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Mastering NAS management: A network-attached storage case study

Simply having a series of NAS devices is not an efficient way to manage your data. Find out how some companies are mastering NAS management.

When LDiscovery, LLC, a legal discovery service firm, migrated from direct-attached storage (DAS) to network-attached storage (NAS), they thought they could easily handle the 10 TB load that each new client would bring. However, their two 250 TB NAS devices started to hit their threshold, and the small- to medium-sized business (SMB) realized it had overlooked a key ingredient to success -- NAS management.

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"In the DAS world, we had a very straightforward methodology for storage management: If you ran out, you bought more. With the cost of NAS, there is definitely a point of diminishing returns so that strategy doesn't work. We couldn't just continue to add storage when we exceeded our storage pools," said Brian Wolfinger, vice president of electronic discovery and digital forensics at LDiscovery.

He added that the world of e-discovery, even at his almost 100-employee company, rivals that of video editing in terms of data storage needs. "We create an archive of evidence -- documents, images, and databases -- for massive criminal and civil litigation." LDiscovery uses the NAS devices as a holding pen for client data while it is processed and formatted for e-discovery.

To ensure these sensitive tasks would not be compromised by degrading performance on overloaded NAS devices, Wolfinger deployed software from Ocarina Networks. The Ocarina EcoSystem integrates with the firm's BlueArc Corp. Mercury devices and includes an appliance, data management software and data compression tools.

Many companies, including BlueArc, feature some form of management with their NAS devices, said Jeff Boles, senior analyst at the Taneja Group. For instance, Dell EqualLogic, EMC Corp. Celerra, Hewlett Packard (HP) Co. StorageWorks, NetApp Inc., and Nexenta's NexentaStor all have some level of built-in management. Some offer additional storage management such as BlueArc's tiered storage software management, which starts at $17,300, for additional functionality.

NAS management products

Boles said NAS management is in a competitive market. Other products have similar functionality and a common baseline, such as snapshots and support for NFS, CIFS and iSCSI. The trick for SMBs is to find the balance between not enough bells and whistles and going over the top. At the same time, he said companies can't just think about their current data storage needs, they have to plan out for the future and include that consideration in their decision.

Companies can't just think about their current data storage needs; they have to plan out for the future and include that consideration in their decision.
Jeff Boles
Senior analystTaneja Group

A very clear example of this can be found at Denver-based Falcon Discovery, another small legal discovery services firm. Like LDiscovery, Falcon Discovery's clients have evidence files that range well into the tens of terabytes. While the company currently only has a single NAS device, BlueArc's Mercury, which can scale up to two petabytes of usable capacity, it does plan to expand to two NAS devices in the near future. Therefore, when systems administrator Drew Wright evaluated NAS management platforms, he insisted on a tool that would let him manage multiple NAS devices from a single window. He wound up using Mercury's built-in management platform. With the platform, a Java-based system management interface is used to administer the server and storage hardware as well as to provide the policy engine for our advanced software features. If he adds on additional devices, he can use the management software to provide a single view of all his devices.

"We're a small firm with only 25 employees, so I don't want to spend my time managing a hodgepodge of storage systems with multiple management consoles," he said.

Wright also wanted a system that made set up and administration simple. For instance, he uses Mercury to create policies regarding the segregation of client data and data retention. He aims to automatically transfer those policies to future NAS devices, saving time and the potential for errors.

LDiscovery's Wolfinger was looking for ease of setup and administration as well. He has set policies in the Ecosystem that transfer data that has not been interacted with in 30 to 60 days to less expensive data storage. But rather than just transferring those files off to another storage device as is, Wolfinger said the Ocarina appliance deduplicates it by comparing it to previously stored data and then compresses it, reducing the amount of space used on the NAS devices as well as the longer-term storage.

"In the first two weeks it was deployed, we saved 8 TB of space and in the first month we saw a 72% rate of compression. We were only looking for 20% to 40% to regain the cost of the tool, so going that far over was unbelievable," he said.

He credits the deduplication [data reduction] for a lot of that reduction. "In our industry, there is a high rate of duplication, so to manage that and eliminate it saves a lot of heartache," he said. For instance, the company might gather a pool of evidence from a client company that includes 200 instances of the same data that only has to be stored in full once.

Like Wright, Wolfinger has used the NAS management tool to set data retention rules, which in his case are mandated by the Department of Defense. "We started out with 160 days and have worked our way to 45 days," he said. He added that it's easy to adjust such rules on both devices through Ocarina's Web interface.

The Ocarina Web interface automatically generates bar graphs and other visual tools to show the results Wolfinger is getting from deduplication and data compression. He said that those two technologies alone have pulled him back from the brink of having to buying more NAS devices.

Other NAS management considerations

Deni Connor, principal analyst at Storage Strategies Now, said that as SMBs grow, they should make sure their NAS management platform can also help them with disaster recovery (DR). For example, they should be able to automate data replication and mirroring between devices in separate locations to ensure failover and business continuity (BC).

Some companies that are under compliance mandates, like LDiscovery, should also look for write once, read many (WORM) functionality in their NAS management platform. "Vendors offer varying degrees of support for locking and retaining files," she said.

And according to Boles, the NAS management platform should also support efficient data migration from other systems, such as DAS, as well as between NAS devices. "This should be able to be done easily and without too much, if any, disruptive impact on daytime operations," he said.

The larger of the SMBs might want to consider virtualization capabilities so that their multiple NAS devices can be used as a single pool. Smaller organizations should not get hung up on this capability as they probably won't use it for some time.

Finally, SMBs should look at the NAS management platform's ability to interoperate with other multiple vendors' hardware as well as through other network management platforms; the system requirements for the management platform to run; and whether it easily supports large files as well as lots of small files.

Although vendors may try to sell you on the latest and greatest technology, Boles warned: "Make sure you home in on feature sets that are important to your business. Don't focus on running a 60,000-employee NAS if you only have 150 employees."

About this author: Sandra Gittlen is a freelance technology editor in the greater Boston area. She can be reached at [email protected].

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