Custom NAS build using DiskStation

I had been using a Synology DiskStation for a while. Great software, very easy UI, lots of apps to extend functionality. But my current system at the time, a DS411j, was becoming too limiting for the workload I was putting on it. So it was time to think about an upgrade.

Now I wanted something that would accommodate at least 8 drives, with a CPU & RAM that could handle various extra ‘apps’ so it could serve as a general server for me. Nothing really intense, mainly an SQL server and something to centrally handle all my downloads, plus occasionally maybe something I’ve written myself that needs a place where it can always run. But I also didn’t want to break the bank. After carefully weighing all my options between both open-source and commercial NAS solutions I decided to build my own DiskStation-compatible NAS with an Atom processor. This also had the added advantage of being able to migrate my existing data simply by moving drives.

When building a DiskStation-compatible NAS, it’s important to research that each component you want to use is actually compatible, since none of them will be officially supported. I ended up using the following configuration:

Motherboard + CPU: The Intel Atom powered ASRock Q2900-ITX (€116.29)
I decided to get the ITX version since it has more ports out of the box, and could possibly be used in the future in smaller enclosures, either for a NAS or another project altogether.
It features 4 SATA ports that are supported by the latest XPEnoboot image, and can be extended through SATA plug in cards. Though a 4-port SATA card will work (if it’s compatible with XPEnology) and be sufficiently fast for most purposes, keep in mind that since the expansion slot is PCIe 2.0 x1, the bandwidth will be slightly lower than what 4 drives would theoretically be able to handle (more on this below).
Another reason for going with this Atom-powered motherboard, is powered consumption. Since a NAS will be on all the time, you will want to keep that to a minimum.

RAM: 8GB DDR3L SODIMM (€75.90)
8GB should be more than plenty for the workload I’m planning to use on it, and by using the lower powered variety I save as much power as possible. For my budget and purposes, non-ECC is sufficient.

Case: Ri-vier 2U 12bay (€150.04)
At first, I was planning to get the much smaller SilverStone DS-380, which is a great case for a NAS. But I had the space, and was already planning to build my own server rack, so this was the way to go for me. The 12 hot-swappable bays with SAS backplane means this will definitely keep on being useful with future upgrades.

Power Supply: Seasonic 400W 80+ Gold (€119.79)
For the PSU, 400W is more than enough (also the lowest 2U I could easily order), Seasonic is a proven brand when it comes to reliability, and the 80+ Gold rating will ensure I keep my power consumption to a minimum.

Fans: 4x Noctua NF-A8 FLX (€62.16)
You want to keep your drives, and your system, cool enough. And you probably want to keep it as quiet as possible as well. Now, for a low powered Atom, not much cooling needs to be done, it is designed to be cooled passively.
I ended up removed the preinstalled fans and hooking up four of these using their ultra-low noise adapters. Even in hot weather my drives do not get above 30C/86F. Keep in mind I currently only have 4 drives installed, so for future upgrades I might want to switch out their low-noise adapters.

Boot drive: 1GB USB stick
Any stick that’s large enough for a XPEnology image here will do. Just grab that old one you have lying around and use that. Since it will only be used to load XPEnoboot, which will effectively serve as the flash/firmware in your DiskStation-compatible, speed is no issue here. You will not be getting any useful gains by using a better drive here.

When I move beyond 4 drives, a 4-drive SATA card will also be added. Possibly a second card could be added as well through the mini-PCIe and an adapter, but I have yet to investigate that option. And if you like me use WD reds, keep in mind those are only rated for systems with a maximum of 8 drives. For compatibility, your best bet would be to check out the xpenology.com forums. Be aware however since it is a PCIe 2.0 x1 slot, the maximum bandwidth will be limited to 500MB/s. That is a theoretical maximum of 125MB/s per drive, while some drives can theoretically do up to 150MB/s. In practice however, I doubt this will ever be an issue.

The total cost for me was €524.18. You could easily bring this down quite a lot however, if you already have a case (or get something cheaper), a PSU and suitable fans; without those the total cost is at €192.19. Even if you have to buy a USB stick for booting, that’s still just under €200! With a quad core CPU, 8GB’s of RAM, and 4 drives (easily upgradable to 8) that’s a deal you cannot beat with commercial solutions.

After putting all of that together, you should be good to go. For detailed guides on how to install/upgrade, check out the links I provide at the end of this article.

So is this a solution I could recommend everyone? NO.
Because you are building your own budget DiskStation-compatible, you will have to rely on yourself and the internet for any support. Understandably Synology cannot and will not provide you with any support. And besides that, the official hardware they provide will always be superior in terms of reliability and power consumption. If you are working with mission-critical data I would advice against this solution, and at the very least make sure you keep reliable backups (which you should be doing anyway). That being said, it was great fun building and tweaking it from a hobbyist perspective.

Some useful resources:

  • xpenology.me: All the tutorials you need to get started, upgrade and migrate plus downloads for the correct DSM versions and the latest XPEnoboot images.
  • xpenology.com: Great forum containing lots of tutorials, info and hardware compatibility. If you have any questions, this would be the place to ask them.

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