QNAP NAS (Network Attached Storage)

QNAP TS-431 NAS still in the boxA few months ago one of the hard drives in my main computer failed, it wasn’t the drive with Windows installed (so the computer still worked), it was the 3TB drive where all my photos and videos were stored. This could have been a disaster of lost memories, but thankfully I’m over cautious with this sort of thing and have multiple back-ups of my important data.

While no files were lost, finding somewhere new to save my recovered data was a bit of a challenge.  I had to squeeze information onto what was an exclusive boot drive, plus another smaller x-laptop drive I’d installed into the desktop case.

It was time to start thinking about my data storage.  Do I go out and buy another large capacity hard drive?  Or should I go for external storage with built in redundancy that connects to my home network?

I decided to look for a NAS – Network Attached Storage.  A NAS box can come in many different configurations, usually with the capability to take multiple hard drives to offer some sort of redundancy.  Redundancy is a fancy way of saying a “safety net”, if one of the drives fails you wont loose your data.  Rather than connecting to your computer, the NAS connects to your home network and is accessible to any computer on the network, or even over the internet if you choose.

Looking for around six terabytes (6TB) of storage capacity, I looked at 2 bay, 4 bay and 5 bay NAS enclosures.  Generally a NAS doesn’t come with hard drives, the user will have to buy drives to suit their requirments.  I needed to take into consideration the prices of different NAS boxes plus the cost of drives to suit their different configurations.

A 2 bay NAS is cheap, but I would need to buy two expensive 6TB drives to get my 6TB capacity with redundancy (data is replicated on both drives).  A four bay NAS is a little more expensive, but I can fill it with four of the cheaper 2TB drives.  The total 8TB capacity is reduced to around 5.5TB usable space in a RAID configuration that spreads your data across all four drives with redundancy which would allow one of those drives to fail without any loss of important information.  When I looked at the sums, I worked out a four bay NAS was the best value.

After reading various reviews of NAS enclosures, I’d narrowed my options down to devices from either Synology or QNAP.  Even though QNAP was cheaper, every review I read said that Synology had the better software which made their NAS boxes easier to setup and use.  So my decision was made, I would buy a Synology four bay NAS with four 2TB drives.

After getting approval from the family Chief Financial Officer (my wife!), we headed down to our friendly computer store (Centrecom in Clayton) only to be told the Synology was out of stock.  Retail shopping can be really frustrating at times!  Centrecom is a half hour drive from home, so I wasn’t about to leave empty handed.  We purchased my second choice, the QNAP  TS-431 and four Western Digital 2TB Red Drives.

Hardware setup

Installing the hard drives into the QNAP NAS couldn’t be much simpler, and only took a few minutes.  With the drives installed, all that’s left is to plug in the power and network cables.

Software setup

The QNAP doesn’t come with much instructions, other than to connect to a special URL – start.qnap.com – which will find the NAS on your network easily enough.  You’re then prompted to install firmware, but after that it wasn’t really clear what I was supposed to do to complete my setup.  After watching a few YouTube instructional videos about setting up a QNAP, I was able to setup a secure NAS user accounts and folders for everyone in the family.

QNAP also have various apps, most of which will need to be downloaded and installed, for additional functionality.  I wasn’t interested in apps, I just wanted storage.   I now have over 5.5TB of network storage.  With the NAS mapped to a drive letter on my computer, I can treat my network storage just like any other folder on my computer.  I can also access the NAS from my phone or iPad while connected to my wifi network.  If I’d wanted, I could even setup remote access over the internet.

Getting almost 3TB of data across to the NAS did take considerable time, but when I looked at my home network traffic I could see data moving way faster than anything done online with cloud storage.

Every user account on the QNAP gets their own recycle bin, so any file deleted is automatically backed-up in the network recycle bin – much safer than USB drives where data is permanently gone when you hit the “Delete” button.

Summary

Having a family NAS drive for all of the household data storage is a great solution to safeguard valuable information such as photos.  The files can be accessed from any device connected to the home network.  Each member of the family can have their on password protected folders alongside shared folders.

Your data is a lot safer on a NAS too.  A drive failure in your computer, or the computer crashing wont result in the loss of valuable files stored on the NAS.  A drive failure in the NAS wont loose your information either, if its multiple drives are setup in a RAID configuration (which is usually the default setting).

