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Setting up a home NAS system: Sysadmin After Dark

Backups are necessary evils, even at home. Consider setting up network-attached storage to make them more manageable.
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Backups at home
Photo by Andrew Neel from Pexels

In a previous article on Enable Sysadmin, I wrote about building a home lab. I also promised to go over several hardware builds of increasing cost. However, I realized that the subject of backups would quickly arise when discussing home systems. And along with backups comes the question, “Should I have a home NAS system?”

You are considering a home NAS (network-attached storage device) because you have many documents at home that you need to keep backup copies of, right?

What is a NAS?

A Network Attached Storage (NAS) is simply a storage device that connects to your home network. A NAS provides a place for you to put documents from your computer that need to be backed up or guaranteed to be available if your PC fails. A home NAS connects to one of the four Ethernet ports on the back of your home broadband or ADSL box. You generally don’t want to run a home NAS as a wireless device; it needs fast-wired Ethernet to work well.

A home NAS provides added security for your essential documents by allowing them to exist in more than one place—your home computer and the NAS. If your computer fails, you have to replace your hard drive, or upgrade the operating system, you don’t care—your documents will be safe and sound on your NAS.

An entire spectrum of options exist, from super-cheap to devices starting over $500. Today, we’ll cover two of the most low-cost and immediate backup choices and a possible, primitive home NAS. We'll start by defining NAS systems, then looking at using DVDs as backup media, and then finally we'll return back to our examination of NAS solutions.

Why a home NAS?

The main reason you might need a home NAS is to backup documents on one or more home computers that have become laden with photos, legal documents, records of transactions, receipts, and emails that need to be kept safe for a long time going forward.

The reason I’m using the qualifier “for a long time going forward” is that if your files are not going to be kept for a long time (or you have some other long-term storage, like printed paper), then you don’t need a NAS. End of discussion.

A NAS is a place to store documents besides your local computer or laptop. The NAS maintains a backup copy of your files in case something goes wrong with the computer. What if it’s hit by lightning and fried? Or if only the hard drive fails? You would lose all the documents and even the operating system installed on the computer. Most important, remember: you need a home NAS if your computer files have become more valuable to you than the computer itself.

A NAS for the aspiring IT pro

Let me add one more reason you may want a home NAS: you are, or plan to be, a system administrator, a help desk administrator, or anyone associated with Information Technology. You will find that ISO images and professional documents proliferate at nearly the same incredible rate as your personal documents. Those documents quickly become vital to you professionally as well as personally, so you need a location to store them that is independent of your home computer. You also might need to run multiple virtual machines from the home NAS.

Price matters

There are many NAS choices. They tend to vary by cost and options. Here are some broad categories:

  • Home router NAS: At the super-cheap end, if you have the right kind of home router, you could simply buy a USB flash drive or USB disk drive. Plug the drive into the router's USB port, and the home router would “serve” the storage space to the network. You can do this for about $100, or whatever the disk drive costs.
  • Raspberry Pi NAS: In the midrange of price, you could use a Raspberry Pi to serve one or two disk drives to the network. You can build a Pi-based NAS in an afternoon for about $200, including the cost of the disk drive.
  • RAID-based NAS: At the high-end, you find purpose-designed home NAS systems that provide rich functionality for both Windows and Linux clients. These devices include features such as preserving user ownership and maintaining file permissions. These systems could have multiple disk drives configured in a Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks (RAID) array. A purpose-built, higher-end NAS generally runs $300 and up, including the cost of one or more drives. You can have a home NAS product up and running in an hour or so.

High-end DIY

Some technically-inclined folks build their own high-end home NAS to target features or performance for their particular application. Generally, they use a new, small, mITX motherboard and case, plus disk drives. These users may also add higher-performance disk controllers or Ethernet interfaces. The cost of building your own NAS device is equal to or more than buying a purpose-built NAS, so it’s not usually a way to save money.

An exception to this rule is repurposing a computer you already have as a home NAS. If you have all the parts, this can cost nearly nothing and provide good performance. The disadvantages are that an old PC is usually not power-efficient, might add heat to a room, and could make some noise.

However, you can get surprisingly good results re-using a laptop. Laptops have built-in battery backup, are quiet, don’t generate too much heat, and provide excellent performance.

Okay, what documents need a NAS?

Many essential documents might need to exist in an electronic form, and be continuously available to you and your computer. Some examples include:

  • You are working on a proposal (either personal or business), and you need to keep multiple versions of it available, possibly for use on various computers.
  • You are preparing documents for use by several people on their own personal or professional computers.
  • You want to email a photo of your daughter or son when they were toddlers to them now that they have children of their own.
  • You need to take an electronic copy of the deed to your house to the bank for a home equity loan without taking the only original copy you have with the embossed notary stamp.
  • You have pictures of your family or pets, and may want to step through them on the big television.

And possibly the best example:

  • You have a copy of a KeePass or other password manager database with all your financial user account names and passwords. The database must remain electronically available to you or your heirs after your death (a KeePass file can be printed out, but it’s far more useful in electronic form and available to your computer).

