Setting up a home storage network

NAS devices offer an easy way to share files and backup data

With five computers in my home/office, I told myself, the last thing I need is to add a shared network storage device to the clutter. But I had been eyeing these systems with interest for some time, hoping prices would come down. Now, with retail sticker prices for consumer versions now around US$200 for 250GB or more of shared disk space, it was time to take a serious look at what these devices can do for the small office and home office user.

These network-attached storage (NAS) devices connect directly to your home office network and provide a shared storage space that's independent of any individual machine. Such devices used to be expensive, industrial-grade products, but small, consumer market units are selling in increasing numbers out of retail stores such as Staples and Best Buy. The units come with an Ethernet patch cable that you plug into an open port on your Ethernet switch or router. Once it's attached to your network, any computer on your network - wireless or wired - should be able to use the device.

If your computers are networked, shared network storage devices offer an easy way to share files, and most include backup software that should allow for painless, set-it-and-forget-it automated backups of the data residing on all of your network-attached computers.

After testing four such units, I'm happy to report that these devices can indeed solve those problems in a home or small office environment, although getting the systems set up and configured properly isn't nearly as plug and play as I had hoped. That could be frustrating for small business owners and home office users, who tend to be novices with little time or patience for technical glitches.

Setting expectations

My interest in network storage arises from the happy convergence of dropping prices with cumulative aggravation over my current home office setup. NAS has been around for years in data centres, but the prices have dropped to the point where a US$200 consumer-grade unit could easily meet my needs.

I work from a home office and telecommute four days a week. I have a work-issued laptop, a home computer where I pay the bills and keep personal business, a Windows XP PC for my daughter, a Wi-Fi-enabled laptop that I use for mobility around the house and an Apple iMac I use for multimedia and for testing purposes. I have different data sets scattered across all of those machines, yet I'd like to be able to access any data from any machine. If I'm working on my home machine I'd like to check in on my work files rather than go downstairs to my work computer. If I switch to my wireless laptop in the living room, I'd like access to both my personal and professional data.

Since all of my machines are networked, I could use Windows networking to share folders on each, but with five different machines the shared folder scenario becomes a bit confusing. The arrangement also has its quirks. Most recently someone shut off a computer upstairs that contained an important Excel spreadsheet that I had open. The file became corrupted and I was unable to recover it.

With a shared file space on a NAS device, I could place all of those files in one location and make them available from any workstation in the house. A dedicated shared storage device would also use less power than a shared folder on a computer, and because the units don't use a cooling fan, they run quieter too.

My other issue is backups. Like most people, I don't do them often enough -- in part because digital photos and other multimedia files have swelled the size of backups, requiring multidisc backup sets that I have to baby-sit.

For my purposes, a NAS device must integrate storage needs in a home office environment where a heterogeneous mix of business and consumer machines need access to common files. That includes Windows and Mac clients. Linux support is a plus, although I do not have any such machines in use at this time. It also needs to provide consistent, consolidated backup, access to common files -- for both wireless and wired machines -- and secure access using basic password protection.

The winning unit needs to offer at least 250GB of storage space to accommodate backups and shared data. It needs to be easy to set up and use by someone who is not an expert on Windows networking and doesn't like to tinker with hardware and software. It has to work seamlessly with my work laptop. And as a small business/small office with no corporate reimbursement for the expense, I want it to be damned cheap.

Those were my requirements. In selecting devices, however, I decided to look at a range of options that include basic units, plus with "nice to have" features such as disk mirroring for fault tolerance, remote access/content publishing capabilities, and printer sharing. While the products I tested differ in features, most vendors offer comparable units with comparable feature sets in each product category.

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