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NAS system buying decisions

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Whether it's big data issues or just trying to stem the tide of file data, new developments in NAS systems and a range of products put them center stage as attractive alternatives

Exponential growth of unstructured data continues to spur file storage growth and network-attached storage (NAS) deployments. According to a research study done by Milford, Mass.-based Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG), one-fifth of users report NAS capacity growth of more than 50% per year, and 54% of organizations with NAS installations said their storage capacity is growing by at least 20% per year. Most companies opt for NAS storage rather than file shares on servers because of the reliability, performance, scalability and storage management advantages of NAS, as well as features such as replication, snapshotting, thin provisioning and efficient cloning. Available as gateways to front-end block-based storage and as complete systems with their own storage, NAS systems are now used by companies ranging from very small outfits to large enterprises.

NAS market segmentation

At the low end of the NAS spectrum are systems for home users. Priced as low as $100, they may come with two or four drives with an option for RAID 0/1, and include features such as a single gigabit Ethernet port, web-based administration, the ability to create users and file shares, support for basic quotas for file shares and a backup application. With modest performance and no ability

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to scale, they’re intended for “prosumer” users and the small office/home office (SOHO) market. Examples of these entry-level NAS systems are D-Link ShareCenter, EMC’s Iomega StorCenter, Netgear Stora and Seagate BlackArmor families.

NAS SYSTEM SEGMENTS

Enlarge NAS SYSTEM SEGMENTS diagram.

Low-end to midrange NAS appliances that are usually found in smaller organizations are the next level up. Capacities can range from a few terabytes to more than 100 TB, with some supporting SAS in addition to SATA drives. These systems usually offer some high-end protocols and features such as various RAID levels, Microsoft Active Directory (AD) support, snapshots, replication and a dedicated backup interface. Appropriately sized with multicore CPUs, sufficient memory, SAS drive options and multiple gigabit ports, they deliver decent performance. Usually priced under $25,000, they’re intended for small offices and remote offices of larger organizations with limited IT staffs and budgets. Usability and support options are key requirements in this segment. The various Microsoft Windows Storage Server-based NAS offerings, Netgear ReadyNAS and Nexsan E5000 families, and Overland Storage SnapServer family are examples of systems in this NAS segment. At the higher end of the spectrum NetApp, with its FAS2000 family, is also targeting this space.

“The focus of low-end to midrange NAS systems is to combine ease of use with affordability and pertinent NAS features, such as AD integration, replication and snapshots,” said Greg Schulz, founder and senior analyst at Stillwater, Minn.-based StorageIO Group.

Moving farther up the ladder are NAS systems for small- and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) and enterprises. This segment has been dominated by EMC and NetApp, with BlueArc (now part of Hitachi Data Systems) and emerging scale-out NAS vendors on their heels. “In enterprise deals you always see NetApp or EMC, or both, and sometimes some of the other players,” Schulz said. EMC’s acquisition of Isilon Systems and NetApp’s support of scale-out deployments in Data Ontap 8 help tilt the odds toward EMC and NetApp.

High performance, support for hundreds of terabytes up to petabytes of capacity, high availability (HA), enterprise-level support and an ever-growing list of NAS features are characteristic of this product class. Enterprise NAS systems are pushing the feature envelope in a seemingly continuous attempt to expand feature requirements. For instance, support for both block- and file-based protocols, the ability to scale horizontally and deduplication are changing from nice-to-haves to must-haves. Enterprise NAS systems are usually optimized for traditional corporate apps, that is, to excel in serving a large number of small files and to display good performance with back-office apps such as Microsoft SharePoint, Exchange and SQL Server; but they’re usually not the first choice for applications that push throughput limits.

Certain applications and industries -- such as the media/entertainment industry and gas/oil exploration, where very large files rather than a lot of smaller files prevail -- require very high throughput and massive scalability. This has been the sweet spot of scale-out and high-performance NAS systems, such as EMC Isilon, Hewlett-Packard (HP) StorageWorks X9000 Network Storage Systems, IBM Scale Out Network Attached Storage (SONAS) and Panasas.

This was first published in November 2011

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