QNAP TS-269L: A User’s Tale (Book 3)

Ok, so you’ve gone through the previous steps and configured everything for your network environment.  Now time to press on and see what makes this more than just a hard drive in a box.

STOP PRESS: as at this instant (4th Jan) it appears that a new version of the software (4.1) is in Beta and the online manual has already been updated to reflect some of the changes which directly impact some of the applications.  This update also appear to address the fact that the Time Machine backup facility no longer works with the latest version of OS X so hopefully I’ll be able to test that now.  As such, I’ll hold off going into any more detail for the moment until this is officially released.

The two applications I had already written about below don’t appear to have changed so check them out.

Applications

All the following applications can be enabled (and in some cases downloaded first) to allow your files to be accessed in various alternate ways, and also reveal some powerful new features.

Station Manager

QNAP provides the concept of ‘Stations’ which are a dedicated interface to manage different media or functions.

Photo Station

Ok, I must admit I haven’t tried this yet.  I have an Apple TV and use that for viewing photos from my iPhone, but I have hundreds of photos which are locked away on my laptop and when I get a chance I will look at moving them to the QNAP and enabling this feature.

Having said that though, these ‘stations’ tend to provide two things: a web interface to view photos/play music/play videos etc, and a remote API so mobile apps can also access those files.
What they do not provide is something that you can view and interact with via your television – for that you require XBMC (which QNAP includes under the ‘HD Station’ banner which is described later on).

Thus, there seems little point enabling this feature for photos for example since the photos are already accessible as a network share which I could browse using any existing software such as ACDsee.  And I have no burning desire to squint at my photos on a mobile device (although if you wished to re-purpose an old tablet as a digital photo frame this would be ideal).

However, if you wish to make your photos available to the outside world, then this will allow you to do that, and has facilities to create slide shows, albums and even has some photo editing capabilities.

Music Station

Same deal as Photo Station but for music.  The web interface allows you to browse your music and play it within any browser – no extra software required.  If you open it up to the outside world then you could listen to your entire collection of music at work for example.

QNAP Music Station

Enabling this station will allow you to use the Qmusic mobile app that provides a similar feature set but on a mobile device.

Qmusic Interface

The Qmusic app does have an interesting feature: it allows you to download the music to your device so it is available offline.  Thus it could allow you to sync music to your phone without requiring iTunes.  There are at least 134 reasons why that is a good thing, but the number one for me is simply the fact that iTunes doesn’t stay in sync with my music – it doesn’t automatically recognise when I add new files to the NAS while this software does – as you will see later on there are options to ‘watch’ your files and make sure they are added to the library automatically.  Using the NAS as an iTunes server will mitigate that somewhat but iTunes is still painfully slow with large collections and I’m not sure if I can sync files from a shared iTunes library to my phone – I haven’t tried that yet.

Finally, for iPhone users, you can play files from this app via AirPlay so if you have Apple TV, you can play music to your hifi without needing to:

  1. Turn the TV on to navigate through your files
  2. Physically connect the NAS to your hifi

That works pretty well, and the software will handle playback of formats that the iPhone/Apple TV can’t handle natively (i.e. FLAC).  Of course, the ridiculous hardware limitations of the current Apple TV mean you are stuck with 16 bit/48Khz playback, so no HD audio.

One final thing: the Qmusic app has a glaring omission (at least as far as I know).  As it is designed for a range of QNAP devices, it doesn’t know about the HDMI output on the TS-269L.  Thus there is no option to tell it to play your music through the HDMI connector!  It downloads/streams it via the app first and then you listen to it on your phone, or send it back to your hifi via AirPlay.

Clearly that is very silly and hopefully will be addressed at some point (or someone please tell me where to find this feature).  Luckily there is another way to achieve this result as you will see later.

QNAP TS-269L: A User’s Tale (Book 2)

So following on from my previous post, I’ve installed the hard drives into my QNAP TS-269L NAS, powered it on and downloaded and installed the ‘Qfinder’ software to detect the drive and perform initial setup.

My home network has DHCP services provided by the ADSL router which would be the same for most people so the device picked up an IP address on startup and the Qfinder software detected it immediately.

I was guided through a wizard that configured low level settings like server name, date/time, password for admin account and also prompted me to upgrade to a more recent version of the firmware (and reboot).

