RAID 1 (Mirror)
A NAS (Network Attached Storage) puts storage onto your network, where it can be accessed by many computers. They often have more than one hard drive which can allow you to have automated copies of your data, which is known as RAID. A common type of RAID found on NAS devices is RAID 1, which will make two hard drives into a mirror copy of one another. Some manufacturers call RAID 1 Safe mode. If you have a NAS with two 1TB hard drives and set them to RAID 1 mirroring, instead of 2TB of storage (1TB x2) you only get 1TB. Everything you store to the NAS gets saved to both drives automatically. The theory is that if one of the drives fail, you can access all of the data from the other one. In practice that is not always the case. More on that later.
RAID 0 (Stripe)
Another common NAS option is RAID 0. The “R” in RAID stands for redundant, however there is no redundancy in RAID 0, so it’s not a real RAID type. If you setup the same two 1TB disks as RAID 0, you will get a 2TB volume to store your data on. The problem is that every single file you write to the NAS will be split into tiny pieces and distributed across both drives. If one drive fails, you not only lose the data from that failed drive, but also from the non-failed drive as it only contains half the pieces of each file. RAID 0 should never be used for long term storage, but can be fast so is often used for video editing.
So that’s the hardware taken care of. What other things should you look out for when choosing a NAS?
Another problem with most NAS devices is the non-standard filesystems they use to store the data on the disks. If the NAS itself fails, you cannot usually read the disks by attaching them to a standard PC. So even in RAID 1 mirror mode, you could end up with no usable copies of your data. Most NAS drives run a simplified version of Linux, but only some of them use standard Linux filesystems like ext2/3/4.
Backup my backup?
Some NAS drives have a USB port to allow you to backup the data to an external hard drive. This is great, as long as you can access the backup data on a regular PC, and it doesn’t need to go through the NAS. You can imagine why that would be a problem.
To summarise, NAS drives can be a great way to upgrade your home or small office storage. They can allow collaboration and sharing of files between users, and should simplify your backup process. Just remember that a NAS is a small server that needs to be backed up as a matter of urgency. As long as you have that covered then a NAS can be a smart addition to your network.