What is NAS? A Practical Guide

obrBy Fergus O'Sullivan — Last Updated: 19 Jun'17 2017-06-06T06:52:36+00:00

Network-attached storage, or NAS, is a great way to store large amounts of data while also making it accessible from anywhere. Here at Cloudwards.net we recommend that a NAS be part of any thorough backup strategy and in this article we’ll go through what is NAS and, more specifically, what a NAS is not.

We’ll be taking a quick look at what a NAS can and cannot do, as well as how you can use it in your personal setup to enlarge your storage space, while also keeping data secure for any small problems that may arise. Do not think, however, that network-attached storage is a backup solution by itself: if you’re looking to keep your data safe, check out our best online backup services or our best cloud backup for NAS article.

How NAS Works

In essence, a NAS is a mini-server that sits on your desk. You can connect it directly to your computer through a USB cable, but that would negate its main benefit: the network. A NAS creates a small network all its own that any device with the right credentials (username and password) can access. A NAS is a step up from using a simple external HDD, and a step toward creating your own personal cloud storage.

If you want to know more about the differences between external HDDs and NAS, as well as how they interact with cloud backup solutions, we have a comparison article that explains exactly that.

NAS vs Cloud Storage

If you have a NAS set up, you can store data on it and then access it from any other device you own, just like with a cloud storage provider. For those of you wondering why not just get a service that you pay $5 per month rather than buy a $300 box, the main benefits are speed and lack of a third party.

NAS are faster than a remote cloud server: while your up- and download speeds to a remote server might depend on a host of factors — from Internet connection, to server firmware, etc. — the connection speed to your NAS is only limited by your network speed and the NAS’ hardware. If that for whatever reason your network isn’t fast enough, you can just connect your computer to your NAS directly using the USB and transfer data at your HDD’s read/write speed.

The other main benefit to a NAS is that you’re hosting the files yourself, without a third party having anything to do with it. Much like any of our best zero-knowledge providers, only you hold the keys to your data and you never need worry about government warrants or corporate intrusion. Privacy is assured when using a NAS, as long as you keep up your security protocols (more on that later).

NAS in an Office Setup

As you can imagine, NAS are perfect for anyone handling large amounts of data: audio and video hobbyists, sole entrepreneurs, even small- to medium businesses can benefit from having a NAS in the office. Everyone that works with you can access the NAS and leave files or pick them up and, with the right software, even edit and manipulate files simultaneously.

The collaboration aspect of having a NAS within your organization makes it very attractive, indeed, especially if the NAS is hooked up to a LAN. Without the lag associated with cloud collaboration software, you can get work done faster than ever in your team and investing in a robust NAS should mean that you’ll see productivity skyrocket.

NAS and Storage

Not that having a NAS means you can cancel your cloud storage subscriptions: most NAS hit their limit at the 10TB mark and though you could set up some kind of networked RAID array for more space, it may be better to store your archives with any of our best cloud storage providers, instead. NAS are great for storing current projects that you need to access at the drop of a hat, older ones are probably better off stored in a cheaper location.

Do note that the storage cap is one of the limitations of a NAS: if you have need of a huge amount of space you may want to consider setting up a file server instead (read our article on the best affordable servers for small businesses if you want to know more). Though file servers and NAS work in a very similar fashion, a server is far more powerful and will give you even greater control over what goes in and out. The cost, however, rises as well as not only will you need more specific hardware, you’ll need to pay someone to maintain it.

If connectivity isn’t your main concern, setting up a RAID array might also be an option if you need to store huge amounts of data. It will likely be a lot cheaper than setting up a file server or NAS and will give you great speed as it’s basically just a huge hard drive. To find out more, check out our article on RAID.

NAS and Security

Like anything connected via a network, NAS are vulnerable to outside attack by cybercriminals or spying by intelligence agencies like the NSA. Generally, the security measures that come with a NAS are perfectly adequate, but buyers should be aware that this is not always the case. A perfect example is the Europol agent who took confidential files home and stored them on his NAS, which did not automatically come with password protection.

Bureaucratic idiocy aside, this story shows that it pays to make sure you’ve followed all the instructions when setting up your NAS. Cloud security is no joke and it pays to check-double-check that you’ve done everything by the book. For more information, make sure to check out our NAS security guide.

Synology and QNAP

Though there are plenty of manufacturers and vendors out there that offer network-attached storage, the general consensus seems to be that QNAP Systems and Synology offer the best bang for your buck. Though neither is particularly cheap (prices start at $200 and go up steeply from there), both offer plenty of bells and whistles as well as improved security measures.

The cheapest NAS usually come with around 1TB of storage and are perfect for people that don’t need much space, but do want access to small, personal, remote server. A few steps up from that come larger bays that can fit up to 10TB and are great for medium-sized organizations. Any bigger than that and you’re straying into more technical territory, where HDDs can be swapped out at will into ever larger arrays.

Here at Cloudwards.net, we’re particularly big fans of Synology (which is why we have an article dedicated to the best cloud backup for Synology) and we have put together a video with five essential tips you’ll need to know when using your Synology DiskStation.

5 Essential Tips for Using the Synology DiskStation

NAS Software

In both cases, however, the main attraction is the software that comes with the NAS. Synology and QNAP offer high-end, user-friendly software that will make setting up the NAS easy and using it even more so. On top of that, more experienced users will be able to configure their NAS using this proprietary software to make their little box into their own personal cloud storage.

Do note, however, that if personal cloud storage is the ultimate goal, you may want to consider using CloudBerry Backup instead. This is a highly developed piece of software that will allow you to setup your NAS, integrate it with any existing cloud storage you may have and also configure your backup for the whole shebang. For a more detailed look at this service, check out our CloudBerry Backup review.

NAS and Backup

Speaking of backup, this brings us full circle to the beginning of the article: NAS are great and a wonderful alternative to cloud storage, but a backup solution they are not. If something happens physically to your NAS (fire, flood, electrical surge), that data is gone for good.

However, a NAS can take the place of cloud storage in a thorough hybrid backup strategy and there are plenty of great options out there for people that want to backup a NAS. Using any of our best online backup for NAS services will allow you to rest easy knowing that your data, come what may, is safely backed up somewhere on a remote and secure server. 

Conclusion

NAS are wonderful machines that are perfect for anyone that wants to store large amounts of data, but wants to be able to access it from anywhere. If you’re shackled to your home computer and only ever access files from there, you may want to look into setting up a RAID array rather than a NAS, but small- and medium-sized organizations, as well as people that are often on the move while working, will love the flexibility and speed a NAS offers.

The downsides to NAS are that decent models do not come cheap and security needs to be a concern that you keep in mind at all times. We recommend that people unused to dealing with technology take their time when setting up their NAS to avoid ending up like our Europol agent mentioned earlier. Also, having a good backup plan in place never hurts.

Are you a NAS user? Share your experiences below in the comments, we would love to hear your take on all this. Thank you for reading.

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