How to pick the best NAS for your business

NAS appliances can help you grow your business - here's what you should look for

Cloud storage may be all the rage, but it has its limits. Access can be slow when you're working with large quantities of data, provider outages are a constant worry -- and you're not in charge of your own security. In many cases, a local NAS appliance is a smarter choice.

Of course, you could go the whole hog and configure a dedicated file server. But NAS appliances are ideal for small businesses with evolving demands. They're inexpensive and space-efficient, you can deploy and manage them with ease and you can increase capacity by simply slotting in additional hard disks -- or exchanging larger drives for smaller ones.

Many NAS vendors provide free apps for backing up servers and workstations and, in some cases, virtualised environments as well, so it's easy to set up your NAS as a first-line backup solution. You can replicate your data to a secondary appliance in a remote location too, for the assurance of mind of off-site backup, and most vendors support the main commercial cloud providers.

It's no surprise that NAS appliances are becoming extremely popular with SMBs, and there's a huge range of models to choose from. We tested both desktop and rack models from four of the biggest names in the industry - Netgear, Qnap, Qsan and Synology -- to help you make the right buying decision.

Get off my cloud

The cloud is a tempting proposition for small business data backup but there are many pitfalls to consider. High capacity cloud storage is expensive with providers charging on-going monthly fees, whereas a NAS appliance represents a single, up-front cost.

If the internet connection fails or your provider goes offline, all your backed-up data is inaccessible. A NAS appliance provides always-on access to data and recovery over the LAN will be much faster as well.

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Even basic business disaster recovery plans call for on-site and off-site copies of data so you could use a mix of NAS and cloud provider to satisfy these requirements. Businesses with multiple offices can dispense with the cloud portion completely, as most NAS appliances provide replication services between local and remote systems.

A sign of great capacity

If you're planning to use your NAS as a backup vault, or as secondary storage for servers and workstations, you'll want to choose one with plenty of spare capacity. That doesn't necessarily mean that you have to buy terabytes of storage right now that you might not need until 2023, but look for a unit with spare bays, or with the option to connect external expansion units so you can add more drives to an existing array.

It's also possible to expand a RAID array by replacing the disks one at a time with larger units, but it can take days to resynchronise your data, during which time you'll be without the protection of multiple redundant disks. It's also wasteful, as you lose your investment in the original drives.

What sort of hard disks should you choose? For typical SMB workloads, there's nothing wrong with mechanical SATA drives, which offer excellent value and good performance. Choose NAS-specific models, though, which are designed for 24/7 use: we use Seagate's IronWolf NAS drives, which feature vibration compensation to help prolong their usable life. NAS appliances that support Seagate's IronWolf Health Management (IHM) technology can also provide advanced monitoring services to give you a heads-up if one of your disks is in danger of failing.

Getting your data faster

SATA drives are fine for most offices, but for I/O-intensive apps such as databases and virtualisation hosts, consider an appliance that works with fast SSDs, or that has a built-in data cache. Some models support data tiering, where frequently accessed data is kept on high-speed SSDs, while the rest lives on a cheaper SATA array. Think about bandwidth, too. If you have lots of users accessing large files and using the appliance as a backup destination, a single Gigabit Ethernet connection could be a bottleneck. Choose an appliance with 10GbE -- or that has a PCIe slot so you can add a 10GbE adapter later on. Of course, you'll need a 10GbE switch too to get the benefit.

Also, note that there's more than one type of 10GbE connector. 10GbE SFP+ fibre ports support longer cable distances than copper 10GbE ports -- but you normally need to factor in the extra cost of an optical transceiver.

Far more than files

A modern SMB NAS appliance can do much more than merely provide secure primary storage. Software features such as web servers, email servers, databases and even VPNs are common; some models can even run a hypervisor, so you can host entire virtual machines, running their own operating systems and application stacks, inside the NAS.

The feature set can vary a lot between vendors, however, so check out each one's app store to see what they offer. The hardware makes a difference, too: appliances with 32-bit CPUs may have a more limited choice than those with 64-bit CPUs.

On that note, it's normally worth choosing the most powerful CPU you can afford, as this will give you plenty of flexibility as your workloads change and grow. If you want to take advantage of on-appliance virtualisation, pick a CPU with plenty of cores, so your VMs don't interfere with main storage services.

Don't skimp on memory either as each app will need its share. We recommend 4GB as a minimum for business use, and you should also consider memory upgrade potential as this can help extend the appliance's working life.

Storage security

Like any computer, a NAS can be hacked if you leave it unprotected. Make sure its firmware is kept up to date, and change the default administrator password as soon as possible. Ensure that user accounts are well protected and only grant access to shares and services on a need-to-know basis. Some vendors provide apps that automatically scan for weak passwords, unprotected shares, unsecured apps, open ports and so forth, and these are well worth running from time to time.

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There's just one security measure you might not want to enable, and that's real-time virus scanning. Many NAS systems offer this feature, but it can have a significant impact on performance. It's often better to schedule scans for quiet times. If you haven't explored the NAS market lately, you might well be surprised at what it has to offer. The appliances we tested offer an impressive range of features at prices to suit every pocket -- so read our best NAS drives of 2019 to see which one will solve your storage demands.

This article originally appeared in PC Pro issue 296

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