As your business grows, the amount of data that it needs to store and manage also grows. Storing this data on loose hard drives and individual workstations will no longer cut it: Your team needs ready data access, protection from loss, and capacity for future growth. The easiest way to provide all three quickly and easily is network attached storage (NAS).
You might have already considered buying a NAS device, or you purchased one that you’ve already grown out of, or this could be your first time looking at your options. No matter where you’re starting, the number of choices and features NAS systems offer today are overwhelming, especially when you’re trying to buy something that will work now and in the future.
This post aims to make your process a little easier. The following content will help you:
- Review the benefits of a NAS system.
- Navigate the options you’ll need to choose from.
- Understand the reason to pair your NAS with cloud storage.
How Can NAS Benefit Your Business?
There are multiple benefits that a NAS system can provide to users on your network, but we’ll recap a few of the key advantages here.
- More Storage. It’s a tad obvious, but the primary benefit of a NAS system is that it will provide a significant addition to your storage capacity if you’re relying on workstations and hard drives. NAS systems create a single storage volume from several drives (often arranged in a RAID scheme).
- Protection From Data Loss. Less obvious, but equally important, the RAID configuration in a NAS system ensures that the data you store can survive the failure of one or more of its hard drives. Hard drives fail! NAS helps to make that statement of fact less scary.
- Security and Speed. Beyond protection from drive failure, NAS also provides security for your data from outside actors as it is only accessible on your local office network and to user accounts which you can control. Not only that, but it generally works as fast as your local office network speeds.
- Better Data Management Tools. Fully automated backups, deduplication, compression, and encryption are just a handful of the functions you can put to work on a NAS system—all of which make your data storage more efficient and secure. You can also configure sync workflows to ease collaboration for your team, enable services to manage your users and groups with directory services, and even add services like photo or media management.
If this all sounds useful for your business, read on to learn more about bringing these benefits in-house.
The Network Attached Storage (NAS) Buyer’s Guide
How do you evaluate the differences between different NAS vendors? Or even within a single company’s product line? We’re here to help. This tour of the major components of a NAS system will help you to develop a tick list for the sizing and features of a system that will fit your needs.
Choosing a NAS: The Components
How your NAS performs is dictated by the components that make up the system, and capability of future upgrades. Let’s walk through the different options.
NAS Storage Capacity: How Many Bays Do You Need?
One of the first ways to distinguish between different NAS systems is the number of drive bays a given system offers, as this determines how many disks the system can hold. Generally speaking, the larger the number of drive bays, the more storage you can provide to your users and the more flexibility you have around protecting your data from disk failure.
In a NAS system, storage is defined by the number of drives, the shared volume they create, and their striping scheme (e.g. RAID 0, 1, 5, 6, etc.). For example, one drive gives no additional performance or protection. Two drives allows the option of simple mirroring. Mirroring is also referred to as RAID 1, when one volume is built from two drives, allowing for the failure of one of those drives without data loss. Two drives also allows for striping—referred to as RAID 0—when one volume is “stretched” across two drives, making a single, larger drive that also gives some performance improvement, but increases risk because the loss of one drive means that the entire volume will be unavailable.
A redundant array of independent disks, or RAID, combines multiple hard drives into one or more storage volumes. RAID distributes data and parity (drive recovery information) across the drives in different ways, and each layout provides different degrees of data protection.
Three drives is the minimum for RAID 5, which can survive the loss of one drive, though four drives is a more common NAS system configuration. Five drives allow for RAID 6, which can survive the loss of two drives. Six to eight drives are very common NAS configurations that allow more storage, space, performance, and even drive sparing—the ability to designate a stand-by drive to immediately rebuild a failed drive.
Many believe that, if you’re in the market for a NAS system with multiple bays, you should opt for capacity that allows for RAID 6 if possible. RAID 6 can survive the loss of two drives, and delivers performance nearly equal to RAID 5 with better protection.
It’s understandable to think: Why do I need to prepare in case two drives fail? Well, when a drive fails and you replace it with a fresh drive, the rebuilding process to restore that drive’s data and parity information can take a long time. Though it’s rare, it’s possible to have another drive fail during the rebuilding process. In that scenario, if you have RAID 6 you’re likely going to be okay. If you have RAID 5, you may have just lost data.
Buyer’s Note: Some systems are sold without drives. Should you buy NAS with or without drives? That decision usually boils down to the size and type of drives you’d like to have.
When buying a NAS system with drives provided:
- The drives are usually covered by the manufacturer’s warranty as part of the complete system.
- The drives are typically bought directly from the manufacturer’s supply chain and shipped directly from the hard drive manufacturer.
If you choose to buy drives separately from your NAS:
- The drives may be a mix of drive production runs, and have been in the supply chain longer. Match the drive capacities and models for the most predictable performance across the RAID volume.
- Choose drives rated for NAS systems—NAS vendors publish lists of supported drive types. Here’s a list from QNAP, for example.
- Check the warranty and return procedures, and if you are moving a collection of older drives into your NAS, you may also consider how much of the warranty has already run out.
Buyer Takeaway: Choose a system that can support RAID 5 or RAID 6 to allow a combination of more storage space, performance, and drive failure protection. But be sure to check whether the NAS system is sold with or without drives.