This software has options to assist setting up storage folders, mapping drives and configuring advanced network settings (the device actually has two Ethernet ports so there are some sophisticated options available here if needed).

Overall it was a pleasant experience, but all the high level options such as configuring services and installing add-ins is done via the web interface, which can be obtained simply by double-clicking the required NAS in the list (Qfinder will manage more than one QNAP NAS if others exist on your network and this opens up yet more options such as replicating data to a second unit in real-time).

The QNAP Web interface

Initial impressions were very favourable, with large, friendly (but not cutesy) icons and various status indicators and quick links dotted around the place.  The interface is very dynamic, with things opening independently in their own draggable windows and there are lots of nice touches.  The dashboard is particularly attractive and is a good overview of the system, including any tasks that may be running in the background:

QNAP Dashboard

Tip: It is a matter of personal preference, but there is an option in the menu in the top-right to switch to a ‘tabbed’ view which ditches the individual windows in favour of tabs which will bring each opened section to the front and I much prefer this since I never found it necessary to see two windows at once.

Clicking the Control Panel icon gets to the meat of the system:

QNAP Control PanelI’ll run through most of the options and highlight the things I altered to achieve my goals.  For some background, my environment and use cases are:

  1. Mixed environment of a couple of Windows laptops and an Apple Macbook Pro, all of which need to access the data on the drive
  2. I want to backup the laptops to the NAS.  The Macbook uses a Time Machine already but the QNAP supports the Time Machine protocol so theoretically can take its place
  3. I want all my digital multimedia files to be playable directly from the device via HDMI into my amplifier.  And I really mean direct – if I have 24 bit/96 khz FLAC then I want that decoded and sent to the amplifier as a bitstream of the same resolution ready for D/A conversion
  4. A ‘nice to have’ is the use of DLNA to make the files available to other devices (such as the networked Panasonic Bluray player in the bedroom)
  5. If possible, allow the playing of music off the device through the hifi without needing the bloody television turned on just to navigate the system
  6. Tune the system by removing or disabling anything I don’t need without sacrificing reliability
  7. Oh yeah, and before I forget again, I need a way to backup the contents of the device itself since the bulk of its content is only held there

With that in mind, let’s begin …

General Settings

These mostly mirror the settings that are available in the Qfinder software and I didn’t change anything further at this point.

Storage Manager

As it suggests, anything to do with storage is contained here, including configuring RAID, encrypting the file system and a bunch of hardcore options for iSCSI which I won’t pretend to understand or need.

The important part to check is that the physical disks are listed correctly, and the logical volume is configured correctly – in my case a mirrored volume.

QNAP Storage ManagerThe system supports S.M.A.R.T monitoring to check the health of the hard drive(s).  For what it is worth I configured it to do a complete test once a month in the hope of some advance warnings of any issues.
Tip: I set it to do a full scan at 9am on the first of each month and applied it to both drives.  It is now New Year’s Day and I’ve just realised why things seemed a little slow – it has been running the scan for almost the entire day.  I have now changed it so it will run at 1am and have staggered the drives so drive 2 will scan on the 2nd day of the month.

I must admit I don’t recall exactly what I did to initialise the discs for the first time – there were a couple of steps to select the configuration of the hard-drives between RAID 0 or 1 for example, and it went away and formatted the drives for first use and then spent time synchronising the mirror.  During that time I was still able to write some files to continue my testing, but I rebooted part way through and it restarted the synchronisation again so probably safest to let it run through to the end (a few hours for my 3TB drives).

Network

There are some hard-core settings here and I didn’t change anything.  On the ADSL router however, I did set up the NAS as a static IP address based on MAC address so it will always be identified via the same IP address which I figured would make life easier when accessing the web interface and is one less thing to think about when debugging network issues.

Security

You can create access rules here to allow/block IP addresses from accessing the device.  I didn’t change anything as all ports are blocked via the router in my situation.

Note that there are various options to allow the device to act as a ‘personal cloud server’ so you can access your files externally.  That would require external access to the device and I’m not sure what is involved to allow that to happen – for me this feature isn’t worth the potential downside and for those occasions I wish to share files between home and work for instance I either copy them to a USB stick or use a genuine cloud service such as SkyDrive or Google Drive.

