Throughout most of the 90s and 2000s, most computer-owning families only had a single PC with a single hard drive. If you needed to store things beyond your hard drive’s capacity, you typically burned it to a CD. But that was slow, cumbersome, and a waste of physical space.
Around this time, external drives (like the WD Passport) gained traction and became the norm, and surged in popularity once more when SSDs overtook HDDs. For a long time, external drives have been the method of choice for consumers with large data storage and data transfer needs.
But as multi-computer, multi-device, multi-user households become the new norm, good ol’ external drives won’t cut it anymore. Network storage is the future, and there are four main types to consider: cloud, NAS, DAS, and SAN.
Understanding Cloud Storage
Cloud storage is extremely trendy right now. It fulfills a lot of the same needs as external drives, all while offering more features and conveniences. In short, cloud storage is when you store your data on a cluster of remote servers (“the cloud”) which are accessed through the internet.
Instead of keeping an external drive plugged into your system and taking up precious workstation space, you just create an account and upload files whenever you need. No hogging of USB ports. No extra energy usage. And if your house burns down, your data still exists on the remote servers. Most cloud storage services offer automatic syncing, which is even more convenient.
But cloud storage has its flaws. If your internet connection cuts out, you lose access to your data. USB transfer speeds are much faster than most internet connections, so uploading and downloading to the cloud is comparatively snail-paced next to external drives. And privacy is a huge concern. Are cloud storage services peeking at your data? Or even selling your data? We can’t know for sure.
For many, the convenience outweighs the risk. That’s why services like Dropbox, Google Drive, and OneDrive are so popular right now. Free plans are abundant, but if you need a lot of space, plans can cost anywhere from $2 per month to $100 per month.
Understanding NAS Storage
If you love your external drives and can’t be bothered to give them up, allow me to present to you network attached storage (NAS). This is what you’d get if you took an external drive and made it accessible to more than one device at a time. Sounds great, right?
On the surface, a NAS looks like an external drive except bigger and flashier. But instead of plugging into one device at a time by USB cable, it mounts itself on a local area network. Ethernet is the most common and preferred way, but some can mount themselves with Wi-Fi too.
Functionally speaking, you interact with a NAS just as you would an external drive. Once it’s connected to your network, you can access it in much the same way (except instead of going to This PC in File Explorer, you’d go to Network instead). But the real benefit is that anyone on the network can access it!
And if you set up your network for remote access, you can access a NAS from anywhere as long as you have an internet connection, effectively replicating cloud storage functionality without the privacy-related downsides. For more details, see our reasons to start using a NAS for data storage.
NAS devices can cost anywhere from $150 to $600 depending on what kind of advanced functionality you want. Note that a NAS is just a “shell” so you’ll have to buy drives separately and insert them yourself. A good entry-level option is the Synology DS216J NAS (UK). Or consider building your own NAS!
Understanding SAN Storage
What happens when a single NAS doesn’t provide enough capacity? One option is to build an army of NASes, but this can be inconvenient in some cases since each one operates independently with separate IP addresses and separate settings.
Another option is to use a storage area network (SAN). Like a NAS, a SAN offloads data storage from desktops and server machines to dedicated storage devices. But whereas a NAS is an independent device, a SAN is a network of interconnected storage devices. Both are accessed through the local area network to which they’re connected.
The biggest difference is that SANs are lower level than NASes. The data on a NAS is managed by the NAS itself and thus presented as “files,” whereas the data on a SAN is raw and accessed as “blocks.” Practically speaking, NASes appear as “file servers” while SANs appear as “disk drives.” And instead of using TCP/IP, SANs use other network protocols like Fibre Channel and iSCSI.
Seeing as how modern NASes can store many terabytes of data per device, it’s unlikely for a regular home user to need a SAN. Just add a second or third NAS and you should be good. For this reason, plus the need for non-TCP/IP connectivity, SANs are mostly used by businesses, data centers, and other large organizations.
Understanding DAS Storage
Now we circle back to where we started. If you want to steer clear of all the network-based storage options above, your only alternative is direct attached storage (DAS). As implied by the name, a DAS needs to be physically connected to any device that wants to access its data.
You use DASes every day. Hard drives, CD/DVD drives, flash drives, and external drives are all examples of DAS. In fact, the term DAS was created after the advent of NAS and SAN to differentiate between networked storage and non-networked storage.
These days, DAS refers more and more to a special kind of business-class, non-networked storage cluster. For example, the Lenovo E1012 DAS fits 12 disk drives and starts at $2,249 while the Dell PowerVault MD1200 DAS fits 12 disk drives and starts at $2,799. Think of them as massive external drives. No wonder they’re nicknamed JBODs (“just a bunch of disks”).
But consumer-level DAS options do exist. The Noontec-TerraMaster D5-300 DAS (UK) fits up to five data drives and connects with USB Type-C. Just don’t expect it to deliver business-class DAS transfer speeds, which use SAS connectors instead of USB. I would only recommend a DAS if you need data redundancy through RAID.
Which Type of Network Storage Is Right for You?
For regular home users, only two of these options are viable: cloud storage and NAS storage.
While NAS storage is objectively superior, it’s better suited for users who are tech-savvy. The setup is a little more involved than simple plug-and-play, and it requires routine care and maintenance if you want it to last a while. It’s also cheaper in the long run when compared to paid cloud storage plans.
But cloud storage is easier. Just install some software and you’re good to go. No setup, no maintenance, and if you don’t have that much data, no fees. If you’re willing to risk your privacy, and if you don’t mind lack of access when your internet goes down, and if you’re okay with the chance that any cloud storage service could disappear overnight, then cloud storage can be great.
Where do you keep your data stored? Have you used a NAS yet? Or are you still relying on external drives and/or the cloud? Share with us below!
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