Personal Data Security: NAS

Today’s blog post is another in the theme of personal data security and an excerpt from my new book Understanding Personal Data Security. We all have lots of data. Statistically, however, nearly half of us never back it up. As in never. But part of the reason for this might be that our data is scattered among many different computers and devices, making the task of backup difficult.security

Part of the solution is to centralize your data. You don’t have to be a Buddhist like Steve Jobs to understand that simple is better than complex. In the case of your personal data and media files, storing and accessing them from a single location on your home network can make the task of backup that much easier. And the best way to centralized your data is with Network Attached Storage.

You might want to also read my previous blog posts Personal Data Security: Backups and 3-2-1 Backup Rule: Get Offsite before diving into this one.

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Curt Robbins


Network Attached Storage

Typically the best way for home networks to centralize data is using a dedicated hard drive that attaches to your home network, usually via your internet/wi-fi router. Called Network Attached Storage, or NAS, this is a special hard drive (or enclosure that holds multiple drives) that has just enough hardware and software wrapped around it that all of the other computers on your network can recognize it and copy, modify, and delete files. A NAS drive, sometimes called a NAS server, is nothing more than a big storage space into which all of your computers dump their data. You can’t install or run applications using such a device. It’s not a full-fledged computer, but simply intelligent network-accessible storage.

NAS servers have been around long enough that prices have fallen to where consumers can easily afford such a device to centralize their data storage. Some NAS devices include backup software, most of which can perform automated incremental backups (you’ll learn more about these topics in the Backups chapter that follows). Personally, my family and I store all of our data on a NAS, giving us a single drive volume to backup.

There are two primary types of NAS devices, each with a different target audience and cost. Entry-level NAS units have one or two fixed hard drives, meaning the disk drive(s) can’t be swapped out and, thus, the capacity of the device can’t be expanded. If you purchase such a “fixed” NAS, you’ll have to purchase a new one when you either run out of space or one of the disks fails. The other, more robust type of NAS features between two and eight open bays, each of which holds a single, removable disk drive. Some multi-drive (also called multi-bay) NAS models are sold diskless (no pre-installed drives), allowing you to use existing drives or purchase your own. It should be noted that there are a few two-drive NAS models on the market that feature fixed disk drives, meaning both drives can’t be replaced when they die.

One of the best solutions, which strikes a nice middle ground, is a multi-bay NAS that is sold pre-populated with removable drives and even preconfigured for data mirroring. This approach allows you to avoid the hassle of purchasing, installing, and configuring hard disk drives for your NAS, but still allows you to upgrade all drives to achieve more storage capacity or replace a single defective drive unit.

Some manufacturers, like Western Digital, offer a NAS solution for nearly every need and budget. For example, the company’s My Cloud Mirror features two fixed drives and a single USB 3.0 port. The My Cloud EX2 (sporting two bays) and My Cloud EX4 (four bays) both offer removable storage and ship with Western Digital’s NAS-optimized Red drives pre-installed and configured for data mirroring (a real-time data replication scheme described below). The EX series also features two USB 3.0 ports, allowing you to create your offsite backups that much faster and reliably (in real-world performance, USB 3.0 is roughly four to ten times faster than USB 2.0). You’ll learn more about reputable NAS models later in this chapter.

RAID

While more expensive, multi-drive NAS devices offer greater flexibility in terms of how you store and backup your data. For example, most multi-drive NAS servers (including both fixed and removable drive models) offer the ability to run a RAID (Redundant Array of Independent Disks). There are a variety of types, or “levels,” of RAID. According to Wikipedia, “each scheme provides a different balance between the key goals: Reliability and availability, performance, and capacity. RAID levels greater than RAID 0 provide protection against unrecoverable (sector) read errors, as well as whole disk failure.”

It should be noted that a multi-drive RAID setup can also be installed in a PC. The best route, however, is a dedicated NAS plugged into your internet router or Ethernet switch. This saves you the headaches associated with maintaining a full computer and the risks that come with operating it. The likelihood of failure for a PC is greater than for a dedicated NAS server that quietly sits attached to your home network. The NAS will also consume much less power.

Although there are seven levels of RAID multi-drive configuration, only one—RAID 1—is of concern to consumers with home networks. RAID levels 2 through 6 are more performance-oriented and appeal to enterprise organizations trying to do things like optimize database queries and speed real-time online transactions. While your nerdy niece may advocate one of the higher RAID levels, RAID 1 is really all you need.

RAID 1

RAID 1 incorporates mirroring, in which data is written to two or more drives simultaneously to create a “mirrored set.” Thus, if you had a NAS device that supported RAID 1 and featured, say, four drive bays, you could install three drives (leaving one drive bay empty), one of which would be your primary storage and the other two of which would function as your local (onsite) backups that were always current.

RAID 1 illustrates the power of using multiple hard drives in a single drive enclosure (or computer) to protect your data. Think of RAID 1 as a real-time backup system. The disadvantage? This popular RAID standard gives you great onsite data redundancy (and, thus, backup), but does nothing to get your data offsite.


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

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