Synology for the win!

The Synology Diskstation DS220+. Picture courtesy Synology.

Question: What IT product that you use every day lasts more than 10 years? Nothing you say? Don’t be ridiculous, you say? Yes, in this fast moving world where new products and versions are released almost faster than light, and most people get a new phone every 2-3 years, that is very, very unusual.

My answer to this question: a Synology NAS!

Just to be clear, I am not sponsored in any way, I simply like this product a lot.

In 2010, I bought a Synology Diskstation 710+. My first Synology. I didn’t really know a lot about NAS systems, but I wanted to keep my personal files, photos, etc safe, and I wanted to be able to access them from multiple computers and laptops, and share them with my wife. I read a couple of reviews, and decided to go for the 710+. It is a 2-bay NAS (i.e. you can put two harddrives in it), and it can be extended to 7 disks, making it future proof. I actually never used more than two disks, nor did I plan to. The reason I went for the 710+, and not a cheaper model, is that it uses a powerful Intel atom processor, so you can run lots of software on it.

Now, more than 10 years later, and having used the NAS literally every day, I have bought a new one. Not because it broke, mind you, I still am really happy with it, and it runs just fine! However, there are no updates of the software anymore (not surprising after 10 years), and one of my disks crashed. The NAS itself still is fine, and no data was lost, since I configured it so that the data is mirrored between the two drives. The other drive simply and seamlessly took over, exactly what is meant to happen, and why I bought a NAS in the first place.

Why buy a new one then? Well, like a said, even though it is behind a firewall, I want security updates. Also, I had to buy new disks anyway, and putting new drives in a very old NAS doesn’t feel right. Finally, the new Synology models have cool new features, like running Docker! This means you can run nicely packaged software in containers in a safe and user-friendly way. There are many, many good software packages for Synology systems, supported by Synology itself, but also by 3rd parties, and by a huge community of enthusiasts. Finally, the thing just runs Linux on an Intel processor, so you can develop or compile anything you like. They are extremely flexible.

I am a nerd, and I like to tinker with stuff, including electronics and software. So, why didn’t I build something myself then? That would be cheaper right? And, I am Dutch! As you may know, we have a reputation for being frugal (some would say cheap). So what gives? Well, I could build my own of course, that would be fun. But I am so satisfied with my old Synology that I simply don’t want to. Synologies just work. Uptimes are measured in months or even years. I don’t have to do any maintenance, upgrades of the operating system and other software packages are installed automatically, and things never break. Finally, the software is incredibly easy to use, using a web browser, anywhere on the planet. O, did I mention that there are excellent apps for your phone or tablet, so you can listen to your own music, show your photos, and access your files from anywhere?

So, I bought a new and shiny DS220+, and the post you are reading was written, and is hosted on that new baby! Of course, I kept the old one too. It may run for another 10 years, who knows? I am now using it to make off-site backups. I also backup locally and to the cloud (Syno’s have excellent support for that). Call me paranoid, you can never have to many backups.

Here’s to my trusty old Syno, and to the shiny new one. Let’s go for another 10 years! Cheers!

First Light! … Again! Shiny new receivers for the Westerbork telescope.

Great news! The new and improved Westerbork telescope in the northeast of the Netherlands has seen first light! If you are into radio astronomy, or if you have visited the second world war nazi camp and monument at Westerbork, you may be familiar with this instrument, which was built in 1970. The telescope is situated … Continue reading “First Light! … Again! Shiny new receivers for the Westerbork telescope.”

Great news! The new and improved Westerbork telescope in the northeast of the Netherlands has seen first light! If you are into radio astronomy, or if you have visited the second world war nazi camp and monument at Westerbork, you may be familiar with this instrument, which was built in 1970. The telescope is situated right next to the former transit camp. During the Second World War, Romani and Dutch Jews were assembled there, for transport to other Nazi concentration camps. The famous Anne Frank (from the diary) was kept here for a while.

A rebuilt barrack at Dutch Nazi camp Westerbork. Anne Frank stayed in this barrack from August till early September 1944, before she was taken to Auschwitz and then Bergen-Belsen. Picture from Wikipedia, courtesy Blacknight.

Today, you can visit the remains of the camp, which now is a monument. From the site, you can see the telescope, or actually telescopes, because the instrument consists of 14 separate dishes, 25 meters in diameter each. The total distance between the dishes is 2.7 kilometers, or 1.7 miles if you insist on using archaic units. The telescope actually is pretty old already. In fact, it is older than I am (I was built in ‘75). Nevertheless, this instrument has helped doing great science, and has led to many remarkable discoveries.

The Westerbork synthesis radio telescope. And typical Dutch weather 🙂 Picture made by me on a day the telescope was open for the public. Normally, cars are not allowed here, because they cause interference.

Of course, technology does not stand still, and modern, more sensitive instruments were developed and built during the four decades (!) that this telescope has been operational. So, the beast was becoming a bit old and grumpy. Not to worry! We are Dutch, and don’t like to waste anything (some say we are cheapskates). So, recently, the receivers that are in the focal points of the dishes were upgraded with brand new ones. Originally, each dish contained only a single sensor, basically producing a single pixel. The new receiver, called APERTIF, actually is an array of sensors, called a Focal Plane Array (FPA). Compare it to a modern sensor in a camera, which produces several megapixels at once. So, this gives us more sensitivity, but especially a much larger window on the sky. We can see more at the same time. This is important if you want to make a survey, searching for objects that you don’t know yet, or which appear suddenly (like supernovae, pulsars, or signals from little green men).

Focal Plane arrays rock! Picture courtesy ASTRON.

So, why am I blogging about this? Well because it is cool, duh! And, because we at the Netherlands eScience Center develop software to process the data generated by this instrument. To be more precise, we are working on ARTS, the APERTIF radio transient system. We will, for instance, observe pulsars: neutron stars that are spinning quickly, emitting a beam like a light house. For some pulsars, the time between pulses is so constant that they are even more precise than an atomic clock! Pulsars are important for many reasons. One of them is that we hope to use them to detect gravitational waves, learning more about how the universe works.
It is a privilege for us to write software that will help make these scientific discoveries happen! At the same time, it is a strange but beautiful thing that a site where so many bad things happened to so many people in the past now is one of the pinnacles of science.