An introduction to the world of network attached storage.
As we hoard more and more 1s and 0s on our computers, the desire to store that data safely and to share it with other devices on our home networks grows. Having a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device makes storing all that data an easier proposition than a bunch of external hard drives randomly plugged into various computers. But NAS units can do more than store your backups and files. A NAS can act as the hub of your entire digital life, as an easy to use home server.
So what should you look for when buying a NAS do you get the right one without spending too much on features you don’t need?
NAS units come with a various number of drive bays. There's units that'll take just a single drive, all the way up to 16 drive versions. You can get even more if you need, but if you need that many hard drives, you're leaving the consumer/prosumer area and entering some enterprise level stuff, with an associated price tag. Knowing how many drives you need is more than simply adding up how much data you have and buying a hard drive to suit thanks to RAID.
RAID is the utilisation of multiple disks to provide a failsafe if a hard drive decides to fail. If you've set up RAID, a drive can die, but your data remains safe. There's varying levels of RAID that have different levels of redundancy and different trade-offs for that redundancy. In general, the more disks you use as a fail-safe, the better chance there is you won't lose data if a drive dies. However, the more disks you use, the more money you need to spend on those disks and on a larger NAS unit to store them in.
RAID levels can get a bit tricky to explain, so take a read of this article to decide which RAID level suits your needs the best. Personally, I recommend RAID1 or RAID10 if what you're storing is important. You can even decide not to use RAID at all if you wish, simply setup each installed drive as its own volume, segregating the data manually, so that if a drive dies, data on the others aren't taken with it.
"In general, the more disks you use as a fail-safe, the better chance there is you won't lose data if a drive dies"
Next you need to decide which hard drives to use, as NAS units generally don't come with drives installed and require a separate purchase. Seagate and WD have special NAS drives, designed for use in, surprise, a NAS. These models are great as they tend to have a higher Mean Time Before Failure (MTBF) rating and are designed for 24/7 use, as opposed to desktop hard drives which, while will work fine, but may not last as long.
Once you've decided on how much storage you need, what RAID level you'll put them in, and how many drives you need to make that happen, you can go about picking a NAS.
There are a few brands on the market you may not have heard of, such as QNAP, Synology, ASUSTOR, Netgear and Thecus - alongside NAS units from the hard drive manufacturers Seagate and Western Digital themselves.
The Seagate and Western Digital range of NAS units are quite basic and lack a few features the other brands have. Their advantage is that they can sometimes be cheaper than the other brands, particularly when bundled with drives. If all you want is somewhere to store your files on the network, there's nothing wrong at all with the Seagate and Western Digital NAS units. If you want to run many apps and use your NAS as more of a home server than for just simply storing files, take a look at units from Synology and QNAP in particular. The breadth of server applications available on NAS units from these two brands is fantastic.
When browsing around the manufacturers' websites, you might see a model that you like, but also another model with the same amount of bays, and wonder what the difference is? With Synology units, there's seven different models that each have four bays! Which one should you get? A NAS is just a little computer really. It has RAM, CPU and an operating system. The difference between each model is simply different CPUs (faster CPUs cost more) and the amount of RAM (more RAM = more money). There are also NAS units in a rack form factor, designed to go into server cabinets, if you're into that sort of thing.
If you plan to run any apps on your NAS (e.g: Plex Media Server, BitTorrent clients, TV tuner software, etc.) then you want a NAS with a slightly more powerful CPU and more RAM than the entry level model. NAS CPUs are often split between some models running ARM-based CPUs (lower performance, but lower cost and lower power consumption) and Intel-based CPUs (high performance, but more expensive and use a bit more electricity). If you plan on running apps that aren't included by default by the NAS manufacturer (i.e: third party apps), then you probably want an Intel-based NAS as there's just much more software to choose from.
You may also want to investigate a NAS with built in encryption (sometimes called AES-NI support) if you think someone might steal your NAS and you keep sensitive info on it (i.e: backups of what's on your computer). Having encryption built in at a hardware level will mean you need to buy a more expensive NAS, but it'll be much faster if you do decide to encrypt your data. AES-NI is normally found on higher end models targeted at small businesses.
A couple of NAS units have HDMI ports and remote controls that let you plug the thing directly into a TV and play media directly off the NAS onto the TV. These models also tend to have hardware video transcoding capabilities that when using the right app on your smartphone, smart TV or tablet, will convert in real-time any media the playback device can't handle natively, to a format that is supported.
After you've decided how much storage you need, what level of RAID you require and how many drives you need to do that, picking a suitable brand and model from their line up with the features that suit you – then you can buy a NAS safe in the knowledge you’re getting what you need.