Complete NAS Guide – Part 2: How To Choose a NAS Server And Key Features To Think About

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If you are not sure about how to choose a NAS server or where to even begin, then this article is for you. In this article, we will go through the key features you will need to think of before investing in a Network Attached Storage server for your home or office.

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 articles into 4 key areas:

What is NAS, Benefits of Using NAS server and alternatives to NAS for home use
How to choose a NAS server and key features to consider before buying a NAS (you are here!)
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 (coming soon)

Before you begin searching for the perfect NAS server, it is vital that you identify and define your exact needs and use cases first. This will save you from running into bottlenecks in the future and also save you money by ensuring that you only pay for the features that you need. 

You will notice that the specs available for NAS devices can start from basic home use configuration to enterprise level hardware that come with a hefty price tag. Therefore, identifying what features are more important is key, for example, if you are more interested in data redundancy for protection against failed hard drives, then you will need to find a NAS unit that supports the right RAID levels you will need. 

You will also need to buy a NAS server that has at least 2 bays for mounting your hard drives so that mirroring can be enabled (for example RAID 1 – more on this later). If storage is your main concern, and if you know that your storage needs are going to go up significantly in the future, then you may want to go for a NAS unit that has at least 4 hard drive bays or more.

List of key features to think about before buying a NAS server for your home

If you are simply looking for a NAS server to back up your laptop and your files occasionally, then a NAS unit with relatively low hardware configuration will do the job just fine for you. 

However, if you are looking to use your NAS server as a media streaming server to stream videos to your smart TV, simultaneously while you stream videos to your phone and laptop at the same time, then you may need a NAS unit with higher processing power and RAM.

Aside from processors and RAM, there are a few other elements you will also need to focus on  that make up a NAS server. So here’s a list of topics below you will need to think and decide on before you purchase your NAS server.

How many bays does the Network Attached Storage server have?

NAS servers come with 1 bay to upto 8 or more bays. But for home use, you may find that 2 to 4 bays will do just fine. You can connect 2 x 2TB hard drives on a 2 bay NAS for 4TB storage or 4 x 2TB hard drives on a 4 bay NAS for 8TB total storage. However, please note redundancies will eat into your overall storage capacity.

If you are buying into a NAS server for the first time, and especially for home use, it may feel like a massive expansion to your existing storage arrangements. However, the rate at which media files are expanding in size is going up rapidly in the wake of 4k and 5k videos offered by entry level cameras like the new Go Pro Hero 9. Therefore, that 2 bay NAS may seem inadequate sooner in the future than you expect. 

If you feel that your storage needs may increase in the next few years, then look for a NAS with extra bays i.e. go for a 4 bay unit instead of a 2 bay. You can always leave 2 bays empty for now, and as your storage needs go up, you can start introducing more hard drives. 

Additional bays in your NAS unit will also give you the flexibility of mirroring your data on a RAID setup offering you better data redundancy.

What file storage technology/controller does your NAS unit support?

We will cover this in a bit more details further down, but the data storage technology is one of the most important features of your NAS unit. The storage technology or controller will dictate how your NAS software spreads the data across your hard drives connected to your NAS unit. 

For example, your storage system (RAID levels) will dictate whether your NAS server treats your 2 or 4 hard drives in the array as individual drives versus a single large volume made up of multiple drives. 

What this means is – if you have 2 x 2TB storage on a RAID 1 setup, then both the hard drives will mirror each other. Therefore, your usable storage capacity will be 2TB instead of 4TB.

Your storage controller system will dictate if you have cloning or mirroring enabled, how fast you access the data, and how much of the actual capacity of your hard drives you will be able to use in your NAS unit.

Most reputable NAS manufactures will support industry standard RAID file systems. Some also offer their own RAID management system i.e. Synology has Synology Hybrid RAID (SHR). If you want to find out more about how Synology Hybrid RAID is different from traditional RAID, you can visit this link – https://www.synology.com/en-global/knowledgebase/DSM/tutorial/Storage/What_is_Synology_Hybrid_RAID_SHR

You can also read our full guide on what is RAID and what role it plays in your NAS unit.

Which NAS operating system do you prefer?

There are a few key NAS manufactures in the world of NAS. So it is important that you carry out some research about the operating system your NAS server will come with. 

For example, NAS makers Synology ship their NAS servers with DiskStation Manager (DSM) vs QNAP (another popular NAS maker) ship their’s with Linux based OS called QTS 4.

Both the OS’s have their pros and cons, such as, some say DSM has a more user friendly interface with less settings visible to average users unless they really want to dig deeper, similar to Apple IOS.

QNAP’s OS however gives its users more settings on standard views which may not be necessary for average home users. The contrast is very similar to iPhone vs Android, DSM being more iPhone like vs QNAP more like Android.

So if you are not quite sure, you can view some NAS OS walk through videos on Youtube to get a feel for the interface as well as use.

