Network Attached Storage: A Primer for SMB Owners

You may have heard the term NAS, or Network Attached Storage, but if you aren’t entirely clear on what NAS is, how it works and most importantly, how it can benefit your small business, you’ve come to the right place.

Data is the lifeblood of firms large and small, and how effectively a business manages its data can have a lot to do with an organization’s success. Virtually every business that stores data needs to share it too, and this is where NAS comes in. In a nutshell, NAS offers small businesses a convenient, flexible and cost-effective way to store and share important data. 

Many small firms tend to organize their files in a haphazard and ad-hoc way, often keeping them strewn across the computers of individual employees. This makes it quite complicated to keep track of what files you have, control access to them, or even add more storage, especially as a company changes and grows.

The Basics

By contrast, NAS devices are designed to simplify the way you store, organize and access your files. In fact, NAS devices are often referred to as “storage appliances” because like a toaster, getting one up and running often involves little more than plugging it in and turning it on. Tweaking a NAS device to the specific needs of a business does take a bit more effort, but NAS devices are still relatively easy to configure even for people without a lot of technical know-how.

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As the name indicates, NAS devices connect directly to a computer network, rather than to an individual PC. Therefore, the files they contain can be made available to anyone on the network that needs them. Unlike a PC, NAS devices don’t use monitors or keyboards. Instead, you configure a NAS device using a Web browser such as Internet Explorer. From there you can do things like set up folders for employees to store files in, as well as create user names and passwords to control who is allowed to have access to those files.

Configurations and Capacities

NAS devices can be an option for any size business because they come in a variety of sizes, prices and storage capacities. Depending on the features and amount of storage provided, the cost of a NAS device can be quite inexpensive–as little as $200–or as much as several thousand dollars. Although some NAS devices can be physically large, models designed for small businesses can be easily tucked away almost anywhere. Most are smaller than an average PC and many take up barely more space than a hardcover novel.

Like most PCs, entry-level NAS devices often contain only a single hard drive, but models with multiple hard drives—usually two or four—are quite common. Having a NAS device with more than one hard drive offers several benefits, not the least of which is increased storage capacity.

Single-drive NAS devices are typically limited to no more than 500 or 750 GB of space, which is still two to four times that of a typical business PC. By contrast, NAS devices with multiple drives can easily offer storage measured in terabytes (TB). (1TB = 1,000 GB). For some perspective, a NAS device with 2 TB of capacity can be had for around $1,000—about the price of a well-equipped PC with monitor.

Performance and Reliability

A NAS with multiple hard drives also provides better data security and performance. NAS devices with at least two hard drives can be configured to protect your data by making an extra copy of every file you save (though this reduces the amount of available storage). NAS devices with several hard drives can also be set up to use multiple drives at the same time, which makes for quicker access to files.

An important thing to remember about NAS devices is that they don’t offer the same level of performance as a hard drive that’s connected directly to a PC. This is true no matter how many hard drives a NAS device has or how it is configured, and it’s because 1) a network link is inherently slower than a PC’s internal connection, and 2) unlike a PC’s hard drive, a NAS device is often being used by lots of people at the same time.

Practically speaking, however, this performance difference just means that loading and saving files takes a few more seconds (or perhaps minutes, in the case of very large files) on a NAS device than it would on a PC. In most situations, a NAS device delivers good performance for small businesses.

With relatively low cost and ease of setup, NAS can be a good option for organizations with tight budgets and/or limited IT expertise. Whether you need room to store more files or want to consolidate the ones you already have, NAS devices can serve a variety of small business storage needs. 

Joe Moran spent six years as an editor and analyst with Ziff-Davis Publishing and several more as a freelance product reviewer. He’s also worked in technology public relations and as a corporate IT manager, and he’s currently principal of Neighborhood Techs, a technology service firm in Naples, Fla. He holds several industry certifications, including Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer (MCSE) and Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA).

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