Beginner’s guide to NAS: Everything to know about RAID, setup, and more

NAS devices are a convenient solution to all your backup and file sharing troubles. Here’s how you can configure your personal NAS server.

Storing all your files locally can lead to a number of issues. For one, it’s entirely possible to run out of space on your if you regularly download huge documents. There’s also the problem of sharing said files between different devices. While you can use cloud services as a workaround, it’s not a good idea to rely on a third-party application, especially if you’re worried about the privacy of your data. A great NAS can solve all these problems. Here’s how to get started.

What is a NAS?

Network Attached Storage (NAS) is a device connected to your Wi-Fi router that’s specifically designed to store files and facilitate data transfer between all the devices on the same network. It’s a great alternative to cloud storage because it gives you full control over the data and allows you to scale your storage capacity as per your needs. You can think of a NAS as a personal cloud that provides faster access to all your files because everything can be accessed from your local network.

You don’t need a high-end enclosure for a proper NAS server; a simple Wi-Fi router with a storage drive plugged into its USB ports can just as easily function as a NAS. You can reconfigure your old PC to act as a NAS, and if you don’t mind the extra hassle, you can even build a NAS from scratch.

What can I do with a NAS?

Besides the obvious backup and file-sharing, there are plenty of other use cases for NAS. You can use a NAS as the centralized storage for systems that require heavy computation tasks or connect it to surveillance cameras and have it act as a home security system. Alternatively, you can use it to run multiple virtual machines or Docker containers. You can use NGINX to set up a reverse proxy server on your NAS or remote access to your data by installing a VPN to your NAS.

A NAS also has many casual use cases: you can turn it into a media-streaming server for your home theater using Plex or even configure it as a Minecraft server.

What is RAID storage?

Before we proceed further, you should know about some popular Redundant Array of Independent Disks (RAID) configurations. In simple terms, RAID uses multiple hard drives to improve read/speed and protect data in case of drive failure. Different RAID modes offer different trade-offs, so you should be careful before you pick one.

RAID 0 “stripes” or splits the data and files into smaller parts and simultaneously stores them in two or more disks. While RAID 0 significantly improves the read and write times, you’re twice as likely to lose your data. This is because if one drive fails, the data stored in the RAID 0 array will become inaccessible.

RAID 1 does the exact opposite: it improves fault tolerance by storing the same data in two separate drives. Unfortunately, the total capacity of the drives gets reduced by half, and you also get slower write speeds.

RAID 5 counters the drawbacks of both RAID 0 and RAID 1 by splitting the data across several drives and making backups of the split data. This type of setup uses extra data (called parity) that’s split across all drives to reconstruct the actual data and files in case a hard drive fails. The trade-off here is that you’ll need at least three HDDs to set up a RAID 5 array.

RAID 6 adds two parity blocks to each drive to protect the data in case two of your HDDs die out, making it an extremely useful configuration if you value drive-failure tolerance over all else. Unfortunately, a RAID 6 array has a slow write speed, and it can take as many as 24 hours to rebuild the array if one of your drives does end up failing.

RAID 10 combines RAID 0 and RAID 1 setups to provide high fault tolerance without compromising on the transfer speeds. It groups four hard drives into sets of two. It then divides any data transferred to the NAS into smaller fragments and sends half of the fragments to one hard drive in each group. Then, it copies all the data from the first HDD onto the second hard drive in both groups to create a backup and prevent data loss.

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How to use a pre-built NAS

There are tons of pre-built NAS devices out there, and the exact procedure to configure your NAS depends on its manufacturer. But the underlying procedure for setting up most NAS is as follows:

Choosing a NAS enclosure

You’ll require a NAS enclosure that includes some drive bays and at least one LAN port to connect to your Wi-Fi router. While you can use an old computer as a NAS or build one using a Raspberry Pi, it’s better for beginners to stick to prebuilt NAS stations for a quick and hassle-free experience.

The number of drive bays will vary depending on your use case, I recommend getting an enclosure with at least four drive bays. This will ensure you have enough space to add additional drives to increase storage capacity and/or set up a RAID profile in the future.

Choosing hard drives for your NASA Synology DiskStation D224+ NAS with two hard drives

Most NAS systems work with standard 2.5 and 3.5-inch hard drives, though there are some small enclosures that can only support 2.5-inch drives. NAS setups, with their constant vibrations and read/write operations, can be extremely taxing on your hard drives. While you can pick any old HDD off your shelf and slot it into the NAS, you should avoid doing so unless you are running an entry-level setup or don’t mind losing the data kept in the hard drives.

For most users, I’d recommend getting NAS-compatible drives like Seagate’s IronWolf Pro or Western Digital’s WD Red Pro, which possess high durability and are optimized for heavy workloads. You can also use different-capacity HDDs in the NAS, but it might cause some issues if you run RAID setups.

