I was listening to the latest episode of ATP and they talked a bit about photo solutions they are using and wether or not it’s a good idea to switch to Photos for Mac. None of them mentioned Synology Photo Station, even though they all own Synology NAS products.

Because I couldn’t find a clear list like this anywhere else, I want to list out, here, the features of Synology’s Photo Station software.

Photo management is the topic that just won’t die. It’s just not easy and simple yet, there are so many little worries and concerns that the knowledgable geeks have with every solution out there. I believe Synology offers a photo solution that has more on the positive side of the balance than anyone else.

Mobile Apps

Having good apps is both the minimum bar of functionality, and the most amazing aspect of the Synology software ecosystem. So many consumer electronics companies try to provide a mobile app to interface, and so many of them do it badly. But, the DS Photo+ app is really quite good.

DS Photo +

Unfortunately, it has the same problem that every photo backup app on iOS has, namely it only backs up your photos if you have opened the app recently. This is where Apple’s iCloud Photos solutions really take the wind out of everyone else’s sails.

Web Albums

Web albums are the primary purpose of the Photo Station software running on your Synology. The whole thing is a web application that indexes and presents a nice album view of all the folders of images you have. I think the fact that it uses folders as it’s default organization structure is a really good choice. I don’t like having everything in one massive opaque library file. Storing photos as files and folders is a metaphor I understand and has passed the test of time. I have my photos broken down by year and month folders. So all the most recent pictures are in the 2015/04 folder.

Folder Structure

Permissions

If you have multiple people in your household with different collections of photos and all want access to it, you have lots of control with the Synology. Creating users and assigning them permissions is a straightforward task for the knowledgable home geeks.

You can have different users have different permissions (like viewing and uploading) per folder. You can also short-cut the whole thing and have everyone in your house use one primary user account for logging in just to simplify things.

Sharing

Sharing is where Photo Station sets itself apart. From the web interface it’s easy to choose photos for shared albums. These shared albums can be protected with a simple password that you give to friends and family, or can be unprotected but hidden behind a long URL (this is the default option in the latest version). You can also just create plain old public albums listed for everyone in the public interface of your diskstation website if you are using your diskstation to host a public website.

sharing

The photostation software also has features that allow you to post photos or links to photos to sites including Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and Picasa.

They also allow you to set up a built-in public ‘Photo Blog’ a feature I haven’t used because I prefer to post photos to my WordPress blog.

Synology has to make the web interface available to the internet in order to make this sharing funcationlity really work. The Disk Station software tries to walk you through setting up Dynamic DNS and firewall rules during initial installation. Exposing your NAS to the internet has some inherent risks.

Indexing and Conversion

When Photo Station analyzes all the photos in you photo/ directory, it will auto-rotate and generate a few thumbnails as well as indexing all the EXIF metadata. This makes searching by map and timeline and various tags possible from within the web interface.

Detail View

In the Disk Station control panel you can have the software automatically convert all video files to mobile friendly formats.

Editing

I wouldn’t say these are great ways to edit, but they have integrated the web-based Pixlr and Aviary photo editing services. These are actually quite powerful and don’t require you to have special software installed on your personal computer. But, they do have some limitations in speed and funcationality compared to programs like photoshop or lightroom.

Tagging and Face Recognition

You can assign tags to photos one at a time or to a selection of multiple photos. There is no concept of stars or favorites in Photo Station, but you can add a tag you call “Favorite” or “5 Stars” in the interface if you wish to be that organized.

You can manually select faces in a photo and assign a name. The Disk Station will do it’s best to identify faces based on the data you give it. This feature is still listed as experimental.

Conclusion

Web based software is unlikely to be as fast and easy as a natively built desktop app, but I think PhotoStation comes close. I like the fact that I have all my family photos on a cloud service that I control and own. And I love the fact that it’s still integrated with a good Mobile App, even if the integration isn’t as smooth as Apple’s iCloud Photos. Uploading files to a NAS inside of your home network is going to be a lot quicker than getting photos up to iCloud. And the NAS should be set to back up it’s files weekly to an offsite cloud location anyway. I set mine to go to Amazon Glacier on Sunday nights. Overall, I think the benefits outweight the problems.

