What is NAS?
NAS, or Network Attached Storage, is a way of storing files from multiple devices in a local network by attaching an external hard drive to the network itself, rather than plugging it directly into your computer. As well as giving you plenty of storage space to play with, you can also add and share files from multiple devices within your network - for example, giving all of the people in an office access to a centralised selection of files.
Primarily used by small businesses and individuals with lots of data and/or multiple computers, network attached storage devices are a very useful accompaniment to internet-based data storage, although you’ll need a little tech know-how to get the most out of them. If you’re already confident in your network knowledge and want to save some cash, you can also try your hand at making your own - either by using a router and an external hard drive, or starting from scratch with an old computer.
Once you've got your data safely onto your NAS, it's worth considering backing everything up to the cloud with one of these backup providers for NAS.
NAS can be a bit of a challenge for the uninitiated, but don’t let that put you off - many pre-packaged network attached storage devices come complete with downloadable apps that help you to navigate a whole range of different processes with the minimum of hassle. Alternatively, if you’re taking the DIY route, we’ve put together some useful info to help you along the way.
Understanding NAS devices
Network attached storage can take several different forms, from pre-made boxes that just need to be plugged in, to DIY efforts using Raspberry PI or repurposed hardware. What they all have in common, however, is a storage device (typically an external hard drive or hard disk), and the ability to connect to or incorporate a wireless router.
3 types of network attached storage
1. Commercial NAS servers
Pre-made NAS servers are designed to make things as simple as possible, with a wide range of apps available to download for tasks as diverse as backing up your files to the Cloud, playing music, and managing a home surveillance system. Commercial NAS devices for home users usually contain between one and six disk drives, and cost upwards of a few hundred dollars; although models for business use can have upwards of 20 disk drives, and prices can reach the thousands.
Although using a commercial box is undeniably the easiest way to setup your network attached storage, you’ll still need a bit of know-how to get set up, as choosing redundancy settings, managing user access and so on can be a bit of a stretch for technical novices. Fortunately, walkthroughs are provided by most manufacturers and app providers, so there’s plenty of guidance out there if you’re not sure how to begin.
2. Router + external hard drive
If you’d like to save some money and don’t mind getting a little hands on, then a simple way to create your own NAS is to purchase an external hard drive and a router with a USB port - and put the two together. While this part is easy enough, you’ll also need to use DD-WRT firmware and a compatible router to perform more complex functions. Once again, this might seem intimidating to newcomers, but can be mastered with a little time and effort.
Creating your own NAS this way has the benefit of being much cheaper than buying a pre-made device, as well as not requiring you to make any changes to hardware or start completely from scratch. It does have its limitations - most notably that, unless you have a router with multiple USB ports or an external drive that can be divided into multiple storage units, you won’t get any of the redundancy measures usually associated with network attached storage. However, it’s still an effective way of creating your own network attached storage for a fraction of the price.
It’s also possible to buy WiFi routers with integrated storage space, which are good for casual use, if not so suitable for advanced processes. Asus, D-Link, and Linksys all produce routers with basic network storage, as do several other manufacturers.
Head over to our complete guide to Setting up a DIY NAS using DD-WRT for more information.
3. Full DIY NAS
If you’re handy with hardware, it’s also possible to create a network attached storage device from scratch, using your own supply of repurposed materials - typically taken from an old PC. Home server software such as Amahi and FreeNAS can then help you to transform old hardware into not just a NAS device, but also a home VPN, file server, media streamer, and more. What’s more, you can get hold of an old computer for next to nothing (or possibly find one in the back of your garage), saving you the expenditure associated with commercial devices.
So why use NAS?
NAS isn’t right for everyone, but it’s certainly got a lot of benefits:
1. Keep everything in one place
Network attached storage devices let you store files from any number of computers, tablets and phones - so long as they’re all part of your local area network. This means that, if you’re working from multiple devices at home or want to create storage space that can be shared by all of the people in your office, then you won’t have to bother creating multiple individual backups - something that can get very complicated very quickly. Instead there’s one central location that everyone can go to to backup and retrieve files.
2. Keep your data secure in your own home
Handing your files over to a Cloud storage provider isn’t without security risks, although lots of providers take precautions like using Zero Knowledge policies to keep your data as safe as possible.
However, if you prefer not to make your files visible to a backup company, then NAS offers a great solution. Network attached storage essentially sets up a personal Cloud inside your own house - helping you to keep an eye on your files without losing benefits like big storage allowances, file sharing, and remote access that are usually associated with online backups.
3. Protect your business data
Although network attached storage is a great way to keep your data safe at home, it’s an excellent resource for small businesses, too. Of course, backing up an office worth of data is going to require more storage space, more complex software and a little more processing power than managing a home setup, but commercial NAS manufacturers like QNAP, Synology and Netgear all have plenty of business-friendly options available.
