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How to set up a NAS: A step-by-step configuration guide

Get the most out of your rackmount NAS appliance by configuring admin accounts, permissions and network access; running a diagnostic check; and configuring advanced options.

Storage hardware has a reputation as being somewhat difficult to configure, but NAS appliances can be surprisingly easy to set up. This tip focuses on rackmount NAS appliances, but there are other NAS form factors such as towers, mini towers, desktops and so on. Rackmount NAS appliances generally offer more sophisticated capabilities and higher capacity than competing form factors.

NAS setup 101: Understanding NAS device components

Before we discuss how to set up NAS, it's important to have a basic understanding of the components that make up a NAS appliance.

A NAS device is essentially just a computer that has been optimized for use as a shared storage device. Like any other computer, a NAS appliance contains one or more CPUs and memory. The CPU speed and the amount of memory within the device have a major effect on its overall performance. Enterprise-grade NAS appliances, for example, are often equipped with Intel Xeon processors, whereas consumer-grade NAS systems might include an Intel Atom processor or something similar. Another key difference is that enterprise-grade NAS appliances typically use error-correcting memory and have larger quantities of memory than lower-end systems. An enterprise NAS can easily contain 128 GB of RAM or more, while a consumer-grade NAS might only contain 8 GB.

Like any other computer, a NAS appliance also contains an OS. NAS OSes are usually proprietary, although there are appliances that run Linux or Windows. The OS's job is to manage the appliance's hardware and run the management interface. Modern NAS devices typically include a web interface that is used for storage management and to configure and monitor the appliance. Therefore, the appliance's OS is configured to act as a web server. Some NAS manufacturers also provide an app store, making it possible to run backup or security apps directly on the NAS appliance.

Storage is perhaps the most important component associated with any NAS appliance. An appliance will include a number of drive bays that collectively accommodate multiple disks. These bays are connected internally to a RAID controller. It's worth noting that NAS appliances might also have internal ports for M.2-style NVMe SSDs. In addition, it's relatively common for a NAS appliance to include USB ports that can be used by external hard drives.

A NAS server also includes ports for network connectivity. The port offerings vary considerably based on vendor and model, but gigabit Ethernet ports are commonly used, as are 10 GbE ports. In an enterprise environment, a gigabit connection is commonly attached to the management network, while higher-speed ports accommodate user traffic on the local network or replication traffic associated with another NAS device.

Where should you set up your NAS?

NAS appliances can vary widely in terms of both cost and capability. Some NAS appliances are geared specifically toward enterprise environments, while others are intended for use by home users. Still other appliances are suitable for small or medium-sized businesses.

NAS categories
Find out about the three basic types of NAS systems: low-end, midmarket and high-end NAS.

When it comes to setting up your NAS, it's important to consider how it will be used. For example, NAS appliances used for local backups or for hosting shared folders are often deployed in the data center. At the same time, however, many organizations deploy smaller NAS appliances at the edge, particularly in branch offices. This gives users a way to access file data without having to traverse a WAN link.

10 steps to configure your NAS device

Each vendor has its own way of doing things, but there are 10 basic steps involved in getting a rackmount NAS appliance up and running.

Step 1: Prepare the hardware

This includes mounting the appliance in the rack, installing the hard disks and attaching the power and network cables.

Step 2: Configure administrative accounts

It would be a huge security risk to leave the default username and password enabled. At the very least, you must change the default password. The best practice is to create a separate account for each member of the administrative staff. Some appliances include built-in support for Active Directory authentication.

To configure the administrative accounts, you must log into the appliance. Each vendor has its own way of providing access to the administrative interface. Some vendors provide access through a web browser, while others provide customers with a dedicated client application.

Step 3: Perform a diagnostic check

At a minimum, this means verifying that the appliance has correctly detected all of its hard disks. Many vendors include a built-in diagnostic function that users can run to assess the overall health of the appliance.

Step 4: Configure the storage architecture

In most cases, this means configuring the disks to be part of a RAID array. However, organizations commonly configure NAS appliances as JBOD storage. Also, it isn't always appropriate to include every hard disk in a RAID configuration. Sometimes hard disks are used for caching or as a hot spare, as noted in Step 9.

Step 5: Create volumes

The number of volumes that should be created depends on how the organization will use the appliance. If the appliance will be used as a file server, for example, it might be appropriate to create a single, large volume. If the firm will use the NAS appliance for departmental file sharing, the departments could be isolated from one another by creating a separate volume for each department.

Step 6: Configure access permissions for the volumes

This can mean a few different things, depending on the appliance's purpose. If the appliance will be used as a file server, you must establish share-level permissions. Depending on the file system the appliance uses, you might also need to establish some file-level permissions.

Step 7: Configure network access

You must assign an IP address to the appliance -- unless you plan to use dynamically assigned IP addresses -- and create the corresponding DNS host record. Typically, you also have to enable the appropriate access protocol. Most higher-end NAS appliances support multiple access protocols -- such as SMB, AppleTalk, NFS, FTP or iSCSI -- and it's up to administrators to enable the protocols they want to use.

Step 8: Configure notifications

The rackmount NAS appliance should now be accessible, but there are a few more tasks that should be performed, such as configuring notifications. NAS appliances usually have a built-in alerting mechanism that can let the administrator know if the appliance is having a problem. Such a mechanism might, for example, provide notifications of events such as fan failures, low disk space or disk failures. Enabling the notification option usually involves configuring the appliance to communicate with your mail server and then providing the email address or distribution list address to which you want the notifications sent.

Step 9: Configure advanced options

The advanced options tend to vary significantly from one vendor to the next, but they could include automatic RAID rebuilding, write caching, designating a network interface or a hard disk as a hot spare or enabling the appliance to shut down in response to a power failure.

Step 10: Configure the backup

Although not technically a NAS configuration step, the last thing you should do is to create a backup job to protect the NAS appliance. Usually you can't install backup agents onto a NAS appliance, so backups are commonly based on the Network Data Management Protocol (NDMP). NDMP was designed to transport data between backup servers and NAS appliances.

Additional best practices for NAS software and backup management

Organizations that make use of NAS servers must make sure to keep those servers up to date. NAS vendors periodically release firmware updates that improve security and correct known problems. Some hard disk manufacturers even release firmware updates for individual disks. In any case, it's important to keep your appliances up to date. The same can also be said for any external clients used to manage NAS appliances.

Another best practice is to avoid backing up a NAS volume to another volume on the same NAS. Although such backups do technically store backups in a location that is separate from the original data, this approach does nothing to protect the data against a NAS level failure. Additionally, the backup process can adversely affect data volume's performance due to the load that is placed on the device's CPU and memory.

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