IT - Data Storage - NAS - Network Attached Storage - Server - Hard Disk Drives

Why You Need a NAS (Network Attached Storage)

Intro

Our storage needs grow as time progresses. This need for more storage seems to perpetually outpace the amount of storage on off-the-shelf PCs. Most computers these days come with about 512GB to 2TB of storage space. When you deduct space for the operating system and applications, that doesn’t leave you with much room for your data. If you need more local storage, you can get up to around 8TB, but you’ll need to re-mortgage your home to finance that.

It’s often said that, “you don’t know what you have until you lose it.” This is especially true when it comes to your data. What if you lost your family photos, financial records, music and movie collections? All storage systems carry risk due to any number of issues:

  1. Device failure and data corruption
  2. Device theft
  3. Ransomware, wiper, or other malware

However, a NAS (Network Attached Storage) is better designed to protect your data from these kinds of risks than PCs and external hard drives are. There are also other reasons why you need a NAS, which we discuss below. A NAS is a dedicated storage device that you interact with over a network.

Podcast

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Welcome to the Bigger Insights Technology podcast, where we’ll help you stay ahead of

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the curve with the latest technology. But not just any technology, technology that serves

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you, not our big tech overlords. Which by the way, shameless plug:

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We also produce a Privacy & Security podcast,

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so that’s where we’re coming from on that front.

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So why don’t you go ahead and check that out?

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Let’s talk about Network Attached Storage or NAS.

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We’re just going to say NAS for the rest of this episode. And more specifically, why you

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need one.

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So first of all, what is a NAS?

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A NAS is a dedicated storage device that you interact with over a network.

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They’re basically computers with hard drives, an operating system, and software and services

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that are designed for storing, protecting and serving your files.

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As time goes on, our storage needs seem to perpetually outpace the growth of storage

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that you can find on off-the-shelf PCs.

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Over time, we’re accumulating more files and bigger files.

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Just as an example of that, someone sent me a 30 second video clip from their iPhone.

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And I’m pretty sure that that file was 500 or 600 megabytes in size.

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So our media and other files are getting bigger and we’re accumulating more of them.

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At the same time, when you look at most computers, in particular laptops, you’ll typically see

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storage options in the one half to two terabytes of storage space range. Which, you know, after

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you deduct space for the operating systems, which those are growing in size as time goes

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on as well, and your applications, that really doesn’t leave a tremendous amount of space

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for your data.

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If you need more storage than that, some manufacturers can let you go up to about eight terabytes.

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But at that point, I mean, you’re going to have to remortgage your home or something

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like that to finance that because it is outrageously expensive.

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So just to illustrate that point, I’m on Apple’s website right now.

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I’m looking at the 14 inch MacBook Pro.

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The base model comes with a one terabyte solid state drive.

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You can go up to eight terabytes, but that adds a whopping $2,200, which is insane.

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I mean, just compare that to a NAS. For $2,200,

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you could literally buy a five bay NAS, put five 16 terabyte hard drives in it, and have

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a little bit of money left over.

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And for those of you who can’t do math, that’s 80 terabytes of space versus the eight terabytes

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in your MacBook.

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Beyond storage space, you’re also going to want to be thinking about protecting your

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data from loss.

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You know, it’s often said “you don’t know what you have until you lose it.”

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Just think for a second, what would happen if your laptop failed or got stolen and you

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lost your financial records, your family photos, your music and movie collections?

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We all have irreplaceable data, but what you need to understand is that depending on how

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you’re storing it, your data might be prone to loss due to device failure, data corruption,

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device theft, ransomware, wiperware, or other malware.

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And to some degree, a NAS can help you with those issues because a NAS is designed to

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store and protect your data, and it’s better suited for that purpose than most computers

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and external hard drives.

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So let’s talk about storage capacity and price a little bit more.

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If you haven’t looked at the price of internal hard drives recently, it might shock you

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how cheap they’ve actually become.

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So just a little while ago, I bought some 16 terabyte Western Digital Red Pro hard drives

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for $250.

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Now $250 might sound like a lot, but if you do the math, that’s about $16 per terabyte.

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So you can actually build your own NAS for, you know, a pretty reasonable amount of money

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that has quite a bit of storage space.

