Choosing a NAS drive

More and more data being captures in various ways, from music to photos to applications, on all sorts of devices. In the average household there are at least 2 mobile phones full of photos, often digital cameras, laptops, netbooks, tablets, all of which have vast amounts of data. The concept of a NAS (Network Available Storage) is a great idea to keep some of this data centrally and to back it up from it’s primary location, be it your phone or another device.

But what about the cloud?

The cloud is great for certain data, but for some things you can’t beat having a local copy. Often the files are big and the Internet connection is not fast enough to get you access to your data as quickly as you need it. Often you have hundreds or thousands of files on your hard drive that you want to offload. This is often easier to scan through on your home network than via a cloud interface.

Let’s just say the cloud is great, it has it’s place, but for the purpose of this post lets focus on NAS systems.

NAS systems are not all equal

In order to explore this statement it is necessary to ask the following questions:

  • What do I need a NAS for?
  • Does it matter if the data gets lost?
  • Do I just need it to store files or do I want it to give me more value?
  • Do I need to access it from outside my home?

First of all I am going to tackle the second point, “Does it matter if the data gets lost?”. This is crucial in terms of choosing a NAS. If the answer is yes then you MUST get a NAS with some form of redundant drive system (RAID or such like). Some NAS systems allow you to use 2 drives and use the total space (e.g. 1Tb + 1Tb = 2Tb). This is useless if a drive fails. What you need is a configuration where 1Tb + 1Tb = 1Tb, but if a drive fails you still have your data.

There are plenty of NAS devices that offer this, but this is where it gets tricky. Some NAS devices use proprietary systems, meaning the drives and the data are dependent on the hardware and the Operating System. This means that the drives may be fine, but if the hardware they are connected to fails then you are without your data until you can replace it with the same hardware (or similar from the same manufacturer). I have seen this before where someone had a NAD for years, the hardware failed and then they could no longer get hold of the compatible hardware.

The solution to this is to do one of the following:

  • Build your own Windows/Linux server (requires time and knowledge)
  • Buy spare hardware in case of failure
  • Use a software RAID system that is compatible with most hardware

The third option is quite popular, and my preferred solution is NAS software called UNRAID. This software allows you to connect any amount (well a LOT) of hard drives together with the largest one as the parity. Once you have your parity in place you total the storage of your other drives and that’s your NAS capacity. There are details of how it works on their site but it’s really pretty simple and works well. If you lose a drive you take it out and put in a new one and it rebuilds the data. Even if you lost 2 drives you have only lost the data on that drive, the other drive’s data remains in place. If you lose your hardware you just put the drives in a new PC or server and you can either access the data directly or install UNRAID on that server and you’re good to go again.

I will do a full post on UNRAID another time, but take a look at their site if you want more info.

To go back to the first bullet points, if you want more value or access from outside your home then some of the Synology kit is great, as is UNRAID o FreeNAS. They all provide plugins or apps that enable you to share out your music, access your videos from smart TV’s or even over the Internet. UNRAID has a near Docker system to let you install Plex, so you can access all your movies from all your devices (phones, tablets, laptops and smart TV’s). If your Internet connection is up to it you can even view them when you are out of the house.

Conclusion

Choosing a NAS is really down to your preference and needs. Depending on who you are you may choose a different one. Here are a couple of options:

For techies (or geeks?)

UNRAID is definitely my choice. It allows you great data protection, the facility to run all sorts of apps, and all on your own hardware. Pair it with an HP Microserver (for just over £100) and you have a great little NAS box that can even run Virtual Machines!

For less techie people

For people who just want it to work something like the Synology NAS systems are good. They do some of what the UNRAID system does but you are reliant on their hardware. They are a good brand though so you shouldn’t get caught out but then going out of business.

One last thought… if your data is important to you it is not enough to have it in one place, you should have it in 2 places, or preferably 3. It’s also preferable to have an off site backup, that’s where Crashplan comes in, but that’s another post in itself.

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