You can give an old computer or its hard drive a second chance at life by converting the system to a Network Attached Server, or by pulling out the computer's hard drive and installing it in an external enclosure. Both NAS and external enclosures work as mass data storage solutions that make data easier to share between computers.

Choosing a Solution

Using a NAS or external enclosure may make more practical sense depending on your data-sharing use case. NAS works all the time, and can be accessed by all computers on the network; however, it means leaving the NAS powered on all the time, and the data can't be accessed by non-networked computers. The enclosure solution can only be used by a single computer at once, and needs to be physically moved between systems for use. However, the enclosure only needs power when turned on. Additionally, the enclosure isn't tied to the network, so it can be used with non-networked systems and physically transported to different locations.

Second Life for Hard Drives

An enclosure is a container device that holds a hard drive and readies it for use outside of a computer. Converting an old computer's hard drive into an external hard drive is a passive form of data mass storage and transfer. A computer is pretty much useless without a hard drive, so pulling the hard drive and converting it into an external storage device means you can either dispose of the rest of the computer or use its other parts for other projects. The setup process involves removing the hard drive from the computer, opening the enclosure, connecting the hard drive to the enclosure bay, and then closing the enclosure. Hard drive enclosures are specific to the connection type -- IDE or SATA -- and device size -- 2.5 inches or 3.5 inches.

Make the Computer a Server

A NAS is a simplified data server that runs a bare-bones operating system and only responds to data transfer requests. The NAS option may make sense if you have several users on the same network that need a constant, shared data storage solution. Additionally, NAS servers can get away with having under-powered hardware because the devices can dedicate all resources to data sharing. Once configured, the NAS system can be connected to the network and left to run indefinitely -- this includes removing all peripheral devices like monitors and keyboards, if desired.

NAS Requires Software Changes

The currently installed operating system is likely not a viable option for NAS use, and should be replaced with a NAS-oriented operating system. PC World, Practically Networked and Maximum PC recommend using FreeNAS (see Resources). Before configuring the NAS, back up all data stored on the computer to prevent data loss. You can create a FreeNAS installer on a burned optical disc or a flash drive; after downloading and creating the installer, boot the computer to the installer. The installation process involves switching the operating system and configuring shared volumes on the system's hard drive.