Complete NAS Guide – Part 1: What is NAS, Benefits of Using NAS and Alternatives

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  • Post last modified:September 26, 2021
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This article is part of a 4 part series about NAS or Network Attached Storage server. If you are not sure what NAS is or if you want to find out how a Network Attached Storage server may help solve your data storage needs, then you are in the right place. Since the world of NAS is so vast, we have decided to split our article on NAS into 4 key areas:

What is NAS, Benefits of Using NAS server and alternatives to NAS for home use (you are here!)
How to choose a NAS server and key features to consider before buying a NAS
How and why are NAS hard drives different from Desktop hard drives
What is RAID and how to make the most of RAID levels in your NAS server

A NAS server is the perfect solution for people who have been struggling to keep track of all their external hard drives. Backing up important files in external hard drives can become very challenging as one amasses more and more data. 

Device Attached Storage enclosures (DAS) and Network Attached Storage (NAS) servers have opened up a world of possibilities for home users, and that is also within reasonable price ranges.

However, it is very easy for someone new to the world of NAS to feel a bit overwhelmed with the amount of information out there. There are also a myriad of factors one needs to consider before buying a NAS for home use. Therefore, this article will outline the key benefits of using a NAS server and what alternatives are out there for your storage needs.

So without further ado, let’s dive in. 

Why do I need a NAS?

In the advent of the digital world, people often accumulate tens of thousands of pictures and videos over many a year. Some continue to astutely copy their photos and videos from phones, digital cameras, emails, Whatsapp etc over to external hard drives. 

This becomes part of a routine and a second nature for most people – copying files over from phone > and then deleting them from the phone to free up space.

However, file corruption, drive failure, or the prospect of misplacing the hard drives are some of the key concerns that haunts us often. Therefore, some may even go as far as to make a mirror copy of their backup hard drive on to another external hard drive. To work as a “backup of a backup” so to say.

But this can become very tedious as one accumulates more data. Every time you copy files on to your external hard drive from your laptop or phone, you will have to ensure that you copy the same files over to the second hard drive as a backup. Hard drive cloning softwares can be used to mirror or clone drives for backup. However, this still is a lot of work.

Additionally, 1TB space may have seemed more than adequate only a few years ago. But now in the advent of 4k videos from modern smartphones, clips as short as a few minutes can end up taking gigabytes of space. Not to mention all the other work, personal, finance related files you have accumulated over the years that need to be stored somewhere too. 

Therefore, to solve all of your storage needs, in a nutshell you will need a solution that covers the following:

Storage space scalability – so you can expand the storage as your needs increase
Data redundancy – ability to store your data across multiple drives at once to minimise the risk of data loss due to hard drive failure
Remote access – so you can access your data remotely using an app or from a browser.
Stream media – so you can connect to your files from you smart TV, tablet or phone whenever you like

Well, a NAS server will tick all the boxes above and more! Let’s dive deeper and find out more.

What is a NAS or Network Attached Storage server?

In its most basic form, a Network Attached Storage unit is essentially a housing case for a set of internal hard drives.* 

A Network Attached Storage or NAS unit in short, will enable you to add as many hard drives as you like to expand your storage capacity depending on the number of bays you go for. You will then be able to access all your hard drives individually as they are or as a single volume depending on the storage technology you have deployed on your NAS server software (more on this soon to follow).

The NAS unit will sit as a stand alone unit from your laptop or PC’s built in storage. It will come with its own processor, cooling and operating system that is optimised specifically to act as a storage server. This means that you can store data outside of your laptop as and when needed, and rest assured that even if your laptop fails, you have a backup copy of your data in a separate unit. 

Beyond the basics, as you look deeper into what makes up a NAS server, you will find that there is a lot more to it than meets the eye. But before we delve any deeper into what to look for in a NAS, let’s go through a short list of benefits of NAS servers first.

Internal 3.5″ hard drive mostly found in desktop computers

*Internal hard drives – these are hard drives that come with desktop computers usually at 3.5” form factor or in laptops as 2.5” disk drives. They are barebone drives with no USB interface like your external hard drives may have.

