Laptops are far more popular than desktop PCs today, and if you use one at home, chances are you’ve also invested in a Wi-Fi router. Most Internet service providers also provide Wi-Fi in the home these days. You also might have a smartphone, tablet or other device that uses the same Wi-Fi connection. What this means is that you have created a home network, with many of the same capabilities of large office networks, just on a smaller scale.
Things get interesting when you connect even more of your devices to the home network. TVs, game consoles, media players and various appliances can communicate with each other and share media. Even better, you could choose to add a network-attached storage (NAS) device, which is basically a simple file server. This opens up many possibilities from sharing digital media, backing up your computers and devices, and centralizing storage.
Your router connects all the wired and wireless devices to the Internet as well as each other.
Why get an NAS?
Once your various devices are part of a home network (via Wi-Fi or wired connections), you can stream audio, video and photo files from your PC or laptop, essentially turning it into a server. The downside is that this involves a bit of configuration, requires the computer to be on and available, and could disturb anyone else who wants to use it at the same time. Network-attached storage solves the problem by centralizing all server duties and offloading them from your computer. If you use a PC, you don’t have to leave it on all the time. If you travel with a laptop, you don’t need to unpack it each time you want to watch a movie. You’ll clear up a lot of space on your hard drive, and NAS devices generally use hard drives rated for server-class operation, so they can stay running all the time and are more reliable. Multiple family members can access content stored on the NAS (depending on the permissions you set), so you don’t have to hand over your PC or fumble with pen drives for each little file. A computer crash won’t necessarily result in data loss, though the NAS itself would still be prone to a certain degree of failure.
There are several options for creating a pool of shared storage. On the cheaper side, you can plug any USB hard drive into a router with a USB port, which will by default make its contents available to every other device on the network. Simple single-drive or dual-drive NAS units from manufacturers such as Seagate, WD, Buffalo, Iomega, LaCie and others start at around Rs 10,000 for 1 TB. If you’re very serious about your home server, you can buy a two- or four-bay enclosure from Synaptics, QNAP, Seagate, Thecus or Synology and fill in your own drives—WD recently announced its Red line of drives optimized for NAS devices. Beyond even that, you could pop a few large drives into an old disused PC and turn it into a dedicated server using Microsoft’s Windows Home Server (or soon Windows Server 2012 Essentials) or your preferred flavor of Linux.
Most home NAS drives will come with a short Ethernet cable and should be plugged right into your router. Your chosen model might come with a CD containing utilities that will help you set it up on your network and access its contents, but the beauty of NAS is that it doesn’t technically require any drivers or special software. You can simply type its IP address into Windows’ Run… or OS X’s Connect to… dialogue, and you’ll be able to browse through it like any other drive (it’s useful to know the IP address regardless of how you choose to use the drive). Both Windows and OS X allow you to mount network locations so they’re permanently visible. In Windows, click ‘Map Network Drive’ on the toolbar. OS X will keep your drive mounted till you eject it manually. This is fine for basic file sharing between computers.
WD's My Book Live single-bay NAS, front and back.
Your connected TV, media player or game console should be able to detect the NAS drive on your network. If not, add its IP address manually. Your NAS drive itself will offer several options (type its IP address into any web browser to go to its configuration page). You should be able to browse through the drive just as if it was actually connected to your TV. Additionally, DLNA is a standard used by most computers and connected appliances today to browse through and play media files, categorized by metadata such as Artist, Album, Title, etc., rather than by folder and filename. You might also have the option to enable iTunes server capability, which will let your media show up on your iPad and in iTunes on a PC or Mac. Note that everyone on the network potentially has access to the NAS’s contents, which means you can avoid duplication of files if everyone likes the same music and movies. Use the NAS’s security settings to control who can access what.
Bonus feature: Get a DLNA app such as SmartStor Fusion Stream for your Wi-Fi enabled smartphone and use it to select content from your NAS and play it on your TV.
With multiple computers in the house, it’s easy to lose track of common data such as family photos and videos. You can create a shared space (and assign quotas to each family member) so that everyone always has access to the common pool. Combined with the sharing feature, this also means you can gather around the living room TV to look at family photos, rather than crowding around a small monitor.
You don’t need to be a network ninja to get to files from outside your house, though standard tools will work perfectly well. Many companies have built remote access features into their current products. Signing in from a Web browser or mobile app gives you access to all your stored media, though this functionality might require you to pay for a subscription service after some time.
Synology's DS212j two-bay NAS, front and back.
The next big advantage of an NAS is off-device backups. Simply put, you have a cheap, reliable hard drive where your data can stay so it isn’t affected by a hardware failure or software crash on your PC. You can back up every machine in the house, and automate a daily routine using Windows’ built-in Backup and Restore tool, OS X’s Time Machine (if the drive supports it), or your choice of backup software. Your NAS software disc might also include a backup utility. To simply duplicate important files and folders, you can use Microsoft’s SyncToy or SyncBack. You should still have a backup outside the home in case of a fire or other catastrophe. It might also be a good idea to ensure the NAS is plugged into a stable power source.
Think of the NAS as a large storage location that’s always accessible but never in the way. If you’re running out of space on your laptop and don’t want to bother with USB drives, just plug the NAS into your router and forget about it. Getting to the data will be a lot less troublesome than sorting through dozens of DVDs.
D-Link and other companies have started selling simple IP cameras for the home. These use Wi-Fi or wired Ethernet to broadcast live video to your mobile device over the Internet and send you mobile alerts when motion is detected. You can choose to dump a stream of video or a series of images to a storage location on your local network via FTP. This lets you maintain a much larger backlog of footage than you would be able to with limited storage space on-camera.
Windows Backup and Restore lets you define a network location as the backup target.
Many NAS drives also include basic download clients in their onboard software, which eliminates the load on your PC and the need to leave it on overnight. Several models even support Torrent files. You’ll have to follow the instructions specific to the model you buy, but the process generally involves beginning a download as usual via your PC browser, and handing it off to the NAS itself after starting. This makes a whole lot of sense, since storage is what your NAS does best.
At its heart, your NAS device is a small, special-purpose computer with its own processor and RAM, making it flexible and even potentially hackable. If you’re so inclined, you could run your own media transcoding appliance, proxy, Web server, SQL database server, or FTP file server. Buffalo drives in particular are known to be easily hackable, and projects such as FreeNAS exist to promote extremely light Linux distributions that run on the NAS itself.
Click 'Map Network Drive' to mount any network location as a drive in Windows Explorer.