A NAS unit is a computer connected to a network that provides only file-based data storage services to other devices on the network. Although it may technically be possible to run other software on a NAS unit, it is not designed to be a general purpose server. For example, NAS units usually do not have a keyboard or display, and are controlled and configured over the network, often using a browser.
A full-featured operating system is not needed on a NAS device, so often a stripped-down operating system is used. For example, FreeNAS, an open source NAS solution designed for commodity PC hardware, is implemented as a stripped-down version of FreeBSD.
NAS systems contain one or more hard disks, often arranged into logical, redundant storage containers or RAID.
NAS uses file-based protocols such as NFS (popular on UNIX systems), SMB/CIFS (Server Message Block/Common Internet File System) (used with MS Windows systems), AFP (used with Apple Macintosh computers), or NCP (used with OES and Novell NetWare). NAS units rarely limit clients to a single protocol.
NAS is useful for more than just general centralized storage provided to client computers in environments with large amounts of data. NAS can enable simpler and lower cost systems such as load-balancing and fault-tolerant email and web server systems by providing storage services. The potential emerging market for NAS is the consumer market where there is a large amount of multi-media data. Such consumer market appliances are now commonly available. Unlike their rackmounted counterparts, they are generally packaged in smaller form factors. The price of NAS appliances has plummeted in recent years, offering flexible network-based storage to the home consumer market for little more than the cost of a regular USB or FireWire external hard disk. Many of these home consumer devices are built around ARM, PowerPC or MIPS processors running an embedded Linux operating system.
RAID (originally redundant array of inexpensive disks; now commonly redundant array of independent disks) is a data storage virtualization technology that combines multiple disk drive components into a logical unit for the purposes of data redundancy and performance improvement.
Data is distributed across the drives in one of several ways, referred to as RAID levels, depending on the specific level of redundancy and performance required. The different schemes or architectures are named by the word RAID followed by a number (e.g. RAID 0, RAID 1). Each scheme provides a different balance between the key goals: reliability and availability, performance and capacity. RAID levels greater than RAID 0 provide protection against unrecoverable (sector) read errors, as well as whole disk failure.
A number of standard schemes have evolved. These are called levels. Originally, there were five RAID levels, but many variations have evolved—notably several nested levels and many non-standard levels (mostly proprietary). RAID levels and their associated data formats are standardized by the Storage Networking Industry Association (SNIA) in the Common RAID Disk Drive Format (DDF) standard:
RAID 0 comprises striping (but no parity or mirroring). This level provides no data redundancy nor fault tolerance, but improves performance through parallelism of read and write operations across multiple drives. RAID 0 has no error detection mechanism, so the failure of one disk causes the loss of all data on the array.
RAID 1 comprises mirroring (without parity or striping). Data are written identically to two (or more) drives, thereby producing a “mirrored set”. The read request is serviced by any of the drives containing the requested data. This can improve performance if data is read from the disk with the least seek latency and rotational latency. Conversely, write performance can be degraded because all drives must be updated; thus the write performance is determined by the slowest drive. The array continues to operate as long as at least one drive is functioning.
RAID 2 comprises bit-level striping with dedicated Hamming-code parity. All disk spindle rotation is synchronized and data is striped such that each sequential bit is on a different drive. Hamming-code parity is calculated across corresponding bits and stored on at least one parity drive. This level is of historical significance only. Although it was used on some early machines (e.g. the Thinking Machines CM-2), it is only recently used by high-performance commercially available systems.
RAID 3 comprises byte-level striping with dedicated parity. All disk spindle rotation is synchronized and data is striped such that each sequential byte is on a different drive. Parity is calculated across corresponding bytes and stored on a dedicated parity drive. Although implementations exist, RAID 3 is not commonly used in practice.
RAID 4 comprises block-level striping with dedicated parity. This level was previously used by NetApp, but has now been largely replaced by a proprietary implementation of RAID 4 with two parity disks, called RAID-DP.
RAID 5 comprises block-level striping with distributed parity. Unlike in RAID 4, parity information is distributed among the drives. It requires that all drives but one be present to operate. Upon failure of a single drive, subsequent reads can be calculated from the distributed parity such that no data is lost. RAID 5 requires at least three disks. RAID 5 is seriously affected by the general trends regarding array rebuild time and chance of failure during rebuild. In August 2012, Dell posted an advisory against the use of RAID 5 in any configuration and of RAID 50 with “Class 2 7200 RPM drives of 1 TB and higher capacity”.
RAID 6 comprises block-level striping with double distributed parity. Double parity provides fault tolerance up to two failed drives. This makes larger RAID groups more practical, especially for high-availability systems, as large-capacity drives take longer to restore. As with RAID 5, a single drive failure results in reduced performance of the entire array until the failed drive has been replaced. With a RAID 6 array, using drives from multiple sources and manufacturers, it is possible to mitigate most of the problems associated with RAID 5. The larger the drive capacities and the larger the array size, the more important it becomes to choose RAID 6 instead of RAID 5. RAID 10 also minimizes these problems.
A 2 bay NAS will only be able to do RAID 1 or 0, while a NAS with 4 or more bays will be able to do RAID 5 or 6, depending on the firmware.
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