Explain NAS and file servers to me like I'm five years old. And dim.
March 31, 2013 1:00 AM   Subscribe

I currently have a tangle of external drives hooked to my HTPC. Serving that stuff via UPnP is okay, but I'd like to move my files to a separate device that would then be able to make them available to a motley assortment of devices. Thing is, I'm woefully ignorant about networking and file sharing, having never so much as set up a shared Windows folder. I need help coming up with a game plan.

Is an NAS device what I am looking for? Or would I be better off with a file server? I honestly don't know what precisely the former is (except that people keep suggesting it) and I have a vague concept of the latter, but not in any practical, knowing where to start kind of way.

And what the hell does Samba mean? What does sexy Latin dancing have to do with network file sharing?

What are the various options for a person who wants to put all of their files onto one networked device accessible throughout the house? Pros and cons? Caveats?

My HTPC is running Win7 with XBMC. I also have a Raspberry Pi running OpenELEC, a WD TV Live, and a smart tv that can play DLNA/UPNP stuff, with some limitations. There are a mess of other tablets, smart phones, netbooks, etc. in the house, too, but it's mostly the HTPC, the pi, and the WD TV that actually matter, with bonus points if I can include the smart tv. (Though I'd be willing to spring for another Pi for that one, if need be.)
posted by DirtyOldTown to Technology (12 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
A NAS is basically a specialized, low power, server running an operating system specialized for, well, these days, on NAS's targeted at home users, almost everything without requiring a lot of administation and maintenance.

Samba is the name of an open source version of Microsoft's SMB (small message block) file server protocol which most NASs use to share files with windows machines and other compatible devices.

As to what is best for you, I have no idea. A NAS would probably work fine. It might not work fine if you have media files encoded with a codec that your smart TV or WD TV Live doesn't support that requires real-time, on-on-the-fly transcoding by the DNLA server, becuase they tend to have fairly weak CPUs that aren't up to that kind of task.

I kind of question whether you need a NAS though. Is your Win7 machine on all the time anyway? If so, why not put drives in the case and install a DNLA server and configure file sharing? It isn't hard.
posted by Good Brain at 1:28 AM on March 31, 2013

I can't help with PC networking, but as a pedantic aside: SMB stands for Server Message Block not Small Message Block.
posted by russm at 1:48 AM on March 31, 2013

"NAS" just means "network attached storage." When people use it alone, to describe a single device (i.e. "a NAS", "my NAS") it's being used as an abbreviation for "a NAS device" or "a NAS server," which might clear up your confusion about distinction from a file server. A NAS device is a file server. The point, perhaps, is that it is ONLY a fileserver, and typically takes the form of a freestanding hotswap drive bay with enough embedded hardware, logic and firmware to accept an ethernet cable and advertise/serve its storage on the network. Typically these also offer some kind of onboard RAID to aggregate and then divvy up the raw disk space. They range from minimal (see two-bay TrendNet and other whitebox brands models) to the elaborate (like Drobo).

You sound knowledgeable enough that you may want to look into setting up a small dedicated fileserver running something like FreeNAS/NAS4Free or one of the Solaris, BSD or Linux turnkey server distros that supports ZFS. Have a look at ZFSguru, ZFSonLinux, Napp-It, etc.
posted by snuffleupagus at 4:48 AM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Given your comfort level with the Pi, you may want to look into ZFS on Pi, as well, to familiarize yourself with it.
posted by snuffleupagus at 4:59 AM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

NAS = file server = very small computer with hard drive(s) and a network connection. They vary wildly in price and specification. Most of the cheaper ones are running something like a Raspberry Pi inside: an ARM chip, but with slightly better network and disk hardware, yet no whizzy GPU like the Pi.

The very simplest would be something like the WD My Book Live (though I haven't used it, so it's not a recommendation). You plug it into your router, and it powers up. It should appear as a DLNA device to your television. There will probably be some web-based setup tool that you can access from your HTPC, but the 'hard' way of accessing network storage is going through the Network section in Windows Explorer, and seeing what you can find. To all intents and purposes, it's just more storage — just not inside your HTPC.

The fiddly bit about using a NAS (with anything other than DLNA) is setting and using the Windows "Workgroup". It's a holdover from when networking was bolted onto Windows. It's just a name, though: choose it, or write it down from the NAS settings, but try to have it the same for all of the computers in your house. That way, it's easier for them to find each other and share data from the NAS.

