Guess I’ll start with a definition for what, exactly, NAS means. For those not particularly tech-savvy, networked-attached storage, or NAS, is a way to have your own personal cloud storage. Of course, that then begs the question of why not go with one of the big cloud storage providers already out there? That’s what we’re going to dig into.
Why you need it and how it works
Do you have a bunch of photos? Most of them stuck on your mobile phone? Or, like in my case, have a ton of documents and photos that were occupying most of my computer hard drive? NAS lets you offload all of that data to a dedicated file server and backs all of those files up.
NAS is attached to your home network, which means that you can access your photos from anywhere on your local network, as well as remotely. Just like the large providers, you can also share files and photos with friends and family, direct from your NAS.
Let’s look at the advantages first. There are most definitely downsides, but I’ve found the benefits of not having somebody else storing and managing my data far outweigh the negatives. But that’s me. It may not be your cup of tea. You judge for yourself.
Yep. No subscriptions. No sneak “gotcha” fees. I say “free” in quotes, though, because there is the upfront cost of the hardware. We’ll hit that in a minute.
Your data is your own
So when I choose to upload a file to Google Drive, OneDrive, or any other cloud server, I’m essentially giving up my personal property to a third party to store and manage. If I want that data gone, its pretty much impossible to make it completely disappear. Even if all my data is “deleted” along with my account, a copy most likely exists somewhere. You have no control over where, and you also have no control over what that third party does with your data.
You also should read the fine print. And there’s a lot of it. In many cases when you upload data to a third-party provider, you are giving that provider some ownership of that data. You cool with that? I’m not.
With your own NAS, should you choose to go Clinton-style and try to wipe out everything, you just have to go to your basement (or wherever you happen to plop your server) and take a hammer to that hard drive. Your data is your own, and it is stored where it belongs, in the privacy of your own home.
All the same features as the big providers, plus more
Don’t want to give up the document collaboration of Google or OneDrive? You don’t have to. Most NAS providers package their own office collaboration suites in the OS. Photo indexing and sharing? Yep, still there. Bonus here, if you have a smart TV in the house, it can usually recognize the NAS as a media server and will serve up all those nice photos. Can’t really do that with a cloud provider. If you really want to get in deep, most NAS boxes allow you to do even more, including web and email hosting.
Most NAS boxes are multi-bay. You’ll need several hard drives because, just like a cloud provider, you want to have redundancy to your data. If one drive fails, you still have a copy on the other drive. More bays = more redundancy and greater storage possibilities.
And a few downsides
Like I said, there are a few downsides. Are they enough to make it not worth it? Possibly, depending on your specific situation. Truthfully, cost is most likely going to be the determining factor.
So “free” does have a cost. Hardware cost. To get up and running you’re going to need the NAS itself. Common off-the-shelf companies that make good NAS boxes for the home user are Synology, Qnap, and Western Digital. In addition to the box, you most likely are also going to need to get the hard drives. Depending on your system you may have a need for 2, 4, or more drives.
Expect to pay $200 and up for the NAS itself, depending on the system. For the most part, your hard drives are most likely going to be the bulk of the cost. As you get bigger…the cost gets higher. You want to get a drive size that will allow you to grow for a while, so plan ahead and do it right the first time. Additionally, you can’t just use regular old hard drives. Look for NAS-specific drives; these are engineered to function in the high-demand environment of a NAS box.
You are the help desk
Got an issue? You’re it as far as IT support. That or a friend that knows their way around networking. Google and Microsoft have products that are pretty much accessible and useable by anyone and everyone. If something goes wrong, you just put in a support ticket. While I myself have not had any major issues (yet) with my NAS, if something does go wrong, I’m going to be the one having to figure out to fix it.
You are going to need to be somewhat comfortable with basic home networking. While you won’t need to know the ins and outs of network infrastructure, you do need to be able to comfortably adjust some router settings.
