Dear Lifehacker, I'm thinking about building a NAS (Network-Attached Storage) for storage and backups, but I don't know if I should build a computer or use an old one I have kicking around, or if I should buy a special enclosure like a Drobo or Synology for the job. What do you suggest? Thanks, Disk Hunter
Dear Disk Hunter,
Good question! There are pros and cons to either approach, and there's no single answer that will work for everyone. We do have some suggestions for you though. Depending on your level of tech-savviness, how much tinkering and rooting around you want to do with the setup and configuration, and the features you're looking for, one option may be better than the other. Let's do a deeper dive to help you decide.
Go DIY For A Cheaper, Customisable System
The DIY approach is attractive for a number of reasons, but the biggest pro is that you have choice. If you build a NAS, you can choose all the hardware that goes into it. You can choose the operating system you install, you choose the features that are enabled, you choose the drive sizes and how they're partitioned and RAID-ed out, you choose the services that are active, and how — if at all — your NAS communicates with other devices on and off your home network. It's all up to you.
You get exactly the device you want — it does everything you need it to do and nothing more. You have your choice of operating system for your home server, from the do-anything Amahi to the enterprise-grade FreeNAS to the old PC-friendly, simple and powerful NAS4Free, among other options.
Of course, the flip side of that approach is the time and energy necessary to make it all work. If you build your own NAS from scratch, you have to shell out for the components, assemble them, and make sure they all work. You get all the choice you could possibly want, but you also have to invest the time to get your system set up and configured, enable those services and tweak them properly, set up your file system, lock the whole thing down, configure your backups or file shares, and so on. We have guides for each of those popular operating systems linked above to help you out, but ultimately it's in your hands. If you're a power user, this is no sweat — you probably relish the task. If you just want something that's plug-and-play (and someone to call if it all breaks) however, that's not going to be the best approach.
You can offset some of the costs of the DIY approach by using an old computer for your NAS. However, old PCs have drawbacks you should think about. While enclosures tend to be space-saving, power-sipping devices, repurposed PCs can be loud, slow, power-hungry beasts with old, inefficient power supplies. They also need to be stored somewhere, plugged in, and on all the time. You can offset some of that by using energy-saving features or replacing fans with quiet ones and an old power supply with an efficient one, if you're willing to lay down the cash to do it.
Buy A NAS Enclosure For A More Expensive, Hassle-Free Setup
NAS enclosures, like Synology's feature-packed models, or easy-install, hands-off boxes like the Drobo, bring a lot to the party as well. Depending on the make and model you buy, you can have all the features you could possibly need in a well-designed and well-maintained operating system, specifically optimised for the hardware it's running on. You can shop around for the right mix of features and perks you want, and pay for what you need — although you'll probably have to make some compromises.
You also get the benefit of customer support if you run into problems, need help setting something up, or have a hardware issue you would otherwise have to handle yourself. Support can be very handy — and in some cases can even help you get data back if your RAID array goes haywire, a firmware update does something wonky to your enclosure, or you just need a little help setting up a new feature. At the same time, if you're an advanced user, you may not need it at all.
Similarly, really advanced users may feel limited by the options that built-in firmware offers. Synology does a great job at offering highly complex, plug-in oriented, and power user-friendly software on its enclosures, but not all manufacturers take that approach. Drobo, for example, isn't short on features, but strives to be as set it-and-forget it as possible, with the goal of giving you a NAS that you just plug in to your router, computer, or share on your home network and then use without further configuration. If your goal is to get hands-on with your NAS, a pre-configured enclosure may not be for you.
However, if you're looking for special features, like disaster-proofing or a very compact design, an enclosure may be your best bet. The downside though is that you'll pay for those special features. A good enclosure is usually hundreds of dollars, with larger ones a thousand or more. An enclosure will certainly cost more than an old PC you have lying around (although depending on how inefficient that old PC is, things could get more expensive there.) All of that plug-and-play setup and customer support comes at a premium. However, if you're the type who thinks your time and energy are worth more than the money you'd spend setting up or troubleshooting a home server, it may be a good option for you.
The Bottom Line
Ultimately, the best option for you is the one that fits your budget, and fits the level of time and energy you want to put into getting your NAS set up and running. You should also consider how much tweaking and management you want to do, and if you want something that can do other things as well as just serve files. If you have money but no time — or desire — to set up a DIY NAS, just buy a plug-and-play enclosure and be done with it. If you'd prefer to get hands-on and really customise your system, or you know just buying the drives for your NAS is going to tax your budget, the DIY approach is best.
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