XBMC and OpenELEC (which is just a very pared-down Linux system running XBMC) both support NAS through SMB. Networking at this level is pretty much at the "it just works" level. Rolling your own NAS can be fun, you'll learn a lot, but NAS devies have got so much more friendly and ubiquitous it's barely worth it unless you have a tiny budget or very, very specialised needs.

I'm on my third NAS now, and they've each got incrementally less fiddly to run. The Linksys NSLU2 was a bear, all cables and slowness, but did work as a simple network share. The D-Link DNS-323 was much less hassle, and could stream to almost anything, as long as it wasn't full HD. The new Synology DS413, though, is all ice cream and cotton candy — setup was unbelievably simple, and the admin interface is very polished.
posted by scruss at 5:20 AM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Out of curiosity, what wireless router are you using? Some of the more recent ones have some NAS functionality built-in when you attach a USB disk to them. Can't speak for the quality because I haven't personally tried it, but it might be worth it as a test run to see if a dedicated NAS is for you?
posted by peteyjlawson at 6:25 AM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

Assuming your WD TV box is connected to your network, any hard drive you attach to it will be shareable, effectively making it a NAS device which ought to be visible from any other networked device. There are apps like Zappo and Air Video Server which will let you watch your videos on iPads, phones, etc.
posted by ShutterBun at 7:42 AM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

There are two potential reasons to use a NAS.

The first is centralization. By centralizing your files (in your case, including your media library) on the NAS, you can make those files accessible from other computers without having to constantly copy or synchronize the files. Note that Synology NAS's, which I will discuss more below, also make it easy to make files available to devices outside your local network by providing you with a "personal cloud." Because a NAS is a single function device, it is usually low power, which can save you a surprising amount of money over time as compared with running a personal server.

The second potential reason to use a NAS is drive pooling and uptime. Multi-drive NAS's can be configured in RAID or quasi-RAID arrays, meaning that you can take multiple hard drives and pool them together into one drive. That way you never have to manage the location of your files again. If you're willing to sacrifice a fraction of the pooled storage capacity, you can also make this drive pool redundant, such that a hardware failure of any drive (or two drives, or whatever) does not cause you to loose any data. In this way, you can also replace individual drives in the pool, allowing you to upgrade the capacity of the pool over time as your storage needs grow.

The main names in NAS's are, in rough order of desirability, Synology, QNAP, and ReadyNAS.
posted by gd779 at 9:41 AM on March 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: There are a million followups I could ask. I don't want to thread sit, so I'll limit myself to this one reply, mostly sticking to answering what I was asked.

-Yes, my Win7 is on all the time. But it's in my living room, so I'd like to move the storage off of it anyway, as seven hard drives looks fairly goofy..
-FreeNAS sounds interesting. Could I set that up on a six years old-ish PC?
-The Synology DS413 sounds kinda awesome... but pricey. Are there more economical alternatives?
-My router is garbage. The antenna is damaged. Should I consider an NAS-enabled replacement?
-Are those Pogoplug deals that I seen mentioned here and elsewhere worth exploring?

Thanks everyone and I will shut up now.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 12:42 PM on March 31, 2013

The D-Link DNS-325 is much cheaper than the Synology. My 323 has been solid for years of use; just a bit slow. Don't forget that these units need two drives fitted, which will add ~$200 to the cost. Pogoplugs are very similar to the guts of these cheaper NAS units, except you have to deal with the external USB/SATA drives. They're also trying really hard to sell their cloud backup solution, so the hardware itself could be a loss leader.

Any external drives you have will likely need formatting before use with these less expensive NAS boxes. A USB-enabled router will likely be able to read FAT32 drives and share them without formatting.
posted by scruss at 2:16 PM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

When you're considering price, this is an area where TCO is important. When you talk about setting up FreeNAS on a six year old PC, you need to consider how much power that PC would use and factor that into the total cost. Dedicated NAS hardware is usually optimised to be low-power.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 2:48 PM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you're replacing your router anyway, then getting one with sharing might be an idea. TP Link and Asus have routers with this functionality, so have a look at those and see if they're any good for you. My concern with this would be that read/write speeds would be limited to USB speeds, but I don't think it'd cause too much of a problem in the real world; your mileage may vary though.
posted by peteyjlawson at 2:52 PM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

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