It does not take much effort these days to accumulate several hundred gigabytes of data. A few hundred songs, a couple of vacations’ worth of photos, a dozen movies and television programs — and suddenly the 80 gigabyte hard drive in the notebook computer is straining.
Attaching an external hard drive is the obvious solution, but when everyone in the household wants access to all the content at any time from any room, the data-engulfed consumer needs to go one step further, to network-attached storage.
The difference between regular external hard drives and network-attached storage drives is simple. If you have two or more computers connected to the same router, then you have all the infrastructure you need for a local area network. The software for connecting PCs and Macs is built into all recent versions of Windows and Mac OS X, so that you can make files on your computer accessible to the others by turning on file sharing.
Connect an external hard drive to one of those computers with a U.S.B. cable, and the contents on that extra drive can also be accessed by everyone on the network. It can be, at least, as long as the computer attached to that hard drive is running and plugged into the drive. Should the computer crash or be turned off by the energy-wise user or be spirited off to the office or the beach, no one would have access to the data.
Network-attached storage solves that problem. It is an external hard drive that is attached to the router by an Ethernet cable so that all computers attached to that router, by wire or wirelessly, can get whatever is stored on it.
Shared storage can also make life easier for homes with both PCs and Macs because, in most cases, the drive can be accessed from either platform. Most shared storage systems come with software to automatically back up computers connected to the network. Some even allow access to the data from locations far from the home via the Internet.
The hardest part may be figuring out which drives on the store shelves are network-attached storage drives. Many such products use the word “shared” to differentiate themselves, but otherwise the box should say “network-attached storage” or “N.A.S.” Another tip-off: A network-attached storage device uses an Ethernet cable, not U.S.B., though it may also have a U.S.B. port for connecting additional drives or printers.
In theory, adding a network storage device should be easy. The Windows and Mac sections of the start-up guide for the Maxtor Shared Storage II, for example, are each only two pages long. Simply plug in the power, use the supplied Ethernet cable to connect the drive to the router and run the install CD on one of the networked computers. Prices range from $200 for a 320 gigabyte version to $500 for a terabyte (1,000 gigabytes) of storage.
But it’s not always all that easy. Although installation was pretty effortless on a Windows XP machine and on a Mac running OS X, it initially did not work with Windows Vista. It required finding and following complex instructions on a Maxtor product support Web site.
The Maxtor drive also has two U.S.B. ports that can be used to add additional external drives or to connect a printer that can be accessed by any machine on the network. Finally, the drive can stream video or music files stored on it to a home entertainment device like the Xbox 360 that is compliant with the Universal Plug and Play AV or Digital Living Network Alliance protocols.
What if you want the data when you are at the office or on the road? Western Digital’s MyBook World Edition hard drives not only plug into a home network but also can be accessed remotely at no additional charge. The software, which works only with Windows XP (a Vista version is expected soon) allows you to see files on the drive through Windows Explorer or use any program’s “open” or “save as” commands to get to the hard drives.
For $49.95 a year, you can get additional services that give you access to files on all Windows PCs on your home network from any Windows machine connected to the Internet. MyBook World Edition network drives start at $250 for the 500 gigabyte version and continue up to the recently released 2 terabyte model, at $800.
Like the Maxtor model, this drive has a U.S.B. you can use to plug in an additional external device. Network-attached drives cost more than regular external drives. Western Digital’s shared 500 gigabyte MyBook World Edition drive costs only $20 more than its 500 gigabyte counterpart that has no network accessibility. With Maxtor, the price difference is higher, about $100.
For those willing to buy and install their own internal hard drives, which cost less than external drives, the $130 Linksys NAS200 Network System offers a great deal of flexibility. The device doesn’t come with any hard drives, but it has bays for two internal SATA 3.5-inch drives, the type used in most desktop PCs.
If that’s not enough, there are two U.S.B. ports for external drives. The two internal drives can be configured as one virtual drive or, to provide extra backup, as a redundant array of independent drives, known as RAID. Drives can be accessed locally or remotely through a Web interface.
With 500 gigabyte internal drives available for about $130, this do-it-yourself solution works out to roughly the same price as devices with drives. The advantage is that as the price of higher-capacity drives drops and the amount of data you are storing grows, you can upgrade later by swapping out drives.
There is yet another flexible variation of network-attached storage devices, although it is a bit more expensive. Linksys and Apple offer wireless routers with a U.S.B. port to accommodate an external drive. With the Linksys WRT350N Wireless-N Gigabit Router with Storage Link ($160), you can plug in a regular external hard drive that can then be seen by any computer on the network. It’s also a very fast router, using the latest standard for wireless transmission, 802.11n.
Apple’s AirPort Extreme Base Station ($180), which works with Macs and Windows PCs, also uses the 802.11n standard, but its three wired Ethernet ports work at the slower 100 megabit speed.
These routers also work with the new Drobo “storage robot” from Data Robotics, according to Dan Stevenson, president of Data Robotics. The $500 enclosure holds up to four internal drives that you buy separately. It automatically mirrors data between drives for backup in case one drive fails.
Sometimes keeping things simple is the best strategy. If you have just an occasional need to move files between computers, you can make do with a stand-alone external U.S.B. hard drive. (Some are small and sleek, so you can easily move them from one machine to another as you would a flash drive. It’s what techies call sneakernet.)
But if you want the flexibility of an always-on drive that can back up your files and be accessed from any of your machines, a network drive is the way to go. With either system, though, consider backing up valuable and irreplaceable files off-site with an online storage service or on CDs or DVDs.