Sunday, October 13, 2013

Network Attached Storage (NAS) Comes Home

These days it is not uncommon for home networks to rival the business networks of 10 years ago. Rather than having the family computer that everyone has to share, people may have more than one desktop, a laptop or two, tablets, and smartphones. This  can make finding files hard... they are saved in local folders by default, so if you created, say, an address list for mail merges on your laptop, but then need to refer to it later while on your desktop, it is not available. How can you make this work better?

You could set up a machine to serve as a file server (using something like a Windows HomeGroup, or more basic NTFS or SMB shares) and use it as a repository for your files. This works well, but it can be complicated to set up and maintain, and the files may not be accessible to all your devices. Using a cloud-based service such as SkyDrive also works, but there is still an accessibility question and you can lose access to files if your Internet connection goes down. A better solution may be picking up a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device.

NAS Devices

A NAS device is basically an external hard drive that plugs into your network rather than your computer. It has a small OS and connects directly to the router or main network switch. They have become common for corporate networks over the last several years as they are an inexpensive way to add storage, and now they are starting to enter the home market. Home NAS devices typically have a set of generic shared folders and they allow users to create their own folders (either private or shared). Hard drive space varies, but they typically range from 1 - 4 TB.

Uses

Home users typically use NAS devices for three main things: file sharing, centralized backup, and media streaming. A NAS may also allow for remote access to data.

File sharing

By providing a large amount of storage space available to all computers on the network, NAS devices make a great file sharing solution. Directories on the NAS can be mapped to computers as a network drive, allowing immediate access to files stored on the device.

Centralized backup

Rather than having separate backup storage (such as USB external drives) for each computer on the network, or moving one drive between computers and tying it up while the systems backup, users can set their backup software to use the NAS as the destination.

Media streaming

Most consumer-grade NAS devices incorporate Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) servers that allow them to work with equipment such as game consoles, smart TVs, DVD/Blu-Ray players, and other home entertainment appliances. This allows users to keep all their photos, music, and video files in a central location that can be accessed from multiple devices at the same time, rather than either needing to make copies of the files on each device or physically move an external drive between machines.

Remote Access

Most NAS devices also allow remote access to data. They either use an outside service to provide a web interface, or have apps for tablets and smartphones that can access the device from any Internet connection. In some cases the apps would allow media to stream remotely as well, but the quality would be dependent on the Internet connection on both ends. Depending on the remote access solution, you may also be able to share files with friends or upload files from remote locations so they are available at home.

Conclusion

A NAS device is a great addition to some home networks, especially if there are multiple devices on the network or a large number of media files to share across more than one device. Their device-agnostic nature means that users have access to their media and/or data from any network-aware device with minimal issues. For example, my home network has 3 desktops, 1 web server, 5 laptops (3 in regular use), 2 tablets, 2 DLNA-aware game consoles, and 2 smartphones. We can get to our files and stream media from multiple rooms simultaneously, which makes the NAS a perfect addition to our computer ecosystem.