How to Choose a Network Attached Storage (NAS) Device

So, you want to get a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device for your home office or small business. I think that is a great idea and have one myself.  There are a lot of possible options though. You can get a dedicated network appliance that holds 2–4 disks.  You can build your own a PC or repurpose an old one and install a NAS centric OS like FreeNAS or Windows Home Server.  Or after some research you might even decide that a external USB hard drive does everything you need for a lot less money.

When I was choosing my NAS, I came up with a list of requirements:

  1. I should be able to pull a disk from the NAS, plug it into a regular computer and read files from it.  Even if I’m using the disks in a RAID configuration.  This is so I can easily get my data off if the NAS fails but the disks are all good.  Even if you aren’t the “open up the computer” type of person, if something goes really badly wrong, this feature lets you recover your data by paying a tech guy $100 instead of sending your disks to a $2000 data recover specialist.
  2. I should be able to put in a new disk and have the storage pool grow without hassle.  Preferably without even turning off the power to the NAS.
  3. A single disk failure doesn’t loose any data.

You can probably guess that #1 is important to me.  NAS and RAID providers love to tell you how easy it is to recover from a failed disk.  They don’t like to talk about what happens if the NAS/RAID hardware fails 3 years from now and you can’t verify that their latest model is perfectly compatible. Hint: If you are lucky it involves hunting on ebay to find someone selling your exact model NAS!

If you can live without one of the above requirements, your shopping trip will become much easier. But which requirement to drop?  Well, if you are using your NAS as a backup disk it is ok if a catastrophic hardware failure can wipe out everything.  After all, in this case the NAS is a backup copy and the originals are still in place. That means you can drop requirement #1.  Something like the Linksys X‑Raid or a Drobo should work for you. Basically look for a multi-disk enclosure that supports adding disks on the fly.  

If you aren’t worried about expansion, you can skip #2.  In that case one of the affordable 2 disk NAS systems from D‑Link or Buffalo will work.  They use RAID 1 to duplicate your data so you can typically pop a single disk out and read it on a PC or at worst a Linux PC. 

As for #3, if you don’t mind loosing your data whenever you have a single disk failure it may make more sense to just get a USB external drive.  But if you want something that supports multiple disks you can look for a NAS that has JBOD (Just a Bunch of Disks) mode.  

So, what did I use?  I have a Windows Home Server (WHS) PC running in my basement.  It is the only out of the box solution that I know for sure does all three. Unfortunately, the latest version of WHS does not include the Drive Extender technology that lets you add disks to the storage pool seamlessly. When I head that, I thought it was the end of WHS as a useful product for me, but it turns out that third parties are coming in and replacing the functionality with plug-ins.  

The BIG downside to WHS is that I can’t find any vendors selling pre-configured boxes with WHS anymore.  Before they discontinued the line, HP made some really nice WHS machines that I recommended and installed for a few clients. As for now there are turn-key solutions listed on the Microsoft site but they don’t seem to be available in the US where I live.  If you are OK opening up a PC and installing your own OS, I still recommend WHS…but it was a lot nicer when HP was selling pre-configured boxes at a great value.

So, you can see that I’m kind of picky about my NAS.  I wish I could just say “choose X, it’s awesome!” Unfortunately things are always a little more complicated than that. If you know of a turn key solution that does everything I want, is affordable, and will make me say “it’s awesome!”, leave me a comment.  

3 responses to “How to Choose a Network Attached Storage (NAS) Device

  1. I ended up choosing the Synology DS411j (see because of the reasons you mention, Al, but also because it’s a plug-and-play solution. I’m happy fiddling with tech but I’m not a guru. I wanted something I could plonk on my desk and start using quickly without a lot of hassle. This thing can do RAID, is super-quiet, is fast as lightning, and comes preconfigured with some really nice features, such as OSX Time Machine compatibility out of the box…which is important in our house. 😉 Other nice features are the built-in media server, download station, VPN, and even a security camera control station, if you want it. Pretty sweet suite (ha ha).
    I guess we’ll see if it stands the test of time but I’m pretty pleased with it so far!

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