The only negative when it comes to getting a NAS for your data storage at home is the initial setup.  While I had no problem installing the hard drives into the enclosure, some people may not be comfortable handling computer hardware.  When it comes to setting up the NAS on your home network, QNAP’s lack of instructions made the process more difficult than it needed to be.  Reports I’ve read suggest Synology NAS enclosures are easier to setup thanks to better software.

OurPact Parental Control app

Our Pact App Store screenshot

I recently saw in internet advert for a parental control app, that allowed you to control the smart devices of your children.  Like many families, there can be arguments in our house when the kids should be doing their chores, homework, having dinner or going to bed but they don’t want to stop doing whatever they’re doing.  All three of my kids have iPads, plus the two eldest also have an iPhone, so an app that could remotely disable smart devices sounded like a potentially useful parenting tool.

The app is called OurPact, and is available for iOS or Android.  Our family’s smart devices are all Apple iOS, so that’s the version I decided to try out.  Unfortunately the strict control Apple has over their app eco-system made the job harder for the OurPact developers, and leaves a flaw in the process that is a deal breaker for me.  More on that shortly.

OurPact does exactly as it says it will do.  When the parent chooses, all non standard apps are removed, leaving only the devices default functionality such the phone, camera and SMS messaging.  The parent can set a schedule of times that installed apps are removed, or they can choose the “Until I say so” option.  At the end of the restriction time, all of those apps re-appear on the child’s device.

The real beauty of OurPact, is not the control it gives a parent over their child’s device, it’s the conversation it stimulates about responsible screen time.  It’s just as well, because my two eldest son’s only took a few minutes to disable the Remote Managment of their devices.  Yes, the kids can simply go into their iOS settings and turn this off!  The developers address this issue in their response to customer feedback; “Unfortunately, due to iOS restrictions, we are limited in our ability to prevent profile removal. We do notify parents within the app when child profiles are tampered with…”. 

Another concern I have, is that Our Pact is a free app.  There is no advertising shown within the app, so how do the developers make their money?  You have to agree to various permissions to grant remote access to the child’s smart device.  I cant help but wonder if those permissions also allow unscrupulous activities.  Just sayin.

In summary, the OurPact app is only an effective physical tool to control iOS devices of younger children who aren’t familiar with accessing their device’s Settings.  I’ve gone back to having a conversation with my kids about how much phone and iPad time they have, even if we have that conversation over and over again and then threaten to turn off the wifi.

Our Pact screenshot from the parent's device.

OurPact screenshot from the parent’s device.

Removing the Our Pact Remote Management within iOS Settings

Removing OurPact Remote Management within iOS Settings.

Our Pact alerts, Device Not Managed

OurPact alerts when the Remote Management of the child’s device is turned off in Settings.

If you’re interested in finding out more, check out the OurPact website for your self, or find the app in the Apple App store.

Faster NBN (FTTN)

Last week I wrote how our house had finally been switched over to the the National Broadband Network (NBN).  Rather than having fibre direct to our premises (FTTP), we are connected by the inferior Fibre to the Node (FTTN) system, where the last link from a neighborhood cabinet uses old copper cable.  Don’t get me wrong, NBN via FTTN is still an improvement over the old ADSL technology, and there was no need for our front yard to be dug up for new cable, nevertheless I wasn’t seeing the speeds I’d heard were possible on the NBN.

Luckily our existing broadband plan had expired, so I could shop around for a better deal.  It’s interesting that our carrier, Telstra, doesn’t mention internet speed in any of their literature, advertising or on their websites.  They sell on data capacity, but their default connection speed is 25Mb/s download / 5Mb/s upload (known as simply 25/5), which is pretty close to the speeds I was seeing on our new NBN connection.  It turns out that NBNco offers five tiers of broadband speed; tier one is actually slower than a good ADSL connection, tier two is marginally better, up to tier five which offers a theoretical maximum speed of 100/40.

