NAS-cent, but growing

Corporate America is increasingly turning to network attached storage (NAS) as an inexpensive way to serve up files to end users.

A report from International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass. predicts the NAS market will explode from $540 million in 1998 to $5.1 billion by 2003 � growth of over 50% each year. The fastest-growing segment is in the midrange market, which consists of devices from $6,000 to $24,999, the report says.

Wade Peckman, director of infrastructure engineering for Discovery.com, says his shop has chosen NAS as its primary storage architecture because of "the ease of installation. We had worked with direct-attached storage, but we had to bring in the vendor's engineers to bring it up and make changes to the configuration."

In comparison, although he worked with the NAS vendor � Network Appliance � to help rack the multi-terabyte NAS boxes Discovery.com is using, "we can go in on the fly and make changes," Peckman says. "We can hook anything up and not need help doing it."

This is crucial for Discovery.com, the Web site that's affiliated with the Discovery television network, because "we're putting in installations all over the world," Peckman says. One in Asia will join data centers in Virginia, California and the United Kingdom by year-end, he expects. And the 7 terabytes of storage they currently have will be up in the 15-terabyte to 20-terabyte range by next year, he adds.

"It is possible we could look at other types of storage," Peckman adds. "But for now, our standard architecture going forward is NAS."

But make no mistake � NAS is no storage panacea. It doesn't handle databases particularly well, observers say, and there are no management tools for multivendor NAS devices quite yet. Individual vendors may provide some tools to track only their devices, but managing a network full of different types of NAS boxes isn't easy.

Still, NAS does perform basic storage functions very well. It's a more efficient and cost-effective means of serving up stored information than a general-purpose server, analysts say. And with entry-level NAS systems � such as the Snap Server 1000 from Quantum Corp. � selling for as little as $500, it becomes almost a no-brainer for any company needing a boost on the storage side. "NAS is something just about everyone can use," says Lauri Vickers, industry analyst at Cahners In-Stat Group in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Put simply, NAS is a server that's attached anywhere on the corporate network and that's dedicated to handling storage requests. Think of a print server, only for storage. Unlike a general-purpose server, the NAS box has extra ports to handle additional storage devices and it's got a stripped-down processor and a stripped-down operating system. That's why NAS servers can cost much less than general-purpose processors � you don't get server hardware or software that you don't need.

NAS can handle different types of networks, from Ethernet to FDDI and Fast Ethernet, and different types of information, from graphics and video to text. It doesn't support databases particularly well, however, because NAS is pretty much a file-oriented technology. "Databases are handled more optimally by blocks and not files," explains Farid Neema, president of Peripheral Concepts Inc. in Santa Barbara, Calif. In other words, databases are best handled by transmitting strings of individual numbers instead of entire files full of information at one time.

Another issue is the lack of overall NAS management software, he says. "There's nothing available that lets you look at the entire NAS environment and look at it as one huge pool of storage," he says. Neema expects this type of tool to be available in about a year.

One reason that is on the horizon is the Storage Networking Industry Association (www.snia.org), which in January announced it will help develop NAS standards in areas ranging from interconnection to management. Market leader Network Appliance Inc. � which in 1998 held 40% of the NAS market � is part of the SNIA's NAS Work Group, as are about 15 other suppliers.

In the meantime, companies opting to go the NAS path may not consider the lack of standards a major problem if they have only a few devices hanging off the network. There are dozens of NAS choices on the market, including the Celerra box from EMC Corp. that can handle up to 28 terabytes of information. Vendors from Hewlett-Packard Co. and Sun Microsystems Inc. to Dell Computer Corp. to virtually all of the traditional storage companies now sell NAS devices.

Also, NAS can coexist with storage area networks (SANs). "It's not an either/or proposition," says David Hill, senior analyst for storage at the Aberdeen Group Inc. in Boston. "They're complementary" technologies, he adds. For example, NAS can be one part of a more expensive and complex corporate-wide or departmental SAN.

Analysts expect the two types of storage networks to converge even more. This would allow users, for example, to manage NAS devices from within the SAN. For the time being, however, for implementation and management purposes they are two different worlds � NAS devices are typically implemented on an Ethernet backbone, where SANs are almost always based on Fibre Channel because of network bandwidth issues.

Ambrosio is a contributing editor in Marlborough, Mass.

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