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Storage simplified: NAS gains traction in the enterprise

Today's enterprise IT professionals have good reason to take storage seriously. Although it's always been more than a simple data repository, storage has truly emerged as a critical component of the enterprise infrastructure in recent years. With a direct impact on data accessibility, employee productivity and -- at the extreme -- disaster recovery, storage enables enterprises to leverage their information assets and benefit the bottom line.

Direct-attached storage (DAS), network-attached storage (NAS) and storage area networks (SANs) are some of today's more prevalent options. Enterprises often have a mixed storage environment, implementing the best solution for specific departments, workgroups and remote offices. NAS, with its reputation for simplicity and cost-effectiveness, has already solved many storage problems in the entry and midrange spaces. Recent technological advancements combined with economic factors, have led to a growing adoption of NAS in the enterprise.

Comprised of hard disk storage and software, NAS is a special purpose appliance dedicated to file serving. Traditionally, general purpose servers had the dual responsibility of running software applications and serving files. Two functions competing for the same processing resources can significantly drain server bandwidth and cause users to experience slowdowns when accessing files or running applications. NAS, by virtue of assuming the storage and file serving functions from the server,

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provides maximum server efficiency, higher employee productivity and less downtime.

Opening the door for NAS

With its roots in the small to medium-size business (SMB) market, NAS was first popularized as a simple, turnkey and low-cost storage solution. More sophisticated options, such as storage area networks, gained the most attention from the enterprise. But that sophistication also came with lots of complexity and a high price tag. NAS has evolved rapidly over the years to supply some of the technology features that SANs are known for, while retaining its trademark simplicity. With expanded functionality and features in areas such as data protection and availability, enterprises can now seriously look to NAS as a business-critical storage medium.

As NAS has advanced, general economic conditions have also changed. During the dot-com heyday, budgets were bigger and technology spending focused more on the bang than the buck. With the slowdown in recent years, return on investment has resurfaced as a key deciding factor. Technology purchases must be justified over time, providing benefits that outweigh their initial costs. NAS is attractive to the enterprise because it provides tremendous value in ratio to its cost. Advances in disk drive technology have also contributed to NAS advancement from a cost standpoint. Drives are dropping in price, and doubling in capacity roughly every 18 months. Today's NAS systems can offer multi-terabyte capacities in small form factors. This makes them a simple and cost-effective option, especially when compared to adding new servers or enduring the long, involved process of expanding the capacity of existing servers.

The simplicity of NAS is also an enterprise selling factor. Most infrastructures are already complex systems, running multiple operating platforms on a variety of machines. NAS is designed to be simple on all fronts -- easy to install, use, administer and manage. This translates into less time spent on getting systems installed, working and maintained, which means they can devote more time to mission-critical tasks.

Meeting enterprise requirements

NAS is designed for fast, reliable file serving across all platforms. It can easily integrate into any heterogeneous environment, whether it includes Linux or Solaris, Windows or Mac. Data availability features, once only reserved for higher-end storage, are now available with NAS. For example, most of today's systems offer load balancing, which evenly distributes network traffic for optimal performance. NAS has also evolved to offer high reliability features, such as fully redundant, industry-standard components and RAID protection.

Enterprise consciousness surrounding disasters was significantly raised after the tragedy of 9/11, therefore elevating the importance of data protection capabilities to companies. Backup and recovery feature sets in the NAS realm have grown tremendously. Snapshot, for instance, provides a consistent point-in-time copy of data without administrator intervention or time-consuming restores from tape -- and at a fraction of the space requirements. Data backups can be used to restore corrupted or lost data, or recover entire systems and databases in the event of a disaster.

NAS also offers "disk-to-disk" data protection features, including replication (asynchronous) and mirroring (synchronous), that ensure business continuance. Data replication provides a backup for disasters and other major outages by storing copies of data on servers at remote locations. This provides a place where data can be recovered, should an enterprise's primary facilities become inaccessible. Mirroring duplicates data on separate disks in real time to ensure its continuous availability.

NAS is certainly earning its way into the enterprise, offering increasingly sophisticated functionality. Yet it remains rooted in simplicity - a non-disruptive technology that integrates seamlessly into the heterogeneous enterprise environment. As a special purpose appliance, it serves files quickly and reliably, and safeguards the data entrusted to it. As storage requirements continue to grow, NAS should only continue to become more prevalent in the enterprise.

For more information on NAS:

Microsoft and EMC partner for APIs, new NAS box

Try NAS aggregation to ease admin woes

Ask the Experts: Implementing NAS in a SAN environment


About the author: Joe Disher is a storage industry veteran with over a decade of experience developing new storage technologies. He currently serves as Technical Marketing Manager for Snap Appliance.


This was first published in July 2003

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