Hardware

Some general options here to control the fan and hard drive standby mode.  I can’t think of a downside to allowing the hard-drive to go to sleep after 30 minutes of inactivity so it is worth turning this on if not on already.

Power

Some more hard-core options to reduce power consumption.  I left these alone but changed the ‘Power Recovery’ option so that the unit remains off if there is a power failure and then the power returns.  I figured if the power went off for some reason then it would be safest to leave it off and switch it on manually.  If you need to access it remotely then use one of the other two options.

Notification

You can setup an email account to be notified of system alerts and warnings.  This actually requires you to enter your email password as it uses your provider to send the email rather than a generic SMTP server.  My old Western Digital MyBook Live didn’t require this and must have used their own SMTP server and some sort of authentication to make sure requests only came from genuine devices.
Given the amount of stuff I have tied with my Google/Gmail account, I tested this out but felt safer removing my details and will rely on logging in every now and then to check what is going on.

SMS is supported as well but once again required credentials for a provider of such services.

Firmware Update

The system can check for new firmware automatically so just let it do its thing.

Backup / Restore

This allows you to save system settings to a file and restore them again, or reset to factory defaults.  Worth keeping a working copy in case you screw something up.

External Device

This is interesting and has options to manage external hard-drives plugged in via USB or eSATA.  It can also manage an attached USB Printer and share it on the network.  Finally, it can connect to a UPS and shut-down automatically if needed.

All great options in an office environment but not something I needed.

System Status

More information than you could possibly need on processor, memory and network utilisation.  Also shows specification of the system and temperature.

Most useful is the System Service page which snapshots all the running services and is worth checking to see the effect of turning things on and off.

QNAP System Service

System Logs

As the name suggests, there is a comprehensive log of all events as well as a list of connected users.

Users

Moving on to Users under the ‘Privilege Settings’ category.  There are some useful options here, even if you are a solo user.

Firstly, there is the concept of a ‘home’ folder which is private to each user (although the degree of privacy is configurable I assume).  As you would expect, this is a dumping ground for your own personal files with no expectation that they would be available to other devices via DLNA for example.  Instead, if you were opening up file access to the outside world, this would be the ideal place to keep personal things you wish to access from anywhere.

Each user’s ‘home’ directory shows up as an individual network share when browsing the NAS via Windows Explorer or a Mac Finder – depending on the credentials they have accessed the device with.  In an office environment this could be useful, but for a home network it may not be, so clicking the ‘Home Folder’ button allows this to be disabled which means one less share shows up when browsing the device.

It is advisable to create a dedicated user account for yourself, even if you are the only user, rather than use the existing default ‘admin’ account.  That way, if for example a virus gets hold of your computer, there is potentially less damage it can do to files on a mapped network drive than if you were connected as ‘admin’ and could access and change everything.  Also, if you add more users in the future it gives greater visibility when you can differentiate between who made what changes to which files.

Click the ‘Create’ button to create a new user account.  For ease of use, choose the same username that you use when logging into your computer.  Every user is automatically in the ‘Everyone’ group, which is sufficient for read-only access (so they can play multimedia files but can’t add/edit/delete them).  Whatever username and password you enter here is what you should use when mapping a network drive to your desired share.
The ‘Private Network Share’ icon allows you to fine-tune permissions for that user for any network shares currently defined, and ‘Application Privilege’ allows you to enable/disable access to services and applications such as FTP.

User Groups

Here you can edit existing groups (‘Admin’ and ‘everybody’) or create your own group and assign default permissions which can be overridden on a per-user basis if needed (not recommended in order to keep things manageable).

They’ve done a good job here as the ‘admin’ group actually has no permissions at all when it comes to files: every share is denied.  Thus you either have to make a conscious decision to override these settings, or create a dedicated account.  Strangely though, the actual ‘admin’ user account by default does override these settings and sets them all to read/write, so the purpose is completely defeated.  I didn’t want to muck around and reduce these permissions so just stick with a dedicated account instead for your day to day usage – don’t map shares as ‘admin’.

Now that I have a better understanding of these options I might create a ‘Power User’ group that has read/write access to multimedia files for example and put myself in it, and leave the ‘everybody’ group for less technical members of the household to just read files.

