External USB disk drives offer an affordable way to expand your computers disk space and backup your computer files by simply attaching a USB cable. If you are reading this you are probably on the fence about why one would spend all the extra money and add the other complexity that a NAS entails. In this article I want to provide you several reasons of why Network Attached Storage (abbreviated NAS) might be better for you versus a USB Disk Drive.
#1 Redundancy – Most NAS units utilize multiple disks to offer varying levels of protection in the case that one of the disks fails. Even with just a two-disk system you can set it up to keep chugging along if one of the disks fails (this is called Mirroring). The more disks the unit can handle can offer additional levels of protection (like loosing two disk or even more on larger NAS units).
#2 Multi-User Access – Unlike USB disk drives, Network Attached Storage sits on the network as a device that can easily handle multiple users if they are on the same network (and more often even off the network with remote access software). You could pass around a USB disk, but the larger ones have power bricks which means you would also be plugging and unplugging that if the systems are in different areas. It is much easier to just open File Explorer and then browse your NAS from any computer.
#3 Remote Access – Most modern consumer focused NAS units offer remote access software that lets you connect to your NAS while off the network it is on (like when traveling). Now, you could say carrying a USB disk offers the same thing but if you are using the NAS for backups and someone steals your bag with the USB disk and laptop in it then you are out your backups and laptop. This is also convenient for working in a team and letting them all have access to the device for a shared work space.
#4 Apps – Like a cell phone most NAS units offer a number of popular “apps” that can be installed to extend the functionality of the unit. Things like Plex Media center can be installed to provide easy access to your photos, music and videos across all of your TV’s, cell phones, computers, tablets, smart refrigerators etc. Brands like Qnap go as far as offering virtual desktop hosting on their units turning the NAS into a platform for almost anything you could imagine.
#5 Space – One of the greatest benefits of picking a NAS over a USB disk is the amount of disk space you can buy. With a USB disk you will likely be limited to a single disk, as of today the biggest single disk you can buy is about 12TB. A NAS will typically take 2 - 4 disks and allow you to combine them into one massive disk. So a NAS with four bays could theoretically hold about 48TB of data vs just 12TB. This storage capacity is usually only capped by the number of drive bays the NAS has, but many units can also be "expanded" / chained together to offer massive amounts of storage for even the biggest data hoarder.
#1 Complexity – USB disks are one cable, you plug it in and access your files, start your backups etc. Network Attached Storage usually requires a network switch to plug into since WiFi is not usually built in. Most people will already have some free ports on their WiFi or router, but if you are tapped out then you will have to add a switch and daisy chain it into your existing switch. While setting up a NAS has been getting easier and easier, it is still not plug and play easy.
#2 Cost – This might be #1 for allot of people – un-questionably you pay allot more for a NAS than you do for a USB disk, no way around it.
#3 Energy Waste – Most NAS units have options to run on very low power if they are not accessed for a period of time, but they are still running 24x7 where as a USB disk is usually only consuming power while plugged into your computer. This likely amounts to a few dollars a year vs cents. Check the NAS Grid’s for details about power consumption.
#4 Cost – Did we mention cost? On top of paying more for just a NAS unit, you will usually also need to buy the hard drives that go into it as well. Most basic units offer between one and four disks bays that can be populated. Usually one disk is the minimum but at that point you would not be taking advantage of the #1 feature of having the NAS (redundancy) so you are going to be out the cost of two disks minimum plus the unit. Cost are coming down (and have been coming down) though as the need to store more data in households goes up.
#5 Eggs in one basket - While a NAS will typically offer some level of disk redundancy if a disk fails - there is always the possibility that the entire unit fails instead of just a single disk. For this reason most corporate environments replace their storage systems every 5 - 7 years because of the risk of system failure instead of disk failure. With a USB disk you could build your own redundancy by just making a backup copy of your USB disk. Sure this would take extra time but you would have three copies of your data VS everything in "one basket". I personally employ a "hybird" setup where I have a NAS that I use for daily access / storage, but it is backed up to a single USB disk nightly just in case the unit fails (or my house burns down). Most NAS providers also offer an additional service to backup the NAS unit for an additional monthly / yearly cost due to this reason.
Hopefully this helps you decide if a NAS is for you or not. Make sure you check out the NAS Grid to get the low down on what options are out there. At the end of the day you have to ask how valuable your personal data is and how much of it do you have. If you are not needing much storage and only care about backing up a few devices you might want to consider an online backup storage solution instead of a USB disk or NAS; however if you have terabytes of files this quickly can become un-reasonably expensive.