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Survey of Network Attached Storage (NAS)

mail-boxesIf you want to have a credible advanced home server, then you need a network disk drive. It has to be potentially accessible from all workstations, tablets, phones, and media devices 100% of the time without going to extraordinary lengths. You may also find yourself far away from home and in dire need of a file you left behind.

You can always rent storage space on a drive hidden somewhere in the cloud and use it as a nexus for you and your remote data needs.

Or you can set up your own home network drive and access your files from near and far just as easily as if you were sitting next to them. And, if you do it right, your remote access can be as secure as your relationship with Amazon or eBay. With a home drive, you know where your data is and how it is stored. There are no monthly storage fees. You can be downstairs, downtown, downstate, or Down Under and get to it.

But first, you have to decide how you want to set up your storage system.  Some extremely inexpensive alternatives work very well, but, as with all things, costs go up as the required features list grows.

A Quick Look At My System

I’ve used three basic types and found them all surprisingly capable. My current NAS device is a QNAP TS-120. This small QNAP device is essentially a Linux derivative computer with storage capabilities. It allows 24/7 access and uses perhaps $1 of electricity a month. It offers advanced storage capabilities and a large number of applications, such as Plex, Twonky, and WordPress.

Synology and Asustor both make and sell similar disk drives and are highly regarded. I just happened to buy a QNAP because it had the features I wanted at this time at the right price. A few months later, Synology or Asustor may have had what I wanted, or not. This is a very competitive market niche. These drives are suitable for home, SOHO, or business use. They are available with multi-drive RAID configurations and can be integrated with Active Directory, if needed.

In this series, I plan to write a lot about the QNAP operating system (because that’s what I own), but assume that both Synology and Asustor have similar features and are set up in a like manner.

USB Drives Plugged Into Routers

You can’t get more fundamental than this and they work very well around the house. Virtually all routers include DLNA features and permit you to download files both on the local network or from afar using DDNS or a proprietary cloud feature provided by the router manufacturer. You can name authorized users within the router and give them read or read / write access to shares you define. You can map folders with Windows Explorer or the tablet / smartphone equivalent and share files throughout the house. You can put your MP3 or other media files on a USB NAS and play them anywhere you have a DLNA renderer. The downside is that not all DLNA formats are supported and each manufacturer differs.

If you have an old USB drive, or want to put an old spare drive in a USB case, you have respectable network storage. USB 2.0 provides excellent media services. USB 3.0 may be a requirement if your home network has 802.1ac speed and you’re taking advantage of it.

USB thumb drives generate heat and also store it from the router as a heat sink. Heat buildup in the thumb drive can disrupt the router and make it appear unreliable. If you want to use a thumb drive, attach it with a short USB extension cord.

Remote access from afar using DDNS is not advised. FTP is not secure. Most routers permit you to use USB storage for PPTP VPN access, which is only somewhat secure.

USB Drives Plugged Into Network Sharing Devices

Assume a router with a USB drive plugged in, but remove the router parts and you have a USB media sharing device. These are relatively inexpensive and work much like the router attached devices described above. This is a fluid market that offers many capabilities and integration with cloud services.

Basic Home Network NAS

Basic home network storage is advertised heavily. It works well. It’s offered both as wired and wireless and provides massive storage. Best Buy, Amazon, TigerDirect, Newegg, eBay, techbargains.com, and many others sell them in a competitive market place. You can even buy a network drive case  and install a spare drive you currently have in a drawer.

These are all generally inexpensive and usually offer many capabilities beyond storage. By design, all network drives should allow you to name users and define the folders they can access. Most appear to offer network backup software as a standard feature.  All provide DLNA  media sharing services for files stored on the device. Some include USB plugs so you can attach a USB drive and increase the storage your network can access. Cloud services back to the device from anywhere in the world are also available. The level of security you receive is between you and the cloud service provider.

Wireless NAS might be exactly what you need, or might be only a sales gimmick. All network storage is accessible wirelessly if you’re attached to a wireless router. NAS is usually plugged into a router LAN port using a standard network cable. If you can get to the wireless router, you can get to the storage attached to it. Having an additional leg of wireless communication might actually slow down the file transfer.

Router / storage duos are also something to reconsider. Sure, it’s convenient to have a large network accessible drive and the router all in one tidy box. It’s also a potential failure point that now includes two important devices. If either break, both become mostly useless. A router / NAS duo may be the right device for you in your situation. Most people are probably better off by separating the router from the disk storage.

Basic home network NAS is available in as single drives or in drive pairs that can be configured with RAID 1.

This option is best for simple file sharing needs around the house.

Business Class Network Attached Storage

If you take a basic home NAS box, steroid up the operating system, and beef it up with disk drives that are designed for heavy-duty network use, you’re in the business class. Frequently, but not always, you purchase the disk drive separate from the drive case. The NAS manufacturer makes the case and the operating system that runs it. You might buy a one drive case, a two drive case, a four drive case or a case with an extension case that holds even more drives. Your drive choices are typically 1 TB, 2TB, 3TB, or 4TB, each. Generally you buy them in matching sets, for example, four 4TB drives in one case.

The disk drives are of a higher quality than the ones in a home computer. They’re designed to run 24/7 and be banged on all day by multiple users. As a result, they cost a little more. You generally review the NAS drive box manufacturer’s recommended drive list before selecting the drive you install.

Even these drives usually support DLNA media services and provide a host of other standard features.

Advanced Business Class Network Attached Storage

If you match a business class NAS box with a special purpose Linux derivative operating system, you get NAS  with general purpose computer properties. Some use ARM processors. Some use Atom processors. The newest models include an impressive amount of RAM and some allow you to add more RAM. the ability to use SSL is a standard feature, allowing you to design secure remote file access capabilities.

The operating system of each allows you to install ‘packages,’ which are common, popular programs designed especially for use on that NAS device. Examples from QNAP are representative for all manufacturers in this class.

It is arguable that this type of device is a glimpse of the future of the home computer. Large capacity devices with low power requirements and processors that have yet to be designed and/or released will be the dominant home computer. Tablets, phones, appliances, televisions, and more will use it as the hub for programming and data. They will evolve into the home mainframe that controls and provides nearly everything, but be the size of a paperback book.

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