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Now let’s talk about data loss prevention because this is something that, you know,

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unfortunately a lot of people don’t really think about until they lose their data.

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Relative to an external hard drive, a NAS might give you better protection against certain

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kinds of data loss because a NAS operating system typically uses a file system that’s

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resistant to data degradation.

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This is one of the reasons why many NASs on the market use BTRFS and ZFS file systems

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as opposed to something like exFAT, which you’ll often find on external hard drives.

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Higher quality NAS systems may also use something called ECC memory, which is designed to detect

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and correct data corruption.

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However, we want to stress that no matter what your NAS is doing, there is no substitute

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for having a proper backup system.

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When comparing storage on your laptop, for example, versus a NAS, you should also consider

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that laptops are probably a lot more likely to be stolen.

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So if you do take your laptop outside of your home or business, you might want to think

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about offloading the data onto a NAS so that if you do lose it or get stolen that you won’t

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lose any of your important data.

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Another thing that a NAS helps you achieve is compartmentalization.

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Compartmentalization is an important concept across the board in the IT space because in

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addition to reducing your risk, compartmentalization allows you to implement solutions that are

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optimized for a particular use case.

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For example, your computer is optimized for computing.

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A NAS is optimized for storing and protecting your data.

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This is why we recommend that our clients try to keep their computing and their data

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storage separate as best they can.

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If you keep the bulk of your data on a NAS, this gives you the following advantages.

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One being improved security in the event that your PC gets infected or stolen.

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The second is it makes it easier to switch operating systems.

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Now this goes hand in hand with using free and open source and cross platform applications

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and data formats.

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But the way that I have my infrastructure set up, I can use pretty much whatever device

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I want whenever I want, whatever operating system I want.

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And this is something that we help our clients do as well.

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The third advantage is it makes it a lot quicker and easier to get new systems up and running.

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So for example, if the hard drive in my PC fails as I’m recording this podcast, it really

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wouldn’t take me that much time to replace the bad drive, re-install the operating system,

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and I’d be back up and running in no time.

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All right, so since we love privacy and security, we thought we’d go ahead and mention some

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of the privacy and security benefits that a NAS will give you.

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In speaking to friends, family, and our clients about how they store their data, we find that

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many turn to cloud storage providers like iCloud and Google Drive and Dropbox.

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And of course, when you do that, the “there is no cloud, only someone else’s computer”

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rule applies here.

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In fairness, there are some respected end-to-end encrypted (E2EE) storage providers.

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Admittedly, we’re not too familiar with those at this point because we do pretty much everything

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locally.

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However, most providers like the ones that we just mentioned are not end-to-end encrypted,

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which means they can do the following with your data.

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They can read or modify any of it at any time for any reason using automated or manual means.

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They can hand it over to law enforcement upon request at any time, including in some cases

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without even having a warrant.

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Many law enforcement agencies use what’s called an Emergency Data Request in which they’ll

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tell these companies that there’s an emergency and the vast majority of the time they’ll

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fold and just hand over your data because they don’t want the liability of sitting on

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their hands trying to figure out what’s going on in the event that there actually is an emergency

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and someone ends up getting hurt.

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And this might not sound like a big deal to you, but just keep in mind that criminals

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have also caught on to this and they’ve been caught sending fake Emergency Data Requests

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to these companies and getting a hold of users’ data.

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I know that this happened to Meta.

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Meta ended up sending users’ data to hackers pretending to be in law enforcement, and I’m

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pretty certain that this happened with some of these other big tech companies as well.

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If your data isn’t end-to-end encrypted, it can also be exposed to bad actors, other users

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or unsavory employees or contractors.

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Some of these companies will admit to allowing their employees and contractors to read certain

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information of yours like emails, for example, to “improve your experience”.

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Now I don’t know about you, but my idea of an improved experience is not allowing other

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people to read my data.

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You know, one interesting example about this, Google Drive had an issue not too long ago

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where people noticed that when they were downloading their data using the Google Takeout tool that

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it was including pictures and potentially other data from other Google users. Which

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of course implies that perhaps some of your pictures are now in someone else’s hands when

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they downloaded their data from the Takeout tool.