4. Protect your files from hard drive failure
As well as the much-discussed threat of snoopers looking in on unencrypted files, your data can also be compromised for much more mundane reasons - the most common being hard drive failure, which has a fairly terrifying 1 in 5 chance of striking your computer if you use it for just one year.
It’s not just laptops that can be hit by hard drive failure either - using a standard external drive is still a risky business, as they can crash too. Luckily, network attached storage devices offer a way to protect against both of these threats by creating redundant copies of your stored data - effectively backups of your backups - that are kept on separate disks in the same device, so that if one fails, another can spring into action and keep your files safe and accessible.
Check out the Security section of our Ultimate Online Backup Guide for more info on data redundancy and other methods used to keep your files secure online.
5. Access your files from anywhere
Although NAS is, by its very nature, designed to be accessed within a single LAN, it’s also possible to view and edit your NAS files remotely. Most commercial models will have an app for that or, if you’re going for the ‘build your own’ approach, there are some fairly simple steps you can follow to enable FTP transfers, after which you can manage the movement of your files downloading software such as FileZilla or rsync.
6. Make use of loads of extra features
Commercial NAS devices are pretty versatile, offering considerably more than just basic file storage and sharing functions. If you don’t mind putting in a little time and effort, you can use them to stream media files via your TV and manage local video surveillance, as well as setting them up as web hosting devices and mail servers. If you want to backup photos, you'll even find features for editing, organising and sharing pictures, and direct camera uploads, and there’s also the option to encrypt your files both during storage (at hardware or folder level) and transfer using SSL.
Home-made NAS devices can do a fair bit too, although it’ll require more work on your part - take a look at our guides to Setting Up a DIY NAS Using DD-WRT and Building Your Own DIY NAS from an Old PC for more info!
7. Build your 3-2-1 backup plan
NAS is commonly included in 3-2-1 backup plans - an approach to storing data that involves keeping copies of your files in three different locations - one copy online, one on an external storage device, and one on (you’ve guessed it) a NAS device.
The 3-2-1 approach to backups is great because it protects your data against pretty much all eventualities - your external drive crashes or gets damaged? Lose your internet connection and want to retrieve your files in a hurry? No worries - you’ve got an external storage device to hand with a full copy of your files. Hard drive crashes? It’s fine - you’ve got a NAS device with redundancy settings keeping multiple extra copies of your files safe and sound. Lose your local storage devices to fire, flood or theft? The internet’s there to save you.
While casual users might not feel the need for three separate backups, any personal or business users with important data to protect should seriously consider this approach, as the initial investment will seem like nothing when it’s helping you restore essential files.
Things to consider
It’s an obvious one, but the amount of data you need to store should be one of your first concerns when it comes to setting up network attached storage. Are you backing up from a few personal devices, or from an entire office worth of computers?
Router/external drive combinations are great for home setups, but not so much for process-intensive arrangements, as processing speeds can be very slow, and the amount of available space limited. Companies such as QNAP, Synology and Netgear all offer business-oriented NAS devices with huge storage capacities (we’re talking petabytes), and great options for data management, security and redundancy. Alternatively, creating your own NAS from scratch will allow you to attach as many external drives as your motherboard has ports, so could be a worthwhile option for anyone with some experience of customizing hardware.
If you’re looking for something a bit more domestic, then an external drive or two could be the perfect fix - just make sure that you know how many USB ports your router has available (two is fairly standard), the capacity of the drives that you’re planning to attach, and how much of that space you want to use for redundant copies of your data. For an idea of how much space personal data takes up, check out the Speed section of our Ultimate Online Backup Guide.
NAS transfer speeds
You might be wondering how NAS compares to online backups when it comes to file transfer speeds. The simple answer is that transferring files within your local network is a lot quicker than moving them from your computer to the internet at large, because the speed of local transfer isn’t affected by your bandwidth allowance. However, you will need to be connected to your network to transfer files to and from your NAS - although many commercial NAS boxes feature a way to view already-stored files offline.
Of course, if you want to backup files to the Cloud, there’s no discernable difference between uploading them from your NAS and uploading them from your computer, as all of the usual speed restrictions apply. Other processes, such as port forwarding, are also subject to bandwidth limitations.
So there you have it. Network attached storage is a great way of keeping lots of data from multiple devices safe and sound, and is perfect for both home users and small businesses. If it sounds like the solution for you, head over to our guides on Commercial NAS Devices, Setting up a DIY NAS using DD-WRT, and Building Your Own DIY NAS from an Old PC.
Alternatively, if you think a different method of data backup might suit you better, our Ultimate Online Backup Guide has loads of information to help you figure out exactly what you’re looking for. Good luck!