There’s no denying it NAS are expensive devices. It’s never really been a secret that when you buy a Synology or QNAP NAS, half of what you’re paying for isn’t the hardware, but the software included. It is no different from when you buy a PC for the home, you aren’t just buying a CPU, memory and a computer to put it in – in order for a PC to function you need to purchase an operating system. Similarly, when you buy a NAS, you are buying both the hardware for the NAS Server and the software that lives upon it. The cost of NAS can often put people off when they realised that the CPU and memory inside could easily be out-built by a customised PC. Custom built NAS is not a new thing and for those who feel brave enough it is certainly an option worth considering. So today I want to look at one of the most popular Synology NAS devices you can buy in the market today, the Synology DS918+, and compare it against a FreeNAS custom build where you buy all of the hardware components individually to see which is best for your data.
Where possible we’re going to conform to as many of the standard put down by the hardware and software of Synology ds918. where we have exceeded the hardware available on this now as we have done so simply because it’s impossible to commercially by the smaller quantity of that resource. of course this is a guide and you can exceed the hardware provided below if you want to use a NAS server superior in hardware than the Synology.
Below I have broken down the components you will need and how each compares. So, let us get started with out NAS and FreeNAS comparison.
FreeNAS Build Versus Synology NAS – What should you buy?
When it comes to the free NAS software you literally cannot do better than ‘FreeNAS’. Over the years numerous network attached storage providing software has risen some paid for, some freeware, but by far the best is FreeNAS. Arriving in Multiple versions, as well as a paid version too, the sheer level of research and development that has gone into the FreeNAS software is truly unrivalled by other third-party NAS software providers. So straight away the first thing you’re going to need to do is download the FreeNAS software using the link below. it should arrive in ISO form or other forms of image that you will need to pop on a USB stick/BUrn to disc depending on the version and type of installation.
Next up we can talk about the hardware. Remember we are trying to make as close a copy of the Synology DS918 as we can. The best chassis and closest sized case that I could find is the one below. It also features numerous USB and audio ports for our use too.
Next we needed to consider the CPU and motherboard. The Synology DS918+ features an Intel J3455 based chip which is almost impossible to purchase independently. Luckily we were able to find this smaller form motherboard that featured everything we needed as well as including the CPU found on the Synology. Alongside this, it featured enough SATA ports and power for us to use it in our FreeNAS build.
On top of the CPU and motherboard, we of course need those other key parts of any PC build, the memory and PSU. The first issue that I encountered was trying to buy a PSU that would fit in this case and connect with this motherboard – BUT still of a power rating similar to that of the Synology. One of the key advantages of buying a ready-made NAS solution from companies like Synology or QNAP is that they are designed to be energy efficient and arrive with much lower wattage PSU inside. The Synology has a PSU much, much lower than that of a traditional PC case. This is not by accident, but by design, to lower overall running costs as well as stress placed on other components. Below is the lowest PSU that I was able to buy that was suitable for this build and as low as possible to match that of the Synology.
Likewise, the Synology and its memory are limited officially to 8GB. This custom build however could be upgraded with FreeNAS all the way up to 16GB with no problems. In order to keep it fair, I stuck with the 8GB as you would find in the Synology. It is also worth mentioning that the crucial DDR3L memory that I use in the custom FreeNAS build can also be used in a Synology DS918+ to upgrade it to 16GB (unofficially…shhh).
The next part was probably the most awkward when trying to copy the Synology NAS build. Namely hard drive trays. it is more than possible to buy hard drive caddies that you can individually install within a PC tower or desktop case. in available 5.25″ bays. However traditionally these caddies each occupy 3x 5.25 inch bays on a case and you will need a towel of at least 5 of these slots high in order to have 4 to 5 trays and room for the motherboard and internal components. Additionally, doing this would have increased our power consumption and noise level generated from a larger case. So I have decided to forgo the trays and go ahead with a simple hard drive SATA cable internal installation. If however you are using a case with at least 5x 5.25 bays free, I would recommend these individual harddrive trays, as they can be locked, are metalic and spring loaded.
One area where it is difficult to narrow down costs is the amount of time that you will spend constructing your FreeNAS build.There is no shame in admitting that for all the times that we build PCs from scratch, almost always when we press that power button the first time we secretly tell ourselves “there is no way this is going to work first time!”. The time constructing the FreeNAS build for someone with even a small amount of IT knowledge will probably only take them around 30 to 40 minutes to construct the entire Tower. Additionally, you have to take into account the software installation using that system image we downloaded earlier. Of course if we are using the image on an optical Media disc, we will require a DVD drive with which to Mount this disc. Otherwise we can use a USB installation if this is supported by the motherboard and it’s drivers.
