Small Business Guide to Network Attached Storage

Wednesday Jan 5th 2011 by Joseph Moran
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Network attached storage can help SMBs tame their ever-growing data storage needs. Our NAS expert covers everything you need to know to buy the right network storage device for your business.

Data storage is the lifeblood of any small business, and one of the most straightforward and cost-effective ways to make a large amount of it available to everyone on your network is via a network attached storage (NAS) device.

A NAS device is essentially a storage server that provides centralized access to shared data. NAS devices  are a lot like automobiles -- they all serve the same basic purpose, but there are lots of different models in various shapes and sizes, with myriad features and prices that can range from around a hundred bucks to many thousands of dollars.

Be sure to check out our Sampling of Network Attached Storage Options on page 2 of this article.

What to Consider When Buying Network Attached Storage

To find a network attached storage device that’s suitable for your organization’s needs, it helps to focus on key areas, which we’ll call the four Cs:  capacity, compatibility, control, and connectivity. Read on to learn what you should consider for each when shopping for a small business NAS device.  

Network Storage Capacity

The majority of NAS devices these days use internal SATA hard drives as their storage medium; the same kind found inside the typical desktop PC.  Virtually all network storage devices will also let you attach external USB drives too, and some products such as the$89 Iomega iConnect Wireless Data Station and $299 PogoPlug Biz from CloudEngines, rely on USB hard drives as they contain no internal storage of their own.

These storage devices emphasize expansion flexibility and the ability to use USB drives you may have originally connected to PCs, but they don’t provide the same level of performance or the redundancy options afforded by the internal SATA hard drives found in a conventional NAS device (more on redundancy in a moment).

Any network attached storage device you choose should be able to handle your small business storage needs not just for today, but for the foreseeable future. Of course, knowing precisely how much storage you’ll need in twelve or eighteen months can be tricky.

The best way to ensure a NAS device will be able to grow with you is to choose one that offers the largest storage capacity your budget will allow, and to select a model that supports multiple internal hard drives so you have the option to expand your storage down the road if needed. Although NAS devices can consist of a single hard drive, these days they’re more likely to accommodate (or ship with) two, four or even more individual hard drives.  

The number of drives a network storage device supports has a direct bearing on its maximum storage capacity. Today’s SATA hard drives max out at 2 TB, for example, so a two-drive NAS will necessarily be limited to 4 TB (not including USB add-ons) of storage. That seems like a lot, but it can be consumed quickly when you’re using it to back up PCs, store a large quantity of pictures or video, etc. Buy a four-drive NAS and you’re potentially looking at 8 TB, which should represent serious network storage for any small business.

Storage Capacity Plus Data Protection

Having a network attached storage device with multiple hard drives not only provides lots of capacity -- it also affords you data redundancy provided you’re willing to forgo some of that capacity to replicate your data across several drives at once.

For example, a two-drive NAS is capable of RAID 1 mirroring, which places an identical copy of your data on each drive, but necessarily cuts your usable storage in half. Similarly, NAS devices with three or more drives can employ a technique called RAID 5 that provides data protection by distributing parity data across all the available drives, which uses the equivalent of one drive’s worth of storage.

Parity data is essentially a shorthand version of a drive’s data that can be used to reconstitute the data in the event of a hard drive failure. This means that RAID 5 on a group of three 1 TB drives would drop its usable capacity from 3 TB to 2 TB. As you can see, it’s particularly important to have ample capacity if you want to take advantage of RAID's data protection capabilities.

When looking at a NAS device with multiple-drive support, be sure that you can access the hard drive bays, and consider how complicated it is to add or remove a drive. Many NAS models make it relatively easy and tool-free by placing hard drives into special trays that slide into a drive bay, but some may require more effort, such as affixing drives to trays with screws or connecting power and data cables. Some NAS devices, like the five-bay Drobo FS, don’t require trays at all.

Also note whether a NAS device offers hot- or cold-swap capability. The former means you can add or change a drive while the network storage device is running, while the latter requires you to shut down first (and possibly interrupt people’s work) before making any such changes.

Compatibility: NAS and Operating Systems

When choosing a network attached storage device, keep in mind the type of operating systems that you will connect to it. There’s not much to worry about if your small business uses only Windows PCs, because Windows support on NAS devices is pretty much universal -- even though most NAS devices don’t actually run Windows, they’ll look as if they do to a Windows PC that needs to access a shared network folder.