Selecting Drive Capacity for the NAS: What Size of Drives Should You Buy?
You can quickly estimate how much storage you’ll need by adding up the hard drives and external drives of all the systems you’ll be backing up in your office, adding the amount of shared storage you’ll want to provide to your users, and factor in any growing demand you project for shared storage.
If you have any historical data under management from previous years, you can calculate a simple growth rate. But, include a buffer as data growth accelerates every year. Generally speaking, price out systems at two or four times the size of your existing data capacity. Let’s say that your hard drives and external drives to back up, and any additional shared storage you’d like to provide your users, add up to 20TB. Double that size to get 40TB to account for growth, then divide by a common hard drive size such as 10TB. With that in mind, you can start shopping for four bay systems and larger.
Formula 1: ((Number of NAS Users x Hard Drive Size ) + Shared Storage) * Growth Factor = NAS Storage Needed
Example: There are six users in an office that will each be backing up their 2TB workstations and laptops. The team will want to use another 6TB of shared storage for documents, images, and videos for everyone to use. Multiplied times a growth factor of two, you’d start shopping for NAS systems that offer at least 36TB of storage.
((Six users * 2TB each) + 6TB shared storage ) * growth factor of two = 36TB
Formula 2: ((NAS Storage Needed / Hard Drive Size) + Two Parity Drives) = Drive Bays Needed
Example: Continuing the example above, when looking for a new NAS system using 12TB drives, accounting for two additional drives for RAID 6, you’d look for NAS systems that can support five or more drive bays of 12TB hard drives.
(( 36TB / 12TB ) + two additional drives ) = Five drive bays and up
If your budget allows, opting for larger drives and more drive bays will give you more storage overhead that you’ll surely grow into over time. Factor in, however, that if you go too big, you’re paying for unused storage space for a longer period of time. And if you use GAAP accounting, you’ll need to capitalize that investment over the same time window as a smaller NAS system which will hit your bottom line on an annual basis. This is the classic CapEx vs. Opex dilemma you can learn more about here.
If your cash budget is tight you can always purchase a NAS system with more bays but smaller drives, which will significantly reduce your upfront pricing. You can then replace those drives in the future with larger ones when you need them. Hard drive prices generally fall over time, so they will likely be less expensive in the future. You’ll end up purchasing two sets of drives over time, which will be less cash-intensive at the outset, but likely more expensive in the long run.
Similarly, you can partially fill the drive bays. If you want to get an eight bay system, but only have the budget for six drives, just add the other drives later. One of the best parts of NAS systems is the flexibility they allow you for right-sizing your shared storage approach.
Buyer Takeaway: Estimate how much storage you’ll need, add the amount of shared storage you’ll want to provide to your users, and factor in growing demand for shared storage—then balance long term growth potential against cash flow.
Processor, Controllers, and Memory: What Performance Levels Do You Require?
Is it better to have big onboard processors or controllers? Smaller, embedded chips common in smaller NAS systems provide basic functionality, but might bog down when serving many users or crunching through deduplication and encryption tasks, which are options with many backup solutions. Larger NAS systems typically stored in IT data center racks usually offer multiple storage controllers that can deliver the fastest performance and even failover capability.
- Processor: Provides compute power for the system operation, services, and applications.
- Controller: Manages the storage volume presentation and health.
- Memory: Improves speed of applications and file serving performance.
ARM and Intel Atom chips are good for basic systems, while larger and more capable processors such as the Intel Corei3 and Corei5 are faster at NAS tasks like encryption, deduplication, and serving any on-board apps. Xeon server class chips can be found in many rack-mounted systems, too.
So if you’re just looking for basic storage expansion, the entry-level systems with more modest, basic chips will likely suit you just fine. If deduplication, encryption, sync, and other functions many NAS systems offer as optional tools are part of your future workflow, this is one area where you shouldn’t cut corners.
If you have the option to expand the system memory, this can be an easy performance upgrade. Generally, the higher the ratio of memory to drives will benefit the performance of reading and writing to disk and the speed of on-board applications.
Buyer Takeaway: Entry-level NAS systems provide good basic functionality, but you should ensure your components are up to the challenge if you plan to make heavy use of deduplication, encryption, compression, and other functions.
Network and Connections: What Capacity for Speed Do You Need?
A basic NAS will have a Gigabit Ethernet connection, which you will often find listed as 1GigE. This throughput of 1 Gb/s in network speeds is equivalent to 125 MB/s coming from your storage system. That means that the NAS system must fit storage service to all users within that limitation, which is usually not an issue when serving only a few users. Many systems offer expansion ports inside, allowing you to purchase a 10GigE network card later to upgrade your NAS.
Some NAS vendors offer 2.5 Gb/s, or 5 Gb/s connections on their systems—these will give you more performance than 1GigE connections, but usually require that you get a compatible network switch, and possibly, USB adapters or expansion cards for every system that will connect to that NAS via the switch. If your office is already wired for 10GigE, make sure your NAS is also 10GigE. Otherwise, the more network ports in the back of the system, the better. If you aren’t ready to get a 10GigE capable system now, but you think you might be in the future, select a system that has expansion capability.
