As always, there’s new technology that’s becoming commonplace even though we hadn’t really noticed it yet. Let’s start with network-attached storage – “NAS.”

Our appetite for storage space is voracious. Businesses and law firms are scanning documents furiously, continuing to dream of the paperless office that always seems to elude them. Law firms, in particular, are getting warehouses of paper presented on CDs and DVDs both from clients and opposing counsel during the discovery process.

Homes are more likely to have multiple computers, and these days there’s always somebody downloading movies and TV shows faster than they can watch them, and filling up hard drives that seemed spacious not long ago.

For a while we were drowning in CDs with the contents identified in black Sharpie handwriting. As prices drop, we’re going to find ourselves drowning in external USB hard drives.

Network-attached storage is shared storage space for a home or business network. In its simplest form, an NAS device is a hard drive that attaches to the network with a CAT6 cable instead of plugging into a computer with a USB cable – extra storage space with no fuss, just like an external USB drive. Software is included to help you get started; the drives have a built-in interface to create folders that all the computers on the network can access.

NAS devices get more interesting, though. More expensive NAS units might have two drives in a RAID 1 array where the two drives are mirrors of each other; if one fails, the other one keeps on working while you get a replacement. Or they have three or four drives in a RAID 5 array where the drives cooperate with each other to give you access to almost all the space on all drives; again, if one fails, nothing stops working while you get a replacement.

The result is that NAS devices can offer huge amounts of storage in a single box – 750Gb, 1 Terabyte, 2Tb, 3Tb – without the expense or headaches of running a complete computer.

The market for NAS devices is exploding and there are many additional features that distinguish them: ease or difficulty of replacing hard drives or adding additional drives later; inclusion of backup software or a connection to an online backup service; wireless connectivity; built-in media servers for sending media files to the living room or other computers; USB ports; built-in print servers; full integration into the Windows Server world of Active Directory; and more.

Lots of manufacturers are offering NAS units and prices are all over the map. Here’s a few chosen arbitrarily: I bought a Buffalo Terastation because of the features but mostly because the lights on the front look really cool at night; Netgear is getting involved; Linksys has its own selection. Dell’s lineup shows you what this turns into for bigger enterprises, where serious money is spent.

Think of an NAS device as an option when you’re running out of space; or you’d like a single large space to consolidate files that are currently stored on several computers in several different places; or as part of a backup plan. In particular, this can improve the work flow in small businesses and law firms not yet ready to install a full-blown server.