What is a NAS?
A NAS or Network Attached Storage is a device (that can be in multiple form factors) that holds files that can be accessed both on a local network or remotely (Should you wish to allow this)
The NAS can come in many shapes and sizes. You can buy one off the shelf or even build your on. There are also various dedicated operating systems that run on a NAS. Some are designed by a manufacturer to work only with their own product, others can be used with any custom built ones.
Although there are many brands that offer NAS devices, this is not always the right solution for you. Many times they can be overpriced and underpowered. But then again, it is very convenient to buy a ready made NAS, stick some storage drives in it, attach it to your network and with a few clicks in it s settings have everything up and running.
If you need to run some other services such as a media server, having your own cloud file storage service, sharing files with family and friends or collaborating on a project you might need to look for something with more power or even build your own.
Most basic NAS devices can handle light tasks but don’t expect much power from it as most of them run on CPUs that are very slow and only good enough to move and mange files around. They might be unable to handle heavy tasks under a load which will in turn slow down everything.
Another use for a NAS is to be a media server. Using software like Plex Media Server, you can connect your smart devices such as a TV or Media Box to your NAS and be able to stream all of your movies, music and photos directly. Just keep in mind a basic NAS would only be able to handle certain file types and number of media streams at a time especially 4K content.
Another good use for a NAS is that it can offer redundancy with RAID or other forms of data redundancy. Remember that RAID is not a backup system but just a way to restore data if you have a drive that fails and is setup in a Clone Mode (Raid1 for example). But then again you can use a NAS to backup your other devices such as your desktop or laptop and in turn the NAS will keep redundant copies of it.
It all comes down to what your end goal is and what you are trying to achieve. For the average user a NAS is storage point for backups of their devices or storing family photos and videos for others it may be a lot of things in one.
Ready Made VS Build Your Own NAS
There are various reasons why you should buy a ready made NAS or actually build your own. First of all if you need basic file storage and nothing fancy, with a quick setup wizard that can get you going in a few minutes a ready made NAS is for you.
If on the other hand you are more tech savvy and want to build your own and in turn get more bang for your buck then a DIY NAS is the way to go for you. Keep in mind you will need to buy various components and decide how much power you will need depending on what you will be running on it. (And Yes, you can find very powerful ready made NAS devices but they come at a premium)
NAS Operating System
Keep in mind that a ready made NAS device run on it’s own software and can be limited in terms of what you can run on them so you have to do your research before opting for such a device. On the other hand, building your own allows you to run a number of dedicated NAS operating systems which are usually free and open source apart from a few (We will talk about these later)
Today you can find many ready made NAS manufacturers, some popular brands are Synology, QNAP, Asustor and Western Digital and the list goes on. Each brand is different in how they make things work together and offer different interfaces (Operating Systems) along with addons and plugins suitable for that particular device.
On the other hand you can find a number of free and paid operating systems that can open up a DIY NAS to endless possibilities. Some of these include FreeNas, XigmaNAS (Nas4Free), Open Media Vault and UnRaid. (We will talk about a few of these in more detail in separate guides)
Ready Built NAS Devices
Apart from the ready made DIY version decision, you will also need to decide what type of ready made NAS you need. Once again but not limited to what you will be doing with the NAS, you will need to see how much storage you will need, what type of redundancy you are looking. Also they can come in a few form factors such as desktop or rack mount.
Most major brands offer different types of products ranging from a simple single or dual drive setup to multi drive setups with eight drives and possibility to expand to more and connecting all together. You can also find rack-mountable solutions for the tech enthusiast and even business users.
Be sure to check out the features and apps/addons that are provided with the OS installed on the NAS you plan to purchase to make sure that the feature(s) is available or can be added easily through the system itself.
DIY NAS Build
Although we will get into more detail about how to do this in another guide, we will lay out the basis of what you need and how it will all go together. We will also have separate guide on NAS operating systems, redundancy, type of drives to use and so on. Here is a custom NAS we built some time ago for basic file storage and to act as a media server.
(Side Note: You can actually use any old or unused pc that you have laying around. Make sure you can fit a few drives in it and you should be fine – we will have a DIY NAS guide linked here once its available)
For a DIY NAS you can use many devices you might already have or buy cheaply. A Raspberry Pi, an Old PC you have lying around, build your own from new or salvaged components or even get your hand on a retired Dell or HP server.
Most of the above.. maybe apart from the Raspberry Pi will most probably have more power than any ready built NAS and will surely give you more flexibility. Well yes you have to do a bit of hard work like putting everything together, installing a NAS operating system and doing some configuration but, in the long run if you plain to expand and delve into more uses for your NAS the DIY way is the way to go.
Making the choice should be a little simpler now. If you have time and are tech savvy you can go for a DIY solution that is more flexible in terms of what you can do and how you can do it. For the others that just need a simple redundant storage and file sharing solution a simple ready built NAS should be just fine. Remember you can always upgrade to a better device later on should you need to.