11 Benefits of switching to a Network Attached Storage Server or NAS

1. Expand your storage solution

A NAS server enables you to expand your storage solution using a bunch of hard drives and make them accessible to you as individual drives or one single volume.* You can choose from a variety of bay options starting from 1 bay going as far as 16 or beyond for power users. This means that you are able to add more drives to the NAS unit as your needs go up, and you’re also able to swap hard drives out for larger capacity hard drives to increase your overall storage capacity.

You are also able to connect your NAS server to your laptop or computer and “mount” it. Mounting is a way of letting your computer to recognize your NAS server storage. Once the NAS server is mounted, you will be able to view your NAS storage volume and its contents from your native File Explorer under Network storage. On Macs, you can find your NAS storage volume under Places from “Finder” options. By doing so, you will find that the NAS storage server appears as just another drive on your computer similar to your internal hard drive which can be very convenient for moving files back and forth from your NAS.

*single volume limits apply depending on your NAS specs and manufacturer you go for

2. Stream media to your TV and other devices

As suggested in the name itself, a NAS or Network Attached Storage server can act as your personal media server which will enable you to stream files directly to your smart TV, Mobile and Tablet devices over your home internet network. 

3. You can install media servers in your NAS

You can install media servers like PLEX on your NAS device, which is like having your own personal Netflix with your own videos. PLEX media server will enable you to stream your content directly to your smart TV through your home network. You can also stream your content on your phone or tablet using PLEX app from anywhere you like as long as you have an internet connection! So no more worrying about taking your media files with you when you go on your next holiday trip. 

4. NAS can solve your entire home’s storage needs

A NAS server can help you consolidate your storage needs for your entire family. Multiple laptops in a household or office environment can connect to a single NAS server and read and write files simultaneously*. You can also set your Windows or Apple laptop to automatically backup directly on to your NAS server saving you precious time. 

*depending on the hardware configuration your NAS comes with which will dictate bottlenecks and access speeds

5. NAS can help you access your files remotely from anywhere

A NAS server can enable you to access your files from anywhere in the world so you don’t have to carry your hard drives everywhere you go. All you will need is access to the internet and the right remote access software or app (usually your NAS device will come with some kind of browser based remote access functionality). So next time you plan to go on a long holiday trip, you don’t have to carry all your files with you. Just leave your NAS connected to your network while you are away and the rest should be easy.

6. NAS can help you share your files easily

A NAS server can work as your very own personal file sharing portal with virtually no limits to the file size you can share. If you think of cloud file sharing websites like wetransfer or dropbox, you will soon notice that they have maximum file size limits in place. So next time you want to share photos from your family holiday trip, you can simply upload all your photos inside a NAS folder and share the folder with your family. They will then be able to upload their own pictures and videos and view your files.

7. A NAS server can help you manage your photos better

Some pre-built NAS servers by reputable NAS manufacturers like QNAP or Synology come with their own companion photo app. This means that all your photos and videos that you upload on your NAS server will be accessible to you from directly from your phone from anywhere using a companion app.

Synology call it Synology Moments and QNAP’s photo management app is called QuMagie. Both these apps claim to be AI powered with facial recognition technology. Think of it as your own personal Google Photos app with very very high storage limits or similar to your Iphone photo album app, but the only difference is that the photos and videos are stored safely at home in your NAS server.

8. Stream music to your car

You are also able to connect to your personal music collection saved in your NAS server. For this you will need Apple CarPlay or Android Auto.

9. NAS can help you protect your data

With a NAS device, you can benefit from a storage technology called Redundant Array of Independent Disks or RAID in short. Backup and cloning of your data is controlled by the type of RAID you use. RAID can help you reduce the risk of data loss by combining multiple hard drives into one storage volume. Your data will be spread across multiple drives providing you with data “redundancy” which means that if one hard drive fails, your NAS drive can recover the data without loss from the other hard drives.

There are different levels of RAID configurations and some NAS manufactures also offer their own hybrid RAID systems. Some are geared towards speed, and some are geared towards maximum data security or redundancy. 

