Storing it up with NAS

In terms of acceptance in the marketplace, networked storage has come a long way. Companies that at one time only thought of storage as tape back-ups and workstation hard drives are now thinking more strategically and seriously about the deployment of technologies like network attached storage (NAS) and storage area networks (SANs).

The three-letter acronyms of NAS and SAN keep getting tossed around by storage vendors and in the pages of Network World Canada in a way that suggests the two are competing technologies, but according to vendors and analysts, the market is changing. Before long, says Alan Freedman, research manager for servers, workstations and storage at Toronto’s International Data Corp. (IDC) Canada, we’ll be hearing about “networked storage” instead of different types of networked storage technologies because the various technologies complement, not compete with, each other.

“We do see a convergence happening, and we do see companies implementing both, as opposed to one or another,” Freedman said.

Simply put, the difference between NAS and SAN technologies are in how they move data around, said Steve Duplessie, senior analyst at Enterprise Storage Group in Milford, Mass. While SANs use blocks of storage to move data around, a NAS essentially works as a file server. SAN storage solutions are also best suited to large enterprise-types of applications like databases and customer relationship management (CRM) requirements. NAS storage is targeted at more personal applications like Microsoft Office software packages.

However, the line between the two technologies is blurring. The technologies are overlapping in terms of the way they store and share data throughout a network.

“We have wrongly put the assumption out there that NAS automatically means file serving over Ethernet, and that SAN means block data over fibre channel,” Duplessie said. “I say wrong because you can now do file serving over fibre channel and blocks over Ethernet with the thing called iSCSI.”

Issues are moot

According to Freedman, all networked storage technologies, SAN and NAS alike, currently have the same issues that need to be solved – compatibility and interoperability. That said, however, NAS has a bit of an advantage over SAN because network managers don’t have to worry about things like switches and routers; NASes are connected right to the network. Most NASes also run on their own modified operating system and are generally capable of talking to different operating systems without too much trouble.

“Once you design your NAS implementation, it should be all one operating system and it should be easier than the SAN, where you’re dealing with multiple instances of operating systems,” Freedman said. He added that vendors are working on the issues that currently exist with networked storage.

Whatever issues exist with NAS, it’s a moot point. According to both Freedman, there are a lot of companies looking at networked storage solutions and many companies in North America have already implemented NAS solutions, as well as SAN and direct attached storage (DAS) solutions. In terms of market share based on revenue, he added DAS products are currently ahead of both NAS and SAN, and its dominance in the market will likely continue for a few more years. NAS trails behind both technologies in market share, but that can be partly accounted for by the much lower cost of implementing NAS when compared to DAS or SAN solutions. Data on market share based on number of implementations is not available.

“(DAS) will be the majority of the revenues generated by storage for the next few years, but SAN and NAS are really growing in terms of market share (and) in terms of revenue share,” Freedman said.

When implementing NAS systems, Freedman said companies have a few key goals in mind.

“You want to have the flexibility to move data around. You want to have the scalability to add capacity, as you need, and you want to have the accessibility, so you want people in different locations to be able to access the data. So that’s what everyone’s going for, as well as the fourth, which is a decrease in administration and, therefore, an increase in return on investment,” Freedman said.

According to Duplessie, companies also want the ability to seamlessly scale to limitless capacity. Calling that the “next frontier” in storage, he said seamlessly scaling to limitless capacity is what is referred to as “next generation storage.”

“Simply put, whether it’s one box or a thousand boxes, they will look and act as a single entity, making scale and management non-issues,” he said.

According to Paul Giroux, vice-president of technology for global networked storage sales at Palo Alto, Calif.-based Sun Microsystems Inc., NAS is what he calls emergency storage.

“They’ve run out of space. Their mail spools are out of control. Many companies don’t know how to characterize data, so what’s happening is they just keep growing. And a NAS device is great because it adds some low-cost storage for basic text file, basic mail type storage,” Giroux said. He added it’s not mission-critical data that’s being stored on a NAS.

Considerations abound

Just like any solution for any part of a network, a NAS has certain functions that’s it meant for. According to Paul Patterson, category business manager for enterprise storage at Mississauga, Ont.-based Hewlett-Packard (Canada) Ltd., and the primary function of a NAS is to act as a big filing cabinet on a LAN.

When deciding if a NAS is the right thing for a network, there are a few things to consider. In some cases, NAS is the way to go, but there are some applications SANs are better for.

According to Paul Ross, director of networked storage marketing at Hopkinton, Mass.-based EMC Corp., a SAN operates on a channel network and has fast access storage but its downfall is in its inability to share information because of its partitioning. Thus, SANs are best for things like databases, which have their own data-sharing capabilities, or CRM applications. A NAS, on the other hand, is based on IP standards, so it’s all there all the time, he said. NASes allow people to share stored information and allow them to access it simultaneously. Unfortunately, NAS has some performance issues and isn’t up to par with SAN technologies in that respect.

Freedman said the key industries where NAS is ideal include vertical markets where the need for shared storage is imperative such as: digital content creation, oil and gas, natural resources, finance and the medical sector.

Deciphering the roadmap

With the number of vendors jumping into storage and offering solutions, it can get tough to know where to go. The leaders in the market are companies like Compaq Computer Corp., EMC, Network Appliance, Sun Microsystems and Hewlett-Packard, Freedman said. But products abound from players in the market like IBM Corp., Tivoli, Dell and Auspex Systems.

One of the main messages about NAS is that it’s simple to implement, low-cost storage, said Sun’s Giroux. In the early NAS products put on the market that was true. He added there is a trend in vendors’ NAS devices to be more complex and to do more than their predecessors.

“The interesting part that’s going on in the market is these vendors that have grown up in this space started out with very simple, easy-to-use GUIs to add these things on,” Giroux said. “And their claim to fame is you can add these things on quickly and grow your storage, and away you go. I think they’ve added quite a bit of complexity to the boxes and they’re trying to do things like point-in-time, copies and replication, so they’re really growing the complexity of the toaster to the point where they’re getting more complex to manage. So they’re kind of defeating the whole purpose of the device in the first place.”

He added that from Sun’s point of view, there is money to be made in the NAS market because virtually every company of any size uses NAS devices here and there, but it’s the ease of use and implementation that customers like.

Every vendor and analyst quizzed about NASes agreed that the technology is simple to use, easy to implement and costs very little. As the old saying goes, the proof is in the pudding.

Bolton, Ont.-based Husky Injection Moulding Systems Ltd., which manufactures the machines used for industrial injection moulds, first saw the need for a NAS in 1998 and purchased a solution from EMC.

Sam Rego, IT operations manager at Husky, said his company had a dilemma when it started moving from its two-dimensional to three-dimensional injection moulds, which would increase its file sizes dramatically. At the time, he added, the company had a degrading storage environment.

“We needed to be able to find a way to at least be able to serve up (files) and give our engineers the performance required to do their day-to-day jobs, so we started to look at some of the different technologies,” Rego said.

Husky’s Siva Kumar, senior technical specialist for Unix systems, said the company did a comparative study of the various technologies and the offerings from different vendors. In the end, he said it was decided that NAS was the way to go because its main purpose was to serve data, unlike SAN, which is about moving around bulk data without putting a lot of stress on the network’s backbone.

The full implementation of the NAS and new servers (to replace Husky’s outdated technology) took approximately three months to complete, Rego said. He added the implementation was straightforward and relatively easy to accomplish without any additional training. For the most part, the NAS was plug-and-play. Only a small amount of help was needed from EMC itself, he said.

In Husky’s case, NAS was able to solve the company’s storage woes and provide it with easy access to shared data and a disaster recovery option.