Network storage made easy and affordable

If you're tired of leaving your PC on continuously so that other machines in your house can access the files you store on it, you're ready to step up to network-attached storage. As you might guess from the name, NAS devices connect via ethernet directly to your router.

Your network storage device can be a stand-alone unit designed specifically for centralized storage, or you can convert an old PC into a file-sharing device. Either way, you'll have a 24/7 data repository for backups and for sharing documents, images, videos, and other files.

A NAS device should be isolated in a safe, cool, dry, out-of-the-way place to make it less vulnerable to bumps, spills, and other physical dangers. (Plus, hiding your storage device keeps it safer from theft.) Though off site is the safest destination for your backups, NAS can be the next best thing -- barring tornadoes, tsunamis, and other acts of nature.

NAS boxes are isolated from most of the software dangers that networked PCs fall prey to, as well: Even if the files stored on a NAS device get infected, the box's operating system resides in its firmware (unless you're using a retasked PC), and is therefore very difficult to attack.

Dedicated to storage

The easiest way to add NAS to your network is to buy a box designed for that task. I kicked the tires on two units: the $US699 Maxtor Shared Storage II 1TB, and the $US389 Iomega StorCenter 500. The quoted prices average about 70 and 78 cents, respectively, per gigabyte, versus 50 to 60 cents per gigabyte for general-purpose external hard drives.

Nearly every PC under four years old supports gigabit-per-second ethernet. If yours doesn't, spending $US20 or so for a gigabit ethernet adapter is a good idea. With gigabit ethernet, a movie streamed from a PC or NAS box looks as smooth as silk, large files transfer at blazing speed, and backups are far faster than with older 10/100 ethernet cards, which are limited to 100 megabits per second (note that these are theoretical speed limits; real-world speeds are slower). That said, my old reliable 10/100 500GB Maxtor Shared Storage Drive still manages the small-scale backups for my office network.

Gigabit ethernet is not a perfect solution, however. Router vendors have been focusing on boosting the speed and reliability of their wireless networking gear. Only a few pricier wireless routers -- such as the $US150 D-Link DGL-4300 I've used for the past year, D-Link's $US180 DIR-655, Netgear's $US160 WNR854T, and Buffalo's $US250 WZRAG300NH -- include a gigabit-capable ethernet switch. Some NAS boxes can connect wirelessly, but they transfer data at a considerably slower pace than a cabled connection does.

Linksys's WRT350N pre-N wireless router (about $US170 online) has a quartet of gigabit-ethernet ports, as well as other features that make it an alternative to a dedicated NAS box. The WRT350N sports a USB 2.0 port to which you can attach a normal USB hard drive, effectively turning the router itself into a NAS controller. USB 2.0's real-world transfer rate of about 200 megabits per second can't match gigabit-ethernet speeds, but it's faster than standard ethernet and most wireless connections.

The WRT350N, like the Iomega StorCenter and Maxtor Shared Storage II, also functions as a Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) server to stream photos, MP3 files, and movies to your PC, TV, stereo, portable player, or other playback device equipped with a UPnP media adapter. Like gigabit ethernet, UPnP is an important feature to have if you're planning a home multimedia network.

For even more flexibility, get a NAS box with USB ports for attaching a printer that you can share across the network or for expanding the network's storage capacity via standard USB hard drives. With a high-end NAS box, you can back up your network storage by attaching a backup device directly to the box, rather than having to go through your PC. Most people, however, will store the backup of their NAS box on DVDs, or on a hard drive or tape drive attached to their computer.

Another option: Buy a NAS enclosure that lets you plug in your own hard drive to build a NAS box with as little or as much storage as you can get on a drive (or two, for enclosures that support multiple drives). Tritton's $US100 TRI-NSS001 NAS Enclosure works with any 3.5-inch ATA drive and supports up to 400GB.

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Repurpose an old PC

Instead of donating your old system when you upgrade to a new model, retask it as a NAS box. Its ethernet connection makes converting it into a storage device easy. Don't worry about its slow processor or lack of RAM: CPU speed and memory are less important when you're just sending files. The network's limited bandwidth is more of an inhibiting factor than even a ten-year-old PC's processor speed.

Turn the old machine off, unplug its power cord, open its case (ground yourself by touching a piece of metal first), and remove all extraneous hardware (such as a sound card or a TV tuner card, but not the network adapter, if the ethernet port isn't on the system board). Next, close the case, turn the system on, and enter its PC Setup program (look on the screen for the appropriate key to press before Windows starts loading).