Shared Folders

This is where you can setup network shares themselves.  A number are setup by default, and so far I’ve felt most comfortable sticking with those and creating folders within them instead.  Creating new shares gives the most flexibility but at the cost of more complexity, and unless you are in an office environment and/or dealing with sensitive material, it isn’t worth it.

Each share shows up individually when browsing the device in Explorer/Finder but if you click the ‘Property’ icon there is an option to hide it.  Your mileage may vary, but I hid the ‘homes’, ‘Recordings’, ‘Web’ and ‘Download’ shares.
I guess that ‘Downloads’ is used in conjunction with the Bit-torrent add-on (which I’m not about to give in to temptation to), and ‘Recordings’ is used by the TV Tuner option, which sounds really great but not on my agenda yet as I don’t have a TV tuner dongle.

QNAP Shared Folders

The key folder is ‘Multimedia’.  As you would guess, this is where it is recommended to add your multimedia files as other included applications look here by default.  This is the share that I have mapped directly on my computers and all my files go here in relevant sub-folders:

QNAP Multimedia Folder LayoutTip: If you use software that needs to scan your music (for example I use the Mixmeister and Traktor digital DJ’ing software), you would normally point it at your music folder and let it detect BPMs, keys and other meta-data for all your files.  If you also have a lot of DJ mixes from Soundcloud or whatever, then it will try and scan these too, which takes forever and is fairly pointless (and in the case of Mixmeister it crashes with files over a certain length).  Thus I moved those files into a separate top-level ‘Mixes’ folder so they are not scanned.  If you do want them scanned in other software just add that folder to the list of folders to scan (for example in Media Monkey).

Quota

This allows you to configure disk usage quotas to control the maximum amount of disc space a user can use.  A global value can be set here and can be overridden per user.  I have no use for this and have it turned off, but amongst a larger group of users is probably a good idea.

Domain Security

This allows you to offload user management to either Active Directory or an LDAP server.  Great in a business environment no doubt, but just leave it set to ‘No domain security (Local users only)’ for home use so you can manage users as described above.

Win/Mac/NFS

Moving on to the Network Services category, here you can configure how the network shares are accessed via other operating systems.

To allow access from Windows machines, select the Microsoft Networking option and enter the same Workgroup name as the rest of your machines (probably WORKGROUP).  These days it doesn’t seem to make much difference but can’t hurt.  Everything else should be the default for home usage.

If you are only accessing the NAS via Apple machines then conceivably you could enable Apple Networking and disable Microsoft Networking.
However I did read somewhere that Apple are moving to the Microsoft system as their default, and Microsoft Networking is very well supported on a number of platforms so unless Apple Networking give you something specific you need then just enabling Microsoft may be simplest.
I didn’t notice any difference in speed between the two in my very unscientific tests.

If you wish to enable Time Machine backups, it appears you will need to enable Apple Networking however.

FTP

You probably don’t need this unless you are using the NAS as a development machine, and even then you would probably transfer files via network shares or SCP over SSH.

Telnet/SSH

I can’t imagine why you would need telnet enabled, and SSH should only be enabled if you specifically need to login to the embedded operating system on the NAS.

SNMP

Leave this disabled unless you are integrating with monitoring tools for your network.

Service Discovery

UPnP (Universal Plug and Play) should be enabled if you have other devices on your network that may wish to access the files on the NAS (such as a Smart TV or streaming audio device).  It just helps them find the NAS automatically.

Bonjour is heavily used by Apple products and should be left on if you use any such products on your network and wish them to access the NAS.  Turn off any services you don’t need to advertise or have disabled.  For example I have SSH enabled, but it is not a service I wish to advertise to the world so this has been unticked.

Network Recycle Bin

This is a useful option – normally when you delete something off a network share it is gone immediately.  This enables functionality similar to the traditional desktop Recycle bin or Trash.

As it says, it will create a separate Recycle folder per network share.  Thus, if I delete any file in any of the folders in my Multimedia share, they will go into a single recycle folder at the top of the share.  Note that it will store the full path as well, so if I delete a photo in the ‘Photos’ sub-directory, it will be recycled as ‘@Recycle/Photos/crappy_photo_of_me.jpg’

I assume this only applies to files deleted when accessing the share via Windows Explorer/Finder and if you delete a file using another application or directly via FTP etc, then it is gone immediately.

