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I am just about to buy a new wireless router. I want to be able to hook up a harddrive to it and let the harddrive serve the entire network. I will mostly be storing media and some backups on the drive.

I know I could get some kind of NAS but I would prefer to just hook up one of my many unused hard drives directly to my router. It looks like d-link has several products that do this using shareport.

If you were wanting to have network storage how would you do it?

  1. With a NAS?
  2. Using a router with a USB port. Are these systems robust? What router would you buy?
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Netgear do some as well. I have one, but I haven't tried the USB port yet (not had a need). It runs Linux tho, so it's probably just Samba. –  Majenko Mar 16 '11 at 13:46

2 Answers 2

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As far as I can see, NAS and routers with a port are aimed at different audiences.

Good quality NAS devices usually have real SATA or PATA ports. Many support hot-plugging and many support various kinds of RAIDs. They also support higher number of disks. 4 disk NAS devices are very common and there are lots of devices with even more ports. On the minus side, they are usually going to be more expensive and will be one more device on the list of devices which will constantly use power and ports.

Also good quality NAS devices are usually fast. They may also have firmware with "advances" features already included such as FTP server, bittorrent client, some fancy software for synchronising NAS with windows and so on.

On the other hand routers are usually aimed at users with one or two external hard drives and almost exclusively use USB 2.0 for connection. They often do not support RAID (and there's little point, except for redundancy, because USB 2.0 can't sustain high transfer speeds) and probably won't have as good out of the box software support as a real NAS device. Their plus side is that you'll save some money, because you can buy a really good router with USB ports for the price of a good NAS device. Some routers may be used with third party firmwares such as DD-WRT or OpenWRT which will allow use of some advanced features such as FTP servers and similar, but will require more time to configure.

In between those two sides you have cheap NAS devices such as external HDDs with network ports, one or two HDD NAS devices which use USB connection and similar.

The problem with them is that their main positive side is that they are cheap and small. They often have worse performance than larger NAS devices and may have performance which approaches performance of routers with USB ports. They probably won't have as good software as more expensive NAS devices, but will have all of their bad sides, except for price. If you go that way, you could probably buy one mediocre NAS and one mediocre router for price of one good NAS device or one good router.

As for which is better, that's for you to decide. I myself went to the direction of router with USB port and OpenWRT. It took some time to learn how to configure it and I don't have great performance of a real NAS, but it was much cheaper option. If you decide to do the same, take a look at DD-WRT compatibility database. What you should be looking for are devices with lots of RAM and flash and as much USB ports as possible. Even if you're not going to use third-party firmware, those parts of router specification are important for good performance and are usually left out on manufacturer web sites.

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It depends on what you want to use it for, and how much you are willing to pay.

Are you wanting to stream media files (MP3's, videos etc.) or do you just want files to be accessible on the network? Most decent NAS devices support UPnP and DLNA which means they can stream media to a wide variety other devices like TV's, consoles and phones. On the other hand the types of routers you are talking about often only have basic file sharing facilities, which could still be perfectly adequate.

A NAS has much higher potential performance, but to see that benefit you would need to ensure your network is up to it. Are you connecting wirelessly or through a network cable? To get the most performance, you would probably want to buy a router with GigaBit Ethernet built in, since most only come with 100Mbit/sec ports - limiting throughput to around 12 MBytes/sec which is less than Wireless N speeds and far slower than the full potential or a wired network. If you already have such a router then you would not have to worry about this expense.

For home use you don't need to be concerned about RAID for performance - a decent hard drive can sustain ~100MBytes/sec and for large files would not be the limiting factor. It is also somewhat unreliable if not used correctly. Using it for redundancy is kind of questionable since any number of disasters could easily take out multiple drives. There is a good article about it here: http://www.smallnetbuilder.com/nas/nas-basics/30060-smart-sohos-dont-do-raid and the same site has lots of useful info about network storage in general.

A reasonable NAS is typically around £120 without any disks. If you don't have a spare hard drive lying around you might be able to disassemble one of your external drives and use the HD inside. If you buy a version that includes one or more disks then you will pay significantly more.

Basically I would say only buy a NAS if your network would support the performance benefits and you have use for the extra features.

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Late comment: a lot of "Router+USB port" OS options also include UPnP support. The stock firmware on my Linksys has support for it (even though otherwise the firmware sucks). Im sure I could dig it out of dd-wrt if I bothered. My XBMC box (connected to the drive) also reports media through UPnP. Another difference though is backup: Most NAS OS options have better support for RAID and backups. It's a faster CPU than a router and can support running more software, such as backup software, on it. –  Rich Homolka Jun 17 at 15:41

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