Any business of any size runs on information, whether it's keeping track of accounting data or managing the flow of proposals and orders. Over the past 25 years, computers have transformed the way that small businesses operate, making it possible to organize and manage information in ways that simply was not possible in the days of paper ledgers and index cards.
But once a business grows larger than a single employee, you face a problem with that information. How do you maintain the information, yet still make it accessible to the different people in the company who need to work with it? Large companies have corporate IT departments who can do the heavy lifting of designing and maintaining complex computer networks, but most small businesses are hard pressed to get all their work done without adding the burden of caring for complicated computer systems.
Fortunately, computer networks have become much easier to install and use. You don't need a dedicated server, and many companies find that a local network can be worth the investment if only to share resources such as an Internet connection or a fast printer. And now, it's easier than ever to share data on a network as well.
You can easily share data by allowing other computers on the network to see a portion of your computer's hard drive, but the data is only accessible to others when your computer is running. A separate storage system than anyone can access at any time gets around that problem. Such products, known as Network Attached Storage -- or NAS -- make for an affordable and sophisticated small business solution. (They also are very handy at home, where they can make digital media such as MP3 audio files available to all computers on a home network.)
Getting Started with a NAS Device
As its name implies, a NAS device attaches directly to your network. Connect it using an Ethernet cable; you can plug it right into any switch or router. Then plug the power cable into an outlet. If it will be a mission-critical component, consider getting a standby power supply for it.
When you turn it on, the device will boot up, communicate with your network, and obtain a network address. At that point, it's ready to go.
Configuring the device is generally easy as well. If you want to change the default settings -- such as defining groups or limiting the access to certain folders (more on these options below) -- the device's utilities will step you through it. In almost all cases, the device will have a Web page contained in its controller which you can access using any browser. Type the IP address into your browser, and you'll typically be presented with a login screen where you'll be asked for a name and password. From there, you'll be able to set up users and groups, backup settings, and enable features such as Web access.
For the easiest access, you'll want the device to look on your computer like another local hard drive. Here's how you do it in Windows XP:
Open Windows Explorer, and select Tools, Map Network Drive. The Map Network Drive window lets you specify the drive letter to use for the drive. You can choose any letter that isn't already assigned to your computer. In this case, we've chosen to have it be Drive Y, but you can choose any letter you want, such as Drive N for "Network".
Next, click on the Browse button to find the NAS device on your network. The Browse for Folder window lets you find devices on your Windows Network, and then connect to the shared folder on the NAS.
After you select the folder, choose OK to return to the Map Network Drive window. Notice that there is a checkbox at the bottom of that window: "Reconnect at logon". If you put a check here, your computer will automatically reconnect to the NAS device when it boots, so you'll never have to do these steps again.
Note that with Vista, the steps are nearly identical. In Windows Explorer's Folders pane, select Computer, then click the Map network drive option at the top of the window. The Map Network Drive dialog box has the same options and choices as the XP version described above.
And the Browse for Folder works the same way as with XP, as well.
We've explained how to connect to the NAS device to show just how easy it is to use. You don't need to know any fancy network stuff. You don't have to know about IP addresses or file systems or Linux. Just two windows and you're done. The NAS device will show up as another hard drive on your computer. We hope that this seems easy enough that you'll want to learn about how easy it is to install a NAS device on your network, and what it can do for you.
Is This a RAID?
Before we cover some specifics about NAS devices, let's talk about the storage. The whole point of using a NAS device is to make it easier to use your valuable business information. Focus for a moment on the word valuable. Presumably, you're currently doing your accounting on a single computer, and the data is stored on that computer's hard drive. And hopefully, you've got some set of procedures in place that make sure that this data gets backed up so that you can recover it if something happens to that hard drive or computer. (In all too many cases, people who run small businesses feel that they don't have the time to backup their data, and so they put their company at risk of a serious loss.)
But if the hard drive on that computer dies, your accounting will stop for as long as it takes to restore the last backup. And you will still lose any data that was entered since the last backup, which may require some time-consuming reconstruction from the paper records.
Now what if there was something that let you keep right on working if a hard drive fails? If you have multiple hard drives sharing the data, you can do just that.
