Three NAS Drives and a Gizmo

Jack Neubart discovers several options for networking at home

NAS stands for network-attached storage. It essentially describes network storage options for the home and office. There’s a lot of technical gobbledygook attached to this storage option, but suffice to say that you can use it to share data among computers, use the network drive as a media hub to stream movies and tunes, share printers (via onboard USB ports), and possibly use these drives for data backups as well. Those USB ports can also be used to attach other compatible devices, such as flash drives and even hard drives (for data transfer or backup to the attached hard drive, as applicable). However, be aware that the connected drive may need to be reformatted for this purpose, which means all data will be wiped out.

Network drives look more or less like typical external hard drives, with one exception: They do not connect to your host computer but instead, via Ethernet cable, connect to your wireless network. Any computer on your network can read from and write to these drives once you’ve logged on from that computer. The drive comes pre-configured with specific “shares”—one of which is your “private” or “admin” share.

A share is a shared folder, but that doesn’t mean everyone gets to share it. It could just be shared among computers in your local area network (LAN), specifically your home network. You can password-protect shares and grant limited access, all by setting up user accounts and groups. And you can add to these at any time and adjust other settings using a Web-based administration tool. When you turn the drive on, it may take a few minutes for all the protocols to fall into place. Much of it runs on autopilot. Initially you’ll need to set up a user name and password for login (don’t lose these, or you may have to reset the entire system, which may also erase all data). That’s it in a nutshell.

Network vs. Typical External Hard Drive

One of the advantages of a network drive is that it disregards your operating system. I can read from and write to my NAS drive from Windows or Mac, or the Great Cosmic Computer on Planet 9 (if it speaks the same computer language). With my earth-bound everyday drives, I can only exchange information effectively if that drive was formatted for the computer’s operating system (OS). I might be able to read from the drive, such as copy files, but not write to that drive if it has been formatted for another OS. For cross-compatibility I would need a drive formatted for DOS, which has some inherent limitations. However, sharing data with a network drive is nowhere as fast as with a conventional drive.

Unlike the typical hard drive, which is only accessible from the connected computer, a network drive is accessible from anywhere on the planet via the Internet. It may require setting up a special remote access account initially through the browser login site.

I’ve recently come across several options for creating a home network. These include the Western Digital My Book World Edition (at Amazon: WD My Book World Edition) and Seagate BlackArmor NAS 220 (at Amazon: Seagate BlackArmor NAS 220) for increasingly more demanding work environments, and on a smaller scale, Verbatim’s 1 TB Network Storage Drive (at Amazon: Verbatim 1 TB Network Storage Drive), and SimpleTech’s SimpleNET NAS Head USB 2.0 Portable Dongle (At Amazon: SimpleNET NAS Head USB 2.0 Portable Dongle). That last one is a mouthful and an odd creature, to boot.

RAID Defined

Before we go any further, we need to define a basic term involved in computer storage: RAID. RAID stands for Random Array of Independent (or Inexpensive) Disks. A RAID drive is comprised of two or more disks configured to operate in tandem, within a housing with a central controller. You may be able to hot-swap disks in select RAID drives, but many require that the drives be replaced by an authorized service center, or at the very least, require complete shutdown before swapping out any drive. Normally, the drives in a RAID system must be matched by brand, model, and capacity. Of course, you can’t mix and match IDE with SATA drives, which use different controllers and pin configurations.

The basic two-drive RAID configuration can be set up so that one disk mimics the other, serving as a constant backup in case of failure. This is the “mirrored” drive, or RAID 1. RAID 0 has both drives operating together, but instead of backing each other up, they each hold pieces of information to provide faster throughput, forming a meandering stream of data. The problem is that if one of these “striped” drives goes down, the data may be totally corrupted and irretrievable. The down side to the mirrored drive is slower operation and half the storage capacity. In other words, if you buy a 2 TB RAID 1 drive you’re effectively only getting 1 TB of storage; with a 2 TB RAID 0 drive, you get 2 TB (minus what the system requires in each case).

RAID drives are usually configured one way or the other out of the box. The best way to reconfigure the drive is via a hardware switch. Using software to change the RAID configuration may slow the drive down.

Our Options

Western Digital (WD) has several NAS systems, beginning with this 2 TB RAID edition. It is Mac Time Machine-compatible, but may require that the drive’s firmware be updated (log in via your browser – on Mac, enter via Bonjour – and select the Advanced Mode, then System tab and Update). At least that’s in theory. I couldn’t get Time Machine to use the WD My Book World drive for backups for some inexplicable reason. So I’ll just continue to use it as a shared drive, without backups. After all, the drive is stylish and runs extremely quiet—and otherwise operates quite effortlessly, being readily accessible from any computer I own—PC, Intel Mac, and pre-Intel Mac. It’s also from the generation of WD green drives, so it’s more energy-efficient. This drive was configured out of the box and remains a RAID 1 drive.

Also a RAID 1 drive out of the box, the Seagate BlackArmor NAS 220 is metal and built like the proverbial tank. It consequently has less of an aesthetic than the WD drive, which is all white with rounded corners. The one thing this drive was not configured to do was work with Apple’s Time Machine. But since it is firmware-updatable, that may change in the future.

Both the WD and Seagate network drives are designed to remain on 24/7. That doesn’t necessarily apply to Verbatim’s Network Storage Drive, which is a compact 1 TB solution. This is a single disk drive, so there’s no option for any RAID configuration. This Verbatim drive is a very uncomplicated network solution that you may want to avail yourself of for a home network.

SimpleTech’s SimpleNET NAS Head USB 2.0 Portable Dongle essentially lets you turn any USB hard drive into a network drive. It features FAT32, NTFS, HFS+, and EXT3 (network sharing) file system support. With its two USB 2 ports, it can be used like other network devices, for any number of file-sharing purposes, and is compatible with all current operating systems.

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