What is Network Attached Storage (NAS)
10 September 2021
What is NAS Storage
Network Attached Storage (NAS) is, as the name suggests, storage that’s connected to your devices and systems over a network. NAS can be connected via a traditional LAN cable, via Wi-Fi or over the internet. NAS can function just like an external hard drive would, but even basic units can do so much more.
There are more mobile and networked devices than ever before, all creating , sharing and securing data and media with each other and the cloud. Then there are PCs and laptops, smart TVs and even IoT devices too. Data is becoming ever more portable and the need to share it easily and securely is something that every digital home needs. Storage in the form of an external HDD may not address the needs of a modern interconnected home anymore. A NAS can solve this - it is like a digital hub.
Why consider a NAS?
A NAS unit can serve as a powerful hub in a connected home, and it needn’t cost big dollars either. These days, modern NAS units are more like servers with fully functional operating systems more so than glorified hard drives. They can stream 4K media, manage surveillance, run scheduled backups, interact with the cloud, enable workplace collaboration and so much more. Yes, a NAS can share and store files too! We’ll cover some of the benefits, applications and key functionality of a NAS. There are many reasons to consider adding one to your home.
Types of NAS
There are several different categories and types of NAS. Broadly speaking, they can be divided up into consumer level, small-medium business (SMB) and enterprise level.
Enterprise level NAS lies outside the scope of this article, though if you’re thinking of datacenters, rack mounting and big budgets, you’d be right! SMB NAS functions much in the same way as a consumer NAS, though mostly for files and data, with remote access and backup functionality being key. They also tend to be more complicated with more redundancies, encryption support, more RAM and better CPUs in order to better handle the needs of multiple concurrent users. The pandemic and WFH culture is really elevating the need for remote working, sharing and collaboration capabilities.
Consumer level NAS can do a bit of everything, even many of the business oriented functions of much more expensive units including remote access and collaboration. But they tend to be used more in a home scenario where users treat the NAS much like a remote external hard drive.
There’s a lot more to it though. When evaluating a NAS to buy, you’ll need to consider the following.
• Primary usage --- What do you plan to do with your NAS?
• Capacity --- Large video files take up a lot of space. How much storage do you need?
• Performance --- Transcoding requires a powerful CPU. Do you need more RAM as well?
• Connectivity --- Gigabit Ethernet may bottleneck a NAS depending on your required tasks. Consider 2.5G or faster, or even Wi-Fi if you need a wireless connection.
• Security --- The last thing you want is your sensitive data to be compromised.
Once you’ve given these considerations some thought, the next step is considering the right drives to populate your NAS unit with.
Choosing the right drives for your NAS
Most NAS will accept either mechanical hard drives or SSDs. Some higher-end NAS units can make use of an SSD as a cache. The expense of high-capacity SSDs tends to rule them out of consumer level NAS, though that’s changing gradually. SSDs typically generate less heat and use less power - at least SATA based 2.5” SSDs. And of course, they’re silent. But, the speed advantages of an SSD are often bottlenecked by the network connection. A NAS featuring 10GbE (10 Gigabit Ethernet) + the associated infrastructure remains expensive.
It’s advisable to purchase NAS optimised drives like the Seagate IronWolf or WD Red series. NAS drives are optimised in a few different ways. They’re designed for continuous use, with anti-vibration features and higher tolerances. They offer greater reliability and MTBF ratings. They have NAS optimised firmware, notably for RAID use. Regular hard drives are better suited to single user applications whereas a NAS drive can often have several users accessing NAS drives at the same time.
Don’t forget that many NAS units allow you to upgrade, even without any downtime! Vendors such as Synology and QNAP offer expansion devices so you can add capacity. There’s also the option to plug an external drive via USB for additional functionality and backup capability. Yes, there’s a lot to consider!
What about RAID?
RAID, or Redundant Array of Independent Disks is a way to use multiple disks to either increase performance, add capacity or increase fault tolerance. Here is a simple table that explains the various RAID levels.