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And we could literally talk about this for hours, but for the sake of time, if you’re

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like us and you respect your privacy, this is a complete non-starter.

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So with a NAS, you get to control who sees your data, how it’s stored and how it’s secured.

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Now let’s talk about file system abstraction. Now I realize that sounds very abstract, but

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basically a NAS implements a file system that’s optimized for data storage and integrity.

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Like I said earlier, BTRFS and ZFS are commonly used in today’s NAS systems. But your computer

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doesn’t really care about that because when you request a file from a NAS, your computer

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isn’t working directly with the file system, it communicates with the NAS through a protocol

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like SMB or AFP.

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Now this is really handy because you might have devices with different operating systems.

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Maybe not today, but maybe in the future.

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And when you do that, especially if you’re using Windows or macOS, the file systems

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that you’re using can be a real headache.

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So on Windows, it defaults to using the NTFS file system and macOS uses APFS.

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Naturally, both of these are proprietary because that’s just the way that these companies roll

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and that adds complications for users.

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FAT32 has good cross-platform support, but it has very serious volume and file size limitations.

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If you’ve ever tried to copy like a 5 gigabyte file to a flash drive that has FAT32 on it,

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you’ve probably seen that completely useless Windows error message that says that there’s

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not enough space on the drive.

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And that’s because of this issue.

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I believe FAT32 can only support file sizes up to four gigabytes.

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We also have exFAT, which was created to alleviate some of these limitations. And it’s also

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got good cross-platform support, but it has its own serious issues.

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First of all, it has a max file name length of 255 characters, which for some people that

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might not be a big deal, but that can be a real pain.

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I worked at a place once where just the way that we organized our files in a specific

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folder structure that included like the client and the project and the phase of the project

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and the different components of the project, you run out of that 255 characters very quickly.

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Another limitation of exFAT is it’s not journaled, which you can read about journaled file systems

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on Wikipedia.

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It’s a little bit beyond the scope of this episode, but basically if your file system

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isn’t journaled, then it’s more prone to data corruption. Which is why you don’t see exFAT

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on NAS systems or PCs. Where you mostly find it is on things that are more for temporary

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storage like a flash drive.

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And if you read about this issue online, almost every solution out there will recommend that

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you download some third-party drivers either in Windows or macOS or whatever, so that

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you can read and write to whatever file system you want to work with.

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And we’re not really huge fans of this approach because, you know, every driver you install

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adds some amount of risk.

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Drivers operate with very high permissions.

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So if you’re using a driver that has a security vulnerability, that can really get you pwned.

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You can also run into issues where some drivers might be able to read from certain file systems,

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but not write to them and other weird things like that.

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So this is why we like using a NAS.

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It abstracts a lot of these issues away from you as the user and implements a file system

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that’s best for its intended purpose.

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Now let’s talk about performance for a minute.

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Read and write performance is usually not a huge deal for most people, but it can be

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in some circumstances.

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Like for example, if you need to copy or move terabytes of data, if you’re using like a

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little USB 3.0 hard drive or something like that, that can take days, maybe even weeks.

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So in general, pretty much nothing is going to beat the performance of the local storage

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on your PC, especially considering most hard drives and PCs these days are solid state

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drives, they’re just vastly, vastly faster than mechanical hard drives.

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However, when we’re talking about performance, we’re mostly talking about the performance

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of a NAS with a number of drives in RAID versus an external hard drive with a single disk.

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But just bear in mind that a lot of what I’m about to say can vary a lot depending on the

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NAS you choose.

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So if you get one or two bays, you know, your performance options are going to be very limited.

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How you configure it.

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So if you do put your disks in a RAID, you know, which RAID level you choose can have

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a significant impact on your performance. What hard drives you choose, and your network

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configuration, all these things can have a very dramatic effect on your read and write

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performance.

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And also bear in mind that a fast external hard drive will typically beat the performance

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of a slow NAS.

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But the point is, if you look at your options on the market, you have a lot of NAS options

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that will give you the opportunity to generally give you better performance than with an external

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hard drive.

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So just as an example, if you have, let’s say a five bay NAS with your disks in RAID 5,

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and you choose something like 7200 RPM CMR drives, which that stands for Conventional

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Magnetic Recording, and then you put it on like a one gigabit or higher LAN connection

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between your NAS and the device, you’ll get decent performance.