These are the kinds of documents and the scenarios in which a home NAS can matter.

Our first backup solutions

Let’s look at the two most immediate and least expensive backup options: Writing data to DVD and using a home router's USB port to provide NAS-like storage service. While these two options don’t involve very much building, they represent the bottom-dollar backup cost.

DVD backups can happen quickly

As you read this article, you may feel a slight sickly panic welling up in the pit of your stomach. For the first time, you now realize the documents on your laptop or desktop are far more valuable than the computer itself... and you don’t have a NAS! You also don’t have the time to vet one. You need to do something very quickly, and you don’t want to commit to a big electronic purchase in the home.

We'll start with the hardware necessary for DVD backups. The steps for burning DVDs is outside the scope of this discussion, but you can take a look at this article on creating DVDs by using RHEL. You may find yourself wanting to create ISO images. If so, read this Red Hat article.

Okay, check your PC or laptop to see if it has a DVD drive that can write DVDs. Many computers have DVD writers installed. Next, buy a stack of blank DVD-R disks. Take one blank DVD-R, pop it into the drive on your computer, and copy files to the DVD-R disk. Buy DVD-R disks, not DVD+R. Just stick with the “-” version.

Even if you don’t have a drive that can write DVDs, you can buy one that connects to your computer using USB 3 ports. Check to make sure your computer has USB 3 ports with little blue plastic tabs in the port. Those are at least USB 3 ports, and they work fine for external USB disk drives. A USB disk drive will look something like this:

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USB DVD drive

This particular model came with a short USB cable. There’s a slot in the bottom in which you can store the cable so you don’t lose it. This device easily writes blank DVD-R disks.

When you have copied your essential documents to your disk, you can eject it from the DVD drive. Select yes when the computer asks if you want to “close” the DVD for writing.

Finally, use a permanent marker to label the disk with something meaningful and descriptive, like “2001 income tax returns” and the date you wrote the data to the DVD.

Now that you have written and removed your DVD from your disk drive, do something silly: Pop it back into the disk drive, and let the computer “mount” it. You will see a DVD icon appear on the computer. Click it and look to see if the document is available to you. Double-click it and make sure you can open the document. It should be a duplicate of the original. This practice verifies your backup. You need to test every backup you make, because it’s the only way to know you’ve done the job right.

DVD backups costs

You can purchase a nice external USB DVD writer from Amazon for $25-$30. A stack of 50 blank DVDs costs about $15. So for around $45, you can store up to 230 GB on 50 DVDs (each disk stores about 4.7 GB of data).

DVD backups aren’t forever

There are two things you should know about writing DVD backups:

  1. It’s challenging to print labels to help you keep track of them.
  2. It’s possible they won’t last 20 years.

Here’s an example of several of my attempts to write meaningful labels onto DVDs:

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Stack of dated DVDs

I can generally tell you what’s on about 30% of these disks, but the rest I can’t identify without checking. These disks are 20 years old, so about one out of ten will fail to read on my laptop DVD drive.

DVD backups summary

Use blank DVDs to make important or urgent special backups, or to write a file out to a portable medium to be sent to someone who needs the data. DVDs are also good backup media to be kept in a fire-safe. Plan on reading the DVD at least every five years or so and maybe even re-create the contents on a new blank DVD to refresh the media.

It is even easier to use USB flash drives for data storage, but be warned: they are nearly impossible to label in a meaningful way and very easy to lose track of. I try (and fail) to keep a couple dozen of them organized in small portfolios made to hold them.

Home router NAS

A home router-based NAS is both interesting and complicated enough to deserve its own article.

Not every home router with a USB port can be used as a NAS. I know this because I have a home router that has a USB port that doesn’t work to provide NAS functions. The port on my router is intended for diagnostic and technician use. It provides a little bit of cell phone charging current, but that’s all.

I’ll refer you to this well-written article on the topic for more information and a broad survey of which routers provide home NAS functionality.

Do be aware that the NAS functions provided by these routers tend to be slower, and they may be missing important functionality (they may not support Linux, for example).

If you are fortunate enough to have a home router that provides NAS functionality, give it a try with a USB disk drive and see how you like it. If you find that using the USB port on the router suits you, use an actual USB disk drive (either spinning disk or SSD) rather than a USB flash drive. You can test it using a USB flash device, but don’t plan on using a flash drive long-term. Flash drives have a limited number of read/write cycles. Worse yet, you may not know it when the device fails.

Wrap up

I have given you several things to consider. You now recognize that your personal and professional data is very valuable and needs to be backed up. You can use DVDs as a backup medium, or you could consider a home NAS. There are several types of home NAS solutions that vary by cost and function.

Next Time: Can a Raspberry Pi serve as a useful home NAS for a low cost? How does a Raspberry Pi NAS compare to an “old home computer NAS”?

[ Want more for your network? Download a free ebook on network automation with Ansible. ]

Topics:   Storage  
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James Brigman

Linux System Administrator providing systems and software support for RHEL6, RHEL 7 and VMware. Fan of Open, FIRE, and Renewables. More about me

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