It used to be that when you ran out of space on your computer's hard drive, you just added another internal drive. But then along came faster USB 2.0 and Firewire / 1394 interfaces and an array of external direct-attached storage products to plug into them. And these solutions worked fine if you were the only person needing access to the files.
But today, almost no computer is an island and is usually connected to a LAN of one or more machines. And while you can share those files with others by using your OS' file sharing features, there is a better way—Network Attached Storage or NAS.
There are many choices in the NAS product space today and it's easy to buy something that doesn't meet your needs. The focus of this article will be to guide you in choosing the right NAS for you.
Define your Needs
My first response when someone asks me to recommend a networking product is to ask: "What do you want it to do?". This can be frustrating to those who just want to be told what to buy. But not as frustrating as when they later find themselves unhappy with the recommendation because it didn't have a particular function that they just had to have.
The "What do you want it to do?" question may seem obvious, but it's one that is frequently skipped in favor of taking a friend's recommendation, buying the #1 item off a "Best Product" list or even making an impulse buy from an attractive store display or in response to a rebate offer.
I recently spent a weekend with a group of friends that turned into a small network consulting marathon. One of them had the vague notion that he needed a "home server", but wasn't sure what that meant or what to buy. So my first question was "What do you want this "home server" to do? He said:
- Store his 20 GB and growing digital photo collection that was currently filling up his Mac Powerbook drive
- Store his collection of MP3s
- Store his collection of 400+ DVDs, once he got them ripped into digital form
- Make all this content available anywhere in his home for playback
Another friend was consulting for a small real estate office, helping to set up a network for a dozen or so Realtors. He also was looking for a "server", so I asked him what he wanted it to do. His list was:
- Centralized file share for all the Realtors with access control
- Automated backup of client machines
- Automated backup / replication of the server file store
The two lists are very different, but both can be satisfied by a correctly-configured "server". But both lists can also be handled by currently-available NASes; which begs the question: "Server or NAS?"