Last week I discussed the basic steps in extending your network beyond just computers. We started out with adding printers to a network. This week I’ll discuss adding Network Attached Storage (NAS) device to your network.

A NAS device, in simple English, is a disk drive that is attached to your network instead of to a specific computer. Because it is attached to the network, you can access the data on it from any computer on the network.

You can get two kinds of NAS gadgets:

  1. A controller with one or more empty drive bays to which you can attached any internal IDE disk drive
  2. An all encompassing device with one or more disk drives built-in.

The two are not much different. In the fist instance, you have to do the work of attaching a drive to the controller yourself while in the second instance the manufacturer does the work for you. Buy one which you are comfortable with.

NAS devices usually come with their own operating system, mostly some flavor of Linux. Therefore, they can work with PCs, Macs, and even Linux computers. Installing them is quite simple. You take them out of the box and attach drives, if necessary. Then you connect them to a hub, switch, or router on your network by means of an Ethernet cable. That’s it. The device appears under your network in My Network Places.

But you might not be able use it as yet. Some devices are preconfigured for use with Windows computers and their drives are formatted in FAT or FAT32 format. They even have a default share. If you purchase such a device, you are in business right away. You must configure others before you can use them.

Configuring these devices is quite easy. They have a browser-based management interface very similar to that of a router. You type the URL provided in the device’s manual in your browser’s address to bring up the management interface just as you do with a router. You can do the following in the management interface:

  1. Format the drive
  2. Create folders and share them
  3. Create user accounts
  4. Grant users access to the shared folders

The process of formatting the drive and creating folders is basically the same as it is on your computer. But you must check the device’s manual before doing so. With some NAS devices, you can’t format the drive in NTFS format if you want to write to it; you must use the FAT or FAT 32 formats. And some devices don’t support long folder names — you must restrict folder names to the 8.3 format (8 character filenames). Read the manual and format the drive accordingly. Then create folders on it depending on the supported naming convention and enable sharing on them. If you want the data on the network to be accessible to everyone on the network, you don’t need to do much else, but if you want to restrict the access to only certain users, you must configure folder access rules.

The first step is to create user IDs from the device’s management interface. The trick is to create the same user ID and password for a use as the one he has on his computer. Windows has a built-in feature called pass-through authentication which automatically manages the access. It passes the user ID and password to the device, which uses it to authenticate the user. But be careful. Some devices only support eight character passwords. If yours is one of them, and your users have longer passwords, you will have to reduce the length of the user’s passwords on their computers to eight characters or less for pass-through authentication to work.

The next step is to grant access to the shared folders to the user accounts you just created. This process is exactly the same as sharing a folder on your computer with another user. So you won’t have much trouble with it.

Finally you map the shared folders as drives on the user’s computers. Everyone can now use these shared folders as if they were on their own computers.

"Why go through all this trouble", you ask? First, you don’t have to leave all your computers on simply for other people to access shared folders on them. But the biggest reason is that you can streamline your backup process. If you leave your applications on your computers but move the data to the NAS device, you only have to back up a few folders in a single location instead of backing up several folders on several computers.

In fact, most of these devices come with a USB port at the back, to which you can attach a regular external hard drive. (Make sure the capacity of the external drive is equal to or greater than the NAS drive.) The devices also come with automatic backup software. All you have to do to schedule automatic backups is select the folders to back up and set a time to start the back up. Both the settings can be set from the device’s management interface.

As a bonus, most NAS devices come with a built-in print server. Recall from the first part of this article that you can connect desktop printers to a network with the help of a print server. If you buy a NAS device, you don’t have to buy a separate print server; you can simply use the built-in one. But keep in mind that some features of AIOs won’t work with print servers.

Believe it or not, this is an incredibly simple and elegant storage, backup, and printer sharing solution for workgroups– you don’t have to mess with tapes and writable CDs or DVDs. And it is an inexpensive one too. NAS devices are not expensive. I recently bought 500GB device at for under $150. For under $250, including the cost of an external USB drive, you can share all your data, back it up automatically, and even share your old desktop printer. Now that’s what I call an irresistible deal!