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We are having 10 PCs used by various user and presently use one network disk (a LaCie NAS) for all our data. Everything is Windows Vista and our collective IT hardware knowledge is minimal. This worked well generally. However, recently the disk freqently loses connection from the network (2-3 times per week) and the only way back seems to be the "turn it off and back on" trick. This obviously cant be any good for the disk.

I understand that there are various more sophisticated ways of storing data and was wondering what people would recommend. One of the worries is obviously disk failure (either in part or as a whole) and the lack of continued availability due to network issues. I would guess that a disk which replicates data wouldnt work as a sole solution due to the network connection, but dont know what hardware (and/or software) would/could work in our case.

In terms of size, we are looking at very small amounts, ie. less than 500 GB in total.

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Is anything else in your network having connectivity issues like this? How is that NAS connected (e.g. through a domain controller, etc)? –  malonso Mar 27 '10 at 11:51
    
dont really know, we hired a small office and getting network from them, the disk is plugged straight into the network (using ethernet cable, like all the PCs) –  Rob Mar 27 '10 at 11:55
    
How old is your hardware? I mean, seriously. You have a NAS that has network issues. Still under warranty? Get it FIXED. This looks terribly to me like either a software problem (check and upgrade the operating system on the NAS - you can download new version from LaCie), and if that is not fixed there, call support and see that you get a replacement. –  TomTom Mar 27 '10 at 13:40

4 Answers 4

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Many of your questions are starting to veer off the primary topic of the original question and more into the territory of hiring a consultant to answer your questions, as it's getting very specific to your situation. But here are some points to keep in mind.

Your basic question breaks into, "We have a storage appliance that's going flaky. What can we do to have network storage that won't have this issue?"

Unfortunately whenever you have a single connection to the network from any appliance/server, you risk a bad network card taking it out. For a small business redundancy for network connections is probably overkill.

What you need to do is have in place a system to keep from losing your data, and get your data back online in the event of catastrophic hardware failure. With appliances, unless you spent a lot of money on an appliance with hardware contracts or commodity parts that can be replaced with a trip to a local compu-mart or overnight Amazon/NewEgg orders, appliances are generally not all that redundancy-friendly or service-friendly.

As has been suggested, you can take a regular PC and install a turnkey appliance-like program like OpenFiler to handle your storage needs. You need at least two hard disks of the same size in the computer, maybe three drives (2 for storage, one of a small size) if you want it self-contained. That way you install OpenFiler to drive one and turn drives two and three into a RAID volume (mirror).

OpenFiler (or any self-contained NAS bootable program) is an operating system with a series of scripts and front-end programs to handle the server functions. You supply the hardware, that's it.

RAID creates redundancy, but NOT backup. RAID will protect from disk failure. One drive dies, you continue to get your data, but you NEED to monitor it (or set it up to warn you) if a drive fails. Both disks die or the controller dies, you lose access (or corrupt your data). Replace the bad disk and the software should be able to re-sync everything.

That's out of the way, you need to next consider BACKUP software. You need to keep data stored on a second drive on a separate machine (or attached disks), or a tape drive, or DVD's, or whatever works for you. Why? What if your data is corrupted? What if you have infected software on the storage device? What if a user deletes something that was really important to the business? Backups let you restore data from your last snapshot or further back; you discover that spreadsheet is gone, but you can get it back from a week ago instead of rebuilding the whole thing. Also backups can be designed in such a way that you take your data offsite. If you have a fire or flood, at least your data is safe. (consider encrypting backups to guard against theft or loss; you don't mention your business, but you may end up in legal trouble if you have, for some reason, credit information, information for identity theft, or medical information, payroll...)

Is it expensive? Depends on your definition of expensive. What is the cost of your business and time if you lost your server altogether? Suddenly spending two grand on new hardware for the server isn't so expensive measured against losing your payroll and customer information for a few years.

Last thing to consider...RAID on the cheap can be done. But it's most effective when someone knows what they're doing. You need a consultant or someone in your organization to take this seriously. Why? Because there will come a time when this set-it-and-forget-it arrangement will fail, and if the drives aren't labelled, how will you know which one failed? Replace the wrong one and you'll find yourself needing that backup because you destroyed the volume! One of the best reasons to use hardware RAID, in my opinion, is because most of them have a way of telling you which drive failed. 3Ware cards will tell you the drive on port 2 failed, you open the machine, look at the cable in port 2, follow it to the dead drive. Some of them even have the ability to hot-swap drives and blink lights on drive cages (or the card itself for monitoring) so you can follow where the failure is. The drawback is that open-source turnkey NAS products may or may not have the ability to support hardware volumes integrated in them, so you might instead end up creating a Linux server of choice and sharing files out. That takes more research and work on your part, but in the end is another set-up-and-forget system once configured.

There is no easy way to do this on the cheap if you're not already familiar with the concepts. It's confusing, admittedly, and the worst part is that it's easy to think you have a good solution when it's a ticking time bomb (oh, just set up a share on your coworker's drive and share files there. Map everyone to Bob's workstation as drive F: and you're good to go!). Things will look like they work fine right up until something goes really wrong.

Before balking at cost, look at the alternative of losing that data. Once you know how much that data is worth to you, you should know how much you're willing to spend to keep it safe.

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You could purchase or build a small server containing at least two hard drives, and put OpenFiler (http://www.openfiler.com) on it. Then configure the drives in a RAID-1 setup so that data written to one is mirrored to the other. This would give you some protection against one of the drives failing.

Make sure you also have a backup solution in place.

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do we need a "server" or could we just use one of the PCs and purchase another network disk of similar style to the one we have already? –  Rob Mar 27 '10 at 11:57
    
just seen the prices, dont think this is viable option for our start-up –  Rob Mar 27 '10 at 12:08
    
Sure, you could use one of the PCs and put an additional disk in it. Just be aware that if the two drives are not exactly the same size, RAID-1 will only use as much space on the larger drive as is on the smaller one. Also, the PC would be taken over by OpenFiler - it could not be used for any other purposes. –  Brian Showalter Mar 27 '10 at 12:09
    
also, how would this solve the problem of losing network connection if both disks are in the same PC/server? –  Rob Mar 27 '10 at 12:12
    
Prices? The base OpenFiler is licensed under the GPL and thus can be obtained free of charge, so you'd just be out the price of hardware. –  Brian Showalter Mar 27 '10 at 12:14

Is your NAS on an uninterruptable power supply?

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Step One: Get a backup done. Now. If there's a chance that your global disk storage is about to become unavailable, you want a separate copy of that data.

Step Two: Plan out what you want to do for this storage. There's no inherent problem with a single storage server, but you need to watch it -- that's the basket with all your eggs. Most of the other answers have good suggestions in this regard, but it comes down to a few categories:

  • Single commercial storage server (such as the current LaCie)
  • Single custom configured storage server (openfiler, separate Windows or Linux box, etc)
  • Redundant configured storage servers (probably overkill for your size office)
  • Distributed storage (add local disks. Not a good solution)

For all of these solutions, also plan a backup scheme, including offsite storage of some media (you can just take last week's backup's home). That gets your business running should the building catch fire or something. You may want to include information on local disks in your backup scheme. You may want to get some vendor or consultant help for doing this plan if you don't feel comfortable with your level of IT knowledge.

Step Three: Implement what you planned.

Step Four: Keep it running, and review it regularly (I suggest annually) to see if it continues to meet your business needs.

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