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I don’t think it’ll blow you away, but it should be better than like one of those little

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USB-powered external hard drives.

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So in this example, having five disks in RAID 5 will give you better read and write performance

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because the NAS can do some of its operations in parallel.

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Now that definitely won’t be five times better, but still a lot better than just having a

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single drive.

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CMR drives will also give you better performance than Shingled Magnetic Recording drives or

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SMR, which by the way, pro tip, you should never put SMR drives in a NAS.

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They can absolutely obliterate your performance.

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But the reason why I bring that up is because a lot of external hard drives use SMR drives.

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And finally, in this example, having your NAS on a good LAN connection might also give

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you better read and write speeds than what you’ll be able to achieve with a USB 3

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external hard drive.

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Now let’s talk about service hosting.

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We realize that not everybody is interested in this, but compared to an external hard

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drive, you should be aware that many NAS systems allow you to host different kinds of services

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that you might be interested in.

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So this could be media services like Jellyfin or Plex.

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We prefer Jellyfin because it’s open source.

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You can also do some file syncing with software like Syncthing or Resilio Sync, which we

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prefer Syncthing because it also is open source.

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And if you do that, you’ve essentially created yourself a private cloud, which is very interesting

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because you can make your data available 24 hours a day from anywhere as long as you have

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an internet connection.

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And you can also use some NAS systems as a web server and host something like a website.

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So if any of that does sound interesting to you, just keep in mind that you’re going to

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want to make sure that whatever NAS you’re interested in buying will actually support

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those things because some of them are locked down quite a bit.

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They might try to force you to use like their app store or something like that.

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So if you’re looking at something like Synology, for example, I was pretty disappointed last

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time that I checked that there wasn’t an official Syncthing package for it.

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But if you’re going to use a device running TrueNAS, you can run pretty much anything

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that’ll run on Linux.

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All right.

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So right about now, some of you might be thinking, “Well, why not just use an external

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hard drive?

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That’s what I’ve been using for years.

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It’s been working for me like, what’s the problem with that?”

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Maybe for your particular use case, that might work just fine for you.

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We should also mention that a NAS system can be quite expensive, but that’s all relative.

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I mean, what are you comparing that to?

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You’ve only got so many options.

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So for example, if you needed to store like 10 terabytes, you can do the math to calculate

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how much would it cost for you to do that yourself with a NAS versus like AWS or iCloud

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or something like that. Which I actually did that once.

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So I bought a NAS many years ago and spent probably like $700 or $800 or something

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like that.

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And I was starting to wonder to myself, if I was just being an idiot, and if I should

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have just offloaded my data to AWS or something like that. You know, I was thinking about that

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for financial reasons, obviously, they’re very serious privacy and security implications

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with doing that.

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But just for fun, I went to Amazon’s website and tried to calculate how much that would

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cost just to store that amount of data for, you know, the 10 years that I had this NAS.

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And for S3 storage, just the storage itself, not including any of the IO was about $12,000.

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Now, obviously, there were some things that I could have done if I did go with AWS to

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reduce that cost, like put some of the files that I don’t use as often in Snow Vault or

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whatever they call their long term storage option.

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You know, if you learn anything about AWS, they’ve got all these goofy names or everything.

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It’s really hard.

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It’s like a study all by itself, just trying to learn what all these different services

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are called.

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And just the other day, I was listening to a video on YouTube, and the guy basically

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said that if you’re not sharing data with other devices or other people, then you don’t

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need a NAS, you should just use an external hard drive and you might be able to get away

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with that.

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But we kind of disagree with that sentiment for a number of reasons, which we’ll talk

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about.

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So the first is storage capacity.

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In general, storage capacities for a lot of external hard drives are lower than what you

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might see with internal hard drives, especially for these small little USB external hard drives.

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Those are mostly in the one to five terabyte range, which obviously if you need more data

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than that, you’re kind of screwed.

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Some of these companies also make these larger ones, which they call like “desktop”, “desktop

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vault” or something stupid like that, and those are comparable to the sizes that you’ll see

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with internal hard drives.

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The upper limit on those is in like the 18 to 22 terabyte range.

