In a previous post, I touched on the evolving roles and capabilities of network attached storage devices. You can spend $100 or $1000+ on a NAS server, so it’s important to think about your needs before jumping in with a purchase.
Purchase a basic, cheap NAS and you may find yourself quickly frustrated with its limitations. Or, you could spend a king’s ransom on the latest, cutting-edge model and find you’ve paid for a host of features that you’ll never use! A little time spend thinking through your needs will most definitely save you money, ensuring that you select a model that works really well for you, your family or your colleagues today and allows some headroom for the future!
What Elements Are Important to Consider When Choosing a NAS?
Scan through the ranges of the major NAS manufacturers, and it’s easy to be overwhelmed. The NAS guys tend to flood the market with a host of models, serving a wide array of users and needs. In fact, to support your decision-making, you’ll find there are only a small number of factors to take into account. They are:
- Form Factor
- Internal Specifications
- External Connectivity
- Bay Count
- Consumer Features
- Business Features
In this post, we’ll talk through each of these factors in turn. To help make sense of the plethora of options available to you, I’m going to simplify things by talking about three groups of consumer/small business NAS devices – Basic, Mainstream and Advanced. Let me define these for you briefly before we dive into the detail for further illustration.
Basic NAS Devices
Basic NAS devices fulfill the “traditional” role I mentioned in the last post. They’re low power, low specification devices, predominately focused on file and folder sharing among a small number of network users. As a result, they’re pretty inexpensive – between $100 and $200 diskless. Diskless? That’s right, most NAS devices are sold without storage included, so hard drives must be purchased separately and installed. Some retailers will bundle storage with a NAS device with some savings included, but you can also purchase your storage from another retailer. That’s probably a wise move as storage prices continually fluctuate – shop around for the best prices.
Talking of storage, you may have noticed that I stated that Basic NAS Devices were low power and low specification, but I didn’t say low capacity. With one or two drive bays commonly found on these products, a few years ago I would have told you that these inexpensive devices were indeed low capacity. But with hard drive capacities now reaching a colossal 8 TB, that’s no longer the case. You’ll generally find even Basic NAS devices support these super-high capacity disks, but be sure to check compatibility details on the manufacturer’s website to be sure.
You’ll find that Basic NAS devices do a great job at storing and sharing data on the network, although with limited internal specifications, data transfer speeds can be lower than more premium devices. Available features and connectivity options will also be fewer, but you can expect to find a few fun options, even at the cheaper end of the range.
Mainstream NAS Devices
Move up to the $400 – $600 price bracket and you’ll find a wide range of two and four bay NAS devices from all of the major manufacturers. I call this the “Mainstream” group as you’ll find a compelling blend of performance and features in this bracket, without the need to check with the bank manager on your purchase! Enhanced internal specifications include decent Intel or high-end ARM CPUs and a healthy slab of RAM (increasingly user-upgradable) which provides the engine for a wider array of features.
These devices are easily capable of storing and streaming large media libraries with real-time transcoding features enabling them to convert files into formats compatible with the device on which you’re watching on the fly.
Business features, such as Active Directory integration, storage visualization options and light desktop visualization duties are also on offer, as these devices are equally comfortable in the workplace as they are in the home.
External connectivity is also boosted. You can expect to find USB 3.0, eSATA and even HDMI connections available at this level, allowing you to hook up the NAS directly to a TV or projector for direct media playback. Some devices at the top end of the group will include two or more Gigabit Ethernet ports for high-speed networking and fallback options to maintain network availability should a port fail.
Advanced NAS Devices
At the top end of the market, you’ll find devices that are predominately targeted at business users, but there are features that advanced “prosumers” will love too. Alongside a higher bay count, from six bays up to twelve or more, you’ll find these NAS servers available in traditional desktop or rackmounted form factors.
Internally, expect to find fast desktop CPUs like Intel’s Core i3, i5 or i7 or even server-class processors like the Intel Xeon on board, with 8 GB or 16 GB RAM in support. Alongside basic NAS features, there’s more than enough horsepower available to support many concurrent user connections, advanced storage virtualization features such as iSCSI/IP-SAN support and desktop visualization options that allow the running of multiple desktops alongside NAS duties.
Storage management options grow with business-class features such as storage pooling, thin provisioning, block-level iSCSI LUN and more. There are also a wide array of network management and integration features that support IT admins provision and manage the NAS on a business network.
In terms of connectivity, it’s not uncommon to find four Gigabit Ethernet ports as well as 10 GbE support for super-fast network connections. Of course, expect to spend well over $1000 for these advanced devices.
Of course, these are broad brush strokes and if you look hard enough, you’ll find some advanced features popping up where you may not expect. As we dive into the detail, again expect to find a little movement of features between the groups I’ve set out here. Use this guide as an illustration to help your own research and decision-making.
Let’s move on to discuss the factors you should be thinking about when choosing a NAS.