Installing the operating system

You’ll need to install an operating system for your NAS when you boot it for the first time. This guide will cover the setup process for Synology NAS devices, but NAS units from other manufacturers mostly follow a similar procedure, except you may need to download an application instead of using a web browser.

  1. Type the following address into your web browser and hit the Enter key.
  2. Select your Synology NAS from the list of devices and click on the Select button.
  3. Install Synology’s DiskStation Manager (DSM) operating system by pressing the Install Now button and choosing OK from the pop-up dialog box.
  4. Create an administrator account by entering the Server name, Username, and Password.
  5. Choose the update frequency for DSM and press Next.
  6. Configure QuickConnect by creating a new Synology account or sign in using an existing one and select Next to finish setting up your NAS.

Creating a storage volume

You’ll need to create a storage volume to store the contents of your NAS when you boot it up for the first time.

  1. Open Storage Manager from DSM’s interface.
  2. Press the Start button on the Storage Creation Wizard that automatically pops up when you launch Storage Manager.
  3. Choose the RAID type and the Drive type, and press Next.
  4. Toggle the checkboxes next to the drives that you wish to add to the Storage Pool and hit the Next button.
  5. (Optional) Perform a Drive Check to correct any errors in your hard drive. You can also skip this process and proceed to the next step.
  6. Enter the volume you wish to allocate for the storage pool next to the Modify allocate size option and press Next.
  7. Choose a file system (I suggest going with Btrfs), and hit the Next button.
  8. (Optional) You can toggle the Encrypt this volume checkbox and enter a Vault password to protect your data from unauthorized access.
  9. Finally, click on the Apply button to confirm the changes made to your NAS storage settings.

Creating shared folders

Now that you’ve configured your NAS, you’d want to set up a shared folder that you can access from any of your devices.

  1. Head to the Control Panel and click on the Shared Folder tab,
  2. Click on Create and choose the Create Shared Folder option.

Accessing the NAS from your devices

Finally, Synology allows you to easily access your NAS remotely from any device using your QuickConnect ID. To set up this feature:

  1. Enter the name of the shared folder and keep pressing Next until you reach the end of the Shared Folder Creation Wizard.
  2. Head to the QuickConnect tab and toggle the Enable QuickConnect option.
  3. Enter your QuickConnect ID and click on the Apply button.
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How to build your own NAS

Building NAS is more complicated than using a pre-built NAS enclosure, but it allows you to assemble a highly-capable NAS that can meet all your storage needs. Fortunately, you can build a decent NAS without spending a fortune on the components. Starting with the processor, you don’t need to grab the latest Threadripper or i9 processor, as most mid-range (and even entry-level) CPUs will suffice. You can also forgo a graphics card in this build if your processor has integrated graphics, though a GPU is quite helpful for heavy transcoding workloads. You also don’t need a very high-end motherboard either, and you can even go for smaller micro ATX and mini ITX boards if you want a small NAS server.

The RAM, however, is one component you shouldn’t skimp out on, especially if you aim to run Docker containers or virtual machines on your NAS. 8GB of memory is fine for the average user, but I recommend getting at least 16GB in case you want to use your NAS in future projects. Likewise, it’s better to get a branded, high-quality PSU since cheaper power supplies have a higher chance of failing and damaging the other components during the NAS’ continuous operation.

The entire assembly procedure for your NAS is similar to how you’d build a PC, so you can use our beginner’s guide to assembling a PC as a reference.

How to set up the custom-built NASAn overview of the TrueNAS CORE dashboard

Once you’ve assembled you’re NAS, it’s time to install an operating system. While you can use Windows 11 for this purpose, there are tons of OS that offer much better performance for NAS setups. I’ll use TrueNAS in this guide, but Open Media Vault and UnRAID are also great operating systems for your NAS.

Speaking of, iXsystems provides three editions for TrueNAS: CORE, SCALE, and ENTERPRISE. Both CORE and SCALE can be downloaded for free, while ENTERPRISE, as the name suggests, is a paid version of the OS with extra features. If you want to use your NAS just for backup and archiving purposes, you’d want to look into the easy-to-use CORE edition.

Alternatively, you should install TrueNAS SCALE if you want a powerful OS for your NAS. Based on Debian Linux, the SCALE edition offers extensive support for virtual machines thanks to its compatibility with Docker containers. It also supports horizontal scaling and allows you to cluster multiple systems into a single unit to provide better performance and higher availability for data storage.

The entire installation procedure is the same for both SCALE and CORE versions, so you can follow along regardless of which edition of TrueNAS you wish to use in your NAS server.

Creating a bootable drive

The first step in this process involves creating a bootable USB drive that you can plug into your newly built NAS to install the TrueNAS CORE operating system.

  1. Download the disk image file for TrueNAS Core from the official website.
  2. Download Rufus.exe from its website and run it with admin privileges.
  3. Toggle the Check Hard Drives checkbox.
  4. Click on the drop-down arrow under the Device section and choose the drive you wish to format.
  5. Press the Start button and wait for Rufus to create the bootable disk.

