Network storage lets you centrally store and access your documents and files from all PCs on the network. Windows already provides a simple way to share files (and printers) to the network, but the PC sharing them must be powered on in order to access them. However, because network storage connects directly to the network, the storage device is always accessible.
Network storage can also offer additional features and benefits, such as a central backup location for your PCs, remote VPN access for travelers and telecommuters, and better control over which users can access files.
Types of Network Storage
Before shopping, you should understand the different types of network storage solutions. We'll give you an overview of the basic types, and then provide a few examples of products you might want to consider.
Routers with a USB port
Some wireless routers have a USB port where you can plug in a USB flash or hard drive and then share it on the network and/or Internet (cloud). This is one of the most basic network storage solutions, and it won't offer many features like backup, VPN, or user access control. Additionally, you may have to install a program on each PC from which you want to access the USB drive.
Examples of these types of routers include
- D-Link DIR-657 Wireless N HD Media Router
- Netgear N900 Wireless Dual Band Gigabit Router
- TRENDnet N300 Wireless Home Router
External hard drives with network support
Some external USB drives, which you might find called network hard drives, come with network connectivity built-in. These usually provide advanced sharing features, but unlike network storage enclosures (discussed next), they don't allow you to increase the storage space.
Examples of these types of drives include
Network storage enclosures
You typically buy these empty, and you install your own internal drives inside the enclosure or, if available, plug external drives into a USB port. These provide similar features to network hard drives, but they let you increase storage space and add/remove the drives.
Storage enclosures you could consider include
Small business storage servers provide the most network and storage features and flexibility, but they usually take more time to setup and maintain. You'll find servers dedicated to just network storage, commonly called network attached storage (NAS), and you'll also see other general purpose servers that offer storage options in addition to other features. You can install Most storage servers onto pretty much any PC or server hardware.
Small business storage servers you could consider include
- FreeNAS: a free and open source FreeBSD-based operating system you can install on a PC or server. It includes enterprise-type features and functionality. In addition to network storage, it lets you stream media to computers, gaming consoles, and mobile devices via the UPnP, Apple, and Xbox (with plug-in) protocols.
You can install FreeNAS via a LiveCD on a PC and other architectures. But keep in mind, setting it up and using FreeNAS is best for technically inclined individuals. Once you install FreeNAS, you can remove the monitor, keyboard, and mouse. You can change settings via a Web browser from a PC on the local network.
- Amahi Home Server: a free and open source network server software solution. It provides network storage functionality with disk pooling to help prevent data lost. It also offers backup features, media streaming, a VPN server for remote access, and even calendar and Outlook synchronization.
To use the Amahi Home Server, you must first install the Fedora OS, a Linux distribution, onto your PC or server hardware. Once installed, you run the Amahi installer. Then you can optionally remove the monitor, keyboard and mouse since you can access the setup utility and dashboard via a Web browser from other computers on the network. Although the install might prove difficult for average PC users, once installed it's a bit more user-friendly than FreeNAS.
- Western Digital DX4000 Small Office Storage Server is an off-the-shelf solution with prices ranging from $700 to $1,500 depending upon the capacity you desire: 2, 4, 6 or 8 TB. It comes with Windows Storage Server 2008 R2 Essentials preinstalled, and it offers an administration dashboard to configure users, create shares, schedule backups, setup VPN access, and configure other features. The server also has a LCD screen that displays system status info.
Network Storage Specifications to Consider
No matter which type of network storage solution you choose, here are some features and specifications to consider:
Sharing method: See what ways it allows you to share your files and media, such as via native sharing in Windows (CIFS/SMB) or Mac OS X (AFP), or if it uses proprietary file sharing and requires installing a program to access the network storage. If you'd like to stream media, look for UPnP, DLNA, or iTunes support.
USB version: If you're considering a network storage solution for connecting external USB drives, consider the supported USB version. The higher the version you get (such as the newer USB 3.0), the faster the drive will potentially transfer data.
Capacity: Check if there's any size capacity. Some storage solutions, such as enclosures, only support up to a certain amount of disk space (such as 2TB) for the drives you connect.
Mobile access: If you'd like to access to your files or media from your smartphones or tablets, compare mobile access features. Some storage solutions provide mobile apps.
Bottom Line on Network Storage
We discovered the main network storage solutions. Remember, wireless routers with a USB port are the simplest, offering only basic storage sharing, but they may still be useful in the home or small office.
External hard drives with network support usually offer advanced storage features, but they don't usually let you add more drives. Network storage enclosures are great if you want to easily add/remove drives. And storage servers typically provide the most features and flexibility.
Eric Geier is a freelance tech writer. He's also the founder of NoWiresSecurity, which provides a cloud-based Wi-Fi security service for businesses, and On Spot Techs, which provides on-site computer services.
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