How to choose network attached storage

Features James Hunt Jan 7, 2013

Network-attached storage allows you to expand your file-sharing capabilities, but what are the best NAS devices around?

The general move towards solid-state storage in home computing devices (whether they’re laptops, smartphones or tablets) means that after years of being dirt cheap, storage space is once again priced at something of a premium. Increasing the space in a phone or tablet from a meagre 16GB to a marginally less meagre 64GB can cause the price to double - a galling prospect when a 2TB mechanical hard drive can be picked up for around £100.

Worse still, the increasing resolution and quality of commercial media means that the entertainment we actually use our computers to view takes up more space than ever. The experience is universal: devices becoming full and media being deleted and re-downloaded.

Network-attached storage (NAS), however, can offer you an alternative to the cycle of frustration. NAS devices attach to a network, acting as a stand-alone file server. They give you a place to store large files and run the software you need to stream those files direct to your PC or smart device on demand. In some cases, you can even do so over the internet, meaning you don’t even have to be in the same country to gain access to your beloved files.

Cross-compatibility means NAS devices can allow easy access to data regardless of device manufacturer or operating system make (something you’ll appreciate if you’ve ever tried to share files between a Mac and PC, or Windows and Linux). They require very little technical knowledge to set up, and they’re cheaper, quieter and smaller than dedicated file server systems.

Admittedly, there are disadvantages to using network-attached storage instead of local storage - an increase in network traffic, the potential speed limitations of certain types of wireless networks and a greater expense to run - but in general, the benefits outweigh the problems. If you’ve never looked into buying a NAS device, we have the details here to help you pick the right one.

How much should you spend?

If you have a spare hard drive hanging around, then good news - you can get a NAS device up and running for as little as £35. All you have to do is buy a drive-free NAS bay. These contain the software and most of the hardware you need to run a NAS device, but are vastly cheaper because they contain no actual storage. If you can provide the remaining component of a hard drive, it’s undoubtedly the least expensive way to get a NAS up and running.

Don’t spend much more than £45, though. High end NAS bays contain space for multiple hard drives and additional hardware (such as memory modules to improve their caching capabilities), but these are designed for business use and are far more sophisticated than a home user would need.

For a home NAS device with a 1TB hard drive, you should currently expect to pay around £90. Any more than £120 is pushing it; the features at this level don’t really justify the extra cost and you’d be better off spending your money on buying one with a larger hard drive. After all, 1TB isn’t actually that big, relative to the 6TB monsters at the other end of the market. Also, remember that 1TB is only a lot of space when one person is using it. It probably won’t take more than a few networked users to fill 1TB of storage, especially if you’re centralising things like music and videos!

That said, even the most expensive home NAS devices clock in at around £400, we’d actually advise you to stick as close to the bottom end of the market as possible. While 1TB devices cost less than £100, most 2TB devices are clustered around the £200 mark, made more expensive by their dual-bay technology. In some cases, it’s actually cheaper to buy two 1TB devices than a single 2TB device. If you’re looking for 2TB or more for home use, try not to spend more than £180.

What make/model/manufacturer should you look for?

There are many NAS brands around, some of them closely associated with network technology, but most of them are still targeting their products at the corporate and enterprise market only. Home users can stay confident by sticking to one of the two major brands: Buffalo and Western Digital. Anyone else is probably making business hardware.

The biggest exception to that rule concerns those looking for empty NAS bays aimed at the home market. The best manufacturer of these devices is ZyXEL. Its NSA310 is a cheap, single-bay drive housing that can contain hard drives of up to 3TB, and is available for under £40. Its older brother, the ZyXEL NSA325, has two drive bays and costs closer to £80. Both are USB 3.0 compatible and certainly worth a look if you want to take control of your own setup on the hardware level.

If you’re hoping to buy one with a drive included, the Buffalo Linkstation Live (1TB) is a good entry-level choice, costing only £80. For £40 more you can get a Linkstation Pro (1TB), which has four times the cache and offers twice the transfer speeds. At higher capacities, the WD My Book Live contains one 3TB drive and costs only £165 - far better value than almost any other home NAS device can offer - but it also suffers from poor customer feedback.

While it’s tough to ignore the excellent value it offers, we strongly recommend doing your research before spending any money on one in case you’re ill-equipped to survive hardware failures or iron out configuration problems.
Ultimately, though, if we had to recommend one, the Buffalo LinkStation Pro 3TB version may have an RRP of £322, but shop around and you’ll be able to pick it up for £200 or less. It’s almost as cheap as a 3TB My Book, but with substantially better performance. Admittedly, it’s expensive, but if you find money a secondary concern to value, it’s definitely the one to go for.

What technology should you look for? 

NAS devices contain a variety of technologies, none of which should be especially unfamiliar to any computer user. Look for Ethernet support (especially gigabit Ethernet) and on some models, w-fi (although for reasons explained further on, don’t worry too much about that.) Software-wise, you may want to check for iTunes compatibility, a UPnP media server (a standard protocol for media streaming to devices and applications) and some ability to stream over the web too.

