A NAS unit is essentially a self-contained computer connected to a network, with the sole purpose of supplying file-based data storage services to other devices on the network. The operating system and other software on the NAS unit provide the functionality of data storage, file systems, and access to files, and the management of these functionalities. The unit is not designed to carry out general-purpose computing tasks, although it may technically be possible to run other software on it. NAS units usually do not have a keyboard or display, and are controlled and configured over the network, often by connecting a browser to their network address.
Availability of data might potentially be increased with NAS if it provides built-in RAID and clustering.
Performance can be increased by NAS because the file serving is done by the NAS and not done by a server responsible for also doing other processing. The performance of NAS devices, though, depends heavily on the speed of and traffic on the network and on the amount of cache memory (RAM) on the NAS computers or devices.
It should be noted that NAS is effectively a server in itself, with all major components of a typical PC – a CPU, motherboard, RAM, etc. and its reliability is a function of how well it is designed internally. A NAS without redundant data access paths, redundant controllers, redundant power supplies, is probably less reliable than Direct Attached Storage (DAS) connected to a server which does have redundancy for its major components.
NAS is useful for more than just general centralised storage provided to client computers in environments with large amounts of data. NAS can enable simpler and lower cost systems such as load-balancing and fault-tolerant email and web server systems by providing storage services. The potential emerging market for NAS is the consumer market where there is a large amount of multi-media data.
Such consumer market appliances are now commonly available. Unlike their rackmounted counterparts, they are generally packaged in smaller form factors. The price of NAS appliances has plummeted in recent years, offering flexible network-based storage to the home consumer market for little more than the cost of a regular USB or FireWire external hard disk. Many of these home consumer devices are built around ARM, PowerPC or MIPS processors running an embedded Linux operating system.
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