Small Business Guide to Network Attached Storage

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.

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