Depending on the type of RAID your NAS server comes with, RAID can help you with things like automatically mirroring data across multiple hard drives. This means that your data is always backed up across multiple drives. If one fails, there’s always a backup of all your data on the other drives in your NAS.

Your NAS software will distribute the data across the 2, 4 or 8 hard drives you have attached on your NAS based on the storage technology or RAID level you choose. For example, with RAID 1 configuration, in a 2 bay NAS, your data will be mirrored on to two hard drives This means that if one drive fails, you will always have the data saved on the other hard drive to recover from. We will go into lots of details about RAID and levels shortly in this series.

Please note that a NAS server will not itself ensure 100% safety and backup of all your data. You will still need to follow the 3-2-1 backup strategy. 3-2-1 backup strategy states that you should have atleast 3 copies of your data. One is your production version + 2 backup copies. Number 2 in the strategy dictates that you should have your data stored in 2 different media (i.e hard drive and a tape). And lastly, number 1 dictates that you store at least 1 copy of the data in a separate physical location for disaster recovery.

10. Easily spread your data across multiple hard drives

A Network Attached Storage unit or NAS saves you from saving files on multiple external hard drives individually. This can be an absolute pain as you build up the amount of data you have.

You will most likely forget which external hard drive has the most recent copy of all your photos. And on top of that, after you copy all your files on to an external hard drive, you will then have to copy the whole drive on to another hard drive as a clone to make sure all your data is protected.

This is where the Network Attached Storage unit comes in quite handy. In a NAS unit, you can hook up multiple hard drives depending on how many hard drive bays your NAS unit has. Your NAS unit will then combine all hard drives you have into one synchronised storage solution (depending on the storage technology you use as discussed earlier, remember RAID)

So all you will see is a single drive or volume available to you so you simply paste your data into a folder in your NAS drive/volume. And in the background, your NAS server will do the heavy lifting and automatically spread your data across multiple hard drives or clone across the hard drives for data redundancy.*

*depending on the type of file storage technology you use on your Network Attached Storage server/unit (RAID)

11. Investing in a NAS can save you money

Investing in a NAS server can also save you a tonne of money in the long run versus cloud storage. You may argue that you can upload all your images and videos on Google Photos, Dropbox or similar services. But for gigabyte for gigabyte value, NAS will workout far cheaper than cloud storage. 

You will also own your data, knowing that only you have access to your files. 

Some may argue that your data is safer on the cloud with a reputable storage provider like Google Drive being offsite and enterprise level data protection measures in place etc. However, that’s a topic for another day.

What are the alternatives to Network Attached Storage or NAS?

There are a few alternative ways you can continue storing your valuable data without buying a NAS. However, it is worth mentioning that the alternative options mentioned below will only offer some and not all of the features a NAS server can offer as discussed above.

Hard drive backup softwares – for data safety

Hard drive backup softwares can help you with your data safety but not so much with expanding your storage. If you have a bunch of external hard drives where you store your files, you may benefit from using a hard drive cloning software. A cloning software can automate the process of cloning or mirroring your hard drives to a certain degree. 

You can also use backup and cloning software to automatically back up a mirror copy of your laptop hard drive on to an external drive.  For example, you can treat your laptop as your main storage unit, and plug in an external hard drive every so often to clone a copy of your laptop hard drive on to it. This will ensure that you will not lose all your data even if your laptop hard drive crashed. 

However, from a storage expansion point of view, you are not necessarily gaining any new storage space. You will soon realise that your laptop hard drive does not have enough space to be the master hard drive copy of all your files. Your storage will always be limited to your laptop’s maximum hard drive capacity. 

This problem can be overcome if you happen to have two external hard drives, one as the master copy, and the other to be the cloned/backup copy. So on a day to basis, you will use the master external drive to save all your files. You will then set your backup/cloning software to periodically clone your master drive on to your second clone drive as a backup. 

Above method of automatically backing up and cloning external hard drives will work if your drives are always connected to your laptop or computer. However, we all know that USB ports or any interface on laptops are becoming a scarce commodity nowadays and this method will only work for a static setup i.e. if you never really move your laptop. And finally, imagine repeating the backup and cloning process over and over throughout your lifetime. Yes, that sounds painful.

