When you have a lot of stuff to back up, nothing tops a good NAS. What is a NAS? It means “Network Attached Storage”. It means instead of plugging in an external hard drive via USB, you only need to be connected to a network. Ostensibly, the same network that connects you to the internet. Which also means that you don’t have to remember to plug anything in to perform backups.
A NAS can have a single hard drive or even dozens in some commercial cases. It all depends on what features and performance you need.
So what kinds of things can a NAS do?
Backups and Archiving
Obviously a NAS is great for backups. We’ve all heard the horror stories. Years of business records lost. Photos of children’s first steps gone forever. A NAS backup is the first line of defence against these outcomes.
Some backup services like Apple’s Time Machine are extremely easy to use, but they have many limitations. For example, Time Machine will automatically back up the whole computer, and take a snapshot every hour afterwards until the backup device is completely filled, then it will delete the oldest backups to make room for the newer. But what if you share that drive with other people? Or what if you want to use it for other things. Things other than backups? Well, some of the more advanced NAS devices have a solution for that, called Quotas, that enable you to limit the amount of space that a user can store in a given location. You can set a limit for each user so that their individual backups don’t overrun the system.
Sometimes it’s not a backup you need, but rather a place to move things for later retrieval. For example when maintaining your email inbox, you might archive the oldest emails and need to put them somewhere safe in case you need them. This has the added benefit of removing the clutter from your every-day computers.
If you have a larger network and need a central place to store files, a NAS is great for that too. Especially for SOHO business networks that don’t require the full feature set of a server, or who wish to avoid the expensive licensing costs.
The benefit of having a central file server is to eliminate the need for the old “sneakernet“. It allows you to share information quickly, collaborate with teams and create more efficient workflows. The file server is the backbone of most modern offices.
Storage Area Network
Some NAS devices can act as a Storage Area Network or SAN. This makes it behave as a functional hard drive for several separate servers, accessible over fast networks. This is especially true when leveraging virtualization in higher-end networks. It means that the servers themselves can be swapped out easily when they fail, and the virtualized server (stored on the SAN) can simply be powered on from any other connected virtualization server. But chances are, if you know what virtualization is, you are already familiar with both NAS and SAN devices.
While some NAS devices are designed to be extremely simple to use and manage, others allow a greater freedom of choices. For example many modern NAS boxes can act as a Media Server. This can scream video, audio or even photos to set top boxes like the AppleTV, the Roku, or a custom Kodi HTPC.
Whole-house audio used to be an expensive proposition. Using a NAS can be the silver bullet that makes this possible.
If you are a web developer, having a local server to develop on (other than your local computer) can be immensely helpful in creating a controlled environment to test from. A Synology NAS can easily fill this role, complete with PHP/MYSQL, Java, Ruby, Tomcat, Python, and Perl.
Believe it or not, a NAS can also act as a VoIP PBX (Private Branch eXchange). Ever wonder how businesses have multiple phones but a single phone number? A PBX is how. Historically PBX devices have been prohibitively expensive to purchase and maintain. But technology has come a long way and it is possible to deploy your own, complete with voicemail, call display, and “Music On Hold” options among many others. See Free and Open Source projects like Asterisk or FreePBX for more info.
So really, a NAS can be anything from a simple data storage solution to a full-featured server — one that fits right in at home, in the home office, or even in the enterprise.
Check out our Synology page for more details on their award-winning NAS devices.