A dedicated NAS device is like a cloud server for your home — it allows you to back up and access data over the Internet. But NAS devices are more than just celebrated hard drives. With minimal effort, they unlock a world of functionality for computer geeks, movie snobs, music lovers or even small businesses.
Today we will not cover the best NAS devices, but we will explain how they work and some of the best reasons to own one.
What is a NAS device?
In its most basic sense, NAS or “Network Attached Storage” is just a repository of files connected to your home Internet. Authorized devices inside and outside your home can use this storage to wirelessly back up, download, or transfer files.
It’s like having a super fast Dropbox server in your home. In addition to the NAS device going much further than Dropbox — you can use the NAS to create your own streaming service, experiment with VMs (great for hosting Minecraft servers), back up your entire computer (including settings and preferences), or send automatically back up your data to other storage solutions.
Companies like Synology, TerraMaster, QNAP and ioSafe sell dedicated NAS devices, which are small and energy efficient computers with huge slots for hard drives or SSDs. These dedicated NAS devices are easy to set up and use.
To be clear, the features listed in this article do not require a dedicated NAS device. You can enable online file sharing on any PC or Mac, for example. And if you have an old computer, a Raspberry Pi or an NVIDIA Shield lying around, you can turn it into a NAS device.
But I usually suggest buying a dedicated NAS from a brand like Synology or QNAP. Not only is setup easier with a “real” NAS, but you’ll end up using it a lot less electricity. Dedicated NAS devices are energy efficient, compact and quiet – three things you can’t say about a converted computer. (Nevertheless, I will shout out some alternatives in this article.)
Access your files on any device, anywhere
Do you know how the Network tab exists in Windows and macOS files? Once you’ve set up the NAS, you can use that card to access its contents from any computer in your home. Backing up and downloading files requires nothing more than dragging and dropping, and you can open files from the NAS directly into applications such as Microsoft Word or Photoshop.
Other devices, such as smartphones or security cameras, can also access these files. And when you want to keep things private, you can apply password protection or a firewall to your NAS device (or password-protect certain folders).
If you want to go one step further, you can even enable remote access on your NAS. This allows you and other authorized users to access its content from anywhere in the world. If you’re a musician, for example, you can use NAS to quickly share or collaborate on projects with others (and enjoy relatively fast upload and download speeds).
Now, port forwarding and remote access come with certain security issues. If you decide to enable remote access on your NAS, I suggest programming some firewalls and setting up the VPN functionality of your NAS to reduce the risk of ransomware and data loss — you can’t eliminate this risk, so please take it seriously . (You should back up your backups, which we’ll cover in the next section.)
Backups and data redundancy
Most people buy a NAS device to back up their data. Not only is it easier than dragging around a portable hard drive, but NAS devices can create a RAID array that ensures data redundancy. Basically, if one disk fails (and all disks eventually fail), your data is still secure on other disks inside your NAS device.
You can even use a NAS to routinely back up your entire computer. Both the Backup and Restore tool on Windows and Time Machine on Mac work with NAS devices, which means you can wirelessly secure your computer’s content, settings, settings, and activities in case something goes wrong.
Keep in mind that NAS devices are not one-size-fits-all backup solution – you need to have backups of your backups. Catastrophic disk failures can occur even with a solid RAID setup. House fires and other works of God are unpredictable. And if you enable remote access on your NAS, there is always a small chance of ransomware.
I suggest you follow rules 3-2-1; make three backups of your files using two different media formats, and most importantly, keep one backup outside your home. This is pretty easy with a NAS device. I routinely back up important files of my NAS on a large external drive (which I keep in a fireproof box) and select folders in my NAS automatically on Dropbox.
Build your own streaming service
Dedicated NAS devices are a popular option for streaming media, and with a service like Plex, you can build your own streaming service for movies, TV shows, and music. All you need are media files that you can rip from discs or download online.
Services like Plex turn your NAS device into a “media server” with deep customization features and automatic metadata retrieval (for movie ratings, show descriptions, subtitles, album covers, etc.). All devices within your home network, including smart TVs, can access this media via the Plex app or website.
And if you want to take things to the next level, you can provide remote access for your NAS-based media server. Family and friends can stream content from the server regardless of their location — it’s really like you’ve created your own streaming service!
This is the only concern; cheaper NAS devices are not always powerful enough for streaming (especially 4K streaming or simultaneous transmission to many devices). If you plan to use a NAS device for streaming media, be sure to check out the reviews and see what people are saying about the performance. (Ideally, you should have no complaints about 4K streaming, even if it seems excessive for your needs.)
To be clear, Plex is just the most popular option for home media servers. There are many alternatives, including Jellyfin, Kodi and Enby.
I should also note that, for streaming media, a dedicated NAS device may not be the most cost-effective or most powerful option (it’s just the easiest option, especially if you have no experience). The redesigned PC is great for streaming media, NVIDIA Shield TV makes a very efficient Plex server, and experienced users sometimes opt for an Intel NUC computer.
Access devices on your home network from anywhere
Every dedicated NAS device supports VPN functionality, which you should absolutely enable if you plan to access the NAS outside of your home. Setting up a VPN server on your NAS device adds an extra layer of security, helping you avoid ransomware attacks and other nasty things.
But this feature of a VPN server comes with a handy advantage — if you want, you can use it to remotely access all the devices on your home network (LAN over WAN) with a nice little layer of security. You can send documents to your printer via this server, for example, or even access files on your desktop computer.
To be clear, exposing your home network to the Internet is a very risky idea. And since NAS devices typically use outdated protocols (like older versions of OpenVPN), they’re not exactly the pinnacle of security. Most people will be fine, but some people will screw up.
If you decide to go this route, install Docker on your NAS device to isolate the VPN server. As I will explain below, this Docker can run VMs with more updated security protocols, which should better protect you from hackers – however, you will never have 100% protection.
Experiment with virtual machines
Here’s one pretty niche thing; you can use Docker to experiment with virtual machines on your NAS device. This will isolate the VM from other parts of your NAS device, and more importantly, it will open the door to new features and new experiences.
A virtual machine or VM is exactly what it sounds like – a computer that you emulate through software. Let’s say you’re a Mac user who wants to play a Windows XP game. Instead of destroying your Mac with weird software and partitioned disks, you can simply use Docker to run Windows XP VM on your NAS device. You can then access this VM from your Mac, either via your local network or remote connection.
Developers can also use a NAS device to test applications for modern operating systems, such as Android or Windows 11. And if you want to run something like Minecraft server from your NAS device, Docker can isolate it with the correct software and any security protocols you want to use.
And if you just want to increase security for long distance connections, Docker is your best friend. Use it to set up a VPN server with updated security and other features.
Now, a purpose-built NAS device may not be the most cost-effective or powerful option for a VM. You can use the Raspberry Pi to run lightweight VMs, for example, and a redesigned PC may be the best option for more demanding virtual machines.