What is a Network Attached Storage Device?

Have you ever wondered if it was possible to store all of your important data away from your local computer’s hard drive and make it available over your home network instead? Have you ever had friends come over and found out that sharing data with them was a pain because you had to turn on your computer first? Wouldn’t it be awesome if you could make those data accessible from any computer within your home network? If so, then what you are looking for is something called a network attached storage (NAS) device. Recently, a friend wanted to decommission an old computer he had but wanted to see if it could be put to any other use. The computer was about 5 years old and so although it was still possible to surf Youtube and browse the web on it, he just bought himself a new laptop and so the old computer was now rendered useless. Because him and his wife store a lot of digital media on their personal computer, I explained to him the basics of a NAS device and he pretty much was on-board immediately and that is what I’ll be talking about in this article. Transforming an old/ancient computer into a NAS device is one of the best ways to recycle a computer. You don’t need a whole lot to get started. In fact, it is theoretically possible that you don’t have to shell out a single penny at all to complete the project! In the end, what you’ll have is an always on device on your home network whose sole purpose is to serve you your data no matter what computer you are may be using.

This article serves as an introduction. Mainly, it goes over what a NAS is and some of the questions surrounding whether it is right for your home network or not. In a follow-up article, I will actually go into how you can configure and build your own NAS device to use on your network!

Is A NAS Device Right For Me?

In many organizations, it can be a nightmare for administrators to backup user data because data resides locally on each user’s computer. Instead, what usually happens is the administrators configuring the user’s computer in a way so that their data is stored on a file server somewhere over the network instead. Because those data pieces are now centrally located on one server, the administrators can backup that one server instead of having to worry about the 200 or so individual computers spread throughout the network. When a user logs into a different computer on the network than the one they usually use, their data is right where it should be because they are accessing them on the file server over the network instead of on their other machine. When you build or buy a NAS device for your home network, you’ll get the same experience. Here is a very simple diagram depicting of what a NAS device on a network looks like:

NAS Diagram

So why would you want a NAS on your network? Well, this really depends on how you use and store your data. A simple scenario is if every person in your household have their own personal laptop. Wouldn’t it be awesome if everyone can access a music library stored on a NAS file server rather than having to use USB sticks to transfer those MP3 files manually to each computer? Wouldn’t it be easier if you could share important data with your family members by dumping those files (PDFs, Docs, Excel worksheets, photos, etc) onto the NAS device rather than first having to create a shared folder on your own computer and then having the other members connect to that share to your computer over the network? Basically what we have is what I’ve detailed in the organization scenario above. Your household can now have a central place to store and share data much more easily. If there is no need to share files between different computers in your home environment, then building a NAS might not be the best idea. If however you are looking for a way to centrally manage data on your home network, then a NAS device will do wonders for you. It’s obviously not the only method available and so I’ll now go over some of the advantages and disadvantages of a NAS device on your network.

Pros and Cons of a NAS Device

In no way is this list complete or exhaustive. It’s just some of the things I can come up with at the moment I wrote this article.

The Good News:

  • By using the FreeNAS operating system, we have a completely free way of turning that old computer you have sitting in the basement into a dedicated file server.
  • You now have a centralized location for storing your data on your home network. This works well when you have a lot of users on your network. Also, rather than relying on each individual to backup their own data on their own local computer, you can now automatically do that on your NAS by configuring a simple RAID 1 mirror. A mirror is basically an exact clone of the original hard disk. If the original data drive fails, the mirror takes over.
  • Sharing files is now easier than ever. Because the data you want to share is not stored on your local computer, other users on your home network can now access the data over the network (provided they have permission to do so). This means that you no longer have to purposely turn on your computer just to share data.
  • Because your NAS device is within your home premises, you have a peace of mind that your data is not stored on someone’s else servers. If you are still paranoid about giving Google or Microsoft access to your precious data, you can use your NAS device to store your content instead and still be able to access them from anywhere.
  • A NAS box can be scale up. When you need more storage, you can simply add more hard disk drives. This does depend on the hardware of your NAS box though.

The Bad News:

  • By introducing a NAS device on your network, it introduces a new complexity element because it is now one more device you have to personally manage and maintain. Although FreeNAS is a free operating system, it can still be daunting for some to configure initially and I’m warning you right now that there are a lot of steps you need to perform in order to get your NAS box configured with folder shares. The good news is that once you’ve got everything configured, you can technically just leave the NAS device on its own without having to physically touch it again.
  • Because a NAS server relies on your network in order to be of any purpose, it now introduces a single point of failure: the network itself. If you have a power outage for instance, although a user might still be able to use their personal laptop, they won’t be able to access their data on the NAS server because both your home router and the NAS server itself is shut down.
  • Your network is everything. Because users are now accessing their data over the network rather than locally, things will seem slower. This is not a problem for small data files such as MP3s, photos, Word and Excel documents but for big data files such as streaming over a 1080p high definition movie, your network better be able to handle the extra load or else you will hear complaints! As more users in your household simultaneously access and stream data over the network, the more strained your network will be. If this is the case, you’ll need to upgrade your network such as to a gigabit ethernet instead of the older 100Mbps type.
  • Your NAS server, although very cool and personal, it can be inflexible. If you’re out and about with your laptop, how will you access the data on your NAS file server back at home? You can setup FTP and whatnot but that just increases the complexity. What if your location have no Internet access at all? Then that means you’ll be stuck in the mud unless you configure offline caching of the shared folder. This again adds complexity due to you now having to mess with file syncing and if you are going to do this, then it might not make sense to have a NAS setup to begin with.
  • Remember, with a FreeNAS box, you have yet another device on your network that remains operational 24/7. That means you’ll have a bigger electricity bill at the end of the month! The good news is that with FreeNAS, the operating system is completely stripped of many elements and so it is very lightweight. You also can adjust power management features to conserve electricity. Also, the FreeNAS box will be headless. That means all you’ll have in the end is just a computer running without any keyboard, mouse or monitor attached to it! All configuration tasks is to be done on a separate computer over the network.
It’s important to note that just because you have a NAS file server doesn’t automatically mean that you should now dump every single data file on that server! You should devise your own strategy. For example, if you have a 50GB music collection, storing that collection on the NAS server makes sense if you want to conserve disk space locally for more important data that you absolutely must have with you at all times.