I still have to finish my detailed description of how I get all my photos into the Synology disks from our two iPhones and our Sony Digital Camera. Look for that soon.

group collaboration solutions

One problem that comes up semi-frequently in our lives is managing other people. Even if we are not managers at work, we may need to organize people in other parts of our lives. Our family, our friends, a church group or any group based on hobbies or common interests. You may not even realize that you have a need for tools and solutions. You can help others see the light of good organization and easy communication.

I’m mostly going to focus on solutions for casual, common-interest type groups like a writers club or a small-group. You may have several different needs to focus on, but I’m going to mostly bypass the business uses for these solutions even though many of these ideas can be used in the workplace as well.

Communication

Firstly, you need ways to communicate. Many people just use text messages and ad-hoc mass emails. There are several problems with this. When you are interacting with people, there are many things that can go wrong. A little organization and control can go a long ways.

List-serve or email lists

This is an older method of communicating that is surprisingly effective. There are several providers of these kinds of lists, but they offer the following functionality.

  • One central email address to remember that everyone sends and replys to.
  • You can set up a list or authorized members on a list.
  • Email addresses and membership status is kept private to the group or to the administrators.
  • Emails from any member to the central list address will be relayed to every member of the list.
  • Sub-groups can be created for segments of the larger list.
  • Moderation options for un-trusted users.
  • Or invite-only list membership.
  • These features cover my preferred way to coordinate a group of less than 50. I like to get a good mailing list set up first. It makes the biggest difference to the effectiveness of a group’s communication.

    Here are a few group collaboration web service providers to consider:

  • Google Groups
  • Yahoo Groups
  • Groupspaces.com
  • OnlineGroups.net
  • Self-Hosted or Advanced Tools

  • GroupServer
  • GNU Mailman (comes with many CPanel web hosting packages)
  • My Recommendation

    I tried to use Google Groups for quite a while. Eventually, I chose Groupspaces.com for two of my groups. Their user interface is excellent. Their calendar event management and email database management tools are top notch. One disadvantage is that they don’t record all your group emails and let you search or browse them from the web interface like the other services do. They do, however, host a basic public facing group site which may take care of all your public and private website needs.

    Group Spaces Admin UI The Administrative User Interface shows much of the available functionality.

    Many people use meetup to start and advertise their public groups. This is a good option if your group is local, and open to outside people and wants to grow.

    Note: Don’t change services too often, this annoys people and confuses them. Switching group mailing list addresses is a real pain point for a long time.

    Forums and More

    If you have a group of people that is larger and will carry on conversations in a wide range of topics, then you may want to consider a forum. There is good forum software, and then there is Discourse which is excellent forum software.

    If you buy a decent hosting package that gives you access to cPanel you can probably install phpBB or another bulletin board system fairly easily.

    Another interesting option is a chat room. If people might drop in and out and carry out real-time discussions you can easily offer a chat room. Slack is a really popular option right now, and they offer a very generous free plan. Hall.com is another good chat room provider that I have used. Slack probably has a better user interface, and many people are already using it. Old-school IRC is an option for the truly nerdy among us. Enough said about IRC.

    One nice thing about Slack is that it will notify people on their smart phones of new messages in certain channels, so you can have an announcements channel, or an important channel for primary discussions, then move less important or relevant conversations to side channels, including private invite only channels. I use slack quite a bit at work now instead of instant messages and email.

    My Recommendation

    Don’t bother unless you are sure there is a real need. You should try Slack first, it‘s free and easy.

    Newsletters

    Newsletters make sense for larger groups and for groups that are primarily focused on unidirectional communication. I really recommend MailChimp for newsletters. Their interface is very clear, and their free plan allows lists up to 2000 people. If you want to really make your newsletters pop, browse through their free templates or buy a nice template from a place like creativemarket.com. Something customized off the shelf will really professionalize your newsletters. If you are still sending out word documents as attachments… stop! Convert that Word doc to a PDF or take the time to format it into a nice email interface like the one MailChimp offers. Email newsletter design from scratch is a dark art, but using a pre-built template cane make it easy for even beginners.

    If you have a really large list and want to go the self-hosted route you can try http://sendy.co/. It will probably be more complicated than MailChimp, but if you are a power user, you can go this route and maintain more control of your list and the end user’s experience.

