Network-Attached Storage Replacing Servers

Network-Attached Storage (NAS) essentially couples one or more hard drives to a network cable – no keyboard or monitor. NAS devices are comparatively inexpensive boxes that sit in the corner, serve files, and perhaps share a printer. Typically they operate using UNIX or Linux for their internal operating system, and can be configured using any web browser. NAS devices provide from 200 GB to 2 TB (2,000 GB) or more of disk space, usually in a high-performance, high-reliability RAID configuration. The result is a class of device that we see filling two distinct needs.

You may not have encountered it yet, but Windows XP Professional and Windows Vista Home Premium can only act as a file or print server for under ten PCs* (the limit for XP Home and Vista Home Basic is five). Companies adding a tenth PC run smack into this limit, and the only Microsoft alternative is Windows Server or Windows Small Business Server at $600 to $1,000 or more just for the software. Using a NAS device allows sharing to essentially unlimited numbers of Windows, Mac, and UNIX desktops.

The second application is cheap storage. Graphic artists or printers might use them to store large amounts of data. Most of these devices allow access from the Internet via FTP, perfect for giving remote users or clients a way to send and receive large files directly to the office. Home users might actually consider a NAS device for storing digital video, photo, or MP3 music file collections, in order to get the increased protection against a single hard drive failing.

NAS devices do have some minor down sides. Software cannot run on them directly, so they cannot function in a client-server architecture (such as a database server). Backups (except for NAS-to-NAS, or NAS-to-itself backups) must be run from another PC.

Overall, NAS devices are well worth a look for businesses looking for a simple file server and/or cheap, fast storage.

*Note: Microsoft advertises the limit of Windows XP as ten connections, however, since establishing a connection actually makes two connections initially, around eight or nine PCs is the maximum we have found to be usable. Similarly, XP Home only effectively works with four other PCs.

August 2007

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