Changing the boot order in BIOS

Setting up TrueNAS CORE involves going through the BIOS to modify the boot order. Don’t worry, it’s safe to do so, and you won’t damage your NAS as long as you follow these steps:

  1. Power on your NAS and repeatedly tap the Del/Delete button as it boots up to enter the BIOS.
  2. Head to the Advanced Settings section on your BIOS and locate the Boot options.
    • Alternatively, your BIOS may have a dedicated Boot menu, so you should click on it instead.
  3. Select the Boot Option #1 setting and choose the bootable USB stick you created earlier.
  4. Click on the X or Exit button and save your BIOS settings when prompted to restart your NAS.

Installing the NAS operating system

Now that you have changed the boot order, your NAS will attempt to boot from the USB drive, allowing you to install the TrueNAS CORE OS.

  1. Press 1 at the console setup screen to initiate the installation process for the TrueNAS CORE operating system.
  2. Use the arrow keys to navigate to the drive that you wish to install the OS on.
  3. Press the spacebar key to select the drive and click OK.
  4. When prompted, set the root password and press OK.
    • You can also press the Cancel button to avoid setting up a password.
  5. Choose the Boot via UEFI option as the boot mode if you’re using new hardware for your NAS.
  6. The setup will ask you to create a 16GB swap partition. A swap/page file is helpful as it can act as a sort of temporary memory and prevent system crashes if you have low RAM. It’s always better to enable it, so you should click on the Create swap button and wait for the OS to finish installing.
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Your NAS will reboot after you’re done installing the TrueNAS CORE operating system. If it doesn’t show the TrueNAS CORE interface after restarting, you may need to alter the boot order in the BIOS to prioritize the drive where you just installed the OS. You’ll also need another device to open the TrueNAS interface.

Creating storage pools and datasets

There are a couple of hoops you’ll have to jump through before you can use the NAS. First off, you’ll need to create a storage pool, which is a collection of multiple physical HDDs grouped into a single logical unit.

  1. Make a note of the IP address of your NAS from the Console setup menu, and type it in a web browser on another device.
  2. Set a Username and Password for the TrueNAS UI and press Log in to enter the dashboard.
  3. Head to the Pools tab under Storage and click on the Create Pool button.
  4. Enter the name for the pool, check the disk you wish to use in the NAS, and click on the arrow button to bring the HDD under the Data VDevs section.
  5. Toggle the Force checkbox to open a pop-up.
  6. Check the Confirm toggle and select Continue.
  7. Click on the Create button.

Next, you’ll need to add a dataset to the newly created storage pool. Datasets serve as containers to store and manage files within a storage pool.

  1. Click on the Three Dots on your storage pool and select the Add Dataset option.
  2. Enter the name of your dataset and hit the Submit button.

Configuring a file-sharing protocol

Of course, you’ll have to pick a file-sharing protocol if you want to access your NAS from other devices. By default, TrueNAS CORE provides five of these protocols, but this tutorial will use Windows Shares as it’s easy to set up and works well for the average user.

  1. Select Windows Shares (SMB) under the Sharing tab and click on the Add button in the top-right corner.
  2. Pick the dataset of your choice and click on the Submit button.
  3. Press the Enable Service button when prompted to finish setting up SMB.

Adding a new user

Lastly, you’ll have to add a user to access the data stored on the NAS. You can do so by following these steps:

  1. Navigate to the Accounts menu and select Users.
  2. Click on Add and press the Submit button after filling in the username, password, and other details for the new user.

Storing data on your NAS

Now that you’ve completed setting up your NAS, you can access it from the file explorer and store data on it.

  1. Right-click on the Start button and choose File Explorer.
  2. Under the Address Bar, type in two backslashes () followed by the IP address of your NAS. Add another backslash at the end of the IP address and type the name of your dataset.
  3. Press the Enter key and type in the username and password for the user profile you just created to view the contents of the dataset on your system.

How to use a router with built-in USB ports as a NAS

Certain routers feature USB ports where you can plug in your external storage drives and access their contents from any other device connected to the network, thereby allowing you to use it as a NAS. The exact method to access the storage drive connected to your router varies depending on the manufacturer, but most routers require you to download an app or sign in using a web browser. Using a Wi-Fi router as a NAS is much easier than building your own NAS server, though you should make sure the USB ports are at least USB 3.0. Otherwise, you’ll have to deal with slow transfer speeds.

Final thoughts

Compared to the conventional methods of storing data on external drives or cloud storage, a NAS server has a higher upfront cost and takes a longer time to properly set up. But once you’re done setting it up, you can enjoy the enhanced data management facilities that it offers.

If you want a simple way to upgrade your PC or laptop’s storage, you can consider picking up an SSD instead. It’s a lot faster than a NAS, and a high-capacity model can easily fit some of your favorite games.

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