How To Buy…Network-Attached Storage (Part 2)

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NAS devices contain a variety of technologies, none of which should be especially unfamiliar to any computer user. Look for Ethernet support (especially gigabit Ethernet) and on some models, Wi-Fi (although for reasons explained further on, don’t worry too much about that.) Software-wise, you may want to check for iTunes compatibility, a UPnP media server (a standard protocol for media streaming to devices and applications) and some ability to stream over the web too.

Software-wise, you may want to check for iTunes compatibility

Software-wise, you may want to check for iTunes compatibility.

You may also be interested in extra online features. Some NAS devices come with free online cloud storage, which will automatically back up your data when your Internet connection is idle. Indeed, you can get as much as 25GB of online storage ‘free’ with some NAS devices, although they do tend to be priced more highly to cover such an expense.

In high-capacity models, look to see whether you’re buying a single-bay device or a dual-bay device. A 2TB NAS can contain either one 2TB drive or two 1TB drives. The former is likely to be cheaper, but the latter gives you better data integrity (backups can be kept on separate physical drives or duplicated) as well as the potential to run disks as a RAID array, which will give better speeds if multiple users are accessing the data together.

It’s up to you which you favor, but we’d guide home customers with one or two users towards the cheaper, single-drive solution, and larger networks towards a multi-bay setup.

Finally, if you see hardware specs for things like cache and CPU, don’t get confused - NAS devices have their own internal controllers and processors (much like a router), so in that sense, the processor speed lets you know how well that software performs. Similarly, the cache tells you how well disk speeds can be maintained, because more cache means better performance.

Don’t get too hung up on paying extra for the hardware alone, though. You’re unlikely to notice a huge leap between the low- and high-end processors or cache levels in a home environment. They’re only likely to have tangible effects if you have a lot of simultaneous users.

Is Now The Right Time To Buy?

NAS devices are still in their infancy, at least as far as home iterations of the technology are concerned. To be frank, they’re still more expensive than they should be. Buying a bay and drive separately means you can save almost $160, so it’s not sustainable in the long term for the already-assembled devices to cost as much as they do. Similarly, the price of storage is plummeting, and in a year or two, 1TB mechanical hard drives are going to look almost quaint. By then, faster, more reliable and more ecological SSD drives of similar capacity won’t be much more expensive.

By then, faster, more reliable and ecological SSD drives of similar capacity won’t be much more expensive.

By then, faster, more reliable and ecological SSD drives of similar capacity won’t be much more expensive.

The upshot is that if you’re waiting for the ‘right’ time to buy a NAS device, it’s not going to come for a year or two yet. But if you want to buy one now, it makes sense not to spend too much on one. Even if you buy a cheap 1TB device, by the time you’ve reached the limits of what it can offer, the trend of lowering prices will make it cheaper overall to buy a 1TB device now and a 2TB later than to buy a single 2TB one now.

“We strongly recommend doing your research before spending any money”

Again, though, this brings us back to the same point we’ve been making a lot in this article: buy an empty bay and fill it yourself. You’ll save a lot of money, it’ll be easier to upgrade in the future, and you’ll get some reuse out of the hardware. As long as you make sure it contains sufficiently fast SATA 6Gbps and USB 3.0 connectors, the bay will remain useful far longer than a 1TB NAS alone will.

What AreThe Technical Constraints?

NAS devices need three things: power, space and a network to connect to. Power and space are easy to account for, but more crucially, NAS devices need a network available before you buy them. Usually, this just means a router that you can connect the device to using either a USB or Ethernet connection, but high-end examples may give you the option to use wireless. We’d advise against that, though, unless you’re running a rock-solid network with consistent speeds. Wireless communication can be a serious bottleneck to access and transfer speeds, especially if the signal is weak or interfered with.

Power and space are easy to account for, but more crucially, NAS devices need a network available before you buy them.

Power and space are easy to account for, but more crucially, NAS devices need a network available before you buy them.

A NAS device itself does have technical limitations that ‘local’ storage doesn’t too. For example, a single hard drive is fast enough when used by one person, but remembers that two, three, or even more people can access network storage simultaneously.

This is why more setups that are expensive duplicate the contents in a RAID array; it avoids the problem of drives slowing down when trying to serve multiple users, because the same data can be served from different physical drives keeping speeds high.

In general, home setups don’t need a RAID-capable NAS, but if you’re a small business or office, you may want to make use of it just to lower waiting times and prevent performance issues.

What’s The Alternative?

Network-attached storage has its faults. It’s expensive and hard to maintain or upgrade. If something goes wrong, your only option is to replace it - often at great expense.

An alternative to buying a NAS device is to buy a router, which has the ability to connect to standard, external storage. Attaching a storage device effectively turns the router itself into its own NAS device. Such routers are more versatile than dedicated NAS devices, and usually connect to storage over USB, meaning that you can plug in a powered external hard drive as normal or avoid using up another electrical socket by using the USB port’s internal power supply to support a USB or solid-state drive. Keep in mind that these storage devices are much easier to swap out if you want to attach or share different ones at different times, and are also cheaper to replace if they break or fail.

Western Digital My Net N900 HD Dual-Band Router

Western Digital My Net N900 HD Dual-Band Router

Another alternative is to go the opposite route entirely and aim for even greater integration. It’s possible to buy routers that have network attached storage built into them, such as the Western Digital My Net - a wireless router with 2TB of the company’s own storage technology (based on the ‘My Book’ series) built-in. Good for saving space and undeniably simpler than adding an extra device to your network but also a lot more vulnerable to data loss if something goes wrong.

There are also the more low-tech alternatives: you could add more hard drives into an existing networked PC and share them over the network. However, in our opinion, doing that misses what makes NAS storage desirable in the first place - that you can access it at any time, without the need for a specific device to be active on the network. If you have a spare system lying around, you could turn it into a dedicated file server, although it’d be significantly more bulky (and more expensive to run!) than a dedicated NAS device.

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