Secure collaboration with your Synology NAS

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The impact of the cloud and the as-a-service approach cannot be understated. Indeed, there is no question that the cloud helped herald a new generation of applications that greatly simplified collaboration by delivering improved reliability and putting the user experience at the forefront of their interface design.

Death by cloud

On the flip side, the relatively low cost of cloud services means that users are more inclined to sign up for them. And as an increasing number of standalone services are unconsciously weaved into work processes, many users have discovered that the total cost does stack up quickly.

I personally spend around US$30 for cloud-based personal productivity tools alone, and would probably not be unusual for some to pay US$20 to US$50 (or more) every month. This cost can be substantial for a growing SMB with dozens of users, and is also exacerbated by how some online services charge more for business use.

Another risk pertains to the abrupt closure of cloud services, usually due to lack of profitability. Though efforts are usually made to give users the opportunity to download their data first, the often-short timeframes can prove problematic for organizations without the benefit of a dedicated IT department.

Bringing the cloud home

It is in response to this situation that a quiet revolution is taking place as developers work on a new generation of on-premises collaboration and storage solutions with the usability but not the cost pitfalls of mainstream public cloud services. Designed with the same level of functionality and user experience that users have come to expect, and the ability to access them anywhere on the Internet.

For storage, it is often a simple matter of setting up a storage appliance in the corporate office or colocation environment to consolidate the storage requirements. A host of utility apps are offered to synchronize or back up files to the centralized storage repository where regular backups and snapshots can be made to thwart ransomware and insider sabotage.

When it comes to collaboration, storage device maker Synology have taken a more active role and built a suite of collaboration apps that runs straight off its popular range of NAS hardware. This gives business users complete privacy and control over where their data is stored, and eliminates the hefty recurring costs of signing up for multiple cloud services.

Synology Office for collaboration

Available as a free software package on Synology DiskStation Manager (DSM) 6.1, Synology Office offers the ability to edit documents and spreadsheets directly from the web browser. Edits made are synchronized automatically, and multiple users can work on any document or spreadsheet simultaneously.

A couple of unique abilities include the ability for reviewers to enter a “revision” mode and make modifications that writers can choose to accept. Comments can be added to the document, responded to, and marked as resolved once the changes are finalized.

The Office environment is also integrated with a Chat app, allowing users to discuss revisions while working on the document without the need to switch between applications (or browser tabs) in a genuine collaborative environment. As the documents are stored on the NAS, organizations can exercise complete control over confidential and proprietary data.

Keeping it within the company

That’s not all for productivity and collaboration though. Synology also offers other DSM packages to help bolster personal and company-level workflows even while keeping crucial data within the four walls of the company. Among others, this includes apps for taking notes, calendaring and even an email server.

  • Calendar: The web-based Calendar app can be used for organizing and planning meetings and events within the company. The Calendar feature could be used as a personal calendar, or shared with a group of colleagues or teammates within the organization. Support for CalDAV ensures the ability to use it with your favorite app.
  • Note Station: Notes and To-Do list can be synchronized through the network with the Notes Station package. To-do items can also be managed from the Calendar with the task plug-in.
  • MailPlus Server: The MailPlus Server runs on the Synology DSM as a private mail server for receiving and sending messages. The separate MailPlus package provides a modern interface like Google’s Gmail but running entirely on the NAS. Five licenses are offered by default, and additional licenses can be purchased in bundles of five or 20.

Keeping your own email server

The recurring cost of public cloud service is worth mentioning, as well as the sometimes-limited ability to manage the system. This is the reason why enterprises have continued to deploy on-premises solutions such as Microsoft Exchange Server, or work with other standalone messaging systems for handling their e-mail systems.

On this front, the free-to-install MailPlus Server and the access to free upgrades gives it an advantage over popular on-premises offering such as Microsoft’s Exchange Server. And unlike other standalone solutions where administrators have to puzzle out scalability issues on their own, the Synology DSM platform makes storage expansion a matter of adding a new storage drive.

It may be necessary to subscribe to a third-party service or apply for a static IP address to send email messages using MailPlus Server for organizations that run their Synology NAS on a network with a dynamic IP address. This is an issue that exists with all email servers in general, and occurs because many shared IP addresses from Internet Service Providers are blacklisted by popular email providers and anti-spam services.

Setting up world-wide access

Installing any of the above-mentioned packages is a simple matter of selecting the desired package from the Package Center in the web-based Synology DSM. Some packages such as Calendar may have dependencies that need to be installed, though the installation process figures that out and prompts for approval to download the requisite dependencies – these are then installed and enabled automatically.

To use the services beyond the corporate network, the appropriate port forwarding rules need to be configured at the Internet router or firewall. Web services will require port 80 and 443 (SSL), though setting up MailPlus will probably require port 25 (SMPT). When it comes to figuring out the IP address to use, you can make use of DSM’s extensive built-in support for external Dynamic DNS services if you like.

My favorite though, is the QuickConnect service that takes the shenanigans (and pain) of port forwarding or working through the firewall. Operated by Synology, the QuickConnect service can be quickly set up for free from DSM > Control Panel > QuickConnect. For added security, you can disable QuickConnect for specific applications or services under “Advanced” or set up a custom URL to redirect to an obfuscated QuickConnect URL.

Choosing the right hardware

Finally, which hardware should this Synology DSM-based collaboration platform be deployed on? The recently released Synology is an 8-bay appliance that may be ideally suited for small and mid-sized enterprises (SMEs). Powered by an Intel Atom processor, it is expandable to as much as 16GB of RAM to support a larger number of users and 10Gbps through a PCI-E slots for heightened transfer speeds.

Importantly, the hardware comes with eight drive bays accommodating both HDD and SSD, with the ability to scale up to 18 bays with two expansion units DX517, making it easy to expand storage capacity to meet the needs of growing businesses. Businesses can deploy it with five to six storage drives initially, and expand it in the future with larger capacity storage drives as they become available – or when prices fall. Alternatively, a spare drive can also be allocated and preconfigured as a hot spare in the event of a drive failure.

We will look more at the expansion capabilities of the DS1817+ in another article.