Which RAID level you choose will depend on your particular use case. If you value data integrity above all else, then you’ll want something with fault tolerance. If a drive fails, then you won’t lose your data. But, solely relying on RAID to protect your valuable data is not recommended. RAID will not protect against malware, user error, theft or natural and unnatural disasters. Something unexpected like a power surge could destroy all disks. ALWAYS make backups of your valuable data, whether it be on a flash drive or external HDD, or in the cloud. Particularly valuable data such as irreplaceable kids photos or videos should be backed up to several destinations, while sensitive financial information or crypto currency keys should always be kept offline.
A NAS in a home or media server environment can make use of JBOD or RAID 0. It’s useful for users working with high bitrate files like UHD video. But be aware that the speed advantage of RAID 0 can be bottlenecked by the network connection. RAID 1 is well suited for backup purposes or things like surveillance systems due to its redundancy, or tolerance for a drive failure. The higher RAID levels require more disks which add cost, but they offer the best of both worlds, and can add parity to the mix making it easier to rebuild the array should there be a drive failure.
Setting up a NAS
Initial NAS setup is easier than ever. As NAS becomes mainstream, manufacturers know that they need to streamline setup to make things easy for non-technical users. Most manufacturers have apps that guide you through the setup process. You’ll begin by installing your drives, running a setup app and with a few simple clicks you’ll be ready to go.
If we use Synology as an example, after installing the drives and powering the unit up, you can run the Synology Assistant software. The app will find the NAS, it will initiate hardware setup where you will select your RAID level if applicable. Then you’ll be prompted to install the latest DSM software, and within a few minutes you’ll able to access the NAS itself. You can then choose what apps to install, configure the devices that will access the NAS and you’ll be pretty much good to go. The process is very similar for other manufacturers such as Asustor or QNAP.
NAS as a home media center
Many first time NAS users will be amazed at their awesome media center capabilities. You’ll wonder how you got along without one. An external HDD just can’t compete. A NAS can act as a central media repository so all the devices in your home can access its contents. Phones, tablets, laptops, TV’s and PC can all access a NAS and it’s treated like local storage. You can access your media remotely too via a VPN.
NAS can be used to stream media not unlike like Netflix or Prime, but rather for media that you own. There are many ways to go about this. Some NAS come with HDMI outputs so you can plug them directly into a TV and stream using the NAS’ native streaming applications. Alternatively, you can use media streaming applications like Plex or Kodi.
As many devices use different players, operating systems and support different formats and differing resolutions, the ability to transcode media is something you might wish to consider. Some budget NAS with ARM processors lack the processing power to transcode effectively, particularly at high bitrates and resolutions, however, many NAS with Intel CPUs contain dedicated hardware for transcoding, making them a better choice for users looking for a seamless media streaming NAS. They do tend to cost more though.
NAS for backing up
NAS can be a great backup tool, though it needs to be emphasized: It should never be the only backup method, particularly when it comes to sensitive data.
All tech users will face some kind of data loss event in their life. It could be a local device failure, a dead SD card, the loss or theft of a phone or laptop along with all its data, a faulty power supply, a disaster like a fire or lightning strike or simply you deleted the wrong folder by mistake.
A song or movie library can be downloaded again, but things like wedding photos or financial records are irreplaceable. All of the major NAS manufacturers offer comprehensive backup solutions and software ecosystems designed to protect your valuable data.
Popular NAS manufacturer QNAP offer a backup solution it calls HBS, or Hybrid Backup Sync. Other NAS makers offer similar solutions. Its aim is to help you backup and track your data backups across local, remote and cloud spaces. This means that if you face any of the aforementioned data losses, you can rest assured that you have a backup that can be easily restored.
We’re glad you made it to the end! There’s a lot to think about when considering a NAS to buy. Whatever your needs, we’re happy to recommend a NAS solution to suit your use case. Whether you’re looking for a simple home solution or something to suit your growing business. Talk to us!