NAS for all seasons

When NAS appliances first came out, analysts said they would commoditize the file server market. Instead, they’ve become file servers, many of which are based on specialized versions of Windows Server, Linux, or NetWare. Three types of NAS solutions dominate the market — ATA-based, SCSI-based, and FC (Fibre-Channel) based — and these appliances come in varying shapes and sizes, from those tailored to small businesses and remote offices on up to the enterprise.

To get a feel for the state of the art, I looked at three NAS appliances: First Intelligent Array Inc.’s (FIA) POPnetserver 8000 NAS, Hewlett-Packard Co.’s StorageWorks NAS b3000 v2, and InoStor Inc.’s InteliNAS 9000.

The POPnetserver, with a proprietary NOS, is a great value. It has a maximum capacity of 2TB, very easy setup and administration, and a lot of bang for the buck, making it ideal for small businesses without full-time IT support.

The InoStor box, also with an NOS, adds an expandable chassis for a maximum 2.6TB capacity and offers a great feature set, successfully targeting enterprises that need to add storage for branch or remote offices, or even departmental servers.

Finally, aimed squarely at the enterprise, HP’s b3000, which runs on Windows Server, stands out with a maximum expandable capacity of 48TB, augmented by superb performance.

Because each NAS appliance has a different intended market, I looked beyond performance in my testing, paying careful attention to feature sets, setup, and administration.

FIA POPnetserver 8000 NAS

The FIA POPnetserver 8000 NAS is typical of ATA-based NAS appliances, with great ease of use, excellent performance, and unrivaled cost per gigabyte. It also offers a nice management application, though not quite the level of logging and monitoring capability offered by the HP and InoStor boxes. At US$7,999, this system is the least expensive of those I tested, and it certainly performs admirably against much more expensive NAS systems.

The FIA box I tested had eight 185GB drives installed, for a formatted capacity of 996GB, with a RAID 5 configuration and one drive set up as a hot spare (1.175TB with all eight drives used). It also included two 10/100/1000 Ethernet interfaces, dual-power supplies, and a SCSI port for adding a tape drive. The system is available with eight 250GB drives, for a raw capacity of 2TB.

Each drive has a dedicated ATA controller channel, and there are four separate disk controllers to keep PCI bus speed from limiting throughput. The drives can be replaced without taking the system down, giving the solution an advantage over many ATA-based systems. Additional copper or fiber gigabit NICs can be added to the system as well, and multiple Gigabit Ethernet connections can be trunked together for additional performance or fail-over.

The POPnetserver boasts a host of useful features. It sends e-mail alert notifications to the administrator; includes support for a number of tape-backup programs; offers a snapshot function to create a replica of critical data; and supports ample networking standards including Windows, Macintosh, Unix, and NetWare. It is also capable of replicating data from the POPnetserver to a remote POPnetserver for disaster recovery.

Setup is straightforward, thanks to the included well-designed and intuitive POP Manager application. Initial setup is very easy, since the system is preconfigured with a RAID 5 volume and a hot spare that can automatically fail over. It also defaults to an open access for users.

The few administrators who want to use another RAID level or do without the hot spare will have to delete the existing volume and start over, but this is a system designed for easy installation and it works well as is.

The POPnetserver supports Windows Domains and Active Directory, and accesses control lists and NIS (network information service). Setting up users, groups and quotas is not difficult. The POPnetserver also includes a client backup application, called Client Backup, which lets clients on the network replicate modified files in real time. The backup application is accessible through the browser interface so users can schedule backups themselves.

HP StorageWorks NAS b3000 v2

Aimed at the midsize-to large-enterprise market, the HP StorageWorks NAS b3000 begs the question: What is a NAS appliance?

This system is a full-on Windows server with a separate FC RAID system that just happens to be preconfigured with all the drivers and software necessary for set up. It’s big, heavy, and expensive, and it’s more difficult to set up than the other systems I tested.

On the other hand, it can scale up to 48TB — with some additional software, it provides as much storage as you can afford. For a reasonable price of $24,995, as tested, it offers a very high level of performance.