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And that’s great and all, but you know, the funny thing about that is at that point, you

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basically have something that’s like a pseudo-NAS without most of the benefits that come

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along with the NAS.

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But if you’re strapped for cash, you know, I guess those are a viable option worth considering.

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The second issue which nobody talks about is it seems to us that many of these external

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hard drives are really just enclosures that wrap around really low quality drives.

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So if you do some price checking on Amazon, for example, you’ll see a lot of interesting

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things.

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You’ll see things like five terabyte external hard drives costing less than five terabyte

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internal hard drives.

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Well, how could that be?

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I mean, that makes no sense at all.

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They’re literally an internal hard drive with an enclosure wrapped around them.

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So how could you take an object, add to it, and then it costs less money?

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That doesn’t make any sense.

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And the way that they pull that off is they put crappy drives in them.

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A lot of the ones that we looked at use these Shingled Magnetic Recording or SMR drives,

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which we really recommend that you avoid if you can afford to.

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And we talked about this earlier, but if you’re going to use an external hard drive, just

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keep the performance limitations in mind.

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If you’re going to be using an SMR external hard drive over USB, you know, there might

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be very serious performance consequences to keep in mind.

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Last time I repopulated a four terabyte hard drive, it took, I’m not joking, 10 days to

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complete.

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And there are a lot of issues there.

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One of them is just, you know, the limitation of using a single drive as opposed to having

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multiple drives in a RAID configuration in a NAS.

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With these little USB-powered hard drives that we see, we typically see read and write speeds

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in the 40 to 80 megabytes per second range, which isn’t terrible for most everyday use

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cases, but it’s really not good either.

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But in fairness, we should mention that if you buy a low-quality NAS, and if you configure

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it in such a way that it’s got slow read and write performance, that can be even worse.

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I mean, I’ve literally seen NAS systems operate with read write speeds in the range of about

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four to six megabytes per second.

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And this kind of goes without saying, but if you’re going to be using an external hard

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drive, it won’t really be accessible to other devices on your network, unless you either

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unplug and move that drive back and forth, which is, you know, ain’t nobody got time

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for that.

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And your other option, which isn’t great, be basically to share that drive on your network

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somehow. But this is pretty dirty,

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and obviously this will only work when your host machine is on and connected to the network.

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And if you’re going to be relying on external hard drives, you might run into some of these

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file system headaches that we alluded to earlier, because your PCs are going to have to mount

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the file system directly, which means you’re going to have to have the appropriate drivers

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to read whatever file system is on your external hard drives.

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Now maybe someday Windows and macOS and Linux and BSD or whatever are all going to use

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or at least be able to properly implement some of these file systems so that everything

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can kind of work harmoniously together.

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But based on what we know of Apple and Microsoft, that’s probably not going to happen anytime

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soon.

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All right, so to start wrapping this up, whether you realize it or not, you probably need

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a NAS or at least you probably should get one. Even if you think you have sufficient

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storage on your PC or your external hard drives for now, there are some things that you need

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to be thinking about, like, are you going to run out of space before you need to buy

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your next system?

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How are you going to share files between devices?

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If you’re relying on iCloud or some other cloud, do you really want your data being

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accessible and analyzed by these big tech companies and their employees and contractors

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and potentially law enforcement?

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For many people, the answer to those questions will be, “I need to get a NAS”.

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However, just keep in mind that no matter what you do, whether you get a NAS or you’re

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going to be using an external hard drive, or even if you’re going to be using the cloud,

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you need to have your own proper backup system that you control.

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We touched on that a little bit earlier, but what I didn’t mention is you should do this

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even if you’re backing up your data to the cloud, because, you know, they might have

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an issue, either a technical issue or they might have a problem with you specifically.

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There are cases of people’s accounts being permanently disabled for one reason or another,

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and they lose access to all of their data and all of their services with that company.

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And finally, we acknowledge that choosing, configuring, and maintaining a NAS can be

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a little bit complicated, especially if you’re not the most tech savvy person out there.

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This is why we offer consulting services to our clients.

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We help individuals like you in one-on-one sessions to implement the right technology

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for the job.

