Network Attached Storage Round-Up (Part 1) - The Benefits Of A NAS

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How to pick a NAS solution that's right for you

NAS stands for 'Network Attached Storage' and is a term used to describe any dedicated storage device that can be connected directly to a network. Unlike other types of external storage, it can function without the need to be connected to a computer. NAS drives are wide ranging in performance and capability, with units designed for the home being affordable and simple to use. Enterprise-level NAS boxes, on the other hand, can cost thousands of pounds per unit and encompass multiple drives. As well as providing improved performance, they have extensive security and management facilities built in. Many small businesses now use a NAS as a general shared area for data, which can be accessed by any user connected to the network.

Description: Network Attached Storage Round-Up

A NAS differs from a traditional server in that the hardware and operating system's sole purpose is to provide data storage functionality. Most NAS units use file-based protocols such as NFS (Network File System) - common on larger Unix-based corporate networks - and SMB (Server Message Block), which is more commonly used on Windows-based home networks.

The cost of NAS drives used to be prohibitively expensive for use in a home environment, but in many cases you can now pick up a reasonable model for only a little more money than an external hard drive of a similar capacity. Naturally, the recent hard drive crisis triggered by flooding in Thailand has made the cost of drives higher than they were 12 months ago, but with supply and demand returning slowly to normal levels, these devices are dropping in price every month.

The Benefits Of A NAS

Description: The Benefits Of A NAS

There are numerous benefits of a NAS in a corporate environment, the most obvious of which is that they do not require a server to function. In a small network with only a few PCs, having a domain-based network is needlessly expensive, because a workgroup with an attached NAS can afford the business much the same functionality at a greatly reduced price. The dedicated and therefore accessible nature of a NAS unit also means that they are much easier to maintain than dedicated servers, and should a problem develop, they can be rebooted in moments.

For home users, NAS drives are also becoming increasingly useful, as they enable the file sharing capabilities of a dedicated file server for a fraction of the cost. Even the cheapest modern PC is going to cost at least $400 and will probably come with a whole host of sunk costs you just don't need, including an OS, as well as a pitifully small hard disk. By contrast this same $400 will allow you access to any one of a number of fully featured and capacious NAS boxes.

Another significant benefit of a NAS for home users is space. A server is going to take up at least as much space as a desktop PC, and if you want the convenience of a connected monitor, keyboard and mouse, it will probably take up an entire corner of the room. A home NAS box, on the other hand, is no larger than a USB hard drive and can sit unobtrusively next to your router.

Another major benefit is the ease of setup. Whereas a file server requires extensive configuration and knowledge of networking terminology and server-based operating systems, with a NAS you just plug it into your router and you'll be sharing your data around the network in just a few minutes.

More Than Just Storage

Description: ZAP-LN-86BT standalone BitTorrent / NAS device

ZAP-LN-86BT standalone BitTorrent / NAS device

Many modern NAS drives offer their users a lot more than just a network-accessible location to store files. It has become increasingly common to find NAS devices with built-in BitTorrent clients, for example, allowing users to seed or download data without the need for a power-hungry desktop to be running 24/seven. Many of these drives also offer FTP functionality, allowing you access to your data from remotely located networks over the internet. This is also a great and affordable way of sharing data among friends and family, allowing them to browse your holiday photos or home videos remotely. Some NAS boxes offer UPnP functionality enabling you to seamlessly use your Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 as a media playback device, while others offer music serving capabilities for iTunes, Windows Media Player and other popular playback software. If you're prepared to invest in a more expensive NAS, they can also handle your entire backup and redundancy requirements, because boxes with space for multiple drives can be configured in RAID 1 or even RAID 5 mode to provide protection against a single disk failure. These can be used in conjunction with powerful backup software like Acronis True Image to fully automate a scheduled backup of your entire network.

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