Z-force switch aims to revolutionize NAS

A switch startup is offering users a new way to use network-attached storage. Z-force told a group of investors and analysts at last week's RBC Capital Markets SAN Conference that its file-switching technology could make large "NAS arrays" a viable option to higher-cost storage area networks.

A startup called Z-force Inc. wants to do for network-attached storage systems what RAID technology did for plain-vanilla SCSI disks -- aggregate them.

Z-force Inc. president and CEO Gary Johnson laid out the company's strategy for bringing RAID functionality to ordinary NAS boxes at the RBC Capital Markets SAN Conference in New York last week.

Johnson said that the company's storage networking product, dubbed the "File Switch," gives users a different set of possibilities for building storage subsystems. "If the devices behind us talk NFS or CIFS, we can aggregate them," he said.

The File Switch sits in front of any number of off-the-shelf NAS devices and operates transparently, aggregating the NAS devices into a giant "NAS array." The file-based architecture of a NAS array is similar to RAID (redundant arrays of inexpensive disks) in the block storage world.

Last October, the company joined forces with Dell Computer Corp., Iomega Corp., Quantum Corp. and Xtore Extreme Storage Solutions to prove that its technology works. The group demonstrated a 47T byte NAS array running at speeds more than 2G bit/sec.

The demonstration, called "test to scale," was created using standard NAS devices from Dell, Iomega, Quantum and Xtore Extreme Storage Solutions, with Z-force file switches utilizing standard 1 gigabit Ethernet local area networks.

Z-force said that if purchased separately, the systems included in the Z-force test-to-scale demonstration would have cost close to $750,000.

The cost comparison between a large NAS array and a storage area network (SAN) of comparable size could be a compelling argument, one analyst said, but there might be a drawback to having such a large NAS file system, namely performance degradation.

"There is no question that users are drawn to the simplicity of NAS, especially if you're dealing with large single files like images or drawings," said John Webster, founder and senior analyst for Data Mobility Group Inc., based in Nashua, N.H. "[Z-force] could be looking at some very big storage customers."

Webster said the concept of a NAS array is something worth looking at, but the real issue is performance. A NAS device has a processor, and the file switch adds another processing layer above that, he said. There is a question of how much latency is added between the processor and the application.

Webster said Z-force would have to measure speeds that are specific to each user's environment to satisfy customer expectations.

According to Z-force, normal data transfer performance is not a problem. The company said the test-to-scale demonstration proved that a switched NAS environment could offer near linear scalability of both capacity and performance when adding both file switches and NAS devices to the infrastructure. The NAS array infrastructure featured 47.6T byte capacity, at performance rates of 2.02G byte/sec from cache, 1.1G byte/sec from a mixed disk and cached workload, 480M byte/sec from disk on sequential reads and 378M byte/sec from disk on sequential writes.

When asked how one would go about backing up such a large file system, Johnson answered, "slowly." He added that backup-and-restore operations were not Z-force's area of expertise, but that the company is working with software partners who are confident they can handle the task.

"Now system integrators and value-added resellers can add value to the NAS pipeline," Johnson said.

Z-force's File Switches are being tested at customer sites. Let us know what you think about the story. E-mail Kevin Komiega, News Writer

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

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Z-force to be reckoned with

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