Centralize your files with a network drive

It occurred to me the other day that the only reason we have a desktop computer at home is to hold digital photographs and music. With all members of the household owning laptops, this old, slow machine was taking up too much valuable real estate and something had to be done about it.

Still, I liked the idea of a centralized mediaphillic breadbasket, so I decided to replace it with a smaller unit to store our digitized sights and sounds.

One of the guys in our Tech Support group at Nicom suggested I get a network drive instead of a computer. A network drive is like a tiny network server computer which connects to a router, either via an Ethernet cable or a wireless connection.

It turns out it was just the right answer for the stated as well as other purposes, and it could be of use in a small office or home office. But it wasn’t without a few frustrations. Let me explain.

The drive I purchased is a 2 Terabyte Seagate GoFlex  Home Network Storage System which I picked up at Future Shop for around $150. I’ve only used it with Windows-based systems, and that is what I will discuss in this column, but it also works with a Mac.

This device having only a power cord and an Ethernet wire, and me being an IT guy and all that, I naturally threw the instructions away and plugged it into my router. Surely something would pop up telling me all was fine and I could start enjoying my new acquisition.

It was not to be.

First of all, connecting a new computer to a router doesn’t mean all the other computers automatically detect it. You have to go looking for it, like you would a network server in your office. There are many ways to do so, the easiest being to click on Network from My Computer or the Start menu. Other ways are Search (Run on Windows XP), mapping a network drive (Tools menu on My Computer), and browsing to it using its name or IP address (something like 192.168.1.104).

If you don’t have any experience with any of these things, find them via Windows help or an Internet search. It’s not exactly plug-and-play, but neither is it a corporate infrastructure upgrade.

It soon became time to retrieve the manual from the recycle bin. Mine told me to search for the device via its name, and sure enough it found it. Then it went through a mind-numbing registration process that stopped and started and gave error messages for about 4 hours before it finally finished. And until it did, the device simply would not work. (I’ve read online reviews that describe this process as “simple”, so let’s chalk it up to a bad day at Seagate.)

Once it was registered, however, I ended up with a nice little file server that anybody connected to that router could access.

Being a network server, you have to log in to access it. Part of the registration process was to set up a master username and password, and you can set up several accounts with different permissions if you want.

A nice bonus is that now we have a very easy way to back up our laptop computers. The device I bought comes with backup software, but I find Windows backup – for XP, 7, or 8 – works fine. Just don’t expect a full backup to be quick. Data flows to it at network speeds, which is much slower than an internal drive or one attached to a USB port.

The nice thing is that once you’ve mapped this drive to all your computers, you can ask it to reconnect on login, and you automatically have access to it whenever you are connected to that particular router, something you can even do remotely.

Windows 8’s built in File History is particularly useful with such a device. By default every five minutes, it automatically makes a backup copy of any files you’ve changed, and it will keep multiple versions. Mind you, this isn’t a comprehensive backup scheme, with offsite backups and all that, but it is better than what a lot of people do, which is no backup at all.

A quick scan on the Internet, and I see there are many other such devices by many manufacturers, and the one I purchased seems to be on the cheap end of the spectrum. Once you’ve acquired one, you too can be a network administrator. Doesn’t that sound like fun?

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