Home-Office Network NAS: Buy vs. Build?

When you want to make storage available on a home-office network, two options usually come to mind. One is to simply set up shared folders on any PC, which is quick and doesn’t cost anything but isn’t centralized.

For centralized storage that isn’t dependent on a single PC, a network-attached storage (NAS) box is a far better option. But buying ready-made NAS isn’t the only way to get network storage. Here are some other options that may in some cases save money or provide more storage flexibility.

Buy a Network Drive Enclosure

One alternative to buying a ready-to-use NAS box is buying a network storage enclosure, which is essentially a NAS device to which you add your own internal hard drives (usually one or two, although some products support up to four).

Most network storage enclosures are priced between $100 and $200, and they can be a good option if you’ve already got hard drives lying around (perhaps left over from system upgrades). Even if you don’t have any loose drives, a network storage enclosure may still be a viable option, since internal drives can be bought relatively inexpensively. Although putting together your own NAS box may not save you any money up front compared to buying one, it may give you better potential to increase your storage capacity down the road since many NAS drives (especially less-expensive ones) aren’t designed for easy upgrading.

Network drive enclosures are available from many of the same vendors that make other kinds of home network equipment, like D-Link, Linksys, and Netgear.

Before buying a network drive enclosure, make sure it accommodates the kind of drives you have (or plan to buy), because although most use current SATA drives, some are designed to work only with older IDE/PATA-type drives.

Get a Router with Storage Support

These days, more wireless routers are coming equipped with USB ports that let you plug in an external hard drive. This not only gives you instant network storage, but it also does so without using up an Ethernet port that a NAS device (bought or built) would require. D-Link offers this capability, which it calls SharePort.

Buying a new router may not necessarily be the most economical route, but if you’re in the market for a new router anyway — maybe you’re planning to upgrade to 802.11n — it is an option worth considering, especially if you already have an external hard drive connected to a PC. (Keep in mind, however, that routers with storage capability tend to be a bit pricier than those without.)

A potential downside to this approach is that most routers that support external storage provide only a single USB port. Being able to use only one drive constrains both capacity and redundancy since at least two drives are required for RAID. You can get around this limitation, however, by using a USB storage device that contains multiple drives.

Repurpose an Old PC

If you’ve got an old unused PC available, you can make it useful again by putting it into service as network storage with open source software called FreeNAS, which as you may have surmised from the name, is free.

FreeNAS takes some work to get up and running, but one of the nice things about it is that you don’t actually have to install the software on the PC. Instead, you can run it directly from a boot CD and store its configuration information on a floppy disk or USB Flash drive.

On the downside, although it can be a real money-saver, a PC running FreeNAS probably will not be as compact or as quiet as a purpose-built NAS device (something to keep in mind if you need to leave it out in the open). Also, a desktop PC tends to consume more power than a store-bought NAS, which will likely make the cost of running it a little higher.

Depending on your situation and budget, one of these options for assembling or creating your own network storage may be a better option than buying a NAS device.

Adapted from PracticallyNetworked.com, part of the EarthWeb.com Network.

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