Synology DiskStation Manager, now significantly more accessible

It’s said that good things come to those who wait. Those of us who’ve had Synology network attached storage devices for sometime have been concerned by the lack of accessibility in the user interface for the operating system powering these devices, DiskStation Manager, affectionately known as DSM for short.

In May 2014, I purchased a Synology NAS device. At the time, I wrote a lengthy blog entry, praising its many great features, but lamenting the inaccessibility of the interface for configuring it. Sadly, it’s an all-too-common problem with NAS devices.

Soon after I wrote that blog post, I was contacted by someone from Synology, letting me know that they knew there was an accessibility issue with their products that needed addressing, and that it was on their road map to address it. Synology asked that I not make comment here on the blog, because they didn’t want to set expectations that might be dashed if they couldn’t deliver as soon as customers would like.

It’s taken a couple of major cycles, but Synology’s DSM 6.0 has taken a dramatic leap forward in accessibility. So if you’re considering purchasing a NAS, Synology should be high on your list of contenders. Rather than ask you to jump back and forth between the blog post I wrote in May 2014 and this one, I’ve decided to write a new version of that post. It reflects my nearly two years of experience with running a Synology product, and is right up-to-date with accessibility as it stands presently. I’ll predominantly focus on how you might use a device like this at home, since system administrators will already be well aware of what a NAS device is and what it can do.

A chance remark by a friend of mine a couple of years 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, which I ran during Mushroom FM’s down period, 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, especially in this age of Apple Music where millions of songs are a Siri command away. 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 devices to the cloud. Not many do, and quite a few offering the service 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 on my computer. Some of them impacted quite markedly on system performance. They also demonstrated just how easy it was for the NAS I was using before, 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.

I own the DS214Play. This is a two-bay NAS, and I put a Western Digital Red 4TB drive in both bays, running Raid for redundancy. What this means is that if one drive fails, your data is intact on the other. While 8TB of storage is tempting, I had cause to be very glad I’d opted for the Raid solution a few months after my purchase, when one of the drives failed. The Synology started beeping incessantly at me, and emailing me to tell me that all wasn’t well with one of the drives. Since I was well within the warranty period for the WD drive that had failed, they replaced it for me, no questions asked. All I had to do was remove the defective drive, pop the new one into the drive bay, and DSM took care of copying all the data from the good drive to the replacement drive, thus once again ensuring I had two copies of everything. It was a simple process, and the fact that I opted for Raid saved my precious data.

I chose the 214Play because it has a good processor speed, ample RAM, and is designed for multimedia work. When setting up the NAS in 2014, I found the only viable option was to enlist the help of one of my kids as a human screen reader. Things are humming along nicely with my DSM, so I haven’t restored to factory defaults since accessibility has been improved to see if I could set up a fresh system myself, but I think it might be possible. Certainly managing users and groups is now doable.

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, so hopefully the new accessibility changes makes all of this just as friendly for a screen reader user.

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, FTP server, web server, Drupal, WordPress and much more. My kids, major Minecraft buffs, were impressed to learn that you can run a Minecraft server right on the NAS. So essentially, this can perform most tasks you’d expect from an always-on, server-style computer. 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 enable Telnet and SSH. It’s essentially Linux underneath after all. 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.

Many of these tricks may no longer be necessary after the release of DSM 6.0. The increase in accessibility with this version is dramatic. Synology has sought to emulate a full OS experience with it’s web-based user interface. So when you log in, you’ll find a rich Internet application. This is not a simple web page full of links. It’s making extensive use of ARIA to give you access to menus, context menus, and treeview categories.

I’ve had good results using much of the interface with JAWS 17 and Firefox. So far, I’ve been able to update packages for DSM. I’ve edited users, done a security analysis of the drive, and explored the Control Panel. All of these tasks were extremely difficult previously.

Since the user interface is web-based, there may be a little bit of lag between when you activate an option and when it’s available on the screen. It’s also possible that there may still be work Synology needs to do. But with these building blocks in place, hopefully improvements to the user interface can be made more easily and quickly.

When I wrote my first blog post about Synology products in 2014, they offered a demo site where you could log in and play with a real NAS device. This was a great way for blind people to experience the interface for themselves before buying the product. Sadly, it seems that the demo unit may no longer be on-line for people to see just how much improved things now are.

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 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.

I have experimented with a range of cloud-based backup services, including Amazon Glacier and OneDrive. I found Glacier to be quite slow, even on our fibre connection with a maximum upload speed of 200 MBPS. In the end, I’ve settled on Dropbox. I pay their $9.95 a month for 1TB of storage, and back things up to Dropbox that are irreplaceable. I have the peace of mind of being able to see via the Dropbox website or iOS app that everything is backing up as it should, and the speed of the backup is quite good.

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 DS Audio iOS app. DS Audio 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, including the lossless FLAC format. Genius! So now that it’s set up, I can truly play absolutely anything, anywhere, all from my phone.

This gives you all the benefits of the iOS experience, but frees you from the walled garden of Apple’s limited format support. Many people don’t like fooling with iTunes, so the Synology and its companion iOS apps can replace the need for you to sync music and playlists. Simply copy the music you want onto your NAS device, and access it using DS Audio.

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.

Before we became a Sonos household, we’d use DS Audio for parties. We’d get all attendees to install the DS Audio app, log them in using a special party account, and everyone could add their choice of music to the queue of songs playing on the Apple TV.

DS Audio 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 accessible. This means that as long as you store any kind of content on your NAS, you have access to it, be it a photo, a video or a document, from your iPhone.

And of course, you can map any folder as a drive in Windows or OS X, so everyone can have access to the family music and video library from any computer. You can also have password-protected accounts for individual family members for sensitive data that just belongs to them.

Recently, we’ve invested significantly in Sonos audio products, which work beautifully with our Synology NAS. It’s a one-off set-up process to tell Sonos where your audio lives on the Synology NAS. Sonos indexes it, and makes all the audio content available for playing on any Sonos device.

With a number of Macs in the house, it’s also great that the Synology NAS devices work as a Time Machine backup server. Set up an account for Time Machine backups, allocate a quota of the disk to be used for this purpose, set it up on your Mac, and forget it. Time Machine just does its thing on your Mac in the background, and you can take comfort from knowing that if you ever need to completely start over, it’s easy. In fact, I used my Time machine backup to upgrade from a MacBook Air to a MacBook Pro. The whole process was totally accessible. I was able to set it going on its merry way, and walk away while all my settings transferred.

In summary, the Synology DS214Play is a welcome addition to our network here at home that is quite the game changer. I sometimes forget how much it is doing, because once set up, I’ve hardly ever had to play with it. Every month, it emails me with a report on the health of the disks. Sometimes it tells me when it’s going to update itself. But other than that, it’s just there, unobtrusively offering a bunch of fantastic functionality.

The increased accessibility found in DSM 6.0 will be particularly welcome by those who don’t have ready access to sighted assistance, and also for system administrators who are perfectly capable of managing devices like this, but have been thwarted in their ability to do their job because of rampant inaccessibility in many NAS products from a wide range of manufacturers.

Well done to Synology for listening to its blind users and making a huge leap forward.