Native Mac support on NAS devices isn’t universal, but it’s quite common (though not always turned on by default). When it comes to Linux, things tend to get a bit hit-and-miss; if you have any Linux systems you’ll want to check that a NAS device supports the specific distro and version you’re using. 

Note that most NAS devices also offer OS-independent ways of accessing stored data, such as via FTP and HTTP (Web browser-based).

Control: Accessing Your NAS Data

Assuming that you don’t want everyone at your small business to have unfettered access to data (and you probably don’t), you’ll want to pay close attention to how a NAS device lets you control access to shared folders. Some entry-level products offer only very basic access control; for example, they may they allow shared folders to be broadly designated as read-only or read/write, but that won’t cut it if you need the ability to control access for specific individuals.

To control access to data on a per-person basis, you need a network attached storage device that supports creating user accounts and passwords. Even better, it should let you organize them into groups as well, which makes administration easier when you have a lot of users.

If you do have a large number of users, a NAS device that can import account info from a file (instead of you having to manually creating accounts) can save a lot of time. And, if you’re concerned about voracious users consuming all of your storage space, a NAS device that can enforce storage quotas  is a good idea as well.

If you already have a general-purpose server on your network (e.g. Windows 2003/2008), choosing a NAS device with support for Active Directory integration will let you use your existing network accounts to permit or deny access to the NAS as well, saving you the trouble of maintaining separate accounts for each user.

Connectivity: Network and Remote Access

There are two different aspects of NAS connectivity you’ll want to consider -- the first is how the device physically connects to your network. Almost all NAS devices these days provide a Gigabit Ethernet (1000 Mb) connection, though a few may stick with a slower 100 Mbps Ethernet link.

It’s becoming common for mid-range and higher NAS models to offer two and sometimes even four Ethernet ports that can be used simultaneously, which can help speed data transfers over the network and give the network connection a level of redundancy. It’s worth noting that very few NAS devices offer built-in Wi-Fi (the Iomega iConnect mentioned is a notable exception) because wireless connections generally don’t provide sufficient speed and reliability, particularly in those multiple-user scenarios.

The second aspect of NAS connectivity is remote access, and it’s crucial if you’ll need to access data from outside the confines of the office. Most NAS devices offer some form of remote access; some may provide it via the aforementioned FTP or HTTP but leave it up to you to do the configuration necessary to get those services running through your network firewall. In any event, FTP and HTTP aren’t great choices for remote access if you’re concerned about security, because they don’t encrypt either login usernames and passwords or the contents of files you access.

Many NAS devices now offer hosted remote access services, which provide access to your NAS device through a Web site maintained by the device manufacturer. This type of remote access not only eliminates the need to deal with firewall configuration, it also affords secure access to your data since the connection between you, the portal site and the NAS device is usually SSL-encrypted. The downside is that these hosted services aren’t always free; they frequently carry a monthly subscription fee (though they’re sometimes provided free of charge for the first year).

A Sampling of Network Attached Storage Options

Buffalo TeraStation ES – TS-XEL/R5

The Buffalo TeraStation ES provides four hot-swappable drive bays and a pair of Gigabit Ethernet ports. Price: $1,160 (8TB)

Iomega StorCenter ix2-200

Iomega’s StorCenter ix2-200 is a compact two-drive unit available in capacities ranging from 1 TB to 4 TB. Price: $249 - $499

Netgear ReadyNAS Pro Business Edition 6 TB  

Netgear’s ReadyNAS Pro Business edition offers a half-dozen drive bays (for up to 12 TB of potential capacity) and supports user and group quotas. Price: $2,499

QNAP TS-410U Turbo NAS

The four drive bays in QNAP’s TS-410U Turbo NAS ‘s low-profile rack-mountable chassis can accommodate 3.5- or 2.5-inch SATA drives.  Price: $699 (no hard drives)

Seagate BlackArmor NAS 220

The BlackArmor NAS 220’s twin hard drives provide hardware-based data encryption. Price: $330 (2 TB)

Joseph Moran is a veteran technology writer and co-author of Getting StartED with Windows 7, from Friends of ED.

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