Network-attached storage takes external hard drives beyond backup. By Glenn Derene
Hard drives have traditionally been pretty dumb devices – for the most part, they neither know nor care about the machine they are attached to. For both internal and external drives, the setup is generally plain and simple: plug your drive in, wait for the driver to install, and voilà! – more capacity.
A dumb drive is actually great if all you want is extra storage or a place to back up data from a single PC. But say you have multiple computers in the house, or a gaming system, or a networked security camera, or a huge music and movie collection that you’d like to stream out to a variety of portable devices. That’s when you want a hard drive with a brain – a network-attached storage (NAS) drive.
NAS drives aren’t hooked directly to Network-attached storage devices such as the Iomega StorCenter iX2-200 can hold data for all the connected devices in a home. any one computer. Instead, they connect to a router via Ethernet or Wi-Fi and are visible to any computer connected to that network. Because they are tied to the network, rather than to any one computer, NAS drives continue to be available even when your computers are turned off. They are little computers in their own right, delivering most of the functionality of a business-style server with a more consumer-friendly interface at a more wallet-friendly price.
They will tend to set you back a bit more than your average external hard drive. A variety of manufacturers such as Iomega, Western Digital, Seagate, Buffalo and D-Link make these devices; expect a 1 TB NAS drive to cost between R1 800 and R3 000. (A comparable capacity USB desktop drive will cost about R1 100. That extra cash, however, buys you plenty of flexibility and functionality.
Back it up
Because they operate over your network, NAS drives centralise backup for all the computers in the house. You can use the software that comes with the NAS or use the automated backup functionality built into Microsoft Windows or Time Machine in Mac OS X.
If you buy the right drive and configure it properly, you can effectively design a foolproof double-backup system that ensures you’ll never lose your data. Start by buying a two-bay NAS – you can buy discless NAS enclosures cheaply and add your own drives or buy a NAS with drives included. You’ll want at least double the storage you need to back up all the computers on your network. (NAS drives can be outfitted to staggering capacities – a four-bay device can hold up to 8 TB.)
Like most computers, NAS drives allow you to set up your drives in a RAID (redundant array of independent discs) configuration that mirrors your data across drives. If one fails, the other maintains your files and repopulates them to a replacement drive. Configuring RAID on a computer is geeky stuff, but most NAS drives walk you through the process in plain English when you set them up. The downside is that you are effectively paying for twice the storage capacity you can actually use, but the peace of mind is bulletproof.
Serve it up
If NAS devices were just about backup, they’d be the equivalent of buying a single, really good insurance policy for all your data – practical, but hardly exciting. What makes NAS drives truly fascinating devices is everything they do besides backup. Because they are always on and always connected to your network, NAS devices can function as a central repository for data you use on a variety of devices.
That means music, movies, photos and documents no longer need to be redundantly stored on multiple computers throughout the home. NAS devices show up automatically in the Network section of either Windows Explorer or Mac OS X Finder – alternatively, they can be mapped as lettered drives in Windows or dragged to the Dock in OS X.
It’s an efficient place to store your data. If multiple people on the network use a file from multiple locations (say, the family-budget spreadsheet), then by keeping that file on the NAS device, you avoid conflicting files. Got files that you want to keep private? NAS drives allow each member of the household to set up an account – you can choose what to keep private and what to make available to other users.
And NAS drives are especially friendly to media files. Many NAS devices can function as networked iTunes servers – just drag your music collection into the music folder on the networked drive, and all that music shows up automatically in the iTunes software on all the computers on your network.
Most NAS drives also conform to the Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) and Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) standards, which allow NAS drives to function as media servers for all sorts of compliant devices – game consoles, set-top boxes such as Western Digital’s WD TV and Iomega’s ScreenPlay, as well as network- connected home theatre equipment and HDTVs.
For those who use peer-to-peer file sharing (we’ll assume what you’re sharing is legal), NAS drives can also manage torrent downloads even when your computer is off.
And here’s another trick up the NAS’s sleeve: many of these devices have dedicated USB ports. Plug in an extra external drive and it shows up on the network. Plug in a printer and it can be configured as a network printer that all of your computers can use.
Surprisingly, NAS devices, once hooked into your home network, are at their most useful when you’re away from home. Almost all NAS drives can be set up to let you log in remotely over the Internet and access your content through either a Web browser or dedicated software. This can be a trickier proposition on some drives than others, requiring you to open up a port on your router and set up a variety of security procedures.
Many newer NAS drives make the process much easier by using third-party interfaces such as Pogoplug and Twonky. (Pogoplug also has a dedicated iPhone app to allow access from your phone; Twonky has an app available for Android devices.)
NAS devices not only make your data more secure; they can also do the same for your home. Some NAS drives can automatically record footage from networked home-security cameras. Using camera systems from companies such as Cisco and D-Link, you can record directly to a section of your NAS device, then log in remotely through a password-protected Web page to view footage on your smartphone. Let’s see a USB drive do that.
Not everybody wants to buy a new network- attached storage (NAS) drive – especially those who’ve invested in a USB backup drive. The good news is that devices such as the Pogoplug, Seagate FreeAgent GoFlex and Iomega iConnect allow you to turn USB drives into networked drives. Pogoplug and Seagate’s GoFlex require an Ethernet connection. Iomega’s iConnect can work via Wi-Fi or Ethernet.