Once you're in the BIOS, disable any unnecessary features: If you won't be attaching a parallel printer, for instance, disable the parallel port. Other candidates for deactivation are audio devices, serial ports, secondary ATA channels, and unused USB controllers. You can expand your NAS PC's storage or back it up easily via USB, FireWire, and eSATA ports, so you might want to keep those. But less hardware means fewer potential driver conflicts and better reliability.

I don't recommend this, but you could add wireless to your pseudo-NAS box via an add-in card or a USB adapter. Data transfer won't be nearly as fast as across a wired connection, and this setup won't work very well for streaming multimedia. But it's a viable alternative in places where cable is difficult to run.

With your hardware pared down, it's time to clean out your unnecessary software. First, create one last backup in case you need to recover a vital bit of data. Then reformat the PC's hard drive, or the drive partition that holds the operating system. Repartition the drive to create a partition solely for the operating system; set the size at the minimum amount the OS requires, plus 1GB or so for a safety margin. Since you won't be installing many apps, this partition won't need much extra storage. Rule of thumb: 10GB is fine for Windows XP or Linux; 20GB will work for Windows Vista. Partition the rest of your drive as you see fit for storing the actual shared data.

After you've finished repartitioning the drive, reinstall the operating system, enabling as few options as possible. Then remove the unnecessary apps and services running in the background that you couldn't opt out of during the installation, such as Windows Messenger. This will save you some CPU cycles. If you uninstall the wrong app, you can reinstall it via your Windows disc, but it's a good idea to be cautious about removing Windows utilities.

Adventurous and/or technically proficient users should consider a minimal Linux installation. Using Linux to serve files to a Windows network ensures that your do-it-yourself NAS box won't fall prey to a Windows-specific malware attack. I like Xubuntu for its small footprint and friendly installation.

After you connect your NAS box to your router with an ethernet cable, you'll want to configure the unit via the HTML setup application in its firmware, which opens in your PC's browser. Most NAS boxes provide software utilities that walk you through the setup process -- or you can administer the unit directly. To do so, open your browser, type into the address bar ( for some Linksys routers, and for others), and press . If you're not sure of the IP address to use, open your router's setup page and look in its quick-start guide for the correct address. Log in, locate your router's DHCP table, and note the address of your NAS box (it may be similar to ''). The entry name will likely give you a clue as to which device you're looking for. (Hint: It's the new device on the network!) When in doubt, turn the device off, look at the table, turn it back on, and look for the new address in the table.

Next, type the address of your NAS box into your browser's address field and press . You may be greeted by a log-in screen demanding your user name and password, which you'll find in your manual. More likely, you'll have to create a password. Use the configuration utility to handle such options as formatting and partitioning the device's drives, adding or deleting users who can access the drive, making folders public or private to individuals or groups of users, joining a workgroup, and setting RAID levels. I recommend creating separate folders on your NAS box for different kinds of data (if your device supports it -- some low-end devices don't let you partition their drives or even create new folders). You could give family members private folders that only they and you can access. To avoid embarrassing situations, however, make sure you tell them that as the administrator you can see what's in it. Calling any folder "private" is a bit of a misnomer in this regard.

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Get your PC-based NAS box ready to share

If you plan to convert a PC for your NAS device, you must reconfigure it and define an area to store files in. It will need a keyboard, a mouse, and a display, which may not be practical to attach and use in a closet or other out-of-the-way location. Windows XP's Remote Desktop Connection lets you configure and administer the machine remotely, so you can skip the peripherals -- though the BIOS in some PCs requires that a keyboard be attached unless you change this setting manually. Remote Desktop Connection works with Windows 95 through 2000 as well; go to Microsoft's site for the free download.

If you installed your OS on a small partition and created one or more other partitions for data, XP lets you share files by simply right-clicking a drive icon, choosing Properties, Sharing, and checking Share this folder (the option on some systems is Share this folder on the network). (The context menu's 'Sharing and Security' option invokes an unrelated Windows utility.) Most routers use the default Windows group, named 'MSHome' or 'Workgroup'. If you have renamed yours, you must reset it: In XP right-click My Computer and select Properties; in Vista right-click Computer and click Remote settings. In both versions, select Computer Name, Change and enter the workgroup and computer names.