Your data is your own to keep…and to lose
So, if you really screw up and somehow manage to lose all your hard drives, all your data is gone. And it won’t be coming back. Large cloud providers have multiple redundant servers so that if one, or more, go down your data is still backed up. That being said, a multiple-bay NAS usually stores data in a RAID array, meaning that your data is still backed up. In my case I’ve got a 2-bay NAS. One drive backs the other up, so that if either drive gets corrupted a copy still exists.
Let’s look under the hood
I’ll give you some examples of my Synology NAS and how I’m using it. You don’t have to go with Synology; like I said before many of the major commercial brands have similar applications and functionality.
You’ll interact with the NAS through the web browser. Synology DSM has a clean user interface that most people will find pretty intuitive.
Again, you can access the UI from a mobile device or tablet, but Synology has limited some of the functionality unless you use a full browser.
Photo sharing and storage is the main use of my NAS. I’ve taken and stored over 25,000 photos. At one point I had these backed up from my PC to OneDrive, but it started getting to the point that I was getting limited by both the physical space on my PC as well as the storage limit on OneDrive. Synology Photos is a user-friendly app that organizes my photos in a manner that makes sense and makes sharing easy.
Just like any other cloud provider I can also back my mobile photos up through the Synology Photos app. I’ve got a handful of albums that I share with family, and after any event I’ll load up my photos and share a password-protected album link.
While I still use Office 365 for serious document and spreadsheet creation, I’ve also got a fully functional office collaboration suite on my NAS. Just like Google Docs and Sheets, I can host, share, and edit files with multiple people.
Like Photos, Synology Drive also has a mobile app that syncs all your files from your mobile device. The one downside, and one that I hope is addressed in the future, is that you cannot yet edit documents directly from a mobile device or tablet. You must use a full browser to take advantage of the editing features.
I have dug a little deeper and use the email server. This takes a lot of work to set up and maintain in a secure manner, but it can be done. Once set up correctly, you can create and assign e-mail addresses to anyone that has a user account on the NAS.
Like the other applications, a mobile app is available.
Want to have a private chat channel with only your family or other NAS users? Got that too. And in a mobile app. Synology also allows for encrypted chat.
Plex Media Server
I run a Plex media server on my NAS. Through it I can watch local channels, stream my media library, and DVR live TV. I’ve also ripped in my old DVD and Blu-Ray discs so I can access them anywhere.
With Plex I’ve got all my media in one place and can access it via mobile apps, streaming sticks, and web browsers.
Because you will most likely be accessing your NAS from multiple computers and devices, there are a few simple setup items you need to be aware of.
Set a static local IP
The first is that you need to be able to assign your NAS a static IP address. Without a static IP you won’t be able to reliably access your data.
Deal with your public IP
Second, you’ll need to either set up DDNS (dynamic DNS) or ask your ISP for a static public IP. Now, before you bail out on me, this is actually pretty easy. Synology, for example, uses a built-in service to check if your public IP address changes, and updates the DNS records accordingly.
To put that into something simpler, when you share a file or photo it needs to be accessible from the web. You don’t type 10.0.5.6 into your browser bar; you type something friendly like “somesite.com” to end up on a website. However, the computer sending you to “somesite.com” needs to know the public IP address to get you to the right place. If that address changes, it needs to be updated. Synology, as an example, will assign a “quick connect” ID to your NAS and will dynamically update the IP address when it detects a changed public IP. That way, when you share a file, people you share it with can type “mynas.quickconnect.com/filexyz” and end up in the right place. It’s all handled very simply by the NAS, you just set it up the first time.
Secure your NAS
Make sure you have secured both your home network and your NAS. NAS boxes are good targets for hackers since they usually contain large repositories of data and can be easily exploited for ransomware. Change the default password on your router and create a strong password on your NAS. If available, set up 2-factor authentication.
Make sense? I’ve never been one to outsource something if I can do it myself. Storing my data is no different. Plus, if for some strange reason the Internet broke tomorrow, I’ve still got all my photos. Got questions? Drop a comment or shoot us an email.
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