In a nutshell, a network-attached storage server is an external storage device, like an external hard drive, but instead of plugging it directly into a computer, via a USB or a Thunderbolt port, you plug it into a switch or a router, via a network cable. The main benefit of a NAS server is that its storage is available to the entire network, meaning all computers on the network can access the same storage space at the same time.
In reality, an advanced NAS server can do much more than that, such as streaming its contents to network media players, hosting Internet-based services such as personal clouds, acting as a centralized server for a business, and even being a video recorder for your TV programs or surveillance cameras, and all at the same time. Think of it as a real server, minus a mouse, keyboard, and a monitor. Instead, you control it via a Web interface.
Advanced NAS servers are generally not for novices, but they don't require years of training, either. In fact, if you are comfortable with computers and the Internet, and have an interest, you can easily figure one out after having invested some time, of course. And you really want to figure it out since the return is huge.
Following is a list of the five best NAS servers that I have reviewed in recent years. This list is sorted based on the amount of drive bays and review dates and updated on a regular basis as more servers are reviewed.
This list is sorted based on the number of drive bays, with the most bays being at the top. The more drive bays there are, the more storage space and RAID options you can have with one server.
LaCie 5big NAS Pro The 5big NAS Pro is not the first five-bay NAS server from LaCie (the company also offers the 5big Network 2) but it is the company's first that performs like one. The server offers up to 20TB of storage space and proved itself in my testing to be one of the fastest five-bay servers on the market. On top of that, it also comes with easy-to-use setup software and Web interface.
The 5big NAS Pro supports standard RAID 0, RAID 5, RAID 6, and LaCie's special SimplyRAID, which allows for scaling up the server's storage space dynamically and using hard drives of different capacities. The server is not perfect; it lacks other features available in similarly configured servers, but so far it's the best from LaCie and one of the best on the market for now. Read the full review of the LaCie 5big NAS Pro
The DS1511+ first came out almost two years ago, but for now it's still one of the best five-bay NAS servers on the market. When used with 4TB hard drives, the server offers up to 20TB of storage space by itself and up to 60TB with two expansion units. That's before you resort to its four USB ports.
You don't need to get all of that storage space right away; you can just start with one or two hard drives and later on scale up the capacity as demand grows. Thanks to Synology's Hybrid RAID, you won't need to rebuild the RAID from scratch and can even use hard drives of different capacities.
The DS1511+, like all Synology's NAS servers, runs a Linux-based operating system called DiskStation Manager that's currently the best on the market for NAS servers. The OS can be managed by a robust and intuitive Web interface that resembles the graphical user interface (GUI) of a native operating system, such as Windows, and enables the server to offer a vast number of features. Basically all you want from a network storage device, you will find in the DS1511+ and in most, if not all, Synology NAS servers, since the differences between them are just in performance and capacities. The server's operating system can easily be upgraded for free to the latest versions, such as the recently released version 4.2, which adds more features and improvements.
And the DS1511+ is currently one of the fastest NAS servers on the market, making it perfect for a really large home or a small office that needs lots of storage space. Alternately, you can also get any other five-bay server from Synology (there's now also the DS1512+ model) and rest assured that you'll get similar benefits to those you get from the DS1511+, if not more. Read the full review of the Synology DS1511+.
QNAP TS-469 Pro
The QNAP TS-469 Pro has an excellent design and lots of peripheral ports. With four drive bays, it hosts up to 16TB of storage space (when coupled with 4TB hard drives) and provides very fast performance. It also offers a vast amount of features via its well-organized operating system, which in my opinion is second only to Synology's. The QNAP doesn't offer a proprietary RAID but there is still a way to -- slowly -- expand its storage space without having to rebuild the RAID from scratch. The TS-469 Pro is new and rather expensive but you can opt for its predecessor, QNAP TS-412, which provides similar features and performance for less. Read the full review of the QNAP TS-469 Pro.
The DS412+ is basically the same as the DS1511+ with just four drive bays and without the option to work with expansion units. This means that the server, like the QNAP above, has a top capacity of 16TB, when used with 4TB hard drives, before you have to resort to its peripheral ports. Other than that the server offers an excellent combination of performance, features, and ease of use, making it the best four-bay NAS server on the market. The server also costs significantly less than its competitor. If you want something almost as good but even less expensive, you can opt for the DS410, which came out before the DS412+. Read the full review of the Synology DS412+.
What if you want a two-bay NAS server, then change your mind and want to add more storage later on? Well, the answer is the Synology DS712+. This is a two-bay NAS server that can be used with an expansion unit in case you want to add as many as another five bays to it, making it effectively a seven-bay NAS server (up to 28TB of storage space when used with 4TB hard drives). And thanks to Synology's Hybrid RAID, you won't need to rebuild the RAID, or even turn the server off to add more storage to it. The DS712+ is also one of the fastest NAS servers on the market. Read the full review of the Synology DS712+.
Want to find out how these five servers stacked up against one another? Compare them head-to-head.