    Rotations and Assignments Management

    When you share the load of work with a group of people and need to maintain a consistent schedule of who is doing what and when many people fall back to a spreadsheet or a calendar. A shared Google calendar might be a good solution for you, or a shared Google Drive (formerly Google Docs) Spreadsheet document might work also. These allow basic collaboration and are flexible enough for many uses.

    In the church world people often use PlanningCenterOnline.com this works well for worship services, but is both too much and too little when it comes to smaller groups doing work across a week.

    Recommendation

    I think I found the perfect web application for rotating and assigning service opportunities for the church group I am a part of. GoAssign.com offers the best interface for setting up tasks and schedules for a group of people. It will send out reminders in email or text, and it can give people the option to accept or reject an assignment. It also has a place for people to set their vacation dates so they don’t get scheduled. The free plan is limited to 15 users.

    Websites

    This topic could be huge but there are really only a few options that I see. One is to use Square Space. They provide excellent website building tools and very good design templates, their prices start at $8 per month. My other favorite option is a Wordpress website. A website hosted at wordpress.com will work, and it’s free if you don’t need a custom domain name, but if you get a shared hosting plan you can get a lot more power for very little money.

    Shared Linux hosting is a very powerful tool for small groups. The traffic requirements of your group will (probably) never be very high so you are unlikely to run into the technical constraints of the cheapest plans, which start around $8 per month at places like BlueHost, DreamHost, or GoDaddy. The site (http://www.hostbenchmarker.com/ has some good comparison information).

    It‘s common with these plans to receive a large number of email addresses, features like list serves, file storage, FTP, forums, image galleries, WordPress, or your own Wiki.

    Installing WordPress is quite easy. WordPress is a powerful website management tool, and is probably one of the most widely used pieces of web software around. It’s certainly not fool-proof, but it‘s very powerful. So far, every time I try to use something else to manage content for a website, I end up wishing I had just stuck with WordPress.

    There are many thousands of themes available for free and for purchase around the web. I already mentioned Creative Market, but I can also recommend ThemeZilla, and WooThemes. Paying for a good quality, customizable and unique theme feels good, you won’t regret it.

    My Recommendations

    If you are a technical novice and just want something that works, go with SquareSpace.

    But, I recommend looking at your needs and seeing if a shared hosting plan with cPanel and these other features will fit your group needs more completely. I recommend you buy a domain name, point it at your own privately hosted WordPress site and set up a list-server on your hosting account too. I am working on a guide to buying and configuring your domain name, coming soon.

    If you are trying to go completely free, then you can start with an account at wordpress.com.

    Project and Task Management

    Email is the usual tool we turn to when we need to work together to accomplish goals or finish projects. That’s fine, but there are better ways. The project and task management market is huge! If you want to collaborate effectively with small teams, the options become a little more focused. I can’t even begin to cover all the project management tools I have tried. Luckily one thing has always come to the top and survived all of my most discerning and critical collaborators. Trello is a project collaboration tool and so much more. The idea is based on moving cards around a board. Invited members can collaborate on any type of tasks together on the project board.

    Best of all it’s free for every user. There are paid business account available but the free accounts are not hobbled in an significant way.

    So, that’s the simplest recommendation of this whole article, use Trello. There are literally hundreds of other options, but since I cannot get into all the little details to compare them, I’m taking the easy way out and recommending Trello for pretty much everything.

    • Updated 2014-11-13 with a link to Gabe Weatherhead’s article at MacDrifter about backing up a Synology.
    • Updated on 2014-11-05 with more information about Crashplan on the Synology and some formatting changes, originally posted on 2014-10-09.

    The Problem

    Moving everything onto an external USB drive is not a backup. You need a backup, but you probably are leaving yourself open to disastrous data loss. I don’t mean to be a fear monger, but this is a real problem. If all of your data is on a laptop or phone or a single external hard drive on your desk, someone could break in and steal all your data in one fell swoop. A fire or flood could just as easily destroy all that data. Believe me.

    Backups are complicated. Until someone comes along to make it super simple we need to figure a few things out. Lets start with what and where. What data do you have and where is it? OK, a bunch of photos and home videos. How many places are they? What would happen if that one place you put them suddenly broke or was stolen or burned? You don’t have to just worry you can actually do something about it.

