Network-Attached Storage (NAS) Explained in Depth

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Hello friend! As a fellow data geek, I‘m excited to dive deep into the world of network-attached storage (NAS). In today‘s data-driven business environment, every organization needs secure, performant and centralized access to their data. NAS solutions deliver precisely that.

In this guide, we‘ll uncover everything you need to know about NAS – from its components and capabilities to selecting the optimal system for your needs. Let‘s get started!

What is Network-Attached Storage (NAS)?

NAS is dedicated file storage that connects directly to your local area network (LAN). It operates as an independent device with its own IP address, providing centralized data access for all devices on the network.

Unlike regular computers, NAS has no keyboard, mouse or display. It‘s optimized purely for data storage and retrieval.

Under the hood, NAS contains hard drives like HDDs and SSDs along with a processor, memory and network interfaces. The NAS operating system manages the data storage, file system and network connectivity.

For businesses, NAS offers:

  • Centralized backups, archives and file sharing
  • Storage for virtual machines and databases
  • Media libraries for video, photos, and music

Compared to standalone external drives, NAS enables centralized management, scaling, and data protection. It‘s like having your own private, high-capacity cloud storage on-premises!

How Does NAS Work?

NAS directly plugs into your Ethernet LAN and gets assigned its own IP address. Any device on the network can then access files on the NAS over the LAN or WAN.

Clients use networking protocols like SMB, NFS or iSCSI to communicate with the NAS depending on their operating system. For instance, Windows uses SMB while Linux uses NFS.

User and group-level permissions control who can access which NAS folders and files. Advanced capabilities like quotas and snapshots help manage storage consumption and enable quick restores.

Under the covers, a NAS operating system like FreeNAS or Synology DSM runs the show. The OS governs RAID configuration, network connectivity, file sharing protocols, and security controls.

Easy-to-use web and mobile interfaces allow IT generalists to deploy and manage NAS without specialist storage expertise. But powerful controls still provide plenty of tweaking potential for storage gurus!

What Are the Components of a NAS Device?

NAS devices contain a mix of hardware that works in tandem to deliver optimized networked storage:

CPU – Runs the OS and handles storage-related computing like RAID, caching, and transfer management. NAS CPUs emphasize efficiency over raw horsepower.

RAM – 1-8GB for caching metadata and active processes. More RAM enhances performance under load.

Network – Gigabit ethernet provides standard connectivity. 10Gbps or faster recommended for best performance.

Drives – Multiple bays for HDDs and SSDs. RAID protects against drive failure.

Cooling – Quiet fans maintain optimal temperatures in multi-drive arrays.

Expansion – Additional drive bays, eSATA, USB 3.0, and Thunderbolt allow expanding capacity.

PSU – Reliable power delivery is crucial. Redundant PSUs enable maximum uptime.

Motherboard – Purpose-built boards optimized for storage environments.

Key Benefits of Network-Attached Storage

For many organizations, NAS offers compelling advantages over traditional file servers:

Consolidation – Centralized storage vs siloed servers. Reduces storage sprawl.

Shared Access – Entire workforce can access the same files simultaneously. Enables collaboration.

Scalability – Seamlessly add storage by expanding internal capacity or connecting external drives.

Backups – NAS is perfect target for backups of servers, PCs, and mobile data.

Resiliency – RAID withstands drive failures. Clustering, replication and snapshots provide redundancy against disasters.

Affordability – HDD-based NAS very cost effective for large amounts of file storage.

Ease of Use – Simple web UIs allow easy setup and management by IT generalists.

According to IDC, over 21 billion gigabytes of new data will be created annually by 2025. For fast-growing data repositories, NAS delivers consolidated scale-out storage.

How Does NAS Compare to DAS?

Let‘s explore the distinctions between network-attached storage (NAS) and direct-attached storage (DAS):

Network accessible by multiple devices Directly attached to single server
Centralized management Individual devices managed separately
Typically multiple drives with RAID Single drive, no redundancy
Slower performance than local storage Faster performance for demanding apps

NAS facilitates shared storage pools while DAS attaches directly to one computer. NAS simplifies management while DAS offers faster local performance.

And How Does NAS Compare to SAN?

Storage area networks (SANs) represent another enterprise storage architecture:

File-based storage Block-based storage
Ethernet fabric Fibre Channel fabric
Lower cost More expensive
Easier to deploy Complex configuration

NAS excels at unstructured data like files and media. SANs are tailored for structured databases and virtual machine storage. SANs require specialized skills while NAS can be managed by general IT staff.

For bulk file storage, NAS provides the simplicity and affordability most organizations need. But SANs enable shared block storage for high-performance database and VM workloads.

How to Select the Right NAS System

With a dizzying array of NAS systems on the market, it can be tricky to select the right one. Here are key factors I consider:

  • Current storage – How much are you storing now? Project your growth.

  • Network – Match NAS network ports to your infrastructure – 1G, 10G, 40G, 100G.

  • Protocols – Ensure the NAS supports all required protocols – SMB, NFS, iSCSI, FTP, etc.

  • Memory – More RAM handles concurrent transfers and users. I suggest a minimum of 8GB.

  • Drives – For HDD arrays, use at least 3 drives for RAID 5 or 4 drives for RAID 6.