Does your NAS unit support PLEX Media Server

Plex Media Server is a media file organisation tool that will let you access your media files stored in your NAS unit from anywhere in the world, as long as you have internet connection and a compatible device.

You can access media files in PLEX server remotely by using any of the following devices:

  • Web browsers such as Chrome, Firefox, IE, Safari and Edge
  • PLEX app on Android and IOS phones
  • Most smart TVs such as Samsung, LG, Sony
  • Streaming devices such as Amazon Fire Stick, Chromecast, Apple TV
  • Video game consoles such as Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3 and PS4.

Setting up PLEX is fairly straightforward on your NAS device. PLEX is essentially another app you install in your NAS operating system.

PLEX media server does significantly increase the utility of your NAS server, although it may not be something you will need immediately. However, it is a good idea to know that you have the option to transform your NAS setup into a fully operable remote access file management resource. 

PLEX will also enable you to share your media file with friends and family. This means you could share photos or movie files with friends and family without having to transfer gigabytes worth of data physically. In other words, having a Media Server is like having your very own Netflix or Youtube with all your own video files!

Does the NAS have transcoding to support Plex server

If you are planning to store hundreds of video files on your NAS server and would like to access them remotely over the internet, then this is where transcoding can play a big part.

A NAS server with transcoding will convert your large video files with incompatible format, resolution, bit rate or codec etc on the fly, and make it accessible to your playback device such as mobile phone, tablet or TV. 

A video file has various crucial properties that make it unique. The key features of video file may be:

  • Video codec (i.e. divx vs H.264 etc)
  • Audio codec (MP3, AAC etc)
  • File container type (mp4 vs mkv etc)
  • Subtitle format (i.e. SRT, PGS etc)
  • And much more

Transcoding is the act of changing the above properties and/or video dimensions as per the specification of the playback device before streaming.

A NAS server with transcoding capability can save you from checking compatibility on hundreds of files. You may have often received errors when you tried to play a video file on TV via a USB/thumb drive as TV manufacturers are known for not focusing much on unifying codecs and formats. They only support a set number of standard video formats.

So if you plan to connect your NAS server with your TV to access a large amount of video files, then it is recommended that you pick a NAS server that has transcoding enabled.

Your future NAS server may have one of the two types of transcoding:

Software Transcoding

Software transcoding enabled device will use its main CPU to carry out the file transcoding or conversion. This can be very resource intensive on the CPU. It is also worth keeping in mind that many off the shelf NAS servers will not come with very powerful CPU either. So if you plan to use your NAS with a media server like PLEX to access video files on multiple playback devices, then you will need to go for a CPU with higher frequency (measured in Ghz) and more than 2 cores at the very least.

Hardware-Accelerated Transcoding

As the name suggests, this is carried out on NAS server using a dedicated CPU or GPU. This means that the transcoding will be faster and more energy efficient.

Hardware transcoding compresses your file and makes it accessible while you’re accessing your file remotely (another cool benefit of having a NAS server, more on this later)

Quick tip, lookout for Intel processors with QuickSync enabled, as Arm processors will not be able to process your video files for remote viewing very quickly.

A quick way to check whether your NAS processor supports Hardware Transcoding is by searching for the exact name and model number of the processor. You can also visit Intel website and look for “Intel QuickSync video” enabled.

Does your NAS unit support DLNA

DLNA stands for Digital Living Network Alliance, a trade group started by Sony to encourage cross platform and device compatibility under one standard guideline. 

Pretty much all NAS units support file playback from your NAS device via DLNA technology. This will enable you to stream your media stored in your NAS to your TV and other DLNA compatible media over your home wifi.

Read and write speed

As the name suggests, this is the maximum data reading and writing speed your NAS device will be capable of. Faster the read and write speed, more seamless your experience will be copying or accessing your hard drives.

Read and write speed varies from brand to brand and you sometimes end up paying quite a lot of money for nominal increase in read and write speeds. In most cases, you will be limited by your internet network speed instead of your NAS hardware. For example, most NAS hard drives have maximum data transfer speed of 180 MB/s (WD Red 4TB) to 210 MB/s (Seagate Ironwolf 10TB). However, most entry level NAS servers will come with one or two 1Gbe (Gigabit RJ 45) LAN connection option. 1 Gigabit translates to maximum data transfer capacity of 125 MB/s. This means that your maximum theoretical data transfer rate no matter how fast your hard drive is, will max out at 125 MB/s on a standard NAS with 1 Gbe RJ45 connection.

You can go for high spec NAS drives like Synology 1621xs+ which come with 10Gbe LAN port as well as 2 x 1Gbe. Additionally, these high end NAS servers also come with PCIe slots. This means what you can install a 10Gbe network interface card to really dial up your transfer speeds.

Circling back to home use, look out for NAS servers with atleast 2 or 4 1Gbe LAN ports, in which case, you will be able to double your max speed and utilise more of your hard drive read write capacity. You will require a LAG enabled router for this, which we cover further below in details.