    We are going to plan ahead and make a system that does all the thinking for us. We don't want to have to think it through every day or week. There should be a local backup of the important data from each device in your home. As well as a remote backup of all that important data. Remote means somewhere other than your home. It doesn't have to be a cloud service, but a cloud service requires the least brain power to keep running.

    The Options

    There are ways that are more perfect than others, but it's going to be different for each person. The way big businesses protect their data is very complicated. But at the scale most people have to worry about 10 GB – 10 TB we shouldn't have a problem figuring something out that is safe and relatively affordable.

    You can try to just buy two USB drives and carry them back and forth to work and home each week. Phones can be backed up to your computer, which is backed up to an external drive. You  should be rotating which backup is plugged into your PC or Mac every week or month. The other drive should be kept somewhere other than your home. But eventually you'll probably forget and stop carrying them around. Or one drive will suddenly become corrupted from all the banging around in your bag, and you won't realize it.

    My favorite solution right now is the Synology DiskStation (a machine called a NAS (for Network Attached Storage)) and TimeMachine. Apple’s TimeMachine is great backup software if you have Mac. A Synology DiskStation like the DS214 has two hard drives in it, meaning all the data can be mirrored on both drives, protecting your from 1 drive failure. Now, that's not quite enough, you should also have one more backup locally, and one more remote.

    I recommend putting that extra copy of your data into a cloud backup service. Backblaze and Crashplan seem to be the best options for most users, but I chose Amazon Glacier. This service is enabled by a backup client available on the Synology. And, the pricing is very affordable, though slightly more expensive than either Backblaze or CrashPlan for my backup size. My last monthly bill was around $7 for over 540GB. Backblaze and Crashplan are cheaper at larger sizes, but your NAS won't send data to them easily, without going through a running computer.

    Backblaze won’t upload data from network drives without considerable trickery. According to Marco, Crashplan is a viable option for uploading data directly from you Synology NAS. Scott Hanselman has a guide to setting it up here. If you just want automated simple backups from your PC, use Backblaze or Crashplan directly from the computer. If you are already using Crashplan, and want to add your NAS data to it, or if you have a lot of data on a NAS and want to get the Crashplan price breaks, follow that guide. But, I can’t vouch for it personally, I just used the Glacier Backup App that comes in the Synology App Store.

    I don't want my laptop or desktop to have to be always on backups to happen for the whole household. That's one of the strengths of a NAS, it's an efficient computer that's always running. Your local computers push data to the NAS and the NAS pushes it’s data to the cloud. It’s a two step process that offers a lot of flexibility, and redundancy but at a cost of setup time and financial investment on the NAS hardware.

    NAS devices can also be backup up locally on to external USB hard drives. You could carry that drive off to a second location to protect from a local disaster. This could be cost effective with a fixed cost up front of around $130, but I don't like having to do any part of my backups manually. Backups need to be as automated as possible, so my forgetful nature won't leave me unprotected. If it’s not automated, it’s probably not happening. If you want more information on doing local backups from a Synology, check out the guide on MacDrifter. Gabe also recommends using Amazon Glacier for his “slow” backups. Meaning items that he doesn’t need to restore immediately after a data loss, but could wait a few weeks to download or have them ship out a hard-drive. He keeps business documents and immediate needed files on a physical hard drives at a separate location.

    Personal Recommendation

    Buy a Synology DiskStation with at least 2 drives in a mirrored array. I’ll write a how-to article for this soon. Sign up for an Amazon developer account. Configure the Glacier backup application on the DiskStation. Configure your laptops to backup to the network location on the DiskStation. Configre your phones to auto-upload all photos and videos to the DiskStation also. If I had my house burn down (again) I wouldn't lose any important data. Everything on our laptops and phones is saved to the Synology DiskStation NAS, and the Synology is backed up to Glacier every week. Everything is pretty much automated, and cost effective for me.

    Conclusion

    My overall approach is this: I like to combine some local infrastructure with some monthly services. I don't mind using free services sometimes, but you need to be ready to switch away from them without losing anything, and you need to be able to say that the data that is important to you is safe, not wonder when the last time was you remembered to plug in that drive and copy all those folders.

