In this information age, data is more prevalent than ever before. Even the average user tends to require more storage now than ever to keep their photos, videos, music, and documents in a safe and easily accessible location. The cloud is an increasingly popular solution for saving and sharing data, but security has been and will continue to be a concern with storing personal information on a third party’s servers. Additionally, users who deal with slow internet speeds or bandwidth caps have reasons for not fully relying on a cloud service that extend beyond privacy concerns.

The solution many users choose to locally store data is an external hard drive, but that also introduces issues of its own. Hard drives are a local storage method that allows the user to save and transfer data without uploading it to the internet, but an external drive must be continuously plugged into the target device during use, and then unplugged and moved to another device for it to also access that data. Multiple users accessing the data simultaneously isn’t feasible, and neither reaching behind a desktop computer to connect a drive nor carrying it around the house while attached to your laptop are ideal scenarios, not to mention trying to conveniently access an external drive’s data on your smartphone or tablet.

The solution that I’ve found to be most effective at solving all of these problems and more is a network-attached storage, or NAS. For those unfamiliar with the technology, a NAS is essentially a specially-built computer whose primary components are hard drives, and it attaches to your local network via an Ethernet cable or wireless adapter. What this means is you have an always-on, low-energy storage device that is continuously accessible from any other device on the network and even over the Internet. Having a network-attached storage on your home network results in terabytes of your data — pictures, movies, music, documents, and really anything you’d like — being accessible from all of your devices wirelessly.

Of course, there are myriad other reasons to have network-attached storage besides storage alone. Because a NAS is essentially an always-on computer that is continuously connected to the Internet in a low-energy state, it can serve as anything from a scheduled file downloader to an Apache Web server. The ability to install first- and third-party applications to extend the capabilities of your NAS means that, in terms of silent, background activities, there’s little you can’t actually have your NAS do for you. Most apps I’ve implemented require little-to-no interaction post-setup, meaning I’ve been able to configure an app to perform as I want it to and then forget about it while it continues to work in the background.

Overview

The solution I use on a daily basis is Synology’s DS416play, an impressive NAS unit with four hard drive bays capable of up to 40TB of storage. This may sound like overkill, but I consider it vitally important to not only future-proof my data storage, but to protect it as well. With the DS416play, I’m able to create a RAID backup within the NAS, meaning half of the 40TB is storage, and the other half is an exact backup of that storage. The result is room to store all the photos I could ever take, along with all the videos I could ever watch and all the music I could ever hear, and have all of it safely backed up within the machine, making it easy to retrieve data should one of the drives need to be replaced. Naturally, it’s important to store important backup data externally from your NAS to ensure a failsafe, but having a quickly accessible backup in case of hard drive failure is a good idea and can be easily done on a Synology NAS.

The hardware of the device is an unassuming black box, small, largely comprised of hard drives, with a few LEDs and a power button on the front, and some ports on the back for power, Ethernet, and an optional wireless dongle. My DS416play model actually has two Ethernet ports for Link Aggregation, a technology that combines the two ports to theoretically double network throughput for ultra-fast file transfers, while also providing a redundancy should one of the ports fail. Also on the back are outward-blowing fans for cooling, and a detail I found neat was that the intake vents are cleverly hidden in the engraved Synology logos on either side of the DiskStation. Hard drives themselves are accessible from the front of the device where a door protects them from dust and other objects. Opening the door reveals the drive bays, four in the DS416play, which allow users to easily add and remove drives as needed.

Because a NAS is literally a computer running its own operating system, it can perform quite a few tasks that would otherwise require leaving a full-sized computer running around the clock. Fortunately though, Synology’s NAS system is optimized for continuous uptime and uses significantly less energy than if a desktop computer were to be used as a storage server. Occasionally, accessing my NAS via the mobile app takes a few seconds longer than normal, as the device is sleeping with one eye open, as it were — resting in low-power mode but listening for network activity — and I’m perfectly happy with this behavior, as it’s using a reduced amount of power when there are no tasks to perform but is still available on-demand for when I need it.

Media Consumption

One of the things I love most about Synology’s NAS systems is the sheer number of options I have regarding how I want to use the device, whether I’m storing data or accessing it. The NAS not only appears as a network device on all my computers, but the Synology iOS and Android mobile apps mean I can manage my data from all my devices on the network, as well as remotely via the Internet. Further, apps such as Infuse or VLC that support Universal Plug-and-Play work seamlessly with the device to play your media anywhere in the house, meaning you aren’t forced to use any specific or first-party app if you have a favorite that supports UPnP.

Additionally, Plex users can setup their Synology NAS as a media server, which allows for streaming of videos and music to virtually any of your devices using Plex’s highly polished software suite. For those unfamiliar with the service, Plex is a home media server for managing your video, music, and photo libraries from one app on virtually any of your devices. It can work well in tandem with Synology’s multimedia apps, even sharing the same library folders. Similarly to Infuse, Plex gathers metadata about your library’s content and populates it with album art, descriptions, reviews, movie chapters, and much more, but it exceeds Infuse’s capabilities with more data and support for a wider array of devices. An excellent addition to your NAS, installing Plex Media Server will take your multimedia library and viewing experience to the next level and provide a more attractive interface than many UPnP apps.

Synology’s suite of in-house mobile apps provides a variety of control from smartphones and tablets, with apps for listening to music, watching videos, or viewing photos stored on your NAS, as well as optionally downloading the media to your device over the local network for consumption on the go. Running the photos app will allow users to backup photos to a NAS from a smartphone, much like a cloud photo service. Additionally, there is an app to manage the file system of the NAS directly, as well as an app to add and manage downloads for the NAS to retrieve from the Internet. All of these can be used to access and manage the NAS remotely, which provides quite a bit of flexibility for the user, even while on the go.

