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The how and why of network attached storage

Network attached storage is exactly what the name says it is – a means of storing data that’s on your local network where it’s available to everyone. But that is just the beginning of the story...

For many small businesses, the biggest drawback to having a network server is that you have to manage it. Even if you don't need an actual IT person, you still need to have an employee or a consultant who can make sure it's set up, that the server software is updated, that users are added and removed, that backups happen, and that other periodic tasks are taken care of. The advantages of file sharing and data storage have to be balanced against the care and feeding of a server.

But suppose you didn't need to do those chores? Suppose all you needed to do is take the server out of the box, plug in the power and data cables, turn it on, and voila, you have a central storage server? 

A small business network attached storage (NAS) server is almost that easy.

What's NAS?

Network attached storage is a dedicated server that's intended to do one thing – store files. Depending on the type of NAS device you buy, the process of adding it to your company network can be nearly as simple as described above. But there are a lot of different types of NAS devices and various levels of sophistication. 

A NAS server is basically a box that contains disk drives, a computer with software dedicated to storage management, and a network interface. There is no keyboard or monitor, and any management takes place remotely. These devices usually have their own web page for management, so once it's connected and turned on, just go to a workstation on the network and browse for the management page. (The instructions that came with the NAS device will tell you how to reach it.)

Using your NAS

Your first task when setting up the NAS device will be to give it a name so your employees can find it, and then to add an admin username and password. At this point, some NAS devices may ask you how you want to configure your storage, and you'll be given a choice of RAID 0, 1, or 5. For business use, you'll want to choose RAID 5 (or in some models, 6), which can recover from a hard disk failure. 

While you're waiting for the NAS device to finish setup, you'll need to compile a list of employees who will be using the server. Depending on the type of NAS, you may simply send each one an email with login instructions, or you may create a list of users on the NAS and let each one know their login credentials. 

Most NAS devices will create a common storage area, and many will also create storage areas for each user. Once that's done, your NAS is ready to use. But there are some additional tasks you will want to consider. 

First, there's off-site cloud backup. Your employees may save important files to the NAS server, but that only moves them to a different computer in the same office. Cloud backup will add an important layer of safety, and nearly all NAS devices support it.

Second, you have to consider placing space limits for users on your NAS. You can do this with the NAS management software that's on the server. The reason is pretty obvious; if you have a company of 50 employees and a server with 32 terabytes of storage, you can see that each employee will get about a half a terabyte for their personal storage. That's probably less space than what's on their laptop.

Third, give serious consideration to how you plan to let your employees use your NAS as a backup location. Some NAS devices include client backup software, which is good, but you need to make sure it's configured to only backup essential data files, such as their daily work products. Don't allow personal photos or media files to clutter your NAS. 

Finally, make sure that there's more than one administrator. The last thing you want is to be on vacation, fielding calls about adding users to the NAS.

Choosing a NAS

Network attached storage comes in sizes to support everything from home users to large enterprises. While a device intended for home use might be attractive because of its low price and easy setup, it may not provide the level of data protection you need for your business. Instead, take a look at the offerings in the Dell store, which include NAS devices from Western Digital, Buffalo, and Dell itself. 

The WD My Cloud NAS server has 32 terabytes of storage, and it's about as close to plug-and-play as you can get in a small business server. It'll encrypt your data, perform off-site backup, and it has software to automate your client backups, as well. 

The Buffalo TeraStation 5810DN NAS server also has 32 terabytes of storage, but it can be configured as storage for your employee's computers and also for your existing servers. Buffalo has included a number of useful security features, and it supports 10 Gigabit Ethernet for better performance. 

The Dell PowerVault NX440 NAS appliance is the heavy hitter in this list. It's a highly configurable, rack-mount NAS device with a wide range of storage and network options. You'll need an IT expert to set up and manage this NAS device, but it's very robust, and Dell Technologies can help with configuration and installation. Note that, just because it's designed for rack mounting doesn't mean you have to use it that way. In fact, the mounting rails are optional – so you can just set it on a table.

What makes these NAS devices attractive is that they are essentially appliances that you can mostly set up and let run. They don't require day-to-day management, and as long as you set up the server with an email address for alerting you to problems, you can mostly forget they're there. 

For your users, the NAS devices will look like another disk drive or a server they can find with Windows Explorer. There's no real learning curve for users or admins, so if your business is expanding, consider a NAS device for centralized storage.