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Companies of all sizes are being inundated with unstructured data that's straining the limits of traditional file storage. File virtualization can pool those strained resources and provide for future growth.

Unstructured data is growing at an unprecedented rate in all industries and has become one of the top challenges for IT departments. Market data from a variety of analyst and research firms shows a congruent picture: In most companies, the amount of unstructured data (file based) outstrips structured data; it's spread across the enterprise; and it tends to reside on a motley assortment of isolated file stores that range from file servers to network-attached storage (NAS). Management pain points have reached a critical level and associated costs are skyrocketing.

How we ended up in this dilemma is well understood. On the one hand, we have the simplicity of implementing unstructured data stores via Windows and Linux file servers with directly attached and storage-area network (SAN) storage; on the other hand, we have traditional NAS systems that are based on scale-up architectures with inherent limitations to scale. For instance, until NetApp released Ontap 8 it lacked advanced clustering and a global namespace; the only way to extend beyond a single NetApp filer was to buy a larger filer or deploy another one running independently from already installed systems.

The data storage industry is keenly aware of the situation, and vendors

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have taken different approaches to provide file system and NAS virtualization products that help to overcome the challenge at hand. Even though progress has been made, adoption has been tepid. "It has taken almost 10 years for block-based virtualization to take place," said Greg Schulz, founder and senior analyst at Stillwater, Minn.-based StorageIO Group. "NAS virtualization is still in an early stage and it will take time for it to be widely adopted."

Four ways to virtualize file access

Virtualizing file access by putting a logical layer between back-end file stores and clients, and providing a global namespace is clearly the most promising approach to tackling the unstructured data challenge. It's akin to block-based storage virtualization, however, there isn't a single method of implementing file-access virtualization. Instead, we have several architectural approaches competing for a potentially lucrative file-access virtualization market.

This was first published in September 2010

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