Summary of hard drive backup software vs NAS server:
Not even a competition. A NAS server can offer so much more than just data backup.
Data safety – Yes, you can clone your external hard drives.
Time saving – No. It can be cumbersome. Keeping track of backup drives.
Storage expansion, remote access, redundancy, ease of access, media server, shared family storage over network – NO

DAS or Device Attached Storage Enclosures

One easier and convenient alternative to a NAS server is an internal hard drive enclosure or device attached storage devices. Essentially, all that the enclosure does is provide a docking station for all your unruly internal hard drives and makes them accessible to you via a USB, SATA or FireWire interface. 

You will then have the option to access the hard drives in a JBOD or “ just a bunch of drives” configuration. Alternatively, you can use your computer’s own storage space management tool to manage the hard drives and synchronise them in to a logical storage array. For example, MACs have Disk Utility and in Windows you can use Storage Space, yes literally, that’s the name.

Some DAS enclosures also come with proprietary RAID systems created by the manufactures like the BeyondRAID on Drobo DAS units.

You can also shop around for third party software that can help you set up your hard drives in some type of RAID arrangement in a DAS unit.

Here are a few hard drive enclosures we found on Amazon that may serve as a hub for your internal hard drives:

Disadvantages of a DAS unit over NAS unit

One of the key disadvantages of a DAS unit is that only one computer can use the DAS storage devices at any one time. Whereas, with a NAS server, theoretically, hundreds of computers/users can read and write data at the same time.*

*bottlenecks apply and also dependant on your NAS hardware i.e. processor power, RAM etc

Connecting hard drives to your Wi-Fi router

You can connect your USB compatible external hard drive to your home Wi-Fi router, that is if your router comes with a USB port and isn’t one of those free ones you get from your ISP. 

Your router should be able to recognise the storage device, and you are able to configure the file sharing options by logging onto your router’s admin panel using your computer browser. However, depending on the router you have, you may have an upper limit to the amount of storage you can share over your network. 

You can also buy external hard drives that are specifically made for sharing over your home network. One such example is WD My Cloud Home. You can usually connect these purpose built drives directly with any router via a network cable without the need for a USB port in your router.

Western Digital has introduced this affordable range of NAS devices with fairly basic hardware. WD My Cloud comes pretty close to a dedicated purpose built NAS server in a few ways such as you are able to:

  • Automatically backup your files from your devices via Wi-Fi from Windows and Apple devices
  • File organisation i.e. search by keyword etc
  • Remote access from anywhere via internet
  • Share files and folders with friends and collaborate
  • Individual private space/folders for multiple users in your household
  • You can install PLEX media server and also stream videos and music with Google Chromecast, Sonos etc

If you require some level of RAID, then you will have to go for WD My Cloud Home Duo which comes with 2 drives and RAID 1 as an option. You can either choose to have full capacity of the 2 drives available to you or enable RAID 1 which will mean that one drive mirrors the other, halving your storage capacity.

Here are a few we found on Amazon from Western Digital (affiliate links)

You are also able to swap the hard drives in the enclosure and it is shipped with WD Red HDDs which are specifically built for NAS units.

Most home users who do not require a large amount of storage, expansion options and high level of media transcoding* then WD MY Cloud Home Duo will do just fine. 

WD My Cloud Home and Duo are meant to be simplified storage solutions for people who do not need much out of their storage device. They do not come with standard NAS functionality that you’d expect from dedicated NAS server’s from Synology or QNAP.

*more on this later but transcoding is the process of converting your large video files on the fly for streaming efficiently in a format that is most compatible to your playback devices

So now that we have established what a NAS or Network Attached Storage server is, and the benefits of having a NAS for home use, we can now move to the next part of this series – How to choose a NAS server for your home. The next article in this series will cover key features you need to watch out for when you shop for NAS server and tell you where to begin with your NAS buying logic tree.

We hope you enjoyed this article and found it useful. Thanks again and speak soon!

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