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The benefits of cloud storage are well known. It’s an efficient and convenient way of being able to access all your files on any of your computing devices.
But there’s also a less well-known alternative — Network Attached Storage.
But what exactly is it, and could it prompt you to drop Dropbox and ditch Drive? Let’s take a look.
Note: If you’re actually looking for a professional cloud service that not only includes remote storage, but also computing power, have a look at Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure.
What Is Network Attached Storage?
A NAS system includes a processor, memory and space for hard drive storage, that is connected to a local network so that it can be accessed remotely either through connected computers, wireless devices, or even on the go with a Dynamic DNS, say from No-IP.
It gives you the security of physically owning the drive on which your data is stored, while also having the convenience of being able to access that data from anywhere. It can also be shared with multiple users, in lieu of a more powerful server.
NAS devices are perfect for small businesses, as well as consumers with multiple computers. If you own a desktop PC, laptop and tablet and want to access all your content — whether important office documents or movie files for streaming — on each device, then you may be an ideal candidate for a NAS.
Network Attached Storage systems come in a range of prices and complexities for all levels of user.
For consumers and entry-level use, they tend to include a single, integrated hard drive of varying capacities. Most big name hard drive manufacturers have products in this category, such as the Western Digital My Cloud series, with capacities of between two and eight terabytes, or the Seagate GoFlex Home range, which can be used by up to three computers as well as iOS and Android devices via a free app.
More advanced systems (albeit still available at affordable prices) will consist of an empty enclosure with multiple slots into which you can install your own hard drives.
Synology is regarded by many as the best name in NAS products. A mid-range system such as the DiskStation DS214 costs around $390 diskless, and is powered by a dual-core processor and 512MB RAM for smooth performance, and has two drive bays that can accept 3.5-inch or 2.5-inch drives up to a maximum capacity of 12TB.
NAS versus Cloud Storage
At the consumer end of the market, Network Attached Storage is often marketed as a “personal cloud” solution, and comparisons to cloud services are valid.
With more and more cloud services offering file and image editing features, as well as media streaming, they are becoming much more than just places to store your content.
So when would you choose one over the other? Here are some of the key areas you’ll need to consider.
There are two main questions about security.
The first is whether you want your data stored by a third party, or do you want to keep it in your own hands? The answer probably depends on what kind of files you’ll be keeping there, but at the very least you should always be sure to check the terms and conditions of your chosen cloud provider so that you know exactly what they will — or may — do with your files.
The website tosdr.org provides a handy breakdown of the T&Cs of popular sites, rather than reading it in full.
The other main security issue is how safe your data will be once it is accessible online.
Services like Dropbox and Google Drive offer two-factor authentication to help make logins more secure (although you will need to remember to activate it). Some NAS manufacturers, like Synology, provide this, but not all do.
The security of a NAS system also depends on whether it is accessible over the public internet. For a true cloud-like experience it should be, but if you want to maximise your security options, you can restrict just to your network.
Ease Of Use
Even though NAS devices are becoming more user-friendly, with the consumer-oriented products requiring minimal setup and configuration, it still cannot compare to the ease of a cloud service.
Most major cloud services have desktop apps that make using your remote storage as seamless as any other folder on your computer.
Backup And Reliability
If your NAS device has slots for more than one hard drive then you have a built-in solution for backup ready to go. Most will also work automatically with standard backup software like Time Machine on OS X computers.
This is highly convenient for most users but is not foolproof. It protects you against the failure of one of the drives, which can then be easily replaced, but won’t protect you against damage or loss of the NAS device itself, which could compromise all of the drives inside it.
If your NAS device only has one drive, you will still need to find an alternative backup solution.
The cloud, by comparison, includes backups as part of the service you’re paying for. Not only will moving your data to the cloud count as a backup in its own right, but the cloud company will (or at least, should) ensure that your data will never be lost if there’s a problem at their end.
So long as the cloud service doesn’t go down — and the company doesn’t go out of business — your data will be safe there.
Performance, or speed, is directly affected by the speed of your network, and the amount of data you are using.
You save files to a cloud server via the Internet, so the transfer speed can only be as fast as the upload speed of your Internet connection. And it may be slower still, since many cloud service apps will not use the maximum bandwidth so that they don’t choke your Internet connection entirely.
The initial sync, or the uploading of large files, may be something you need to do overnight, or over a series of nights.
Conversely a NAS drive can be attached to your computer directly over Wi-Fi, or a wired connection such as Ethernet on some devices. The upload speeds here will be considerably faster than by uploading over the internet.
However, read speeds can be potentially slower with NAS than for cloud services. If you are reading files from your NAS remotely over the Internet, then you will be restricted by the upload speed of your home Internet connection. This could be slower than what’s offered by your cloud services, though may still be quick enough to stream HD video.
The final issue is price, and for heavy use, NAS wins hands down.
Most cloud services will offer a few gigabytes of storage for free, and if you’re able to stay within this limit then cloud is the better option.
But for large amounts of storage, the prices hardly compare.
A 2TB Western Digital My Cloud device costs around $140. Dropbox charges $99 per year for half the storage, as does Google Drive. Amazon charges around $120 per year.
If you’re using large amounts of storage, the cloud can get expensive quickly.
Choosing the Right Solution
There are clear pros and cons to using Network Attached Storage over the cloud. If you’re a light user, working with small text files, or JPEG images, then you might find the convenience of the cloud works perfectly for you. The moment you move to larger files—your RAW image library, or your whole movie collection—then the price and performance benefits of NAS become clear.
Interested in a DIY NAS? Check our comparison of FreeNAS vs. OpenMediaVault vs. Amahi for help with software.
If you don’t feel brave enough to set up your own NAS server, you could also try one of these self-hosted Dropbox alternatives.
Image Credits: network attached storage Via Shutterstock