Network-Attached Storage (NAS)

Posted on Jun 20, 2009 in Knowledge Base

Network-attached storage (NAS) is file-level computer data storage connected to a Computer Network providing data access to a heterogeneous group of clients. NAS not only operates as a file server, but is specialized for this task either by its hardware, software, or configuration of those elements. NAS is often manufactured as a computer appliance – a specialized computer built from the ground up for storing and serving files – rather than simply a general purpose computer being used for the role.

As of 2010 NAS devices are gaining popularity, as a convenient method of sharing files among multiple computers. Potential benefits of network-attached storage, compared to file servers, include faster data access, easier administration, and simple configuration.

NAS systems are networked appliances which contain one or more hard drives, often arranged into logical, redundant storage containers or RAID. Network-attached storage removes the responsibility of file serving from other servers on the network. They typically provide access to files using network file sharing protocols such as NFS, SMB/CIFS, or AFP.


A NAS unit is a computer connected to a network that provides only file-based data storage services to other devices on the network. Although it may technically be possible to run other software on a NAS unit, it is not designed to be a general purpose server. For example, NAS units usually do not have a keyboard or display, and are controlled and configured over the network, often using a browser.

A full-featured operating system is not needed on a NAS device, so often a stripped-down operating system is used. For example, FreeNAS, an open sourceNAS solution designed for commodity PC hardware, is implemented as a stripped-down version of FreeBSD.

NAS systems contain one or more hard disks, often arranged into logical, redundant storage containers or RAID.

NAS uses file-based protocols such as NFS (popular on UNIX systems), SMB/CIFS (Server Message Block/Common Internet File System) (used with MS Windows systems), AFP (used with Apple Macintosh computers), or NCP (used with OES and Novell NetWare). NAS units rarely limit clients to a single protocol.


The key difference between direct-attached storage (DAS) and NAS is that DAS is simply an extension to an existing server and is not necessarily networked. NAS is designed as an easy and self-contained solution for sharing files over the network.

Both DAS and NAS can potentially increase availability of data by using RAID or clustering.

When both are served over the network, NAS could have better performance than DAS, because the NAS device can be tuned precisely for file serving which is less likely to happen on a server responsible for other processing. Both NAS and DAS can have various amount of cache memory, which greatly affects performance. When comparing use of NAS with use of local (non-networked) DAS, the performance of NAS depends mainly on the speed of and congestion on the network.

NAS is generally not as customizable in terms of hardware (CPU, memory, storage components) or software (extensions, plug-ins, additional protocols) as a general-purpose server supplied with DAS.


NAS provides both storage and a file system. This is often contrasted with SAN (Storage Area Network), which provides only block-based storage and leaves file system concerns on the “client” side. SAN protocols include Fibre Channel, iSCSI, ATA over Ethernet (AoE) and HyperSCSI.

One way to loosely conceptualize the difference between a NAS and a SAN is that NAS appears to the client OS (operating system) as a file server (the client can map network drives to shares on that server) whereas a disk available through a SAN still appears to the client OS as a disk, visible in disk and volume management utilities (along with client’s local disks), and available to be formatted with a file system and mounted.

Despite their differences, SAN and NAS are not mutually exclusive, and may be combined as a SAN-NAS hybrid, offering both file-level protocols (NAS) and block-level protocols (SAN) from the same system. An example of this is Openfiler, a free software product running on Linux-based systems. A shared disk file system can also be run on top of a SAN to provide filesystem services.


The way manufacturers make NAS devices can be classified into three types:

  1. Computer based NAS—Using a computer (Server level or a personal computer), installs FTP/SMB/AFP… software server. The power consumption of this NAS type is the largest, but its functions are the most powerful. Some large NAS manufacturers like Synology, QNAP and ASUStor make these types of devices. Max FTP throughput speed varies by computer CPU and amount of RAM.
  2. Embedded system based NAS—Using an ARM, MIPS… embedded system and RTOS to run a NAS server. The power consumption of this NAS type is fair, and functions in the NAS can fit most end user requirements. Marvell, Oxford, and Storlink make chipsets for this type of NAS. Max FTP throughput varies from 20 MB/s to 120 MB/s.
  3. ASIC based NAS—Provisioning NAS through the use of a single ASIC chip, using hardware to implement TCP/IP and file system. There is no OS in the chip, as all the performance-related operations are done by hardware acceleration circuits. The power consumption of this type of NAS is low, as functions are limited to only support SMB and FTP. Layerwalker is the only chipset manufacturer for this type of NAS. Max FTP throughput is 40 MB/s.


NAS is useful for more than just general centralized 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.


Open source server implementations

Open source NAS-oriented distributions of Linux and FreeBSD are available, including FreeNAS, NAS4Free,CryptoNAS, NASLite, Gluster, Openfiler, OpenMediaVault, EasyNAS and the Debian-based TurnKey File Server. These are designed to be easy to set up on commodity PC hardware, and are typically configured using a web browser.

They can run from a virtual machine, Live CD, bootable USB flash drive (Live USB), or from one of the mounted hard drives. They run Samba (an SMB daemon), NFS daemon, and FTP daemons which are freely available for those operating systems.

NexentaStor, built on the Nexenta Core Platform, is similar in that it is built on open source foundations; however, NexentaStor requires more memory than consumer-oriented open source NAS solutions and also contains most of the features of enterprise class NAS solutions, such as snapshots, management utilities, tiering services, mirroring, and end-to-end checksumming due, in part, to the use of ZFS.

Clustered NAS

clustered NAS is a NAS that is using a distributed file system running simultaneously on multiple servers. The key difference between a clustered and traditional NAS is the ability to distribute (e.g. stripe) data and metadata across the cluster nodes or storage devices. Clustered NAS, like a traditional one, still provides unified access to the files from any of the cluster nodes, unrelated to the actual location of the data.