  • RAID level – Select RAID to meet your performance, capacity and redundancy needs. RAID 6 offers a good general-purpose balance.

  • IOPS – Benchmark input/output operations per second. This measures real-world throughput.

  • Scalability – Choose a chassis with empty bays for painless future expansion.

  • File system – I prefer ZFS for robust data integrity checking and protection.

  • Redundancy – Dual PSUs, controllers, and network ports provide failure tolerance.

  • Support – Look for a minimum 3-year warranty and technical support.

Setting Up a New NAS

When unboxing a new NAS, here is a high-level installation checklist:

  1. Mount it – Install the chassis in a rack or place on a shelf with ample ventilation.

  2. Connect power – Use a UPS for battery backup. For redundancy, use separate circuits for dual PSUs.

  3. Connect network – Use at least 1GbE, with 10GbE or faster ideal for performance.

  4. Install drives – Insert HDDs and SSDs into drive trays and slide into the NAS bays.

  5. Configure RAID – Determine the optimal RAID level and create the array using the NAS OS software.

  6. Assign IP address – For simplicity, use DHCP. For remote access, assign a static IP and forward ports.

  7. Access NAS interface – Connect to the NAS from a browser to configure shares, users, quotas, access controls, and more.

  8. Map network shares – Map NAS storage to drive letters on PCs. Set up rsync or robocopy jobs for migrations.

  9. Start using – Begin transferring data onto the NAS. Schedule regular backups.

  10. Monitor health – Keep an eye on drive stats, network traffic, RAID status, and logs.

Common Use Cases for NAS in Business

There are a multitude of ways companies are utilizing NAS storage:

  • File serving – For document management, engineering files, creative assets and more. Replaces disjointed legacy file servers.

  • Backups – Central repository for image-based and incremental backups from servers, PCs, laptops, tablets, and smartphones.

  • Archives – Compliance and retention policies demand long-term archival storage. NAS scales cost-effectively for petabyte archives.

  • Virtualization – Shared storage for VMware, Hyper-V, Proxmox and other hypervisors holding virtual disk images.

  • Databases – SQL Server, MySQL and NoSQL databases leverage NAS for their data files, logs and backups.

  • Media libraries – Centralized storage for photos, videos, music and assets accessed organization-wide.

  • Application data – CRM, ERP, HCM systems use NAS to store app data files and logs.

  • Email – Some NAS integrate with email systems to store tens of terabytes of employee mailboxes.

Leading Vendors of SMB and Enterprise NAS

The NAS industry has a range of solutions spanning from prosumer devices to ultra-high-end enterprise arrays. Here are some top vendors:

QNAP – From SOHO to enterprise, QNAP‘s NAS systems run the QTS ZFS-based OS and have a large app ecosystem.

Synology – The gold standard for intuitive NAS solutions for home, SMBs, and remote offices. Their DSM OS is very polished.

Netgear – Focus on consumer and SMB needs. ReadyNAS OS emphasizes simplified management.

Asustor – Prosumer and SMB focused. Feature-rich ADM OS, with apps for surveillance and multimedia.

TrueNAS – Powerful ZFS-based OS with enterprise features. Open source software.

Dell EMC – Industry leader in ultra-high-end enterprise NAS like PowerVault ME4, Isilon H600, and All-Flash solutions.

Hitachi Vantara – Top-tier enterprise NAS such as Hitachi NAS and Hitachi Content Platform.

HPE – Leading high-end arrays like Proliant, Apollo 4200, and Apollo 4510 for ultimate performance at scale.

There are also specialized NAS vendors like ixSystems for media workflows and StorageCraft for optimized backup targets.

Predicting the Future of NAS Technology

The NAS industry keeps innovating to meet escalating business demands. Here are some emerging technologies set to shape the future of NAS:

  • Higher speed networks – 25Gb, 40Gb, and 100Gb ethernet enable lifting network bottlenecks.

  • Lower latency SSDs – NVMe and PCIe SSDs slash latency for dramatically faster response times.

  • Larger HDDs – 20TB SATA and 40TB+ SAS HDDs drive higher density and lower cost-per-terabyte.

  • Machine learning – AI and predictive analytics will forecast storage needs, detect anomalies, and optimize performance.

  • Multi-cloud support – Seamless built-in backup and sync across AWS, Azure, Google Cloud, and other public storage.

  • Hybrid flash arrays – Auto-tiering dynamically moves active data to flash storage while archiving inactive data to HDDs.

Final Thoughts

In closing, NAS offers a versatile centralized storage architecture for the data-driven business. As organizations amass ever more information, NAS delivers the ease of use, affordability and scalability crucial for data management.

With solutions ranging from home NAS to ultra-high-end enterprise arrays, there‘s an ideal NAS out there for every environment and budget. Carefully considering your performance, capacity, networking and redundancy requirements will help you select the optimal NAS system for your needs.

I hope this guide provided you a helpful NAS overview. Please reach out if you need any help determining the best NAS solution for your data storage and access requirements. I‘m always happy to chat more about Nas technology!


Written by Alexis Kestler

A female web designer and programmer - Now is a 36-year IT professional with over 15 years of experience living in NorCal. I enjoy keeping my feet wet in the world of technology through reading, working, and researching topics that pique my interest.