Network Attached Storage (NAS) drives plug straight into your router rather than your desktop or laptop—and while this has some drawbacks (such as slower file transfer times, comparatively speaking), this setup also has plenty of benefits.
To begin with, the files on a NAS drive are accessible from any computer or device on your network, and can even be made available over the web too. If you've got a family repository of music, movies, and photos, or if you and your colleagues need access to a shared group of files and folders, a NAS is ideal. There's no need to remember to keep a particular computer switched on or a particular hard disk attached—NAS drives are always accessible, around the clock.
Another key benefit is data redundancy. While you can get NAS drives with just a single disk bay, most have two or more slots for hard drives, and these drives can be configured in various ways: You can, if you want, pool all the storage together and treat multiple disks as a single volume, giving you a serious amount of storage in one place.
Alternatively, you can have your NAS mirror the data on your hard disks, so you end up with drives that are exact copies of each other—very handy from a backup perspective if one of the drives should suffer a technical failure. All of this is handled automatically by the NAS drive software, so it's really simple to operate.
Many of these disk modes are referred to as RAID or Redundant Array of Independent Disks: RAID 0 in the case of pooled storage and RAID 1 in the case of mirrored disks, for example. While buying multiple hard disks and a NAS unit to hold them does mean extra expense, you can set up configurations that aren't possible with the hard drives you've got inside your desktop or laptop.
NAS drives are able to run their own applications too, so you could have a NAS that's connected to your Dropbox account, or one that runs a custom VPN (Virtual Private Network) for you. Another popular option for NAS drives is Plex, which lets you store audio, video, and images on your storage and stream them to wherever they're needed. (It's a bit like having your own private Spotify or Netflix service.)
If you've been convinced that a NAS drive is for you—whether to back up key files, stream movies around the home, or anything else—then you've got plenty of different models to choose from, at all kinds of price points. While this kind of network storage management can seem daunting to the beginner, modern NAS drives aren't at all difficult to configure or use, and you can be up and running in just a few minutes.
Setting Up A NAS Drive
We can't give you detailed instructions for configuring every NAS drive on the market, but we can give you an example of how to set up one NAS to give you an idea of what's involved—specifically the Synology DiskStation DS220+. The two-bay unit is ideal for users who need an affordable, straightforward NAS with plenty of versatility. Other NAS drives will have similar setup processes— especially other Synology models, of course.
Depending on where you buy your NAS, it may already come with hard drives installed, but if not, this is your first job: The NAS specifications should tell you which hard drives are compatible, and then you can go out and buy as much storage as you need. Most modern NAS units have hard drive bays that are simple to get at and operate, and in most cases you won't even need a screwdriver to slot your disks in.
With that done, it's time to initialize the NAS: This is typically done through a web interface on a desktop or laptop computer connected to the same Wi-Fi network as your NAS. In the case of the Synology DS220+, once the drive is detected you'll need to download and install the DiskStation Manager software, which handles formatting, file transfers, and other disk operations on Synology NAS drives.
Before you can start transferring files between the NAS and your other devices, you'll need to pick a disk configuration—this is where you get options like RAID. Do your research beforehand to make sure you're picking the right configuration for you (though in the case of Synology drives, each option is fully explained for you through the interface). You'll also need to provide a username and password for restricting access to the key settings on the NAS drive.
Assuming everything has been correctly set up, your NAS drive can then be accessed through your web browser, as well as File Explorer (on Windows) and Finder (on macOS)—you can begin moving files across just as you would with any other drive. You can also choose to install additional utilities (which Synology calls packages) for a host of specific use cases: starting a Plex media server, for example, or using the NAS as an automated backup destination.
Remote access when you're away from home is handled through a web browser, and with Synology drives this is called QuickConnect. You need to enable the feature through the NAS settings first, and you'll then get a custom URL—enter this in any browser tab, input your username and password, and you can get at your files from wherever you happen to be.
There are mobile apps too, developed to do everything you might want to do on your NAS: DS File for Android and iOS, for example, in the case of Synology drives. You can use these apps to do everything from backing up the photos you take on your smartphone to streaming movies from your NAS drive, and again you'll be able to get at your NAS drive whether you're on your home Wi-Fi network or traveling further afield.