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How to Choose Network-Attached Storage for Your Business

Network-attached storage (NAS) can make your business easier to run and more efficient in multiple ways.

NAS boxes started out as simple ethernet-connected file servers for workgroup storage and backup on a local network. The aim was to lessen the burden on the main server by offloading file duties. NAS appliances remain easy to operate, but their roles and capabilities have expanded immensely.

A major factor in the blossoming of NAS is remote access. Even consumer-grade NAS boxes now allow convenient access to files from the Internet. The better boxes come with dedicated graphical Web interfaces that make remote connection, management, and file access a breeze for any user. In addition, network-attached storage can serve images, music, and video to PCs and digital media adapters.

Vendors such as Synology and QNAP even offer perquisites such as Website serving and camera surveillance. Synology's DiskStation Manager 3.0 has a full, Linux-like, windowed interface within a browser. The dumb black box is indeed a thing of the past, as is the "workgroups only" tagline.

Let's take a look at some scenarios for NAS use, scaled to businesses of various sizes.

Small or Single-Person Office

When most people think of a small-office/home-office (SOHO) situation, they think of a couple of PCs, a multifunction printer or two, and perhaps a wireless, peer-to-peer network. While such a setup is certainly viable, it's far from optimal for sharing and accessing files. Data is scattered about, and accessing it from outside the local network requires a VPN or remote control. Backing up is a chore at best.

A NAS box puts all of the important data in one accessible, easy-to-back-up location and saves energy by allowing you to turn off your PCs. Forgot to bring an important presentation with you? No problem: Just log in to the NAS box and grab it.

Conversely, you can back up anything you're working on off-site by logging in and uploading the files to the NAS box, which will automatically back them up with the rest of the data. Most NAS boxes provide onboard backup utilities and USB ports for attaching drives.

If you value the sharing and access more than the storage, consider a hybrid device such as PogoPlug Biz that uses local USB storage you may already own and provides an online portal. The unit can also mirror itself to another PogoPlug Biz anywhere in the world. (Without that feature, I wouldn't recommend it for business use, as it offers no storage redundancy locally.)

Wide-Area Workgroup

If you collaborate with coworkers in far-flung locations, you'll find that a NAS box's easy wide-area connectivity makes it a great way to consolidate and centralize your efforts. Something along the lines of the Synology DS209+ is a good choice here. Like any other administered network-storage resource, your NAS will permit users to access only the contents you approve. You may create private and shared folders, and most NAS boxes let you allocate space to users and folders as you wish.

Suppose that you have three programmers working on one project and two others collaborating on another, and suppose that each programmer is working on a solo project as well. They're all located in different countries, and you want to be able to inspect and combine their code each night.

To handle this work arrangement, simply create folders for each project, give the programmers access to particular folders as needed, and give yourself access to all of the folders. The programmers may log on via FTP, HTTP, SFTP, HTTPS, or WebDAV (whichever is appropriate and supported) and upload their day's efforts to the appropriate folders.

No static IP or domain? No problem. Sign up with a service such as DynDNS.org, create a proxy domain, and point it to your NAS box. Most NAS boxes will periodically contact the DNS service to keep the account alive, without requiring your intervention.

To Protect and Serve

Many smaller businesses use their main server for storing shared databases, but employing a full server for this task is massive overkill and imposes high initial and ongoing costs. Even if you already have a server, you can introduce a NAS box to take over the database serving so that the main server can concentrate on handling DHCP, maintaining the domain and users, serving applications, and dealing with other small-business network tasks.

A NAS box is perfect for housing practically any database your business relies on. It's self-sufficient, it's redundant, and it doesn't spend a lot of time doing other things. There are some potential pitfalls, however. Some programs, such as older versions of ACT, insist that their database reside on a local PC. Newer versions of QuickBooks require that you install a traffic cop program when multiple users are involved. You may still employ a NAS box for these programs, but you'll need one that uses Windows Home Server for its operating system, such as the HP MediaSmart EX495. Even then, it's hardly dead simple.

Next page: NAS for larger offices, managing lots of media--and buying tips.

The Large Office

For a large office or for multiple small offices, NAS performs well in its fundamental role as a workgroup storage and backup device. Instead of creating a large single node in a server room at the end of a network or broadband pipe, you institute local storage or backup via NAS.

NAS is also ideal for sharing printers via the USB ports that nearly every box has. Some NAS boxes integrate additional peripherals that may be shared over the Internet via the Internet Small Computer System Interface (iSCSI), an IP-based protocol for data transfer. One such NAS product is the LG N2B1DD1, with its Blu-ray writer.

NAS boxes from Synology, QNAP, and others slide seamlessly into your domain, automatically grabbing users from Active Directory and similar technologies for quick setup. Online Amazon S3 backup is now featured on boxes such as the QNAP TS-259 Pro, so you may easily set up off-site backup on top of local backup of the NAS box, to USB drives or across the network.

Part of the appeal of NAS is its simplicity, but serving applications from a NAS box is no walk in the park. It is doable, however, depending on the type of access the box provides. Obviously, to run a Windows app, you'll need a Windows Home Server box, such as the HP MediaSmart EX495. For a Linux app, use a Linux-based box that allows low-level access. For most users, WHS is far easier to set up in the application-serving role, as it introduces the full Windows desktop that people are accustomed to working with when they access the box via Remote Desktop. Beyond that, be prepared for some heavy tweaking.

Hollywood's Got Nothin' on Me

Nearly all NAS boxes are Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) enabled, and many are Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) certified for serving images, music, and video across local-area and wide-area networks. The latest Windows Media Player will detect and stream media from any DLNA or UPnP-capable NAS box on the local network.

The majority of NAS boxes can also serve to iTunes. This is great for a home entertainment network, and it has numerous applications in the office for background music, running infomercials on a TV, making in-house presentations, and so forth.

Some NAS boxes can stream music, video, and images through your Web browser, without any need for additional software. If you are off-site at a meeting and want to show photos of a new plant that a colleague just took and uploaded from the construction site, you can: Just fire up your laptop, browse to the NAS box slideshow application (usually located on a dedicated port at the base address, such as mycompany.dydndns.org:7002), browse to the correct folder, and you're viewing. The Synology Disk Station DS209+ is a good option for media streaming purposes.

Buying Tips

Now that your curiosity is piqued, what should you buy? We've covered most NAS software features, so I'll stick with the basics: redundancy, capacity, and speed.

Don't buy a single-drive NAS box for your business. For a home network that does nothing but stream music and movies, a single-drive model is fine, but a business needs at least a two-drive box for mirroring one drive on the other (RAID 1). This arrangement permits continued access when one drive fails. Notice that I said "when", not "if." Drive failure may be years away, but it will eventually happen.

NAS capacity is simply the size of the drives multiplied by the number of drives on board (normally between two and five), divided by the RAID mode in use. Single-drive capacity currently tops out at 2TB, so you're talking about up to 10TB of storage in a high-end SOHO unit.

Speed comes courtesy of the drives, the CPU speed, and the ethernet connection. Faster drives are better, higher CPU frequencies are better, and nearly all boxes now offer speedy gigabit ethernet.

Better boxes also offer multiple ethernet connections. In some cases, this is simply for failover--the option, assuming different network paths, for a backup connection to carry on if the primary one fails--via Multiple Path I/O, or MPIO.

More-advanced boxes, such as the QNAP TS-259+ Pro mentioned earlier, achieve increased speed via Multiple Connections per Session (MC/S), where both connections are used for data transfer. Keep in mind that the speed and traffic on your local network may be limiting factors, so don't overbuy when it comes to hardware.

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