Comparing the SynologyDS918+ with a DiY FreeNAS Build
The first obvious fact is that the FreeNAS build is noticeably cheaper. This is not a huge surprise given the FreeNAS build gives you the entire marketplace with which to purchase the components. Likewise the fact that the FreeNAS software is free to use means that we are not paying overheads for system software. The cost to you for constructing the device in hours and minutes is purely subjective and has to be applied to your own personal circumstances. Lastly there is a learning curve when it comes to constructing a FreeNAS. It is not significantly higher than that required to build a regular PC from scratch, but there is no denying that it does require an IT skill set.
Hardware Specifications of Both
Synology DS918+ NAS – £540 in.TAX
FreeNAS Build – £290 inc.TAX
Shuttle/Micro PC Case
Synology 4-Bay chassis
Cooler Master Elite 130 – £41+ 4x SATA – £6.50
+ Mains Power £2.50+ 2 LAN snag-less Cat6 – £5Screws – £2
Intel Celeron J3455
CPU and Mobo Combo – ASRock J3455M – £78
Quad Core 1.5 burst up to 2.3 GHz
Quad Core 1.5 burst up to 2.3 GHz
Hardware Encryption Engine (AES-NI)
GELI full disk encryption when creating ZFS volumes
4 GB DDR3L
Crucial 4GB DDR3 1866– £33
Total Memory Slots
Memory Expandable up to
8 GB (4 GB x 2)
16GB (8 GB x 2)
4 – Secured – £65 more if you want caddies
Maximum Drive Bays with Expansion Unit
More – SATA Multiplier
M.2 NVMe Drive Slots
3x (2+1) StarTech.com M.2 Adapter – 3 Port – 1 x PCIe (NVMe) M.2 – 2 x SATA III M.2 – £32
Here is a video from last year regarding the advantages and disadvantages of freenas vs prebuilt and there
Advantages of a FreeNAS Custom NAS over a Synology NAS
The advantages of a FreeNAS system when compared with a traditional NAS from a company like Synology is first and foremost PRICE. The very fact that the harware you’re buying in most instances will be 50% or less in cost than that of a NAS brand is almost impossible to ignore. Even if we move beyond this rather crude comparison today and go for something with some real POWER such as an Intel Xeon, DDR4 memory and 10Gbe connectivity, we find that prices continue to be less for a FreeNAS system overall.
Cheaper than a Synology NAS
As previously mentioned a FreeNAS will always work out cheaper than a Synology NAS in terms of hardware. That isn’t just in the case of this comparison but any like4like hardware comparison between the two platforms. So if cost is a deal breaker for you then your mind may already be made up.
Better RAM options than a Synology NAS
Another advantage of FreeNAS in terms of hardware is the fact that normally Synology NAS imposes a limit on the maximum memory, that you do not find in a custom built PC or FreeNAS server. In the case of the DS918+ from Synology, they impose an 8GB memory limit, where the exact same hardware in a FreeNAS system lets you go to 16 GB maximum – double the maximum memory with exactly the same hardware… Madness!
Better PCIe options than a Synology NAS
When it comes to upgrading a Synology NAS system, it is fairly common for it to be significantly more limited than a traditional desktop system in terms of making changes and upgrades years down the line. Because you are building a FreeNAS system from scratch, you have full access to PCIe expansion cards. Meaning you are able to add such facilities and connections as 10Gbe, 40Gbe, GPU cards and even accelerator cards that will further enhance the performance of your FreeNAS system. Of course, this facility is available on more expensive NAS devices from Synology or QNAP, but you still have to pay significantly more and with a narrower range of PCIe devices available.
Free NAS Software
Although it could be said that both Synology and FreeNAS arrive with free software, there is no denying the cost of the Synology DSM software forms part of the price tag with buying a Synology NAS. With FreeNAS free it is, as the name describes, free and you can install it on number of systems.
ZFS File System and Z RAID
This is slightly more of a technical advantage and for those who have a lot more experience in data storage but FreeNAS opens up such file system as ZFS. Largely considered by online data storage experts as the best file system available, ZFS has a higher system requirement than most NAS can provide on a home level and therefore is reserved for more Enterprise NAS devices. However in the case of FreeNAS, due to the more open nature of the freeware software and custom build architecture you can use the ZFS file system more freely and at a lower hardware threshold and price point with FreeNAS. Likewise, ZFS enables you to use more comprehensive and safe raid levels such as RAID Z and other triple parity configurations
Disadvantages of a FreeNAS Custom NAS over a Synology NAS
Before you get too excited and run over to Amazon and buy your parts to build a FreeNAS now it is worth considering the disadvantages of FreeNAS compared to a branded NAS.