Maximum single volume size

As the name suggests, this is the maximum size of the volume you are allowed to create using multiple hard drives connected to your NAS server. 

For example, if you plan to connect 4 x 4TB hard drives on a RAID 0* setup, then your total volume size will be 16TB. Now if you wanted to do the same but this time with 4 x 8TB hard drives, then your single volume size will be 32TB. So this is where maximum single volume size comes into play. Ideally, you want your NAS to support a higher single volume size to save you from having to create multiple volumes unless you need to.

Synology NAS servers come with a maximum single volume size lit of 16 TB, 108 TB or 200 TB. Majority of the mid range Synology drives fall within the 108 TB territory, and a fair few of the Synology NAS still have a 16 TB single volume size limit. So if this is something that bothers you, make sure you check the maximum single volume size when you looking for your NAS server for home use.

On the other hand, most QNAP NAS servers with 4GB or higher RAM have a upper limit of 250TB single volume size i.e. QNAP TS-451D2. Whereas, similar range from Synology, DS420+ has an upper limit of 108 TB.

So as you can see, if you require a higher single storage volume out of the box with out utilising pooling of volumes, then QNAP has the upper hand here at the time of writing this post.

*more on this later, but RAID 0 simply combines multiple hard drives in to a large  aggregated volume of storage i.e. 4 x 4TB HDDs on RAID 0 will mean 1 large 16TB volume.

Your NAS server RAM matters

The memory which is referred to as RAM or rapid access memory dictates how many programs or tasks your NAS server can handle at any given time. So basically, the more RAM you have, means that software you use on your NAS can cache files that you frequently use for faster read response. Therefore, as you may have guessed already, higher the RAM, the better, to a certain extent of course.

Importance of onboard processor power and speed of the NAS unit

As discussed briefly earlier in the transcoding section, processors in NAS units vary widely, from model to model and also manufacturer to manufacturer. For the basic operation of a NAS, which is writing and reading data, you do not require much processing power. However, if you require encryption, that’s when you will need your NAS CPU to work extra hard to ensure everything is encrypted as you write and decrypted as you read if that makes sense.

In the world of NAS, it is generally believed that Intel processors are the go to processors where speed and performance is crucial. However, Intel processors also tend to consume more power and are also more expensive.

The type of CPU you choose also depends on whether you want to run a PLEX Media Server on your NAS as PLEX will be encoding and decoding your media as you stream to your playback devices such as your mobile phone, tablet or TV.

You may have to pay extra attention to NAS servers that may sound cheaper and come with weak processors. There is nothing wrong with going for a NAS with a less than average processor, however, if you plan to scale up/evolve how you use your NAS unit, then it is advisable that you go for a unit with a good CPU. 

If you have a few NAS units in your shortlist to choose from, you can always copy the CPU model name and run a  search on a CPU benchmark website like https://www.cpubenchmark.net/ or https://cpu.userbenchmark.com/

These websites will give you key statistics and performance related information on your prospective NAS unit’s CPU and hopefully help you choose the right one.

Dual Lan ports and Gigabit connection and USB 3.0 interface

You can also look to get a NAS with dual LAN ports with Link Aggregation enabled. This will significantly increase your data transmission speeds. You will require a LAG enabled router for this, and this will in turn treat your two physical cables as a single link. If you need high bandwidth for your data transfer between your NAS and your computer or media device, then it’s best if you think about getting a NAS server with dual LAN ports.

Most NAS servers also come with USB 3.0 port that will enable you to connect external hard drives. This makes the process of copying files over from external hard drives with USB interface much easier. So you may want to check how many USB 3.0 ports your NAS has.

Do you require direct NAS extension

Extension refers to whether or not you have the option to extend your NAS server with additional NAS units linked to it. With an expansion enabled NAS server, you are able to buy expansion units which will increase the number of bays you have available to connect more hard drives. This is usually an eSATA port on your main NAS unit that will enable you to connect expansion NAS units. The expansion NAS units will simply act as hard drive enclosures, and the overall storage management will be controlled by your main NAS unit.

External card reader

Some NAS units come with a card reader slot, so you can simply connect your memory cards directly to your NAS unit without having to look for a card reader. 

Choosing the right hard drives for your NAS server

And finally, when you start shopping for a NAS server, bear in mind that the majority of the NAS servers you will find online will be diskless unless otherwise specified. This means that the NAS unit comes as a server/housing only with no hard drives included. 

You will have to pay for the hard drives separately. You do not want to connect your old internal hard drives from old PCs to your brand new NAS server. There are several reasons for not doing this. You will require purpose built hard drives for NAS servers that have higher performance rating and hardware capacity. But we will cover this in detail in the next part of this series on NAS. 

Summary of NAS features to look out for

Hopefully, this article has been able to give you a rough idea on the key features you will need to think about buying a NAS or Network Attached Storage device. As always, feel free to reach out if you have any questions or suggestions. Thanks and speak soon!

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