A primer on network attached storage (NAS)

Small businesses that have mission-critical data or home users who download a lot of MP3 files, shoot and save digital photos, or edit videos need to understand what a network attached storage (NAS) device is. Eventually, anyone who keeps a large amount of important data starts thinking about repositories less vulnerable than PC hard drives, and that means something external. Often the best, most cost-effective solution is a NAS. So what is it, why do you need one, and how do you use it?

A NAS isn't simply an external hard drive. It's a computer with an OS and one or more hard drives, and it's dedicated to storage tasks, plus it can connect to a network either via a wired Ethernet or wireless connection. The OS, generally just a Linux or Windows kernel, handles volume and drive management, networking, security, and user access. It often has extended features such as backup capability. The functions are usually managed through a web-based graphical user interface.

For a small business, centralising data on a NAS is a good management practice. If information isn't dispersed on separate PCs, accessing it is simpler, as is managing security. And when storage needs increase for one or more employees, maintaining a single device is far easier than adding and managing locally attached external drives, putting a new server online, or installing drives in existing servers.

Selecting a NAS for your home or small business isn't rocket science, but there are a few important basics to keep in mind. Stay away from single-drive solutions – especially for business applications. If your one-drive device's drive dies, not only do you lose all your data, but employees who depend on it are sidelined. You want something that supports at least two drives in a configuration called RAID 1, which mirrors data – meaning it keep the same information on different drives to preserve it if one dies. Also, check that you can easily remove the drives from the front or back – the less hassle this process is, the better, obviously enough.

If multiple users share data, make sure the NAS has share-level and user-level security and lets you assign users read-only access, not just full privileges and none. For organisations with more than ten users, look for a system that lets you change permissions for groups, so you can easily make changes for multiple users. A NAS with good access rights management can be a good alternative to a file server in the home and in a small business. It can also be useful for a home office that shares space with home users. If you have remote offices or several small workgroups, you want an appliance that can double as print and FTP (File Transfer Protocol) servers.

After these considerations, for entry-level devices, choose based on price, capacity, and physical size, rather than placing too much emphasis on performance. For bigger business needs, look for robust data protection, flexible RAID options, detailed reporting tools, and more advanced backup and restore capabilities.

Whatever the size of your operation, though, if you have a lot of important data, you need to consider a NAS. The importance of protecting your data cannot be underestimated, and a NAS is certainly affordable these days.

For some further NAS advice, see our pros and cons of USB NAS adapters.