The b3000 is a 2U HP ProLiant DL380 G3 that ships with an accompanying MSA1000 FC RAID box. The box I tested shipped with four drives, dual-power supplies, and high-capacity fans, a single storage controller, and an embedded five-port FC switch. It supports up to 14 drives and a second FC switch.

The server has two Xeon 2.8GHz processors, 2GB of RAM, two 36GB drives for the OS, 2Gb NICs (network interface cards), an HP StorageWorks FCA2101 2GB FC HBA (host bus adapter), a Smart Array controller, embedded lights-out controller for remote management, and redundant power supplies and fans.

What sets the b3000 apart is that the storage can be accessed in a Fibre Channel SAN or via the b3000 as a NAS device. The included HP StorageWorks management software supports snapshots and replication. Another interesting feature: Existing MSA1000 storage units can be converted from SAN to NAS functionality via the b3000.

Setting up the b3000 is more complex than the other appliances I reviewed because it is composed of two units. Additionally, I had to go through a number of steps manually, such as disabling the Ethernet interface when not in use. The administrative tool is easy to start through the browser interface, and an administrator can configure and manage the application from there. Although setup and administration are fairly easy to do, there is no wizard to lead the admin through the process.

Once I initialized the array and created a volume, the admin utility prompted me to format the virtual drive. I thought I already had accomplished that task, but I was then unable to create a share. I had to try a couple of times more before I could format and share it. This was a nonrepeatable error, and may have resulted from not clicking an OK button.

Windows and NFS (Unix) support are available by default on shared drives, but Macintosh and NetWare support require separate, additional steps.

InoStor InteliNAS 9000

The InteliNAS 9000 integrates easily integrated into an existing network. It offers excellent alerts, logging, and storage management tools. Although it’s more expensive per megabyte than the POPnetserver, it includes a wealth of enterprise-class features that make it a good bet for a central IT organization that wants to provide remote offices with standard storage.

The InteliNAS is based on a proprietary OS, iceNAS, specifically designed as a file server. It offers some interesting features, including a version of RAID called RAIDn, which allows the administrator to pick the number of parity drives in a volume. This offers protection even if two drives (or more) fail without data loss. Out of nine drives, three can be designated as parity drives, so even if three drives fail simultaneously (or before a failed drive is replaced), no data will be lost.

InoStor offers support for tape backups, supporting external SCSI drives on the 9000 series. NetVault backup software is included with the system; backup software is supported also. The InteliNAS features a snapshot function, which provides scheduled backup copies of files on the device. This is not a true backup but can restore changed files in case of user error, a far more common scenario than drive failure.

The InteliNAS supports as many as nine 10,000rpm Ultra 160 SCSI drives, which are hot-swappable, as are the dual power supplies. It’s available with 36GB, 72GB, or 146GB drives; the drives are serialized, so replacements or upgrades must be ordered from InoStor.

The unit comes with dual 10/100 Ethernet ports, and up to four gigabit Ethernet interfaces can be ordered. Multiple NICs can be grouped for fail-over and increased capacity. An expansion chassis that increases capacity to 2.6TB is available. A full three-year advance replacement warranty is standard. Optional on-site service plans are also available.

Setting up the InteliNAS is simple, and as long as a DHCP server is available on the network, no preliminary configuration is necessary. After the device boots, setup is accomplished via a browser.

The unit I received had six 38GB drives, and with two parity drives in the RAIDn configuration, the available formatted capacity was 138GB. The InteliNAS supports SMB (server message block) (Windows), NFS (Unix), AppleShare, and browser access. The SMB support includes joining an existing Windows Domain or Active Directory to get user and group information, which eases integration into an existing network. NIS is also supported, as is a stand-alone access control list.

A quick setup option creates a single volume and makes it available to everyone, or you can go through the setup on your own. The documentation is thorough and well-done.

These three NAS appliances are strong representatives of their respective target markets. FIA POPnetserver 8000 NAS shows great potential and superb value, and once it matures, it will be ready for the data center. Enterprise-class features and good expandability make the InoStor InteliNAS 9000 a good fit in remote offices and small companies. Finally, despite a complex setup, HP’s StorageWorks NAS b3000 v2 delivers exceptional expandability and superb value for large companies.