The most inexpensive NAS devices only hold a single hard drive, which provides no data protection at all. If your NAS device has three or more hard drives, however, it is possible to have all your data stored in a way that none of it gets lost if one of the drives should fail, and you'll still be able to keep working while that drive gets replaced. This technology is called RAID, which stands for Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks.
RAID systems come in different levels, but the only one that truly lives up to the "redundant" part of the name is RAID 5. In this system, all the data is spread over all the drives in the device along with parity data. This means that if one drive fails, the data on the other drives can be used to reconstruct all its data using the parity information to fill in the missing parts. This allows the other drives to keep working. Replace the failed drive, and the remaining drives will reconstruct the missing data on the new drive.
The parity information for the other drives does take up storage space, so the total capacity of the NAS device is reduced by the size of one drive. In many cases, RAID 5 NAS devices come configured with four hard drives. For this piece, we used a 2 TB version of the TeraStation III from Buffalo Technology (www.buffalotech.com) that has an estimated street price of $1,300. This device is configured with four 0.5 TB hard drives. As a result, the total available capacity of the device is 1.5 TB when using the RAID 5 configuration.
RAID 5 makes data storage far more reliable, but it is not a replacement for backups. For example, if an important file is deleted by accident, it is deleted from all the drives. And if a burglar steals the NAS device, you've lost everything. The only way to recover data lost in either of these possibilities is to have backup copies. So don't think you can skip the backups just because you have a RAID 5 system.
Note that there are other RAID levels that do not provide the same sort of protection. RAID 1 simply mirrors the data on two drives; when data is written to one, the same data is also written to the other. This is less sophisticated and does not have the error checking that the parity data can provide. RAID 0 is designed for speed, not protection. By striping--spreading a file's data across multiple drives--and thus allowing the drives to retrieve their parts simultaneously, it can improve performance when working with large files. This actually increases risk, because more drives mean more likelihood of failure, and if you lose one drive, you lose the contents of all the drives.
RAID 5 thus gives you the best of RAID 1 and 0, since it offers redundancy for protection and the striping for improved performance. So for a business application, make sure you get a NAS device that has uses a RAID 5 configuration.
What Can NAS Do?
Along with the hard drives, the NAS device box contains a computer dedicated to running the NAS tasks. It's probably running Linux, but all you need to know is that you can access its features by using the system administration software that came with device. Different devices may offer different functions, but some are of particular interest to small businesses. Note that not all devices may have all these features. And it's also important to realize that while these features may be available, you don't have to use them if you don't want them.
Although the whole point of a NAS device is to let individual computers on a network access files, you may not want to give everyone in the company access to all the shared information. Most systems let you define who can access which folders on the drive.You can assign access rights to individuals or to groups. Thus everyone in a Sales group might be able to access all proposals and bids, but they won't be able to access employee information. You can also provide individuals with their own folders so that they can keep private files on the device.
Some NAS devices can also host a printer, so that you can use it to share a printer.
Some NAS devices can also copy data from a USB drive automatically, placing the data in a shared folder.
Most NAS devices come with backup software, but since you can map a shared folder to your computer, you generally can use any backup software you want. This can make it easier for everyone in the company to backup all critical files that are stored locally on their computer to the NAS device. (You should still have procedures that create backup copies that can be stored off-site, but it's a lot better than no backups at all.) By using an automatic feature that causes certain folders to be backed up at certain times, you can make it easier for people to copy their valuable data, and thus make it more likely that they will do it.
If your company network is connected to the Internet, some NAS devices have will let you access the shared data remotely. For example, you arrive at a prospect's office and discover that you didn't bring some supporting documentation that you need for a bid. Just log onto the NAS device and copy the file you need. You can also upload files you've created in the field to the NAS device, so that others in the company can access them as well.
Some NAS devices also support Internet FTP (File Transfer Protocol) that allows users to upload or download files to a specific part of the NAS device over the Internet. This can be especially handy when someone is trying to send you a file that is too large for email, or when you have such a file that you're trying to send to them.
A NAS device can solve a lot of small business problems and make your access to important data far more efficient, so there's little reason not to start using one on your system right away.