There is an option to retain files for a set number of days which makes a lot of sense so you can set and forget and not worry about running out of space.  I set it to 30 days.

At this stage I’m not sure what the ‘Network Recycle Bin’ share is for – it seems to be something different altogether and I’ve decided to hide it.

Qsync

I haven’t looked into this yet but it sounds useful.  At the time of writing it says ‘Beta’, so I might wait a bit for this.  If you are interested, check out this article on how to use it: http://www.tweaktown.com/guides/5966/build-your-own-cloud-with-qnap-network-attached-storage/index.html

Conclusion

By this point you have a fully configured device that does everything you would expect of a NAS and you could probably leave it at that, but to do so is deny yourself the real power and flexibility that it can deliver.

In the next part I’ll examine the included applications and look at how to get the most of the device from a multimedia perspective.

QNAP TS-269L: A User’s Tale (Book 1)

I recently suffered the ignominy of a failed Network Attached Storage (NAS) device that contained all of my digital music files as well as a bunch of videos and local copies of DVDs such as music magazine cover discs for easy access.

It was a Western Digital ‘MyBook Live’ and the fault seemed to be in the firmware rather than the hard drive itself as it couldn’t connect to the network.  Naturally I hadn’t yet gotten around to backing up the bloody thing so I was motivated to get it up and running.  Even though most of it was replaceable, the thought of ripping all my CDs again didn’t exactly excite me so I looked up what my options were.
The device runs an embedded Linux distro and the drive is formatted as EXT3 or EXT4 so I’d need some software to read it on my PC but it seemed like an open and shut case: extract the drive, plug it into my laptop with a SATA to USB converter and install the software and copy the disc to a new drive.

I borrowed a SATA to USB cable and broke open the device to extract the drive and triumphantly plugged it all together only to be greeted with the sight and smell of burning electronics.  At this point I resolved to get help.  Thanks to the guys at Data Recovery Services they managed to get the drive up and running again and copy the data onto another external drive.  It was a little more expensive than I’d hoped but a tiny fraction of the opportunity cost of recreating the data myself so I got over it.
It turned out the drive had some bad sectors as well but they gave me a list of the affected files.

I’d only owned the unit for about 12 months so I wasn’t happy that it had failed so badly in such a short time.  Coupled with fairly lacklustre performance I wasn’t keen to buy another unit and was unsure what to do next.

Determined to not repeat the whole experience I set the bar higher this time in terms of reliability, performance and general features.  Always in the back of my mind too was the question of how can I make these digital files available to be played in full quality through the hifi in my lounge room without involving my computer or some half-arsed intermediary such as Apple TV that won’t cope with my slowly increasing collection of high-definition FLAC files.

A feature list was beginning to form:

  1. RAID 1 mirrored and user replaceable hard drives for redundancy
  2. High performance
  3. Good build quality but not stupidly expensive
  4. Software interface that doesn’t suck
  5. DLNA compatible to help media sharing with other devices
  6. Direct AV output via HDMI of high-definition audio formats

I had already toyed with the idea of building a Home Theatre PC running something like XBMC as I knew it would give me the flexibility I wanted, but the idea of matching all the parts, setting it up and maintaining it didn’t appeal, and the cost is not insignificant.

Point 5 was for future-proofing: none of my existing equipment is ‘smart’ but I have my eye on a Bluray upgrade to something like an Oppo BDP-105 which supports network music playing and supports HD FLAC out of the box.

Point 6 wasn’t really on the list as I had never come across any NAS that supported it.  Sure, I could buy a dedicated music streaming server at great expense but I really wanted a general purpose NAS with RAID and easily user-replaceable hard-drives.  It was added to the list once I came across one that did!

Armed with some Google searches for ‘Top NAS reviews’ I was quite impressed by the Synology line, in particular the DS214play:

Synology DS214playIt certainly would look sweet in the hi-fi rack and had a truckload of other features of varying usefulness to me.  The important thing is that it seemed to be a top-quality NAS but with an emphasis on multimedia.

Being the impatient sod that I am I probably wouldn’t have bought it if the local computer store had one in stock but they had everything else but that model so I continued to look around.

I’d come across the QNAP name in my travels so checked out their range as well.  It wasn’t long before I found the TS-269L and knew then I had found exactly what I now knew was exactly what I wanted.