FreeNAS is Worse for Warranty
Probably one of the biggest problems for many users considering FreeNAS and especially those who are not too technical is that FreeNAS involves considerably more individual warranties than normal NAS. In real terms what that means is that if for some reason your FreeNAS server suffers a hardware failure, you will need to conduct significant troubleshooting in order to figure out which part of your build is the one causing the breakdown. This is because if you try to send back individual components to their respective manufacturer and it turns out they are not faulty, you will in all likelihood have to pay for shipping both ways without a refund. Add to this the time spent separating parts Shipping and rebuilding and you can see why the One Stop all covering warranty of a traditional NAS brand like Synology or QNAP can be very appealing to a user with a higher cost vs time. Typically you will find most individual components when building a FreeNAS feature warranties of 1-2 years each, rather than 3 years that is concluded with a Synology NAS such as the DS918+ (which covers everything but the HDD).
DNS issues on a FreeNAS
Top tier branded NAS such as Synology feature a cloud-based login included with your purchase. this helps facilitate clean fluid and smooth access to your NAS via the internet anywhere in the world. Because FreeNAS by its nature is free, you find that cloud access can sometimes require more setup or tinkering with the ports on your router or with the setup of a third party DDNS provided software. Likewise once you start configuring static and dynamic IPs, this problem will only be further exacerbated. A common theme when comparing NAS and FreeNAS is that NAS represent the easy if expensive option. Where as FreeNAS is the cheap but more steeped learning curve option.
FreeNAS is almost always Noisier
if you are overly sensitive to noise vibration and typical mechanical noises, you will find FreeNAS a nosier option overall. Even if you are selective about the components you use, these are still components from various vendors that have not been all designed together and therefore not have their decibel rating recorded in advance. Generally NAS are always quieter than their PC desktop FreeNAS equivalents. Everything from fully controllable or automated fans on the rear of the NAS, all the way through to ventilation available from all angles, thereby reducing heat generation and therefore the noise of the fans overall. Lastly, most NAS devices, as they are designed in the same location, most wires and heatsink fans are either secluded or hidden all together, the result is that vibration is equally reduced.
FreeNAS is almost always uses more power
A bit of an obvious one this but if you should not come as a bit surprised that a NAS uses less power 24/7 than a custom built PC rig this is because the PC rig has been designed for many, many purposes but if used as a FreeNAS, the result is a larger power consumption than when you use a branded NAS 24/7. It is also worth highlighting briefly that a higher power consumption over an extended period of time also could put largest stress on hardware inside.
Community support rather than Brand Support
Support Guides and other resource tools are something you will have to get used to when investing in a FreeNAS system . Unsurprisingly if you buy a branded NAS from a multi-million pound company such as Synology or QNAP, it also includes support Lines, live chat, email enquiry sites and warranty support beginning to end. As well as popular hardware and software support services such as the Synology replacement service often bundled into the price. what do you buy a FreeNAS system the support you receive only extends to each individual component. for example if you find that the motherboard is not supporting a certain driver or does not support FreeNAS in an optimal way, the motherboard manufacturer is under no obligation to support you. because FreeNAS has been developed for 3 to 4 platforms and there are quite literally millions of types of computer and configuration, occasional incompatibilities are inevitable. so in the event of difficulties during the set-up or running of a FreeNAS server your chief resource are forums and community support services online official or otherwise. That isn’t to say these websites and services do not provideF reeNAS they certainly do but there is no-one phone number contact line and FreeNAS is not obligated to assist you in the long term. so once again if you do not have an experienced i t background you may well find free there’s hard going in the short-term and indeed the long-term.
Which should you use? FreeNAS or Synology NAS? Conclusion
Synology NAS or FreeNAS? Which should you Buy?
Ultimately it comes down to how much your time is worth to you. freeNAS is by far the better option for those with a comprehensive knowledge of IT and data storage. It is extremely customisation, flexible and always growing. However with that is a steeper learning curve from day 1 and it will require more time dedicated to construction, setup, tweaking and more. Of course, if you have the time and the patience, you can do this from scratch – many find it very rewarding. Otherwise, a NAS will ALWAYS be the better option for the novice-to-amateur user. Most big name brands like QNAP and Synology have insanely easy and user-friendly GUI to get to grips with.
It comes down to the same buyers attitude found in the long running Video Game Consoles Versus PC Gaming (Master-race) debate. You can either purchase a closed system that is more expensive, but has fixed reliability standards and faster support. Or you can have a much more open and fluid syste, but it is less stable and you are left on your own when you need support. There is a market for both and which one you want to be on can be largely dictated by your IT skill level and your budget.
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