Find the Right NAS Drive
When desktop publishing was all the rage in the Mac computing world, hard drive space was not much of an issue for me. Most of the documents I created were small with few graphics. The biggest threat to hard drive space was the fact that I’m both a download junkie and a digital pack rat. Some of the Macs I have had were too slow for the whole “Rip, Mix, Burn” revolution. The bad news that is I missed out on most of the fun; the good news is that my hard drive needs were still quite modest.
Now that computers have become the focal point of the digital media lifestyle, things are a bit different. Desktop publishing files that occupied less than 1 megabyte of hard drive space have given way to audio and video files that can occupy several hundred megabytes or perhaps a gigabyte. It’s also not uncommon for there to be multiple computers per household all sharing a single network and wanting access to the same files. Rather than have copies of the same file on multiple hard drives, many users prefer to keep their media files in a central location and share the files among all computers on the network. The problem is that not everyone has, or wants to maintain, a separate computer as a file server for the home media system. As a solution, some users are choosing network attached storage devices.
What Is a Network Attached Storage Device?
A Network Attached Storage (NAS) device is essentially a small file server. Once connected to your network, a NAS drive has its own IP address and can be accessed by any computer on your network. These devices typically consist of one or more hard drives, a network connection, and a stripped down operating system to control basic functions. In addition to providing centralized storage, many of the devices currently on the market also provide additional services such as FTP access, print servers, or music servers. The idea is to get your files in one place so they can be accessed by every computer on your network.
Why Would I Want One?
I chose a NAS drive for many of the same reasons that other users have: centralized file access, ability to serve media files, and convenience when compared to running a dedicated file server. While the first two reasons are pretty self explanatory, given my “do it yourself” attitude, why not set up a file server and share files that way?
I set up a file server once several years ago on our small, mixed home network, so I knew it wasn’t that difficult. I could have set up one computer to serve media files, share printers, and have the same FTP capabilities as a NAS drive, but doing so would have entailed installing, configuring, and updating multiple pieces of software. I’d also have to purchase one or more hard drives.
The computers that I might have chosen to use as part-time file servers were often being used for other tasks. Adding file server duties to that list would probably have resulted in a performance hit. I had also experienced problems in the past getting the server to “wake up” on network activity. Leaving the server on 24/7 without ever putting it in sleep mode seemed to consume a lot more power than simply having one device designed specifically for that purpose.
What Should I Look For When Buying a Network Attached Storage Device?
My initial experiences purchasing a NAS device have not been as pleasant I anticipated. Although I had done some homework prior to the purchase, I still experienced numerous headaches along the way. Hopefully, I can save you some of those headaches. I don’t focus on such things as how much drive capacity you need. My primary concern is how do we achieve an acceptable level of Mac support. I’m also not comparing any specific devices. Perhaps that’s a topic for a future issue.
What reputation does the manufacturer have for the overall quality of their products? The level of Mac support a particular product has is almost irrelevant if the unit is constantly being returned for repair or replacement. You wouldn’t trust your data to a hard drive manufacturer with a shoddy reputation; why should this be any different?
Assuming that the product has a reasonable warranty, how difficult is it to get repairs done? This process varies by manufacturer, so make sure you understand it in its entirety. I knew, for example, that my drive had a reasonable warranty. Unfortunately I didn’t read their return procedure carefully enough before purchasing the unit. Their procedure requires you to fax them a copy of your receipt after receiving the e-mail containing a Return Merchandise Authorization number. Users without ready access to a fax machine will likely find this process a major inconvenience should they have to return the drive.
What kind of Mac support can you expect from the company? Many of these devices can be used with Macs even if the company doesn’t have a stellar history of Mac support. If you are fluent translating PC-oriented troubleshooting techniques into the Mac world, that’s not much of a concern, but for others it’s a very frustrating process. Technical support crews don’t always do a good job explaining what they are trying to test. I once spent about ten minutes booting a Windows machine and running a series of commands before realizing half way through that I could have run the same commands from my Mac had I realized what the technician wanted me to test.
What is the setup procedure like? Most NAS devices use a browser-based setup procedure. The setup wizards, though, often require the use of Internet Explorer. There is usually an alternative procedure for those of us not using Windows, but it may not be explained as well as you would like. In my case, I found that the procedure for setting up my drive without Windows was documented in the manual. After several failed configuration attempts over two days, an Internet search led me to a post which pointed out an error in the setup procedure.
Does the device have user-replaceable hard drives? There are some NAS devices, such as the D-Link DNS 323 and the NETGEAR ReadyNAS DUO, that leave this open as an option. I can think of at least two scenarios where this might be a useful. First, this allows starting with smaller capacity drives and swapping them for higher capacity drives as your storage needs increase. In theory, one could repeat this process several times. Second, once the device is out of warranty, problem drives could be replaced without retuning the device to the manufacturer.
How Well Does the Device Work With a Mac?
Beyond the technical support issues, there is the question of how well the device will work with Macs. Finding the answer to that question can be interesting at best. Information as basic as how well the Mac can access the device can be a bit of a puzzle to work out. Sometimes the information presented appears contradictory. Articlebase, for example, has an article about NAS drives that says:
Native Mac support is spotty so make sure the device is compatible with your Mac and your version of the Mac OS. Macs are able to access Windows shares so this really isn’t much of an issue.
Try making sense of that when you’ve been up too late the night before.
I take a bit of an issue with blanket statements such as these. Most NAS devices support several networking and file transfer protocols, and Macs understand these protocols for the most part. The problem arises in choosing a protocol and hard drive format combination that respects all of the Mac’s file attributes. I formatted my device, for example, using ext3 and accessed the drive using the Windows-friendly SMB protocol, which the device supports. Most of the time the shared drives mounted fine, but periodically I experienced situations where I had to make multiple attempts to mount the device. I also have to be a bit more careful with filenames. OS X permits characters in file names that some protocol/drive format combinations do not handle well.
Even if the drive format and protocol options are fully supported on Macs, there are other considerations to be examined. Does the fact that the device can be used as a media server mean that it fully supports all the formats that iTunes understands? If you often purchase content from the iTunes Music Store, you’ll want to make sure that those filetypes are supported.
Some Mac-friendly technologies, such as Bonjour, are not fully supported by all NAS devices. My drive, for example, needs to have Bonjour networking support enabled if I intend to use it as an iTunes music server. That’s not necessarily an unreasonable requirement, but you can’t complete the initial configuration process using Bonjour. Although the whole point of Bonjour is to make discovery and setup of network devices easier, you can’t take advantage of this without walking through the more complex setup procedure.
As you can see from this brief summary, there are many issues to consider when searching for the right NAS device. It doesn’t touch on many of the convenience features some of these devices offer. In the end I suppose the best advice I can give is to do a lot of homework taking your specific needs into consideration. Once you have chosen two or three likely candidates, download the manuals and give them a quick read. I think you will be glad you did. Here’s a list of some of the more common manufacturers to get you started.
Also in This Series
- Give Alert Sounds a Little Personality · March 2012
- Create Your Own iPhone Ringtones · February 2012
- Create Your Own Homemade Audio Book · December 2011
- Upgrade to Lion Painlessly · August 2011
- Make the Most of TextEdit · July 2011
- Using the Free Disk Utility on Your Mac · May 2011
- Making Use of QuickTime X · March 2011
- Making the Most of What’s Already on Your Mac · February 2011
- Making the Most of What’s Already on Your Mac · January 2011
- Complete Archive