NAS stands for Network Attached Storage. Basically, it’s a way to connect a hard drive to your network and make it available to all your devices for centralized file sharing and backup.
You can also use the NAS to access your files over the Internet by using it as a remote file server that you can access from anywhere.
Dedicated NAS devices
The most obvious — though not necessarily the best — way to get a NAS is to simply buy a ready-made, ready-to-use NAS device. Go to a website like Amazon and search for «NAS» and you’ll find plenty of devices sold as home file or media servers. Basically, these devices have built-in hard drives and some basic server software that can connect to your Wi-Fi or wired network and provide a NAS file server. These are all-in-one solutions so you can just pick up the box, plug it in and start using it.
As a rule, such devices can be managed through a web interface, such as a router. You can then access files using various applications and even run different bits of software on the NAS itself, such as media server solutions for media streaming and BitTorrent clients to download directly to the device. Many types of backup software can back up directly to network storage.
Routers with built-in hard drives
Instead of buying a dedicated NAS device and connecting it to all your other devices, you can buy better Wi-Fi routers with built-in hard drives. These devices function like a typical network router, but they also have all that fancy NAS server software and a built-in hard drive so you can get a NAS without adding another device to your household.
For Apple users, the Apple AirPort Time Capsule is a wireless router with built-in network storage that Mac computers can easily back up and use to share files over the network. This may be the most well-known type of router with a built-in hard drive, but there are many similar routers available for those not interested in Apple products, too.
Editor’s note: at the How-To Geek office, we use (and recommend) a 3TB AirPort Time Capsule to back up our Macs, and 802.11ac Wi-Fi access is quickly spreading everywhere. It’s also compatible with Windows, although you’ll need to download the Airport Utility Software to manage it or access your hard drive. Because the hard drive is internal, you don’t have to deal with the slow USB 2.0 speeds that you might experience when connecting an external drive to another router.
Of course, if you’re happy with your existing router, you don’t need to pick up a brand new one. But upgrading might be a smart idea if your router is older and doesn’t support the latest Wi-Fi standards and their faster speeds and less Wi-Fi interference.
Routers with USB ports
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Many routers don’t include built-in hard drives, but they offer something almost as good. Many routers, especially the more expensive ones, have USB ports. Plug an external hard drive or even a USB flash drive (preferably not a flash drive if you’re going to be using it a lot) into the USB port. The router has built-in NAS software that can do the rest by exposing it to the network as a NAS. You can enable the NAS server from your router’s web interface and set everything up.
For Apple users, the standard AirPort Extreme wireless router works this way by offering a USB port that you can connect external drives to. Many, many routers — especially high-end ones, as low-end, low-end routers don’t want to spend money on USB hardware and extra software — include USB ports so they can function as a NAS in this way.
This is often a pretty good option, although it can be a little slow if you’re using USB 2.0 drives — especially when compared to internal drives. However, you can get much faster speeds if you use an external USB 3.0 drive along with a router with a USB 3.0 port. External hard drives can get much more speed improvement from USB 3.0 than regular USB drives.
Network Drive Enclosures
Instead of buying a ready-made NAS or trying to use your router as a NAS, you can always buy a network drive for a floppy drive. These are dedicated NAS devices with the appropriate server software designed to connect to the network. They usually don’t come with built-in drives. You will need to purchase the appropriate hard drive (or multiple hard drives) separately and plug them into the NAS to get the storage you’ll need.
They can be cheaper if you can get a good deal on hard drives. Or, if you already have old internal hard drives, you can easily turn them into NAS storage without spending too much. But they are especially handy if you want to put more than one hard drive into the NAS and get a lot more storage.
Old PCs, Redistributed
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Why buy a new device when you can repurpose some old hardware you have? Well, there are certainly some reasons to leave your old PC in the closet — a modern NAS device will use much less power and be quieter and smaller than that old Pentium 4 you have in the closet.
But if you want to repurpose the old hardware you have, you can use a software solution like the popular FreeNAS to turn an old computer into a home file server. This option isn’t for everyone — it’s not even for most people — but it’s a How-To Geek, and it’s an interesting option for geeks. Heck, you could even turn an old laptop (like this old netbook sitting in a drawer) into a home NAS if you really wanted to!
NAS devices built from scratch
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Better yet, you can even build your own NAS if you want to do something weird. We’ve covered how to turn a low power Raspberry Pi into a dedicated NAS for your home network. It’s a bit like turning an all-in-one PC into a NAS, but it’s a better option because it’s smaller, quieter, and uses far less power. Raspberry Pi devices are also pretty cheap, so this might be a good option if you want a small project to get down to business. You will need to provide storage, of course. But you will save money on electricity compared to your old PC!
Not everyone needs a home NAS. If you don’t need a centralized home file folder or backup storage, you don’t need to buy a bunch of hardware.
If you go this route, make sure you always have backups of your important data so you don’t lose it if your NAS catches fire.
Image credit: Glenn Batuong on Flickr, Andrew Kerry on Flickr, Martin Werle on Flickr, Ivan PK on Flickr, Vernon Chan on Flickr