Network Attached Storage is a technology that allows for centralized access of data. This is traditionally used for things like configuration management, code repositories, and databases; doesn’t sound of much use to the home user, does it? Why not just use my computer to share out some files when I need it?
Media, backups, drivers, software, documents, browser favorites, and all the same things that one uses on their local computer can benefit from the use of this great technology. As everything is interconnected these days – Amazon Echo, Desktops, Laptops, Smart TVs, Gaming Consoles, etc – it makes sense to reduce the replication of bits in the house: This is the definition of what a NAS is used for.
So what do I use it for?
I run an extensive list of devices, servers, and complex application infrastructure, but I want to share what exactly I use it for as a home user before I expand into what I use it for in my home lab.
My girlfriend and I each have a laptop, desktop, and phone while sharing a PlayStation 4, a Media Center PC and a host of Amazon Echos throughout the house. We each use the NAS for different reasons, but primarily we use it to centrally store our documents, pictures, projects, movies/tv/music, install software, and digital books. We have removed the need to supply each of our devices with expensive storage media to maintain the storage to have each of these distributed, as well as removed the complexity of making sure the files are all replicated in predictable means.
How do we access this? Sounds too complex for the average user!
Where there is definitely a learning curve for my particular environment, I also have had the opportunity to utilize Synology DiskStations for a user-friendly extremely easy NAS appliance. This setup was as easy as inserting some old harddrives and turning it on; the hardest part was waiting for the disks to get wiped and configured for use. I’ll be providing a guide to utilize this in a later guide.
From there I needed some more “oomph”. I was told about FreeNAS, an open source community supported Unix project that is just FreeBSD with some web applications sitting on top of it to manage users, cron jobs, network shares, and even the ability for some extra virtualization and pre-configured application packages. This required some guides and troubleshooting to put it together, but it was a very gratifying build and is the meat of my storage capacity.
In both cases, there is a user friendly wizard that walks you through setting up basic Windows network file shares (Samba) and going to another computer on the same network to access the share with a simple “Computer > Map Network Drive > \\NASAddress\directory” to see it the same as a regular hard drive on your computer.
This same function can be mimicked with an average desktop, but unless you plan to leave it on all the time and not use it for anything else that would require dedicated network bandwidth (like games or movies) you would run into slowness, downtime, and complication of your own work environment.
Now that I have both a FreeNAS heavy duty storage appliance and a Small Office/Home Office level storage appliance, why keep both?
Automated backups. My desktops regularly are utilized for home videos, picture editing, personal projects, and one-time download files like e-books and software. It would be devastating if worst came to worst and the built in redundancies failed on my primary storage appliance! I rolled my old Synology NAS into a dedicated backup server. It is now responsible for searching out relevant directories on my main storage appliance and copying it to itself with rsync overnight.
All of this seems expensive for these uses, how do you have any savings by spending the money on these servers?
Most of the expense savings is in reduction of complexity. I haven’t had to spend more than 30 seconds finding reference to a file or install or picture from any computer bound to my network. I can quickly spin up a map to these central locations and share it online as well for remote download. So the question isn’t really “How much money am I saving with this?” but “How much time am I saving with this?” In the end this is a personal decision and may not be for the lone bachelor with one laptop and a subscription to Netflix, it may not be for grandpa looking to play solitaire from his Mac; this is for a power user, this is for someone looking to have reliable storage and backup solutions, this is for those of us that are bound to our technology and like to sleep at night. That being said, let’s break down some numbers:
Frys has 2TB external drives for apprx 70$ right now. NewEgg has internal 2TB hard drives by the same manufacturer for 60$. NewEgg also has a 4 bay Synology Diskstation similar to my own for 550$.
To have just some extra capacity on each of my computers (2 desktops & 2 laptops) I’d need 4 drives, that’s 280$ for 2TB space split up among 4 computers.
To have equal capacity on the Synology Diskstation you’re looking at an entry of 610$.
At this scale it may make sense to just get the drives. But lets say that the 2TB suddenly isn’t enough, maybe you need an additional 4TB.
To increase by 4TB on each computer (using a 95$ 4TB external from the same manufacturer), the cost is another 380$. (Subtotal 660$)
You now have a total of 8 hard drives to manage.
To increase by 4TB on the Synology, the cost is another 120$. (Subtotal 730$)
This is transparent to your computers and uses the same mounting points.
Maybe you decide that you want to work on some YouTube videos for your upcoming Vlog, you’re going to need a lot more than 2TB on at least one of those computers. Lets grab a 4TB external to share between your desktop & laptop. Should be simple enough, just take the drive and plug it in where you need it!
To get an extra 4TB to manually move around, NewEgg has another external from the same manufacturer for 95$.
Don’t forget it at home!
To get an extra 4TB to automatically share all files around your network, you’ll spend another 120$
This comes with no requirement to manually move files around.
Hopefully from these examples you can see where the money is going, and of course this is a bit of an oversimplification of some considerations but should help clarify where NAS technology excels and the types of things to think of when making a decision on what will scale with your particular use cases.
Generally Linus from Linus Tech Tips seems a bit misinformed or behind on large-scale infrastructure systems, however in the following case he outlines a very real problem with scalability in home storage technologies. His client is a YouTuber that had previously been buying external drives and ended up with stacks and stacks of them without any real system of seeing where her data was. He centralized all her data into a very beautiful NAS server to simplify her life and may provide even more context onto the use cases I’ve outlined above:
A centralized NAS isn’t for everyone, but it’s an invaluable tool for anyone from home users to enterprise infrastructures; I hope to have conveyed some of the more nuanced uses of this technology to the average power user. The cost for entry is far larger initially, but because it scales so well the cost of upgrades and maintenance is on par with the conventionally used methods in the long run.