ASUSTOR AS3304T

My beginner’s guide to network-attached storage (NAS): Everything you need to know

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Limited storage space is an issue most people will experience, whether it’s on a portable device like a smartphone and tablet, a video game console, or even a desktop PC. Eventually, You’ll get the dreaded “this device is running low on free space” message. This is where network-attached storage (NAS for short) comes into play and I’ll run you through everything you need to know.

What is a NAS?

Front of the TerraMaster F4-424 Pro.

Network-attached storage (NAS) is exactly what the name describes. It’s smart storage attached to your local network. Imagine an external drive with its own OS and other features and you’ve got yourself a NAS enclosure. These super-useful servers are perfect for the home and office and unlike a single hard drive, more than one person can access a NAS.

A NAS comes in a variety of configurations. It’s possible to spend very little on two-bay enclosures that are best suited for file storage and backups, or you can go all-out with 10 bays or more and buy the best NAS available. These more advanced servers can do much more, like hosting websites and running media servers.

Synology DiskStation DS419slim

Instead of connecting a NAS to a PC or device directly, you access it over the network. Most devices have the necessary support for the protocols to connect to NAS and manage files. You can move photos from your smartphone to your NAS server and edit them on your PC in moments without needing to move the drive around.

A NAS enclosure is made up of a few vital components:

  • CPU: This component is the same as the one inside the device you’re reading this guide. It handles all the instructions sent by the OS and other parts. The faster the CPU, the more powerful the NAS enclosure.
  • RAM: Because we have a CPU, system memory is important for storing quick-access data. The more RAM available the more apps can be run simultaneously by the OS.
  • OS: Prebuilt NAS enclosures from TerraMaster, Synology, ASUSTOR, and other brands, run a proprietary operating system, usually built on Linux. This runs everything and lets you install apps.
  • Networking: Because a NAS has to connect to the LAN for clients to access services on the server, the network stack (or connections) is what facilitates this. The faster the network links, the more bandwidth you have.
  • Bays: Drive bays inside a NAS enclosure can be populated by HDD or SSD SATA III drives. The more bays, the more drives can be installed and the higher the capacity of the NAS.

How to choose the best NAS

QNAP TS-464
Status LED indicators of the QNAP TS-464 with a glow. (Source: NAS Master)

Price is the most important factor in determining which NAS enclosure is best for you. These servers can get expensive. I’m talking a couple thousand when factoring in countless bays and high-speed LAN connectivity. A NAS with at least two drive bays for redundancy and storage capacity is all you need.

Single-bay NAS enclosures are available, but these should only be used for storing files already backed up elsewhere or if you want a server to test some things out. More than a single drive bay lets you take advantage of data redundancy.

Different brands make NAS enclosures and they differ in design and software support. Synology is arguably one of the more popular options, TerraMaster is a little less known and offers more affordable servers with slightly worse software support. Then there’s QNAP, ASUSTOR, and others.

Synology DiskStation DS220+

We’ve rounded up all the best NAS.

If we were to recommend a single model for most people, it would be the Synology DiskStation DS224+. This server has two drive bays, enough for most homes, and an Intel CPU that will let all family members access stored data simultaneously. Then there’s the possibility of running Plex Media Server.

Synology DiskStation DS224+

Synology DiskStation DS224+
Synology DiskStation DS224+. (Source: Synology)

One of my favorite NAS enclosures is the Synology DS224+. It has two drive bays, an Intel processor, upgradable RAM, and an amazing operating system. This is a perfect first-time NAS.

How to set up your NAS

Front view of the ASUSTOR NIMBUSTOR 2 Gen2 AS5402T.
Front view of the ASUSTOR NIMBUSTOR 2 Gen2 AS5402T. (Source: NM)

Once you’ve chosen the best NAS drives (HDD or SSD) and installed them inside your new server, it’s time to set up the operating system. This is where the fun begins and it’s usually the same process for all manufacturers. Find and load the server IP in your favorite browser and follow the on-screen wizard.

You’ll see the term RAID or redundant array of inexpensive disks (what is RAID?) thrown about with NAS and it’s essentially a technology that allows the combining of multiple physical drives into a single volume. A few RAID configurations are available and I’d recommend enabling one that saves some of your data in case of a drive failure.

Once you’re up and running, most NAS operating systems will let you install apps like Plex Media Server. These will expand the functionality of your server beyond simple file storage. There’s so much you can do with a NAS server and I’ll help show you how on NAS Master.

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