    If you are managing your own home server it’s important to keep up to speed on the latest software for your server. It’s one of the drawbacks of using a home server or NAS, you can’t just set it and forget it. The latest update from Synology for my favorite digital home handyman product is a really good one. I know this is firmly in the nerd realm, but I'm excited about this update. Synology's DiskStation Manager (DSM) is usually pretty good, and they have been making it better at a very good pace. The latest version of DiskStation manager addresses a number of things I have been concerned about.

    First, it adds a feature for exploring your Glacier backup set from the DSM interface so it's easier to get a single file from backup. Awesome, this reinforces my choice of using Glacier for backups, because that was the one remaining issue with Glacier is the difficulty of restoring a small set of files from the archive.

    The next exciting addition that's relevant to this blog is Security Advisor. Synology DiskStation products had a big security problem a few months ago. Some malicious hackers figured out how to remotely access many (out of date) Disk Stations that were open to the internet and they held people's files hostage. This was really bad, but the security hole was closed quickly. Synology is trying to remedy this situation by having better automated updates, better email notifications of those updates to Synology owners, and now this new Advisor security scanning application.

    When you install this newest version after setup, it will ask you if you want to install updates automatically, install only important updates, or just download and wait for you to install them manually. It's personal preference of course, but my recommendation is to set it to install important updates automatically, so you get the best security patches as quickly as possible.

    Another new feature that's relevant to the digital home handyman is the update to Cloud Sync. Which is an application that will sync your cloud files from DropBox and Google Drive onto your NAS also, so if a cloud service ever goes down, you still have the files on your personal cloud. The new version allows you to connect to additional services, like Microsoft OneDrive and 'box'. This is a good thing to turn on, it's especially nice because it allows you to have multiple accounts with each service.

    When Apple releases a new version of iOS (OS stands for Operating System) many people rush to install it right away. This may not always be a good idea. If your device is not from the two most recent generations of iPhone then you may encounter some problems and slow-downs even though technically your device will be supported by the latest OS version. You get 3 years of being current with an Apple iPhone and only 2 years where you are likely to have excellent performance on the current OS.

    If you choose not to upgrade you will be running a few risks. One is that the apps you run will no longer be updated for your platform, most developers stop doing fixes for apps on older versions of the OS. And many developers will start releasing the same app but it will require the newest OS to even install.

    Conversely, these things won't happen right away. Many developers will wait a few months before making the jump completely to newest OS versions. Here's the sad truth with Technology. A device that's parts and technology are 3 years old (like an iPhone 4S today) is really slow compared to todays devices. Progress is always driving capabilities forward, and companies are always trying to drive people to buy the latest device. Today with the 4S, the iPad 2 and the iPad Mini we are looking at a device that is 3 years old, even if you buy it brand new today. Apple was kind enough to provide an iOS update for our devices. There are two philosophical approaches to this situation.


    Go with the Flow

    Everything Changes. Learn to adapt to the new stuff and just upgrade as soon as its convenient. Apple usually gives us a few performance optimizations in the *.1 release anyway. Just suck it up and look forward to when you can afford a new device. The pro column of this philosophy looks pretty good, you get lots of shiny new features! Some things become a lot easier (like extensions in iOS8) and you get to be part of the cool crowd that is using the latest and greatest software. You get to install and run all the latest cool apps that only work on the most recent OS. The con column contains mostly performance decreases, and the chance that you will get burned by some temporary bug that ships in the first version of the operating system. 


    or Stick to your Guns

    Your device works fine like it is. Why risk a big change. If I don't absolutely need one of the new features, then I'll stick with the old version. This is the philosophy of getting a device to accomplish a few specific tasks and not worrying about the other possibilities that you may or may not ever use. If the old iOS gets the job done, why try to change. If your iPod Classic plays music for you just fine, why upgrade? If your digital camera takes adequate pictures for you, why lust after the latest and greatest? Do those feelings sound familiar to you? This could be your path forward.

    My wife has the same iPhone 4S as me, that never upgraded to iOS7. She stayed on 6. She does email in the Gmail app, she sends and receives a lot of text and iMessages, and she makes and receives a few phone calls. She reads books in Kindle. Occasionally she tries to get directions from Maps. She doesn't play games hardly ever. In this case she stuck with the old versions of the apps, turned off automatic updates and is perfectly happy. Whenever I pick up her phone to use it I am amazed at how fast and responsive it is. It just feels so much faster than my phone on iOS7.