Network-attached storage devices

For many small- to medium-sized creative businesses, a network-attached storage (NAS) device is a must. NAS drives enable firms to have a shared place for media, allowing any creative in the company to access projects and materials.

Rather than relying on passing projects between cluttered Drop Boxes and Shared Folders, these units offer a simple central repository for creative work that – assuming you keep its internal file and folder structure tidy – provides an easy way manage your workflow. They also provide a secure backup of your work, and are easy to set up and look after using browser-based interfaces.

Most small creative firms don’t have in-house technical support, so prefer NAS drives over traditional servers as they’re easier to administrate. Setting them up is often as easy as plugging them into the network, where they’ll automatically find your router (using DHCP) and be instantly accessible to all Macs and Windows PCs. Initial administration – such as setting up the name of the device, the level of redundancy, and user accounts with passwords if you wish – is straightforward too.

There are many different types of NAS devices, so you’ll need to decide which type or mixture of types best fits your needs. The simplest and least expensive are essentially external hard drives with an Ethernet port instead of a USB or FireWire connection. These are great if you’re on a tight budget or just want an easy way to share files, but they offer no way to resurrect your data if the drive inside fails. These types of NAS are also generally quiet, so could sit on your desk or be used in a small studio without annoying anyone.

Large desktop NAS devices offers two, three or four drives – which are usually set up into large virtual drive systems with inherent redundancy using RAID array technology – so if one of the drives fails you don’t lose any of your work. Most of these drives offer a choice of RAID level, so you obtain the right blend of security and speed.

Simple security

The simplest level of RAID is JBOD (Just a Bunch Of Disks), where all of the drives are combined into one virtual disk. This provides an easy-to-access storage area with the maxiumum capacity of the total of all of the drives in the array – but if one drive fails, everything is lost. Oddly, some drive systems use the term JBOD to refer to a succession of separate drives – so when you connect to the device you see each of the individual drives, and if one fails the data on the rest are safe.

RAID 0 writes data across more than one drive in little chunks using a process called striping. This makes writing and reading much faster than a single drive, but again lacks any redundancy if a drive fails. It’s popular for directly connected external hard drives, especially in video post-production and delivers improved performance for copying files to and from your device, but can be wasted on a NAS device when security is more important than speed.

RAID 1 mirrors the contents of one drive on another, so if one drive fails, your data is still intact. With some systems, your data is even secure if the NAS fails, as you can pop one of the drives into a computer and open it there. It’s the most secure form of RAID, but its capacity is limited to half that of the total space on all of your drives.

With four-drive systems, you can combine RAID 0 and RAID 1 to stripe mirrored sets together (RAID 1+0, sometimes written as RAID 10) or mirror striped drives (RAID 0+1), but again you’re limited to half the overall total capacity of the drives. A better option is RAID 5, which spreads data across disks, and uses what’s called a parity block to store information that will allow it to rebuild information if any of the drives fail.

The advantage of RAID 5 is that while it’s as secure as RAID 1 – unless the NAS itself fails – it has a larger usable capacity. So while any system involving RAID 1 offers only half the total, a four-drive NAS with a RAID 5 array offers three-quarters of it. RAID 5 can also be used by three-drive NAS devices, where it offers two-thirds of the total capacity.

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Drives reviewed

Acer Aspire EasyStore

Drobo + DroboShare

Freecom Network Drive Pro

Iomega StorCenter Pro 150D NAS

LaCie 2big network

Thecus N3200

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