS itself is DLAN and Airplay-aware, so you can, for example, send content directly from the NAS to an Apple TV, without having to get your iOS device involved at all. AudioStation for iOS really does have that “wow” factor. It is brilliant.
There are similar apps for video, downloading, photos, file management and more, and they are all useable.
In summary, the Synology DS214Play is a welcome addition to our network here at home that is quite the game changer. Setting it up is needlessly challenging. It occurs to me that there might be a bit of money to be made by a coder who could make an accessible GUI wrapper for the command line interface. And since most NAS manufacturers offer a command line interface with a common feature set, a product like this which takes user input from a GUI and sends it to the command line could be used on a wide range of drives. If any blind person fancies having a go at this, I’d love to test.

But I hope we might be able to use this post to somehow start a conversation with Synology about solving the accessibility issues once and for all. If you own one of the DiskStation products, I’d love to get your experiences, tips and tricks in the comments. If you’ve wanted to purchase one, but have been put off by the considerable accessibility problems, I’d like to hear about that too. Finally, if you are using an alternative product in this field that you really like and has good accessibility, that would be good to know.

2 Comments

  1. BurningBeard

    Thanks for the informative article. I’ve been running media servers out of the house for a little over a year now using Subsonic and it runs like a dream. I branched into Plex to handle movies and TV because it handles video better and interfaces with TV set top boxes like the Roku better than Subsonic does. But my storage has been entirely based around 1TB externals hooked up to the PC. A little inelegant to say the least. I was wondering about a NAS to compensate for the duct tape and hope strategy I’ve been employing and the accessibility portion of it always concerned me.

    Subsonic’s web UI is great from an accessibility standpoint from what I can tell. Plex’s could use some work, but with sighted assistance and some judicious button labeling I’m sure it could be made functional too. I have limited vision and use that to get what I need done, so YMMV if there’s less vision involved. As for the mobile apps, Subsonic’s got several developed by a number of third parties, some more accessible than others. ISub on iOS would be the go-to for the visually impaired. Again, Plex’s app is less accessible. It’s functional with some work, but I imagine some frustrating issues would arise from the totally blind set. Thought I would share these options, because I know for certain that Plex has support through Synology’s DSM, and it appears that someone’s hacked together a Subsonic package as well. I just thought I’d share these if you wanted to investigate streaming options outside of what Synology offers themselves, and thank you again for going through the setup process. It definitely makes me less gun shy about transitioning to a NAS solution.

    Running Win7/NVDA and iOS/voiceover. Haven’t tested any other platforms/screen readers, FYI

  2. Sabahattin Gucukoglu

    I agree that the NAS appliance situation is not good for us.

    If you just need storage, there is of course Apple’s Time Capsule. This is an excellent product at what it does, however from the feature set you described this is not going to be adequate.

    I realise that the virtues of home server automation aren’t quite as slick this way, but there are no shortage of web interfaces for the many packages typically on NAS products. Check out FreeNAS, ClearOS or Webmin. These packages are usually very accessible, but you’ll have to roll up your sleeves and deploy your own always-on computer running Linux. All you have to do is get a quiet small-form-factor box that’ll run 24/7 and has fast access to the network and to disks (so try to avoid USB).

    If you have a free Mac, you can install OS X Server onto it. If it has fast enough interfaces, it can do the vast majority of what you’ll need. Unfortunately my experience doing this has been that you still need to baby sit it a lot, in particular because Apple Remote Desktop is not accessible, and you can’t do everything from the command-line or remotely using the Server app. This means that even updating the software requires you have a keyboard attached. Furthermore while nothing prevents you running iTunes on a headless Mac, it’s still quite a chore to organise media over the wire, because as I’m sure you know it’s not easy to manipulate a library by simultaneously accessing it from multiple computers without causing issues. I will probably turn my Mac Mini into a Linux box before long, and do this thing properly. It’s also a good opportunity to think about coming down from the cloud a bit.

    Right now, my mail and web servers are in the cloud with iTunes match that is redundantly enabled, my remote backups are done to Glacier with Arq on the desktop which is always-on and provides BitTorrent sync to the other gear, iTunes runs as an application with my iOS devices using 256K AAC encodes of lossless FLAC rips, and my local backups are done to a Time Capsule. In short, it’s a bit of a mess with some serious room for improvement. With a dedicated machine all of that could come home, except perhaps the Apple software updates cache, which is probably the one feature of OS X server I’ll miss for about 5 minutes, given my Internet connection speed.

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