The state of storage

In the alphabet soup of IT, two acronyms have been floating up to the surface with increasing frequency: SAN and NAS. Although most enterprises have a good handle on the differences between storage area networks and network attached storage, the soup looks to become a bit murkier with the introduction of new products.

That murkiness is difficult for the storage industry, said Keith Brown, director of technology and strategy at Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Network Appliance.

“People sometimes get confused about what constitutes a NAS or a SAN, and have different ideas about which is good at what. There’s this notion that NAS is good at this and not at that and that SAN is good at this and not at that – this kind of misinformation is really confusing the market,” he said.

Brown noted that an executive pursuing a storage solution rarely knows whether his or her company needs a SAN or a NAS, but simply that the company needs a storage solution.

Greg Reyes, president and CEO of Brocade Communications Systems Inc. in San Jose, Calif., said in an interview last year that 2001 was to be the year of the SAN. Whether or not this prediction bore any fruit, it is clear that storage at the very least stayed on the must-have lists of CIOs while many other IT expenditures were crossed out.

According to Wayne Hogan, storage specialist at Sun Microsystems in Toronto, there has been a lot of activity in the storage area, and said he has seen an increase in interest about SAN. This interest is partly due the declining prices of storage solutions.

“The cost of a megabyte of storage has historically dropped in half every 18 months, making it more affordable to add storage to an enterprise,” he said.

Hogan added that the ability to increase a company’s storage capacity effectively means that more data can be created – including customer information – which can create a competitive advantage in the market.

“Data is the key component of an enterprise, and the fact that it’s now more affordable to manage is allowing some organizations to do creative things with their data,” Hogan said.

According to Hogan, it is the larger enterprises that are looking at SAN solutions, while companies looking for solutions to specific applications seek out NAS.

“People use NAS more on a point solution basis, whereas SAN is a more global enterprise approach,” he said, noting that there is a definite home for both solutions.

While Network Appliance has traditionally been associated with the NAS space, Brown stresses that the company does not compete as a NAS vendor.

“We compete as a storage vendor,” he said. “It’s not our NAS-ness that’s the secret source of our solution, but our approach to treating the storage as appliances that are simple to deploy, unlike traditional storage architectures.”

Oliver Day, an independent analyst in Aliso Viejo, Calif., agrees that in general, NAS is increasing in popularity for this very reason.

“They’re easy to deploy and maintain, and they’re cheaper than their SAN counterparts,” he said.

They key word for the future of storage seems to be convergence. Brown sees the storage landscape an integrated one with a common architecture, what he calls a common appliance-based storage unit.

“By next year, I challenge anyone to tell me whether they want a NAS or a SAN,” he said. “There are a lot of interesting things going on.”

Hogan also foresees a convergence of storage solutions. “Eventually, maybe there will be a merging of functionality between the two.”