I have always loved the notion of Network Attached Storage, even before I knew what it was. Back when I first connected my home network, the issue of where to keep files so that I could get to them when I needed them without being restricted to a particular computer, the solution was fairly easy. The oldest machine would go into the kitchen to act as a server and I'd keep the files on there. In my late '90s home office, this made sense: the server wasn't used much, except for grabbing files and sharing an Internet connection.
And yet, it seemed like a waste. Here was a full computer (with heavy-duty graphics and sound card, since it had once been a user machine) running 24/7 to act as a storage place for e-mail and project files. I could have stripped it down, of course, but only so far. Wouldn't it be great just to hook up a drive to the network?
Of course, times change, and the old kitchen computer now runs Web, e-mail, webmail, chat servers, a wiki, and a content management system, not to mention a few of my own experiments, and the problem has become more that the machine is taxed. The hard drive is now tiny by modern standards (20GB) and I don't like the idea of using my Web server for private files. Add to that a MythTV system with a voracious appetite for disk space, and I find myself in the same situation I was a few years ago: Wouldn't it be great just to hook up a drive?
It's something my clients run into all the time as well: That sudden shortage of disk space that seems to pop up at your busiest time of year. You don't want to add another server, or crack open one of the existing ones, or maybe you just want a good clean separate box with limited access and minimal fuss. Sometimes adding a new device is just plain easier.
Of course, you can do that now, with Network Attached Storage (NAS). The problem with NAS, traditionally, has been a steep price-tag, much like an external drive. Why does 300GB of storage cost $150 on the street, but $350 if you want it NAS?
This price increase isn't hugely surprising. What you get inside a NAS is, in fact, a computer which has, as its primary purpose, running that drive. Just as with external drives, however, the day is saved (or at least relatively well budgeted) by kits that allow you to take any standard drive and put it into a NAS capable box.
For our tests, I used an ADS Technologies NAS Drive Kit into which I lobbed a 250GB Seagate drive. The premise is simple: crack open the case, slide in the drive, attach the cables, secure the drive with the screws provided, close the drive, plug in to network. Piece of cake, right?
Well, I'm primarily a software guy, and often not the most successful when it comes to actually handling silicon, plastic, and the like. Hardware and networking tend to make me a bit grumpy. In fact, when I called a friend on an unrelated issue he said, “You sound irritated. Did you get a new piece of hardware?”
The ADS Tech NAS Drive Kit did an excellent job of minimizing my irritation, however. There's no way to put the drive in wrong, and the box doesn't close if you don't fit it just right to the case, and while you could put the power and IDE cables in too loosely, it would be hard to miss that fact when you went to close the kit, since they'd be flapping around. All-in-all a snug, well put together piece of hardware. About the only thing that can go wrong is not setting the jumper on the hard drive to “Master” as it must be in order to work.
So, after I fixed the jumper and put it on securely, and in the right position, we were good to go. Total time putting together the NAS: Fifteen minutes. (Time spent fiddling with the jumper: 1 hour.)
After that, it was off to a nearby Windows system to set it up. Now, you know and I know that the OS running inside that little box is Linux. (A hundred dollar price tag doesn't leave a lot of room for OS licensing.) But you'd almost never need to know that if you didn't want to. The provided CD runs from any Windows connected computer on your LAN seeks out any and all ADS Tech NAS Kits and walks you through formatting and setup.
The drive was immediately available to all the machines on my Windows network, assigned just like any shared drive, as part of my home workgroup. Moving files to it was comparable to moving them to any other drive on the network in terms of speed and accessibility.
In fact, the only tricky part was working out the security on the box. The kit comes with a web-based management system which allows you to create folders and assign users, but at the same time many functions were available through the Windows Explorer, and it seemed like the management system's view of the drive and Explorer's view weren't always synched.
Still, pretty sweet overall. $100 for a kit, $115 for my hard-drive, 15 minutes of my time (plus an hour “educational” tax which you can skip by reading the jumper settings on your hard-drive carefully), I avoided paying $300 for a comparable NAS drive.
Besides the bucks, another advantage of going kit rather than buying a pre-built NAS drive is that you get to pick the brand of your hard-drive (I like Seagate and loathe Maxtor, you may feel the opposite). Also, the time will come when you need a bigger drive, and you can simply replace the current drive with a larger one at a later time. (The kit supports up to 400GB.) You'd probably just get another kit, but you wouldn't have to.
It's quiet, too, though the box itself doesn't appear to be sound-proofed particularly. The only noise comes from the drive and a small built-in fan. During my time with the kit, my only concern was the fan. Drives get hot, and the fan was smaller than those I'm used to seeing. But the little fan didn't have to cool down a CPU, graphics card—only the drive—and the kit was designed so that there's plenty of air around the drive. So, during my time with it, the box itself never got hot or seemed to have a problem with heat.
In addition to the basic set-up software, the little machine powering the drive sports some other software that makes it easy to turn your NAS into an Internet file server: FTP, web server and bit-torrent server are built-in. Of course, since you can map the drive just as you would any other drive on your network, you can use your regular machines to serve files from the NAS.
Or, if you have an urgent sudden need for a file server, you can hook this thing up and go. All-in-all, a cool and fun way to save a few bucks and make space for all those “Battlestar Galactica” downloads.