What is a NAS drive?
A Network Attached Storage (NAS) describes a PC independant storage solution accessible via the network. A NAS is a small computer with a housing including a processor and operating system (mostly Linux) and hard drive(s). Like PCs these come in a range of high and low hardware specifications depending on intended use. While a large number of NAS are capable of little more than file retrieval over a network many more outstrip entry level PCs being built to perform as personal media servers.
At its core, the NAS server does not differ much from a computer that houses one or more hard drives. From there, it delivers data to all connected devices and also receives them from computers, notebooks, smartphones and the like.
Core function of a NAS server
Within the private sector, the NAS server is used as a data centre, within the private house these often take on a range of roles, acting as smart home hubs, plex servers, as well as traditional storage. It serves as a central storage medium, from which, other network devices, Laptops, notebooks, tablets and smartphones can read and write to. First and foremost, this saves storage space on the device and makes handling large amounts of data easier.
Imagine you have a 50 GB music collection. You want to listen to your music anytime, anywhere - so save it on your computer and notebook and also on your mobile phone. The collection effectively occupies 150 GB of storage space. If you were to use a NAS server and simply stream your music to whatever device you are currently using, you would still have access to your entire collection and would only need the 50 GB capacity mentioned at the beginning.
A NAS server can thus also help to save storage space, although it is actually an archive for large amounts of data. It is up to you which data you store on your NAS server. Just like a hard drive in your computer, you can store anything you want on it. Not all data is suitable for streaming, but a download directly from the server is always possible. Incidentally, it is never operated directly on the device: You manage the NAS server from a device connected via the network - e.g. via a notebook - in the browser. This is convenient and at the same time ensures that the NAS server can be operated regardless of the operating system you are using.
What is the best NAS server?
There is no single, perfect NAS server as each NAS is bult for slightly different purposees. It is best to define exactly what you want to use your NAS server for primarily before buying. Some are intended to be written to constantly by security systems, others are optimised for Plex style media streaming, others are little more than FTP servers. The various models differ primarily in terms of the performance of the components inside and the number of hard drive slots (or bays) included:
There are also devices that use SSD (Solid state) hard drives for particularly fast data operations or to achieve impressive speeds when encrypting data.
For example, there are NAS servers that specialize in converting media data. Their CPUs automatically convert 4K video material into 1080p videos so that you can watch them on your HD television.
The number of hard disk slots varies greatly: models for end customers are already available with just a single slot. In a NAS server for companies, however, you can accommodate dozens of bays and thus also hard drives. These are often hopelessly oversized for private use unless you're planning on hoarding huge volumes of Film and TV long term.
There are also differences in the interfaces to the NAS server: there are devices with several Gigabit LAN connections as well as systems with an additional HDMI port for direct connection to a television or server with an SD card reader. Thunderbolt connections exist, more than one USB 3.0 port is now also commonplace more premium drives even feature expansion slots allowing custom configurations. The abundance of equipment options leaves practically nothing to be desired.
Integration of the NAS server at home
Your NAS server is typically connected to a router via cable to ensure speed of data transfer. For example, if you are planning to stream 1080p films to a television set, the connection should be made via a cable, as conventional WLAN is usually not sufficient for the amount of data or at least leads to dropouts.
Everything that does not necessarily need a cable transmits to the router and ultimately also to the NAS server via WLAN. Examples include tablets, smartphones or notebooks. The WiFi bandwidth is sufficient to move documents back and forth, stream music, watch videos in a lower quality, transfer small amounts of pictures or regularly back up personal data. With a correspondingly good signal quality and through the use of modern 802.11ac routers, you can also try to carry out more demanding tasks - such as the aforementioned 1080p streaming - via WLAN.
As the NAS server is usually either in operation 24 hours a day or at least whenever you want to access it with another device (via Wake on LAN) these can be configured for remote access as well. If your internet connection provides enough upload bandwidth, you can stream series and similar content from your home even when outisde.
Expandability and power consumption
Basically, NAS servers with a number of two or more hard disk slots are geared towards scalability. For example, all modern devices support the various RAID standards : Couple two identical hard drives with each other and increase data security with automatic mirroring of RAID 1 or double the speed of the data carriers with RAID 0 - the choice is yours. Of course, you can also use all hard drives individually and without a RAID array .
By the way, power consumption can play a role that should not be underestimated. If you plan to operate the NAS server permanently, it is best to find out more about:
- Energy-saving models. You might not need a high-end business device if you're going to use it mainly at home
- Suitable hard drives that are designed for continuous operation also consume little power
The DIY NAS server
You don't necessarily have to buy a NAS server from QNAP, Western Digital, Synology or the other big names in this industry. Advanced users who love a little tinkering with computers can also build a NAS server from common PC components and free operating systems such as FreeNAS and NAS4Free. The Raspberry Pi4 also makes an excellent NAS drive alternative with its fast USB ports
Obviously, this is a significantly higher effort than buying the switch-on-and-go solutions from the providers mentioned. You will also spend considerably more time configuring the devices. But this is a very inexpensive solution - maybe you have older computer parts that you can use for a NAS server for other purposes - and you have the design of the software completely in your own hands. This solution is not recommended for beginners.