You may also be interested in extra online features. Some NAS devices come with free online cloud storage, which will automatically back up your data when your Internet connection is idle. Indeed, you can get as much as 25GB of online storage ‘free’ with some NAS devices, although they do tend to be priced more highly to cover such an expense.

In high-capacity models, look to see whether you’re buying a single-bay device or a dual-bay device. A 2TB NAS can contain either one 2TB drive or two 1TB drives. The former is likely to be cheaper, but the latter gives you better data integrity (backups can be kept on separate physical drives or duplicated) as well as the potential to run disks as a RAID array, which will give better speeds if multiple users are accessing the data together.

It’s up to you which you favour, but we’d guide home customers with one or two users towards the cheaper, single-drive solution, and larger networks towards a multi-bay setup.

Finally, if you see hardware specs for things like cache and CPU, don’t get confused - NAS devices have their own internal controllers and processors (much like a router), so in that sense, the processor speed lets you know how well that software performs. Similarly, the cache tells you how well disk speeds can be maintained, because more cache means better performance.

Don’t get too hung up on paying extra for the hardware alone, though. You’re unlikely to notice a huge leap between the low- and high-end processors or cache levels in a home environment. They’re only likely to have tangible effects if you have a lot of simultaneous users.

Is now the right time to buy?

NAS devices are still in their infancy, at least as far as home iterations of the technology are concerned. To be frank, they’re still more expensive than they should be. Buying a bay and drive separately means you can save almost £100, so it’s not sustainable in the long term for the already-assembled devices to cost as much as they do. Similarly, the price of storage is plummeting, and in a year or two, 1TB mechanical hard drives are going to look almost quaint. By then, faster, more reliable and more ecological SSD drives of similar capacity won’t be much more expensive.

The upshot is that if you’re waiting for the ‘right’ time to buy a NAS device, it’s not going to come for a year or two yet. But if you want to buy one now, it makes sense not to spend too much on one. Even if you buy a cheap 1TB device, by the time you’ve reached the limits of what it can offer, the trend of lowering prices will make it cheaper overall to buy a 1TB device now and a 2TB later than to buy a single 2TB one now.

Again, though, this brings us back to the same point we’ve been making a lot in this article: buy an empty bay and fill it yourself. You’ll save a lot of money, it’ll be easier to upgrade in the future, and you’ll get some reuse out of the hardware. As long as you make sure it contains sufficiently fast SATA 6Gbps and USB 3.0 connectors, the bay will remain useful far longer than a 1TB NAS alone will.

What are the technical constraints?

NAS devices need three things: power, space and a network to connect to. Power and space are easy to account for, but more crucially, NAS devices need a network available before you buy them. Usually, this just means a router that you can connect the device to using either a USB or Ethernet connection, but high-end examples may give you the option to use wireless. We’d advise against that, though, unless you’re running a rock-solid network with consistent speeds. Wireless communication can be a serious bottleneck to access and transfer speeds, especially if the signal is weak or interfered with.

A NAS device itself does have technical limitations that ‘local’ storage doesn’t too. For example, a single hard drive is fast enough when used by one person, but remember that network storage can be accessed by two, three, or even more people simultaneously. This is why more expensive setups duplicate the contents in a RAID array; it avoids the problem of drives slowing down when trying to serve multiple users, because the same data can be served from different physical drives keeping speeds high.

In general, home setups don’t need a RAID-capable NAS, but if you’re a small business or office, you may want to make use of it just to lower waiting times and prevent performance issues.

What’s the alternative?

Network-attached storage has its faults. It’s expensive and hard to maintain or upgrade. If something goes wrong, your only option is to replace it - often at great expense.

An alternative to buying a NAS device is to buy a router, which has the ability to connect to standard, external storage. Attaching a storage device effectively turns the router itself into its own NAS device. Such routers are more versatile than dedicated NAS devices, and usually connect to storage over USB, meaning that you can plug in a powered external hard drive as normal or avoid using up another electrical socket by using the USB port’s internal power supply to support a USB or solid-state drive. Keep in mind that these storage devices are much easier to swap out if you want to attach or share different ones at different times, and are also cheaper to replace if they break or fail.

Another alternative is to go the opposite route entirely and aim for even greater integration. It’s possible to buy routers that have network-attached storage built into them, such as the Western Digital My Net - a wireless router with 2TB of the company’s own storage technology (based on the ‘My Book’ series) built-in. Good for saving space and undeniably simpler than adding an extra device to your network but also a lot more vulnerable to data loss if something goes wrong.

There are also the more low-tech alternatives: you could add more hard drives into an existing networked PC and share them over the network. However, in our opinion, doing that misses what makes NAS storage desirable in the first place - that you can access it at any time, without the need for a specific device to be active on the network. If you have a spare system lying around, you could turn it into a dedicated file server, although it’d be significantly more bulky (and more expensive to run!) than a dedicated NAS device.