How to pick the best NAS for your small business

NAS drives lined up on a table against a gold background
(Image credit: Bigstock)

While cloud storage remains the most popular choice, there is still plenty of value in knowing how to pick the best NAS appliance for your small businesses. Cloud technology can still be limited, plagued by outages, and it might just be too slow for your operational needs. 

NAS appliances work well in small businesses, particularly those with evolving demands, as they're very low cost and usually small in stature. You can also increase capacity simply by slotting in additional hard disks – you can even exchange larger drives for smaller ones. 

What's more, NS appliances also make great first-line backup solutions as there are a number of free apps for backing up servers and workstations, which also includes, in some cases, virtualized environments. 

How to pick the best NAS for your small business

It's no surprise that NAS appliances are becoming extremely popular with small and medium businesses as there is a huge range of models to choose from. For this guide we have tested both desktop and rack models from four of the biggest brands in the industry – Netgear, Qnap, Qsan and Synology – to help you make the right choice for your business.

NAS over cloud

Cloud-based storage can seem more affordable for smaller businesses, but there are many pitfalls to consider. For example, on-going monthly fees for high-capacity cloud storage or data egress charges. These can make cloud storage very expensive over time, whereas NAS appliances often come with just one up-front cost.  

There's also the issue of control; internet outages or your provider going offline are potential external factors that can leave your backed-up data inaccessible. Whereas using a NAS appliance gives you always-on access to data and recovery over the LAN will also be significantly faster. 

It is worth considering your recovery plans as they also call for on-site and off-site copies of data. A mix of NAS and cloud provider is also an option here as it satisfies both requirements. Businesses that have multiple offices can also ditch the cloud portion of their storage completely with most NAS appliances offering replication services between local and remote systems.

A sign of great capacity

If you're planning to use your NAS as a backup vault, or as secondary storage for servers and workstations, you'll want to choose one with plenty of spare capacity. That doesn't necessarily mean that you have to buy terabytes of storage right now that you might not need until 2023, but look for a unit with spare bays, or with the option to connect external expansion units so you can add more drives to an existing array.

It's also possible to expand a RAID array by replacing the disks one at a time with larger units, but it can take days to resynchronise your data, during which time you'll be without the protection of multiple redundant disks. It's also wasteful, as you lose your investment in the original drives.

What sort of hard disks should you choose? For typical SMB workloads, there's nothing wrong with mechanical SATA drives, which offer excellent value and good performance. Choose NAS-specific models, though, which are designed for 24/7 use: we use Seagate's IronWolf NAS drives, which feature vibration compensation to help prolong their usable life. NAS appliances that support Seagate's IronWolf Health Management (IHM) technology can also provide advanced monitoring services to give you a heads-up if one of your disks is in danger of failing.

Getting your data faster

SATA drives are fine for most offices, but for I/O-intensive apps such as databases and virtualization hosts, consider an appliance that works with fast SSDs, or that has a built-in data cache. Some models support data tiering, where frequently accessed data is kept on high-speed SSDs, while the rest lives on a cheaper SATA array. Think about bandwidth, too. If you have lots of users accessing large files and using the appliance as a backup destination, a single Gigabit Ethernet connection could be a bottleneck. Choose an appliance with 10GbE – or that has a PCIe slot so you can add a 10GbE adapter later on. Of course, you'll need a 10GbE switch too to get the benefit.

Also, note that there's more than one type of 10GbE connector. 10GbE SFP+ fibre ports support longer cable distances than copper 10GbE ports – but you normally need to factor in the extra cost of an optical transceiver.

File access

A modern SMB NAS appliance can do much more than merely provide secure primary storage. Software features such as web servers, email servers, databases and even VPNs are common; some models can even run a hypervisor, so you can host entire virtual machines, running their own operating systems and application stacks, inside the NAS.

The feature set can vary a lot between vendors, however, so check out each one's app store to see what they offer. The hardware makes a difference, too: appliances with 32-bit CPUs may have a more limited choice than those with 64-bit CPUs.

On that note, it's normally worth choosing the most powerful CPU you can afford, as this will give you plenty of flexibility as your workloads change and grow. If you want to take advantage of on-appliance virtualization, pick a CPU with plenty of cores, so your VMs don't interfere with main storage services.

Don't skimp on memory either as each app will need its share. We recommend 4GB as a minimum for business use, and you should also consider memory upgrade potential as this can help extend the appliance's working life.

Storage security

Like any computer, a NAS can be hacked if you leave it unprotected. Make sure its firmware is kept up to date, and change the default administrator password as soon as possible. Ensure that user accounts are well protected and only grant access to shares and services on a need-to-know basis. Some vendors provide apps that automatically scan for weak passwords, unprotected shares, unsecured apps, open ports and so forth, and these are well worth running from time to time.

There's just one security measure you might not want to enable, and that's real-time virus scanning. Many NAS systems offer this feature, but it can have a significant impact on performance. It's often better to schedule scans for quiet times. If you haven't explored the NAS market lately, you might well be surprised at what it has to offer. The appliances we tested offer an impressive range of features at prices to suit every pocket.

For more NAS content, check out ITPro's best NAS drives 2023 guide

This article originally appeared in PC Pro issue 296

Dave Mitchell

Dave is an IT consultant and freelance journalist specialising in hands-on reviews of computer networking products covering all market sectors from small businesses to enterprises. Founder of Binary Testing Ltd – the UK’s premier independent network testing laboratory - Dave has over 45 years of experience in the IT industry.

Dave has produced many thousands of in-depth business networking product reviews from his lab which have been reproduced globally. Writing for ITPro and its sister title, PC Pro, he covers all areas of business IT infrastructure, including servers, storage, network security, data protection, cloud, infrastructure and services.