So Where Does Everything Fit In?

If having read all that and you’re still a bit confused, here a couple of questions you might have regarding NAS and I’ll try to answer them as best I can.

  1. “What’s wrong with just using a USB drive?” – Nothing! If you are more comfortable with just plugging in a simple and cheap USB drive to use as a storage device, then by all means go for it. Remember, a NAS server isn’t really a new technology. It just allows you to access your data via a different method. In the end, data is data and it doesn’t really matter where you store it but rather how you access it when the need arises.
  2. “Wouldn’t everyone dumping data on the NAS box be messy?” – Well, that depends. The best way to combat this is to come up with a simple folder scheme. For example, each person in your household could get their own personal folder. You can then create a separate folder for general sharing. This way, everyone gets their own private folder and for data that needs to be shared with everyone else, they can be dumped into the sharing folder. In my demo, this is exactly what I will be setting up. Also remember that with a NAS file server, the hard drive that you use to store data is the same hard drive that you use on your local computer right now. You can create folders and sub-folders for example just like you can right now on your own local hard disk. However, how you create them is just a tad bit different.
  3. “Is the learning curve steep?” – If you are the person responsible for setting up the FreeNAS server, then yes, there is a pretty steep learning curve. What I will demonstrate here is how to get up and running with FreeNAS and how to share folders on your network. Luckily with FreeNAS, you actually have a graphical management interface to configure the file server. Once your FreeNAS box has a static IP address configured, you will perform the majority of configuration tasks within your browser on a separate computer. Also, once the FreeNAS box is up and running, it generally doesn’t need any further maintenance. You literally set it and forget it.
  4. “How easy will it be for users in my household to use the file server?” – Generally speaking, once you have the FreeNAS box configured and up and running, each user in your household will just need to map the network folder(s) to their computer. Going with the folder scheme above, each user will have a minimum of two network mapped folders. The first will be their own personal folder. The second will be the general sharing folder. You can configure it so that with each computer reboot, the mapped network folders will be persistent so the user will not have to map a folder each and every time they log in. From there, they can use the mapped network folder just as they would a regular hard drive but just for the fact that all data stored within is dumped onto the FreeNAS server instead of on their local computer.
  5. “How secure is FreeNas?” – I have to admit that I personally do not have a lot of experience with FreeNAS in general and the version I am using in this demonstration is not the newest version I believe (I have a reason for this). From what I gather though, you shouldn’t have too much to worry about just as long as you do not have the need to open up the server for outside access. If not, your NAS box does not even need an Internet connection at all as it just works over your Local Area Network. If you also do not have a need to protect the traffic on your local network, then you also shouldn’t have anything to worry about as well. Once you do need to provide outside access to your FreeNAS box and a need to secure traffic on the local network, then things become more complicated. In my demo, I’m keeping things simple and assume that you are just setting up a NAS box on your secure home network. The demo is not meant to showcase FreeNAS and what it can do in a business or professional environment!
  6. “Um, why can’t I just create a folder share on a Windows computer instead of dealing with a NAS?” – Although a simple folder share in Windows does allow you to share data with others over the network, that connection will be disconnected once the computer hosting the share is turned off. With a FreeNAS server, the computer/device is available on your network 24/7 and so folder shares are contiguously accessible.
  7. “So why can’t I just leave a Windows computer on 24/7 to act as the NAS server?” – Technically you can but it’s not really advisable to do so mainly because Microsoft Windows is a full blown operating system. It is known that even if you don’t do anything on the computer and leave it idle, it can still consume system resources. This of course leads to higher electricity usage and a more unstable computer over time. With a dedicated NAS server, the OS used to host the server is dedicated to one role and one role only: to serve and host your data. All other unnecessary functions and roles are stripped away or inactive. That’s why a FreeNAS box is much more stable and reliable.

Now that I’ve gone over what a NAS is and the reasons for why you should and shouldn’t deploy one on your home network, its time to actually go ahead and build one! In the next article, I’ll will go over how you can use an older version of the FreeNAS operating system to turn your old computer into a dedicated network storage system on your home network! I won’t promise it will be easy as there are definitely a lot of steps to follow but hopefully you’ll stick with it till the end.

You can find the second part of this article on how to actually build your NAS box here!
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Comments

  1. Great article. With an all in one intel atom machine I am using less than 18 watts

  2. The only thing which would keep me away from using this is the cost of electricity for running a PC 24×7. Other than that, it could be useful where you transfer media a lot.

    • Yeah, that’s one of the reasons why I don’t like having a dedicated NAS box as well. Electricity is very expensive where I live. The good news is that there are many energy saving features in not only a home made NAS server using an OS like NAS4Free or FreeNAS but also with dedicated NAS servers you buy in stores as well so not all is lost.

    • Ankur: Not to resurrect an older post, but these drives use less than a watt at idle, and less then 5 when active. You can get a 20W motherboard setup, less if you run NAS4Free on an ARM system. Bottom line, this is less energy than a small light bulb, assuming you run the processor at full power all the time (which won’t happen).

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