The five NBN broadband internet wholesale speed tiers

By making Tier Two speeds (25/5) their default NBN speed, and not promoting faster alternatives, the majority of Telstra’s customers wont know any different.  The average customer will still see an improvement over ADSL and their phone line might be a bit clearer, so Telstra is hoping they’ll be saying “this NBN is fantastic”.  What’s really happening is Telstra is saving a bucket load by not paying the higher wholesale price for the faster NBN speed tiers, while selling one of the most expensive Tier Two NBN plans on the market, with added extras to make it sound like a good deal.  I wonder how many Telstra customers actually use their “free” TelstraTV or TelstraAir.

When asked directly, Telstra will admit to faster NBN speeds being available as a “Speed Boost” for an additional $20 on top of your plan.

Twitter screenshot Telstra NBN speeds

Now I knew that FTTN wouldn’t give me the full 100/40 speed, but as the speeds I was getting were at the top of the Tier Two range, there was a pretty good chance I could get better.

I went into my local Telstra store to see if I could negotiate a deal without the extras (TelstraTV, etc) but with a higher speed.  I was surprised the store staff couldn’t negotiate at all, even when talking to the manager, I was told they could withhold the TelstraTV but I’d still be charged the full plan price.  I couldn’t even pay for the Speed Boost on my existing plan, I’d have to sign up for a new contract.

I was even more surprised to hear another store employee trying to explain the NBN to a customer.  She said “…everybody has a node out the front of their house and that’s better than fibre into your garage”.  There’s a staff training failure right there, each node services over 100 homes.  We don’t have a single node on our street, the nearest one is a couple of blocks away.

With no success in store, I tried the Telstra online chat support service.  They couldn’t negotiate either and suggest I call and speak to someone in person.  I didn’t really feel like talking to an overseas call centre, so I started to look at other carriers more seriously.  iiNet had a good deal, TPG an even better offer so I decided to ditch Telstra and sign up with TPG.  Before I could register with TPG the internet dropped out.  Telstra have suffered a few outages this year, how ironic that this disconnection prevented me from leaving them!

Later that night, when the internet was back up, rather than go through the TPG sign up process I decided I would try to call Telstra. The guy I spoke to said he couldn’t help with NBN because he was an ADSL expert (time for some re-training mate).  He put me through to the “NBN Department” and said if they don’t answer, or you get disconnected, call them direct on 1800 834 273.  After being on hold for around 15 minutes I gave up.  A bit later I tried the direct number which was answered straight away by a nice guy who understood what I wanted.  He looked at my account and saw we also had five mobile services plus Foxtel and that we had been a long term Telstra customer, he said “I reckon we can do something for you, let me check with my boss“.  After about 30 seconds he came back to me and said “we can ditch the TelstraTV and give you the Speed Boost for free“.  That sounded pretty good to me so I agreed.

Within an hour of agreeing to the deal, we were switched over to the faster NBN speed tier, which for our house is just under 40/17.

Top speed tier NBN FTTN SpeedTest

NBN switched over

A week and a half since plugging in our new NBN compatable modem, supplied free by Telstra, we were finally switched over to the new National Broadband Network (NBN) today.  I’ll admit to being a little bit excited at finally getting faster internet, even though I knew it wouldn’t be super-fast, because we’ve only been connected via FTTN (Fibre to the Node – a cabinet on the street that utilises existing copper wire for the final link in the broadband connection) rather than FTTP (Fibre to the Premises – fibre optic cables all the way to your house).

I completed a few internet speed tests tonight using speedtest.net and saw the download speed vary considerably, the best only slightly faster than the ADSL2+ speeds we used to see.  The big improvement has been the upload speed, which used to be around 0.7Mb/s, and now more than 4.7Mb/s.  For someone like me who uploads a lot of hi-res photos, and a few videos, as well as backing up all my files to CrashPlan and/or OneDrive clouds, this big improvement to upload speeds is my highlight of the NBN.

We haven’t signed up to any new plan with Telstra.  I see that some providers quote different internet speeds, depending on your plan. Our existing contract was for “fastest possible” ADSL2+, so I’m assuming Telstra have rolled over the same “fastest possible” deal with the new NBN connection.

As a bonus, our “landline” home phone is a lot clearer now.  Despite trying many different ADSL filters, we used to always have noise on the line, now its crystal clear.

 

Update June 12;

I was able to negotiate a better deal with Telsta to get faster NBN speeds.
Read more on this blog post… simonyeo.id.au/faster-nbn-fttn