The closets of the average digital home are a mess. Music, photos, videos and TV shows are strewn across multiple PCs and external hard disk drives, and burned to CDs and saved to memory sticks that seem to have legs of their own.
Worse, to share files across a home network, you need to give others access to your PC and keep it running all the time. What a free for all. No wonder you can’t actually find anything.
The best way to gain control of this digital chaos is with network attached storage (NAS). NAS refers to a data server that connects to your router, accessible from any machine over your network. The idea is to put all the files you want to share on the NAS and keep your personal content—financial records, work files, resumes, writing—on your personal system.
NAS devices have been in the business world for a long time, but only recently have hard disk vendors like Maxtor begun offering consumer-friendly versions. Today, the NAS market is a hodge-podge of business and consumer boxes, and it’s growing fast—evidenced by Netgear’s recent acquisition of business NAS vendor Infrant Technologies, as well as the buzz surrounding the January release of Microsoft’s Windows Home Server for private beta.
Windows Home Server is a consumer version of Microsoft Server 2003 with Service Pack 2. Expect several Windows Home Server NAS boxes to ship by year’s end, including HP’s Media Smart Server.
NAS boxes typically contain several hard disk drives, a gigabit Ethernet interface, and a CPU and limited operating system (usually Linux or FreeBSD). This intelligence allows the NAS to serve files to various machines, track permissions, access and versioning using a special file-based protocol. You’ll also find multiple USB ports for connecting external hard disks as well as printers, cameras, and other peripherals.
Most NAS boxes come with some sort of backup and synching software that lets you backup the files on connected PCs automatically. Many also include other goodies, like a print server that lets you share a single printer across a network. NAS boxes are also platform agnostic, so they’ll talk to both PCs and Macs.
Several NAS models let you open the case to add additional or higher capacity hard disks, and most business models include RAID (redundant arrays of independent disks) capability, a complex system that saves your data across multiple disks, protecting it against failure.
NAS boxes typically have a terabyte of storage, and cost between $500 to $1,000, with most landing in the $750 range. Products come from both the network hardware and hard disk manufacturers, so the list of vendors is long, including Iomega, HP, Linksys, Netgear, Maxtor, Buffalo Technologies, Western Digital, and others.
When shopping, you want to buy a NAS device that suits your technical ability, then you’ll want to weigh four criteria: capacity, price, ease of setup/use and software bundle.
Some NAS boxes come with a wireless interface, but you probably want to avoid wireless for moving large multimedia files. And don’t even think about NAS for streaming video unless you’ve got a stable and robust 802.11 pre-N network in place. Opt for a device that’s Ethernet cabled to the router, and consider putting the NAS in a closet or other out-of-the way place.
Also important is expandability. How many drive bays does the device include and how many can be swapped out for bigger drives in the future? Or, if the box you’re considering doesn’t open, ensure it has several USB ports so you can expand capacity by connecting external hard disks.
The best way to compare ease of use and software bundles is to study the spec sheets and read the reviews. PC World recently did a thorough comparative test of 10 NAS devices and favored the Infrant Technologies ReadyNAS NV.
If you’re a do-it-your-selfer and don’t mind opening computer cases, a much cheaper alternative to buying a NAS box is to convert an old computer into a homemade model. Jon Jacobi put together an excellent step-by-step guide for building your own NAS.
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Toni Kistner is a technology writer living in Cambridge, Mass. Her main focus is networking and wireless technology.