A dedicated NAS device is a kind of cloud server for your home: you can back it up and access data over the Internet. But NAS devices are more than just glorified hard drives. With minimal effort, they unlock a world of functionality for computer geeks, movie snobs, music fans or even small businesses.
We’re not going to cover best NAS devices today, though we’ll explain how they work and some of the best reasons to own one.
Basically, NAS or “Network Attached Storage” is simply file storage connected to your home internet. Authorized devices inside and outside your home can use this storage to wirelessly back up, download or stream files.
It’s like having a super-fast Dropbox server at home. Except that a NAS device can go way beyond Dropbox: you can use NAS to create your own streaming service, experiment with VMs (great for hosting a Minecraft server), back up your entire computer (including settings and preferences) or automatically send copies of backup data to other storage solutions.
Companies such as Synology, TerraMaster, QNAP, and ioSafe sell purpose-built NAS devices, which are small and power-efficient computers with huge slots for hard drives or SSDs. These dedicated NAS devices are easy to set up and use.
To be clear, the features mentioned in this article do not require a dedicated NAS device. For example, you can enable network file sharing on any PC or Mac. And if you have an old computer, Raspberry Pi, or NVIDIA Shield lying around, you can: turn it into a NAS device†
But I usually recommend buying a purpose-made NAS from a brand like Synology or QNAP. Not only is installation easier with a “real” NAS, but you’ll end up using a lot less electricity. Purpose-built NAS devices are energy efficient, compact, and quiet—three things you can’t say about a repurposed PC. (That said, I’ll list some alternatives in this article.)
Do you know how there is a “Network” tab in the Windows and macOS file system? After you set up a NAS, you can use that tab to access its contents from any computer in your home. Backing up and retrieving files requires nothing more than dragging and dropping, and you can access files from the NAS directly in applications such as Microsoft Word or Photoshop.
Other devices, such as smartphones or security cameras, can also access these files. And if you want to keep things private, you can apply password protection or a firewall to your NAS device (or password protect specific folders).
If you want to take it one step further, you can even enable remote access on your NAS. This allows you and other authorized users anywhere in the world to access the content. For example, if you’re a musician, you can use a NAS to quickly share or collaborate on projects with others (and enjoy relatively fast upload and download speeds).
Now port forwarding and remote access bring some security issues. If you decide to enable remote access on your NAS, I recommend programming and setting up some firewalls the VPN functionality of your NAS device to reduce the risk of ransomware and data loss – you cannot eliminate this risk, so take it seriously. (You should also back up your backups, which we get into in the next section.)
Most people buy a NAS device to back up data. Not only is it easier than lugging around a portable hard drive, but NAS devices can: create a RAID array that provides data redundancy. In short, if one drive fails (and eventually all drives), your data is still safe on other drives within your NAS device.
You can even use a NAS to routinely back up your entire computer. Both the backup and restore tool on Windows and Time Machine on Mac work with NAS devices, meaning you can wirelessly protect your computer’s content, preferences, settings, and activities in case something goes wrong.
Keep in mind that NAS devices are not a one-time backup solution – you need until have backups of your backups† Even with a solid RAID configuration, catastrophic disk failures can occur. House fires and other acts of God are not predictable. And if you enable remote access on your NAS, there is always a small chance of ransomware.
I suggest following the 3-2-1 rule; make three backups of your files using two different media formats, and most importantly, keep one backup outdoors. This is quite easy with a NAS device. I routinely back up the important files from my NAS to a large external drive (which I keep in a fireproof box) and automatically select folders on my NAS to back up to Dropbox.
Dedicated NAS devices are a popular option for media streaming, and with a service like Plex, you can build your own streaming service for movies, TV shows, and music. All you need are media files, which you can rip from disks or download from the Internet.
Services like Plex turn your NAS device into a “media server” with extensive customization features and automatic metadata retrieval (for movie ratings, show descriptions, subtitles, album art, and so on). All devices on your home network, including smart TVs, can access this media through the Plex app or web page.
And if you want to take things to the next level, you can enable remote access for your NAS-based media server. Family and friends can stream content from the server regardless of their location – it really is like creating your own streaming service!
This is the only concern; cheaper NAS devices are not always powerful enough for streaming (especially 4K streaming or simultaneous streams to many devices). If you plan on using a NAS device for media streaming, be sure to check reviews and see what people are saying about its performance. (Ideally, they shouldn’t have any complaints about 4K streaming, even if that seems excessive for your needs.)
To be clear, Plex is simply the most popular option for home media servers. There are plenty of alternatives, including Jellyfin, Kodi, and Enby.
I should also mention that, for media streaming, a purpose-built NAS device may not be the most cost-effective or powerful option (it’s just the easiest option, especially if you’re inexperienced). A recycled PC is great for media streaming, the NVIDIA Shield TV makes for a very effective Plex server, and power users sometimes opt for an Intel NUC computer.
Any custom-made NAS device supports VPN functionality, which you should Absolute enable if you plan to access the NAS from outside your home. Setting up the VPN server on your NAS device adds an extra layer of security, helping you prevent ransomware attacks and other nasty things.
But this VPN server functionality comes with a nice benefit: if you want, you can use it to remotely access all the devices on your home network (LAN over WAN) with a nice little layer of security. For example, you can send documents to your printer through this server or even access files on your desktop computer.
To be clear, exposing your home network to the Internet is a very risky idea. And because NAS devices often use outdated protocols (like old versions of OpenVPN), they aren’t exactly the pinnacle of security. Most people will be fine, but some people will be screwed.
If you choose to go this route, set up Docker on your NAS device to: isolate the VPN server† As I’ll explain below, this Docker can run a VM with more up-to-date security protocols, which should protect you better from hackers – you’ll never have 100% protection though.
Here’s a pretty niche thing; you can use Docker to experiment with virtual machines on your NAS device. Doing this will isolate the VM from other parts of your NAS device, and more importantly, open the door to new features and new experiences.
A virtual machine or VM is exactly what it sounds like: a computer that you emulate via software. Let’s say you are a Mac user who wants to play a Windows XP game. Instead of ruining your Mac with weird software and partitioned drives, you can just use Docker to run a Windows XP VM on your NAS device. You can then access this VM from your Mac, via your local network or a remote connection.
Developers can also use a NAS device to test applications for modern operating systems, such as Android or Windows 11. And if you have something like a Minecraft server of your NAS device, Docker can isolate it with the right software and whatever security protocols you want to use.
And if you just want to increase the security of remote connections, Docker is your best friend. Use it to set up a VPN server with up-to-date security and other features.
Now, a purpose-built NAS appliance may not be the most cost-effective or powerful option for VMs. For example, you can use a Raspberry Pi to run lightweight VMs, and a repurposed PC might be the best option for more demanding virtual machines.