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If you’re interested in becoming a Bigger Insights client, go to our website, biggerinsights.com,

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and fill out the short form at the bottom of the page.

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When we receive that information, we’ll reach out to you shortly to schedule your initial

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consultation.

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All right, that’s it.

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So thanks for staying until the end.

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Make sure you subscribe and share this podcast, because we’re going to be producing some more

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great content like this, and go out and buy yourself a NAS.

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Storage Capacity at a Reasonable Price

The per-terabyte cost of internal hard drives (HDDs) is rather cheap these days. Larger (~16TB), higher-quality HDDs will only set you back approximately $16 per terabyte. This can fluctuate quite a bit depending on the size and quality of the drive, but you get a lot of bang for your buck compared to alternatives. If you need several TB of storage space, internal HDDs in a NAS is tough to beat. It’s also worth mentioning that if you’re offloading the bulk of your data to a NAS, this will allow you to buy cheaper PCs because PC manufacturers really hose you on storage costs.

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Data Loss Prevention

Relative to an external hard drive, a NAS may give you better protection against data loss. NAS operating systems typically use a file system that is resistant to data degredation (e.g. bit rot). This issue is one of the reasons why you won’t find a file system like exFAT on a NAS. Higher-quality NAS systems may also use ECC memory to detect and correct data corruption. However, bear in mind that these protection mechanisms are no substitute for an effective backup system.

It should also be considered that more portable devices like laptops are at higher risk of theft than a NAS in a fixed location. In this scenario, your laptop would ideally contain little or no original data, but this is rarely the case.

Compartmentalization

Compartmentalization is an important concept across the board in the IT space. In addition to reducing risk, compartmentalization allows you to implement solutions that are optimized for a particular use case.

Your computer is optimized for computing. A NAS is optimized for storing and protecting your data. We recommend that our clients try to keep their computing and data storage separate. Keeping the bulk of your data on your NAS is a great way to implement this approach. This provides the following advantages:

  1. Improved security in the event your PC gets infected or stolen
  2. Making it easier to switch operating systems
  3. Making it quicker to get new systems up and running. For example, if your PCs hard drive fails, it’s easier to set up a new system if the failed drive had little or no original data on it.
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Privacy & Security

In speaking to friends, family, and clients about how they store their data, we find that many turn to cloud storage (iCloud, Google Drive, Dropbox, etc.). Of course, the “there is no cloud, only someone else’s computer.” rule applies here. There are end-to-end encrypted storage providers, but most are not, including the aforementioned. This means these providers can do the following with your data:

  1. Read or modify any of it at any time, using automated and manual means
  2. Hand it over to law enforcement upon request (including without a warrant in some cases)
  3. Expose it to bad actors, other users, or unsavory employees/contractors

If you’re like us, and you respect your privacy, this is a nonstarter. With a NAS, you control who sees your data and how it’s secured.

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File System Abstraction

A NAS implements a file system that’s optimized for data storage and integrity. BTRFS and ZFS are commonly-used file systems in today’s NAS systems. The file system is abstracted from clients that connect to the NAS via a protocol like SMB or AFP. In layman’s terms, this means your PC doesn’t care, for the most part, what file system your NAS is using.

When you plug a hard drive into your PC, it needs to mount the partition(s) on the drive before you can access its contents. This requires being able to read and write to the underlying file system. If you have devices with different operating systems, this can be a real headache, especially for those who aren’t tech-savvy.

For example, if you have a Windows PC and a Mac, what file system should you use? Windows defaults NTFS, while MacOS defaults to APFS. Naturally, both of these are proprietary, adding complications for users. FAT32 has good cross-platform support, but has serious volume and file size limitations. exFAT alleviates these limitations for most uses cases, but:

  1. Has a maximum filename length of 255 characters, which can be a real headache
  2. Is not journaled, which leaves the file system more prone to data corruption

If you read about this online, most recommend installing 3rd-party drivers to add read/write support for your preferred file system. Some of these drivers are better than others, but every additional driver adds risk. For this reason, we prefer the file system abstraction that a NAS provides.