For example, you can store your collection of ripped CDs on the NAS and subsequently stream it from anywhere you have an Internet connection using QuickConnect, Synology’s remote login technology built for managing your NAS from anywhere with Internet access. Or if you’re at work and want to have a file downloaded and waiting on you when you arrive home, queueing it up with the app is a simple process. Likewise, if you want to show someone photos of a vacation from a few years ago, the app can remotely log you into the NAS and display your photo library. The apps themselves aren’t incredibly sleek and pretty, but they work and, in my experience, get the job done well.

Synology has also built an interface for managing your NAS from a web browser that looks and feels very much like the standard desktop of a computer, with icons and menus, drag and right-click actions, etc. From here, users can install software to their NAS, manage updates, configure settings, manipulate files, and handle any action the NAS will receive. It’s a powerful way of managing your storage-based computer over the network or Internet, and usage is incredibly easy due to web browser access and a familiar interface design that feels very much like a desktop operating system.

Productivity Uses

Not only is the Synology NAS one of the best tools I’ve ever used for media consumption, but it can be an incredibly effective tool for productivity as well. Users can turn their NAS into a web server by installing Apache, manage the physical security of their home or office with a surveillance software suite, and create a VPN for secure communication with their home or office network from a remote location. There’s even an add-on to turn your Synology NAS into a podcast server, so you can publish your podcast episodes and metadata to your NAS, which will serve them to iTunes, preventing the need to pay high storage fees to a third-party service. There is quite a large and growing collection of both first- and third-party add-ons that can be installed to your Synology NAS, and you can browse it to see the many ways you can put your NAS to work for you.

As a freelance web developer, I’ve turned my Synology NAS into a web server, allowing me to develop and test clients’ websites locally before pushing them to a live server. Before setting up my NAS, local web development meant running a web server on one of my computers, and continuing to use only that computer for development until I could push it to an external hosting server. After installing one of the many web servers available for various languages, I’m able to consolidate my projects into one central location and access them from any device. This provides the convenience of being able to work on the same website from any of my computers, and even my iPad or iPhone using Coda for iOS. This workflow vastly changes how I develop projects for both myself and for clients, as I’m able to get started on my large desktop monitors and continue working on a MacBook — all without having to juggle my files or start up a web server on my workstation.

There are also software suites for setting up your own server for notes, documents, and even email, along with more security-focused features such as a VPN for remotely accessing your NAS via an encrypted connection. Beyond that, users can backup their Mac to a DiskStation thanks to its Time Machine compatibility. Really, the ways of getting work done with a NAS are extensive, and there are quite a few downloadable software packages that will take your workflow to the next level and beyond.

If you have a powerful network setup, adding a NAS should be as simple as connecting an Ethernet cable, but if you’re relying on an older router, you may want to consider upgrading it, and choosing to hard wire your desktop computers will only increase network speed. For my home network, I added a gigabit switch to expand the four-port limit on my router in order to take advantage of the high-speed file transfers of my DS416play. The switch I used was around $25 and came as a worthwhile investment for outfitting my local network with gigabit speeds. Keep in mind that you’ll want to place your NAS and networking equipment in a somewhat secluded area, as the spinning drives inside can be somewhat noisy when under load.

Summary

Although I personally use DS416play, Synology has a variety of NAS models available, enabling you to purchase one based off your specific needs. For example, if you want the ability to transcode videos for viewing on devices that may not natively support the original video format, you’ll want to look into a “play” model. If you work with high quality video quite a lot, you’ll likely want a high-capacity NAS with a few drive bays for storing many terabytes of data. Should you be a next-level power user, you may want to consider a model with two gigabit Ethernet ports for twice the potential throughput, which will greatly improve transfer speeds when enabled. Because of the wide array of models available, Synology provides a NAS Selector, which filters NAS models based on your specific use case, so be sure to visit that page before making your purchase.

Whether you’re a consumer or a creator, I highly recommend integrating a NAS into your workflow. The level of convenience and flexibility provided by having an always-on, storage-filled computer on the network is unparalleled in a way that, for me, even cloud storage can’t touch. Packed with potential, Synology’s NAS solution not only grants vast amounts of storage but allows for services and system apps to better take advantage of that storage and to make the technology disappear for you, the user, effectively merging cloud storage and cloud computing into one small device you control completely.

The level of freedom this provides both light and heavy users alike is unparalleled, and after a few months with my NAS, I couldn’t imagine going back to life without it. I have little doubt that my home will ever be without a NAS in the future, because removing its functionality and convenience would disrupt so many tasks I rely on it to accomplish automatically on a daily basis. When I arrive home from work, these tasks have already been completed without needing my input, and going back to manually handling these processes feels archaic. Further, having to use iTunes to transfer music and videos to a device sync is ridiculous when I can simply open an app and choose what media I want to download over a local, gigabit network. Being tied to one device for watching a downloaded video isn’t ideal when I could stream it from any device or the network, or even remotely with QuickConnect.

The wide array of useful applications makes Synology’s NAS far more than a mere data storage unit — it has become one of my most important devices, and I don’t want to find myself without at least one of these on my network at all times. You can compare NAS models to see which one will fit your needs best, or you can go with the powerful and versatile DS416play, available from Amazon for $415 currently.