Dealing with File Clutter: Why You Need Network-Attached Storage

This guy must've just figured out how to de-clutter with network-attached storage! Image courtesy of the Denver Public Library.

This dapper gentleman must’ve just bought a network-attached storage device to help him de-clutter! Image courtesy of the Denver Public Library.

Chances are you’ve got a bunch of files that are really important to you. They’re so important that at some point someone told you that you really need to have a backup of all those files should anything happen to them, and you probably woke up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat at some point and decided that tomorrow you would go to the store and buy a little USB thumb drive to save all your important files. Whew. Now you have those files in two places.

Fast forward a few months. Where did I put that USB drive? Oh well, I’ll just buy another one and save all my files onto that new one. Oh, I guess I have a bunch more files that I’ve made since I saved a copy onto my first USB drive, because all my files don’t fit onto the new one. Well, I’ll just buy another one for the rest of my files.

Fast forward another month. Hey, there’s that old USB drive I thought I lost! And here are all those old files. Oh, but they’re not the newest version. Didn’t I email the newest version of my article to myself? You get the idea. At some point, you somehow ended up with six versions of the same files in six different places and you still can’t find the file you need. Add into the mix one computer at work and another one at home, smartphones and iPads, and you start to get the idea about how messy your digital closet can get.

Cloud-Based Storage Options

If you recognize yourself in the depiction above, you should probably start thinking seriously about a cloud-based option for your files. There are some good hosted solutions out there, some of which are free (at least the basic service), and those are definitely an option. However, another option for do-it-yourself types and people who just don’t like the idea of somebody else holding onto their most precious data is to invest in your own NAS.

For people like me who are suspicious of acronyms, NAS stands for Network-Attached Storage. Simply put, it’s storage that you can reach via your home network or even the Internet if you want to and if you set things up correctly. The right NAS with the right software running on it will allow you to maintain a single, backed-up version of every one of your files, available whenever and wherever you want it. There are lots of other advantages to a NAS, but for academic uses, this is the big one faculty members always ask me about.

Anyway, I just bought my own NAS for the family, so I figured our experience might be helpful to those other NAS novices out there who might want to take the plunge.

Starting Out With Dropbox

Dropbox is a perennial favorite here at Academic Technology.

Dropbox is a perennial favorite here at Academic Technology. This is what the basic menu looks like.

First let me say that I started out like many people with a third party online solution called Dropbox, which you can read more about in Kim’s post about it. Dropbox is a great choice for people who don’t have very many files to save and share, or for people who don’t mind paying for extra storage, but keeping anything over 100GB worth of files on Dropbox can get expensive.

Dropbox starts you out with what seems like a lot of space for free (I think it starts at about 2GB these days). They encourage you to recruit your friends to join the service by offering you a little more free space for every new user you sign up. So you start storing only your most important files on Dropbox. Eventually you start storing larger files on there, and before you know it, you’re out of free space and you end up paying $10/month for 100GB of space. That may be plenty for you, and spending $120/year for 100GB of space may work for your budget. If so, stop reading now and sign up for a Dropbox account.

Dropbox has lots of great features, it’s easy to share files with others, and it works everywhere. It will keep previous versions of your files in case you ever need to recover an old version and it will even keep track of your deleted files if you ever need to recover a file you accidentally deleted. Dropbox isn’t completely foolproof, for example, you have to remember that you need an active network connection to sync your files across all your computers, and you have to make sure to allow your computer the time to upload a recently saved file. Also, files that you share with others will only be available to them as long as you don’t delete the file from your own computer. Deleting a file on one computer will delete it everywhere. And remember that files that you’re sharing with others will count against both your quotas.

However, in my case, I had a paid Dropbox account and my wife was pushing up against her limit on her free Dropbox account, so now we’re talking two paid Dropbox accounts at a yearly cost of $240. Add our two kids who will need storage space very soon, and the costs can mount very quickly.

Network-Attached Storage is Another Solution

I decided to buy the Synology DS212J NAS ($190 for the NAS and then the cost of your internal hard drives — I bought two 2TB WD Green Hard Drives for $90 each) for the family’s data storage needs. Synology offers many different NAS options, but I decided to go for the mid-range DS212J because it holds two hard drives with a maximum storage space of 3 terabytes (you actually buy two of the same size drive and the second drive acts as a backup of the first drive).

The Synology NAS plugs into your router via an Ethernet cable and you control it via a fairly straightforward Web interface. Most of the time, the set up process is almost completely automated, but when things don’t work properly, as they didn’t work for me at first, it would be difficult for a novice to actually get the NAS running correctly outside your local network environment.  Once things are working properly, though, the abundance of features of the Synology NAS is pretty impressive.

The gem of the group of features is a very Dropbox-like service called Cloud Station, which lets you save a file on one computer, and the file is automatically uploaded to the NAS, then synched with any other computer(s) you want to set up. There’s also a Web server, a mail server, a video server, photo and audio servers, and lots more. All this for under $400.

The best part is that you’ll never have to worry if you’ve got the latest version of your manuscript on your home computer or your work computer or in that email you can’t find, or on that USB drive you can’t find or…

About Mike Blum

Mike is the Academic Technologist for the Humanities at the College


  1. Bruce Campbell says:

    The basic paid account on Dropbox is $10 per month, but they have a flat fee of $100.00 for a year. But like the article says, when you start adding several of these accounts, the costs add up quickly. Of course, Dropbox also stores in the “cloud”, so that your data is safe if something happened to one’s home or office (it is hurricane season), but on the other hand, if Dropbox goes bankrupt or changes its business model, your data could disappear. Like Mike implies, everyone needs multiple backup solutions. thanks for a great article, Mike.