Performance

Virtually nothing will beat the performance of local storage on your PC. However, relative to an external hard drive, a NAS can give you decent read/write performance depending on:

  1. The NAS you choose (e.g. how many bays)
  2. How you configure it (e.g. RAID type)
  3. Your network configuration (e.g. speed)

Although a fast external HDD will beat a slow NAS, the array of NAS options you have gives you the opportunity to achieve better performance. An example configuration that may achieve this:

  1. 5-bay NAS in RAID 5
  2. 7200 RPM Conventional Magnetic Recording (CMR) drives
  3. 1+ Gigabit LAN connection between the NAS and your device

In this example:

  1. 5 drives in RAID 5 gives you better read/write performance because the NAS can perform parallel operations to some degree. This would not be 5x, but better than 1x the performance of a single drive.
  2. CMR drives can provide significantly better performance than Shingled Magnetic Recording (SMR) drives, which many external HDDs use
  3. LAN connection may allow better I/O speeds than USB 3, which most external HDDs use

Service Hosting

Compared to an external HDD, many NAS systems allow you to host services you may be interested in. This may include:

  1. Media: Jellyfin, Plex, etc.
  2. File syncing: Syncthing, Resilio Sync, etc.
  3. Surveillance/CCTV recording
  4. A website

If you’re interested in this, be sure to confirm which software/services a NAS can run before you buy.

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Why Not Use an External Hard Drive?

External hard drives are a popular choice for data storage and backups. They have their place, but they have also have many shortfalls. We recently heard a YouTuber claim that if you’re not sharing data between devices, you should just use an external hard drive. We disagree for the following reasons.

Storage Capacity

In general, storage capacities for many external hard drives are lower than many internal hard drives. For small, USB-powered external HDDs, these are mostly in the 1-5TB range. The larger “desktop” external HDDs are more comparable to internal HDDs, with upper limits in the 18-22TB range. That’s not bad, but at this point, you basically have a pseudo-NAS without most of the benefits of a NAS.

Low-Quality Drives

Many of the external HDDs we see are cheaper than internal HDDs of the same storage capacity. How could that be? From what we’ve observed, many external HDDs use low-quality drives to reduce costs. These may be SMR, which we don’t recommend if you can afford CMR.

Performance

As mentioned above, many external HDDs use low-quality drives, which may have serious performance consequences. Most also contain a single drive, which eliminates your ability to take advantage of performance increases provided by certain RAID configuations. USB and e-SATA speeds may further degrade read and write performance. We typically see write speeds to USB-powered, external HDDs of ~40-80 MB/s, which isn’t great.

In fairness, we should mention that a low-performance NAS setup can be worse than this. We’ve seen NAS systems provide read/write speeds in the 4-6 MB/s range.

Lack of Networking

This goes without saying, but an external drive won’t be accessible to other devices on your network unless you:

  1. Move the drive back and forth*
  2. Share items from the drive on the network. This is a pretty dirty approach and will only work when the host machine is on and connected to the network.

*Ain't nobody got time for that!

File System Headaches

Unlike a NAS, an external HDD won’t abstract the file system from your devices. Each device you want to use with your external HDD will need to be able to read/write to its file system. This is important if you have devices with different operating systems that don’t play well together (e.g. MacOS, Windows). Perhaps this will be improved in the future, but this is unfortunately the case in 2023.

Final Thoughts

Whether you realize it or not, you probably need a NAS. Even if you have sufficient storage on your PC for today’s data, there are many other details to consider:

  1. Are you going to run out of space before you buy your next system?
  2. How are you going to share files between devices?
  3. If using “the cloud”, do you really want your data being analyzed by Big Tech systems, employees, contractors, and law enforcement?

Although a NAS is much more powerful, and better able to protect your data than an external HDD, the latter is better than nothing. In either case, no matter what your set up is, there is no substitute for a proper backup system.

We acknowledge that choosing, configuring, and maintaining a NAS can be complicated. This is why we offer consulting services to our clients. We help individuals like you, in one-on-one sessions, implement the right technology for the job. If you’re interested in becoming a Bigger Insights client, fill out the short form at the bottom of the page. We will then reach out to you to schedule your initial consultation.

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Please consider supporting us to help keep our mission going. There are several ways to make a difference – from cryptocurrency contributions to simply sharing our content. Every bit of support is greatly appreciated and helps us make the world a more private, secure, and prosperous place.

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