Network Attached Storage, or NAS, can be an extremely powerful device that has the potential to transform your digital life. Many of you might think that NAS is used in small businesses or enterprise environments; but it has really evolved to become an essential must-have in your home as well. In short, NAS is a multi-purpose server in a box. It’s a small computer with a processor, RAM, hard drive / SSD, and a definite-purpose operating system. It is like having Google Drive, Google Photo, iCloud, Spotify, Netflix, etc., all in one in your home (think personal cloud). It gives you the true freedom when it comes to your personal data.
As the name suggests, NAS is a Network-Attached-Storage. The fundamental purpose is to store your files and make them available when needed wherever you are as long as you’re connected to the network / internet. Yes, you can plug in a USB drive to your computer and bring it with you everywhere. But you would only be able to get your files with the drive plugged in, and only from the device where it’s plugged into. With a NAS, even when I’m out and about, I can use just about any internet-connected device to access files from my NAS, so I’m always connected. You can also set permission for the share folders such that only the right people have the right access to certain content. You are in control! NAS has grown to be so much more than simple file servers. You can stream videos, host websites, run your own email server, you can even run virtual machines (Windows, Linux, etc) on it.
I plan to release tutorials on all the practical uses for a NAS in more detail so that you can get the most out of it if you already own one, or you might be convinced to get on the NAS wagon. For this post, I will first share my personal usage scenarios for a NAS:
FILE STORAGE / BACKUP
In the most practical sense, laptops nowadays are really taking over desktops for the everyday computing needs due to its size, portability, and the ever-increasing processing power. But most laptops only allow for one SSD/Hard Drive. The premium to upgrade the SSD storage option feels like a money grab from the maker. Having a NAS means you can offload all your static files (music, movies, photos, etc.) and never worry about running out of space on your laptop. Terabyte hard drives don’t cost a lot these days. You can change your laptop without having to worry about migrating your data. Even if you still prefer to keep your data local on your laptop, at a minimum you can have a backup destination for all your precious photos and documents. From my personal experience, it’s a good practice to backup everything, then keep a backup of the backup! You set up “share folders” on your NAS, and each share folder can be mounted as a network drive in Windows. You can access your files externally via FTP, WebDAV, Drive (similar to Google Drive), or by using a browser with the web interface.
VIDEO / MUSIC STREAMING
I collect movies, lots of them. With a NAS, you can stream music and movies directly to your phone, and even to your TV. Downloaded movies come in all kinds of containers such as .mp4, .mov, .mkv, .avi, .rmvb, etc. These videos may be encoded with codecs not natively supported by your phone or computer. Then comes the term “transcoding”, which is the process where the video is translated on-the-fly to a format that can be natively watched on a device. Most modern NAS’s offer video transcoding abilities (higher end models support multiple streams at 4k) to allow you to enjoy your media on pretty much any device. Synology NAS, for example, the Video Station package will catalog all your movies and automatically fill in the meta data (click to see example) and it offers the ability to download subtitles on demand. The client app is available for devices running on iOS and Android (including smart TV’s). Obviously you’ll need to download the movies in order to stream them from your NAS. This brings me to the next section.
BIT TORRENT DOWNLOADS
Downloading movies illegally is, well, illegal. I’m here simply to explain what a NAS can do, you must exercise discretion on what and where you download things. With that out of the way, a NAS can be your personal downloader. The Download Station package on Synology does just that. It is a fully capable bit torrent client; it can of course download via FTP, or via direct links as well. I use the DS Get companion app on the iPhone to search for the torrent I want. I can click on the magnet link and the request will be sent to the NAS to begin downloading. There’s even a Google Chrome extension to allow you to do the same on the desktop browser. You can even set up watch folders where if you drop a .torrent file to that folder, download begins automatically. And if you don’t already know, you can find pretty much anything on bit torrent, including movies, music, software, and beyond.
This website is hosted on my NAS in the basement. I don’t need to worry about paying monthly fees for hosting a website elsewhere. If you want, you can even host multiple sites on the same NAS. Most importantly, I have full control of my data.
MAIL / CALENDAR / CONTACTS
Other than hosting the website locally, all my emails are stored locally as well. Have you ever thought about using an email address that doesn’t end with gmail.com, outlook.com, or yahoo.com? If you purchase a domain name (i.e. theyangfamily.ca), you can use a professional email address of your choice. No longer do you have to be John234, you can just be firstname.lastname@example.org. With CalDAV and CardDAV integration, I no longer use Google / Apple Calendar or the default iOS contacts on my iPhone. I just like to be less dependent on tech giants with my personal data.
Think about virtual machine as an operating system within an operating system. I run multiple virtual machines on my NAS, including Windows 10, Linux, and DSM (the Synology NAS operating system, you can run a virtual version). I have a personal laptop and one for work. Obviously I am not supposed to be doing any personal business on my work laptop. But I can simply log into my Windows virtual machine with a RDP session (this can be done on the phone as well!). I don’t have any need for my personal laptop anymore because I can just use the virtual machine hosted on my NAS anywhere I want. The Synology NAS offers snapshot capability, which means you can capture the state of your OS at a particular moment, and you can revert to that moment at any time. You can even create another virtual machine based on a certain snapshot of the current one. Feel free to mess things up, open virus-infected files; with a few clicks, everything is restored to the state before. For me, it means my NAS, other than its core functions, is also my computer that’s accessible from everywhere.
The most popular NAS brands are Synology and QNAP. I personally own the Synology DS212, DS214PLAY, and DS218+, as well as a custom-built machine running on Xpenology (more on this in the near future). Synology is known for its award-winning operating system called DSM (DiskStation Manager). No matter what hardware you have, if you don’t have the software to back it up, it all goes to waste. DSM is what differentiates the Synology NAS from the competition for its stability, easy of use and its intuitiveness. My future posts will be based on Synology NAS since I own a few and I’ve spent lots of time testing the functionality and discovering issues and solutions. Please stay tuned for a whole series of Synology NAS tutorials coming soon.