QNAP TS-269L

This also ticked every box like the Synology, but with one massive extra: built-in HDMI output and the inclusion of the XBMC home theatre software and full support for all its’ add-ons as well as hardware remotes.

From my perspective, the main features were:

  • RAID 1 support with dual hard drives
  • Small size with built-in fan (there seems to be this mania to build fan-less devices, which is fine – right up to the minute they overheat and die, which is clearly my fault for living in a warm(ing) climate and not leaving the air conditioner on all day.  On hot days I can almost fry an egg on my Apple Time Machine, even though the hard-drive is asleep)
  • Various ways of sharing music including DLNA, uPnP, ability to act as an iTunes server and of course direct HDMI output
  • Support for Apple Time Machine backups in the hope I could consolidate all my backups into one place
  • XBMC and everything that gives you, including native support for high-definition FLAC (ok, that is probably more a function of the sound drivers and decoder libraries, but at least there is some hope that they would be used to their full capabilities)
  • Reasonable price
  • Super configurable
  • Some good looking mobile apps
  • Fully functional as a standard NAS for the purposes of supporting non-multimedia use cases such as backing up my PC and Mac, plus my wife’s PC as well
  • A dozen other interesting features which basically made the whole thing feel very rounded and future-proof
  • Upgradeable RAM: I have two 2Gb sticks sitting around since I upgraded the RAM on my Mac so I was hoping one would slot right in which would have been awesome since they are otherwise worthless these days.  It comes with 1Gb and can be upgraded with another 2Gb

Really, I felt like this was ‘one NAS to rule them all’ and that it would achieve all my goals with no need to upgrade anything else in my system.

All these devices come without hard-drives and must be purchased separately.  I wasn’t going to take any chances this time around so I made sure that the drives were listed on the ‘compatible hardware list’ from QNAP.  Thus I settled on 2 x 3TB Western Digital ‘Caviar Red’ drives which are designed for NAS usage.  I was reluctant at first due to the failure of my previous WD drive, but that was a ‘Caviar Green’ which some people reckon aren’t the best choice for a NAS so I was prepared to give these a go.

With the addition of a 3 metre HDMI cable, the whole lot set me back $849 (inc GST) from Skycomp Technology with local pick-up in Sydney CBD.

I was taken aback at first when picking up the goods – I checked the box to make sure that I had ordered and that they had delivered the correct item but there was absolutely no mention on it about having HDMI or supporting XBMC etc.  The picture of the rear showed what looked like a HDMI connector but it was unlabelled.  Trusting I made the right decision I took it home on what appears to be the correct assumption that the original release had the connector but the software was not yet available and the new features only became available in a recent firmware upgrade.

The box contents as well as the hard-drives, HDMI cable and RAM sticks on the left that would hopefully find a new home:

Box contents

The monstrous power supply was a bit disappointing but seems to be par for the course for anything other than an Apple device.  Everything else felt really solid and well made with no sharp edges or flimsy panels.

I decided to try and perform the RAM upgrade before investing time in the initial setup on the assumption that it would either work perfectly and speed up the rest of the process or it would brick the device in which case I would save myself the trouble of going further.
Looking at some forums online it appeared that people had mixed results using anything but the ‘official’ RAM upgrade sold by QNAP at great expense (apparently; I couldn’t actually find it listed), but no-one seemed to have damaged their device so I gave it a shot.

Four screws at the back kept the outer shell on which then slid off stiffly but without fuss.  I had to break a plastic cover to access the SODIMM RAM slot but I don’t feel like I violated it in any way.
After inserting the RAM I left the cover off and proceeded to screw the hard-drives into their cradles and then easily slid and locked them into their slots.

So far so good, but upon powering up the device I was greeted with some lights but referring to the PDF manual I wasn’t seeing the lights I should be, and even after waiting a while nothing changed so powered it off and removed the RAM and tried again (later down the track I tried the other stick of RAM with no luck either).

This time it worked and I proceeded to download the ‘QFinder’ software from the website (I didn’t waste time even looking at the included CD on the assumption it was way out of date) to do the initial setup and download any firmware updates.

Stay tuned for part 2 for the gory details of configuration and turning it into the hub of a high definition multimedia powerhouse …