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   ► KBComputer TechHardwareNon-Removabl...   Print This     
  From the December 2008 Issue of Prestwood eMag
Non-Removable Storage Technology:
Move Over External Hard Drives, NAS is Here!
Posted 10 years ago on 12/3/2008
Take Away: Network Attached Storage isn't new, but it's become affordable, and it has many advantages over the external hard drive. The NAS (Network Attached Storage) device is a lot like an external hard drive and connect similar to how network file servers connect. NAS devices are similar. They typically have a small, firmware-embedded Linux kernal, a web-hosted management interface, and support some number of hard drives.



Anyone serious about computing understands the importance of practicing a good backup regimen.  For several years, now, the external hard drive has been a top choice for backing up crucial data.
You all know about external hard drives; USB, Firewire, or eSATA connected.  I used one for backups, and I also periodically burned CDs or DVDs of important stuff.  In addition, I used a software version control system, hosted on my Win2K server, for my personal projects. (I'm talking about my home network, here.)
A recent hardware fiasco taught me that my backup regimen wasn't as good as it should be.

NAS: The new kid on the block:

The NAS (Network Attached Storage) device is a lot like an external hard drive, but with some important twists.

If you're familiar with network print servers - or network printers, you have a handle on the principle: Rather than attaching via a connection to a specific computer, these things behave like computers in their own right - and connect to your network hub/switch with via an Ethernet cable.
I've used a network print server for years, with totally satisfactory results.  They have no dependencies on any particular machine on the network being on, and there's no need to go through the printer-sharing exercise.  I love them.
NAS devices are similar.  They typically have a small, firmware-embedded Linux kernal, a web-hosted management interface, and support some number of hard drives.

NAS Types:

They can be broken into two rough categories: Those sold with drives already installed, and BYOD (bring your own drives) enclosures.  Those that support more than one drive typically support RAID level 1 drive mirroring, and another protocol that lets two drives appear as a larger single volume.

The Ugly:

A friend told me that D-Link was making some nice BYOD NAS units, and I found one on sale at a local store: It was a model DNS-321.  It's a nicely constructed, two-bay enclosure.  I snagged it for $149.  It turned out to be an absolute disappointment.

I populated it with two, brand new, Western Digital, 1Terrabyte Caviar drives, in Raid level 1 (mirroring) formation.

I got to steal those drives for $99 each by virtue of Western Digital's customer loyalty program.  I had two failed 250G drives from this machine's debacle. 

You go to WDs' support site, type in your drive's serial numbers, and they tell you if they're still under warranty.  Then they give you a list of drives to which you can upgrade - at great prices.  Your drives don't have to be defective to do this, and you don't have to send them back.  If you choose to upgrade, they simply void the warranty on your existing drives, then ship the new ones.

If you say your drives are defective, they give you a modest discount. Again, you don't have to send the old ones back.

The D-Link NAS could not format the new drives.  Time after time, it hung at 94%.  I checked D-Link support and, sure enough, right near the top of their FAQ list was the 94% problem -  along with a bunch of Tom-fool suggestions. 

I followed them all - it took days - but nothing overcame the 94% hang up.

An email to D-Link tech support (Nov 14) is still unanswered.

The Beautiful:

Promise NS2300N

After concluding that the D-Link was useless, I had my favorite hardware vendor order me a Promise Technology NS2300N.  I figured to get a NAS from an outfit that's been in the drive controller business for a while. It cost about $20 more than the equivalent D-Link.
Like a print server, it's totally stand-alone.  Any computer on the network can use it, regardless the status of other computers.
The Promise NAS was up and running in the short time it needed to format the drives.  Period.  No fooling around, no trial and error.  It just flat worked. In addition to a sturdy case and fan, it includes slick little drive mounts that give you a handle for pulling drives out.
Like many NAS units, this guy has a boatload of features.  The only one I cared about was drive mirroring, but some of the others are:
  • A built-in USB print server. (I might get around to using it)
  • A built-in FTP host.  If you want to, you can configure things such that you can get at your files from anywhere that has an Internet connection - even if your NAS is behind a router/firewall.
  • Built-in media streaming.  This I don't know much about, but if you have the right home entertainment lash-up, this thing can stream your movies and music.
  • iTunes integration - whatever the heck that is.  Seems you can set the thing up to be both a client of the iTunes store, and a server for your iTunes content.
  • Download management.  This could be cool.  Sometimes you want to download very large files, like the ISO images for a Linux distribution.  The NAS knows about the BitTorrent protocol (and one other, I think).  You put it to work downloading the files to itself, while keeping your PC free for other work.
  • User and group management.  You can control who has access to the NAS, what folders on the NAS they get to see/use - even set storage quotas. This could be handy if you have kids and/or dweebs on the network.
  • Automatic email notifications.  I have yet to explore this, but it sounds like you can configure the thing to email you if/when certain events happen.
  • UPS smarts.  Again, not yet explored. I guess it means that, if connected to a suitable battery backup, it can do a graceful shutdown when power gets wierd.

 All and all, the NAS approach looks a lot more useful than a simple external drive. To me, the main attraction (beyond RAID mirroring) is this:

Backups take time, and good backup software is not cheap. I don't want to spend the money to license backup software for each of our home computers.  But I also don't want any of our workstations tied up performing either their own backups, nor backups of other machines.

Backup Software:

Consumer-priced NAS units typically bundle one backup program or another.  Do not expect to get the perfect, one-size-fits-all solution.  What comes along for free is typically a "lite" version of somebody's backup program.  In fairness, I should say that I have yet to give the software bundled by Promise a good workout.

I've been using FileBack PC.  It's incredibly full-featured (for $49), but has a fairly ugly user interface - circa Win 3.1. 

It does most of the stuff I want:

  • Backup compression - which doesn't appear to slow it down.
  • Backup encryption.
  • Incremental backups - just a delta is saved.
  • File version limiting.  Tell it how many versions to keep before it starts fresh.
  • Selective restoring.  Pick a file, choose a version, have it restored, and it does it.
  • Multiple, scheduled backup "jobs." These can be machine-specific, so one copy of FileBack PC can backup multiple machines.

So the FileBack PC user interface is a little dated and cumbersome.  I can live with that.  I've used it to restore files several times, and it's yet to fail.


The trusty (or not so trusty) old external hard drive may still be a viable backup solution for you. But with the availability of good NAS units at affordable prices, I now see the external hard drive as more useful for less crucial tasks, like saving virtual PC image files, temporary copies of digital images - that sort of thing.

But if your's is getting old, or crammed, think hard about replacing it with a good NAS device. I don't think you'll regret it.

Network Attached Storage isn't new, but it's become affordable, and it has many advantages over the external hard drive. The NAS (Network Attached Storage) device is a lot like an external hard drive and connect similar to how network file servers connect. NAS devices are similar.  They typically have a small, firmware-embedded Linux kernal, a web-hosted management interface, and support some number of hard drives.


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Article Contributed By Wes Peterson:

Wes Peterson is a Senior Programmer Analyst with Prestwood IT Solutions where he develops custom Windows software and custom websites using .Net and Delphi. When Wes is not coding for clients, he participates in this online community. Prior to his 10-year love-affair with Delphi, he worked with several other tools and databases. Currently he specializes in VS.Net using C# and VB.Net. To Wes, the .NET revolution is as exciting as the birth of Delphi.

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