Some systems provide another option of Thunderbolt connections in addition to Ethernet connections. These allow laptops and workstations with Thunderbolt ports to directly connect to the NAS and offer much higher bandwidth—up to 40GigE (5 GB/s)—and are good for systems that need to edit large files directly on the NAS, such as is often the case in video editing. If you’ll be directly connecting systems that need the fastest possible speeds, select a system with Thunderbolt ports, one per Thunderbolt-connected user.
Buyer Takeaway: It’s best to have more network ports in the back of your system. Or, select a system with network expansion card capability.
Caching and Hybrid Drive Features: How Fast Do You Need to Serve Files?
Many of the higher-end NAS systems can complement standard 5.25” hard drives with higher performing, smaller form factor SSD or M.2 drives. These smaller, faster drives can dramatically improve the NAS file serving performance by caching files in most recent, or most frequently requested files. By combining these different types of drives, the NAS can deliver both improved file serving performance, and large capacity.
As the number of users you support in each office grows, these capabilities will become more important as a relatively simple way to boost performance. Like we mentioned earlier, you can purchase a system with these slots unpopulated and add them in later.
Buyer Takeaway: Combine different types of drives, like smaller form factor SSD or M.2 storage with 5.25” hard drives to gain improved file serving performance.
Operating System: What Kind of Management Features Do You Require?
The NAS operating systems of the major vendors generally provide the same services in an OS-like interface delivered via an on-board web server. By simply typing in your NAS’s IP address, you can sign in and manage your system’s settings, create and manage the storage volumes, set up groups of users on your network who have access, configure and monitor backup and sync tasks, and more.
If there are specific user management features in your IT environment that you need, or want to test how the NAS OS works, you can test them by spinning up a demonstration virtual machine offered by some NAS vendors. You can test service configuration and get a feel for the interface and tools, but obviously as a virtual environment you won’t be able to manage hardware directly. Here are some options:
Buyer Takeaway: The on-board NAS OS looks similar to a Mac or PC operating system to make it easy to navigate system setup and maintenance and allows you to manage settings, storage, and tasks.
Solutions: What Added Services Do You Require?
While the onboard processor and memory on your NAS are primarily for file service, backup, and sync tasks, you can also install other solutions directly onto it. For instance, QNAP and Synology—two popular NAS providers—have app stores accessible from their management software where you can select applications to download and install on your NAS. You might be interested in a backup and sync solution such as Archiware, or CMS solutions like Joomla or WordPress.
However, beyond backup solutions, you’d benefit from installing mission-critical apps onto a dedicated system rather than on your NAS. For a small number of users, running applications directly on the NAS can be a good temporary use or a pathway to testing something out. But if the application becomes very busy, it could impact the other services of the NAS. Big picture, native apps on your NAS can be useful, but don’t overdo it.
Buyer Takeaway: The main backup and sync apps from the major NAS vendors are excellent—give them a good test drive, but know that there are many excellent backup and sync solutions available as well.
Why Adding Cloud Storage to Your NAS Offers Additional Benefits
When you pair cloud storage with your NAS, you gain access to features that complement the security of your data and your ability to share files both locally and remotely.
To start with, cloud storage provides off-site backup protection. This aligns your NAS setup with the industry standard for data protection: a 3-2-1 backup strategy—which ensures that you have three copies of your data, the source data and two backups—one of which is on your NAS, and the second copy of your data is protected off-site. And in the event of data loss, you can restore your systems directly from the cloud even if all the systems in your office are knocked out or destroyed.
While data sent to the cloud is encrypted in-flight via SSL, you can also encrypt your backups so that they are only openable with your team’s encryption key. The cloud can also give you advanced storage options for your backup files like Write Once, Read Many (WORM) or immutability—making your data unchangeable for a defined period of time—or set custom data lifecycle rules at the bucket level to help match your ideal backup workflow.
Additionally, cloud storage provides valuable access to your data and documents from your NAS through sync capabilities. In case anyone on your team needs to access a file when they are away from the office, or as is more common now, in case your entire team is working from home, they’ll be able to access the files that have been synced to the cloud through your NAS’s secure sync program. You can even sync across multiple locations using the cloud as a two-way sync to quickly replicate data across locations. For employees collaborating across great distances, this helps to ensure they’re not waiting on the internet to deliver critical files: They’re already on-site.
Ready to Set Up Your NAS With Cloud Storage
To summarize, here are a few things to remember when shopping for a NAS system:
- Consider how much storage you’ll need for both local backup and for shared user storage.
- Look for a system with three to five drive bays at minimum.
- Check that the NAS system is sold with drives—if not, you’ll have to source enough of the same size drives.
- Opt for a system that lets you upgrade the memory and network options.
- Choose a system that meets your needs today; you can always upgrade in the future.
Coupled with cloud storage like Backblaze B2 Cloud Storage, which is already integrated with NAS systems from Synology and QNAP, you gain necessary backup protection and restoration from the cloud, as well as the capability to sync across locations.
Have more questions about NAS features or how to implement a NAS system in your environment? Ask away in the comments.