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Choosing a Network Storage Appliance

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When searching for a Network Attached Storage (NAS) unit you’ll find many features and specs to compare. Eric Geier introduces and discusses what you should look for when buying a network storage solution for a small or medium-sized business.
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Hard Drives

The two major differentiators you’ll first notice among NAS appliances is the capacity, or maximum disk space supported, and the number of drive bays. You’ll find many units targeted for small offices and businesses with up to 20 to 25 computers ranging from 4 to 18TB in capacity with one to four drive bays. Some units are sold without hard drives (where you must install those that are supported) and some come with preconfigured drives installed from the factory or reseller. Either way you’ll usually spend anywhere between $700 to $2,000 on a small business NAS solution including the drives.

If you’re purchasing an empty NAS unit and supplying your own drives you should ensure the drives are on the unit’s supported drive list. Some units support a wide variety of drives while others are more limited or recommend an enterprise-level drive. You can usually find the supported drive list on the unit manufacturer’s website.

Most NAS units support RAID drive configurations and offer iSCSI support as well, but if you desired a specific drive configuration you may double-check if a unit supports it.


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Operating System

Although it may not seem so at first, the operating system (OS) of the unit is another major factor to consider when choosing a NAS solution, especially if you’d like any additional network functions over traditional NAS features.

Some units have a proprietary OS, designed like a typical network appliance GUI with just basic NAS functions. But some units run a popular NAS OS like Synology DSM OS or ThecusOS, which resembles more of a Linux distribution with a user-friendly GUI and add-on support for running mail, web, and other server functions. And some units come with Windows Storage Server preloaded as well.

LCD Screens

Many NAS units have LCD screens on the front of the unit to display the network and unit status, such as the IP address of the unit and disk drive status. Some just display information while others allow you to input/change settings as well, which can be very convenient.

Sharing Protocols

Just about all NAS units support the typical file sharing protocols: CIFS (Windows), NFS (Unix/Linux), AFP (Mac), WebDAV, and FTP. The difference you’ll see for the sharing functions is remote access. Most units support at least basic remote web access while others offer a more advanced web and/or VPN access. Some even provide collaboration features, allowing multiple users for instance to edit documents

Authentication

Just about every NAS unit supports local accounts and directory support for authentication to control user access, so you don’t usually have to worry about this. If you don’t have a domain directory service, like ActiveDirectory, you can usually create user accounts on the NAS unit. Either way you can usually control access to the file shares based upon the user, thus for instance share certain files to everyone and select files to specific groups.

Client Backup Features

The backup features of NAS units vary. Most units can perform backups of user PCs if you install their client application, and few even allow you to perform basic clientless backups. Some units include their own backup software while some include third-party software.

USB Ports

You’ll want to note how many and what version of USB ports are provided on the NAS unit if you intend to plug in external or flash drives. Some units provide just two USB ports while others provide several. And consider which USB version they support as you’ll likely want USB 3.0 if you plan to use it regularly.

Backup Ethernet and Power

Keep in mind some NAS units provide a second backup Ethernet port and/or power jack. This is useful so if one connection becomes unplugged or the switch/power jack goes out the other connection will keep the unit up and running.

Cloud Storage and NAS Backup

The cloud and NAS backup functions vary greatly among different units. Some vendors provide a cloud service or support third-party cloud providers to store or backup your files. If the NAS vendor provides their own cloud service be sure to calculate and compare the costs with other cloud services.

Disaster-Proofing and Physical Security

Since your NAS will likely store sensitive data you don’t want lost or stolen, consider any disaster-proofing and physical security features of the NAS unit. Some units provide lockable drive bays to help prevent theft while a few even provide fire and water proofing.

Summary

Remember although the capacity and number of supported drives are the two most noticeable differences you’ll find when shopping for a network storage solution, there are many more features and specs to compare. If you’re looking for a NAS that gives extra network functions, consider a NAS operating system like Synology DSM OS or ThecusOS. Compare the USB, Ethernet, and power ports offered by each unit. Plus look into the exact backup and cloud functionality. And consider the disaster-proofing and physical security features, especially if you won’t be backing it up off-site.

Eric Geier is a freelance tech writer—keep up with his writings on Facebook. He’s also the founder of NoWiresSecurity, a cloud-based Wi-Fi security service, and On Spot Techs, an on-site computer services company.

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